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  • The Aesthetics of Space in Nineteenth-Century British Literature, 1843–1907 by Giles Whiteley
  • Valerie Purton (bio)
Giles Whiteley. The Aesthetics of Space in Nineteenth-Century British Literature, 1843–1907. Edinburgh UP, 2020. Pp. xiv + 290. £85.00. ISBN 978-1-4744-4372-2 (hb).

This book begins with a lip-smacking "Prologue" in which, in Joris-Karl Huysmans's novel À rebours (1884), the protagonist, des Esseintes, plans a trip to London but then actually experiences London in Paris, through encountering English food, people, food, weather, atmosphere–even cutlery– and decides there is no need for him actually to cross the Channel. "It would be madness," he concludes, "to risk spoiling such unforgettable experiences by a clumsy change of locality" (17). This is a clever introduction to Whiteley's central concern, the development in the late nineteenth-century of an "aesthetics of space" which, moving away from the earlier "realist" tradition, "attempts to find new ways to speak about how space is experienced by the nineteenth-century subject, and how such experiences are always already 'aesthetic' ones" (20). You don't need actually to be physically in London to experience "Londonness," in other words: "space" is ultimately, for late-nineteenth-century writers, according to this reading, a subjective aesthetic experience.

The book goes on to trace this aesthetic literary treatment of space from John Ruskin in The Stones of Venice (1851–53) to Charles Dickens in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), and then through Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde and Henry James and into modernism, declaring itself to be simply "a set of sketches towards a tradition" (24). As a "set of sketches" it works very well: Whiteley is an immensely well-read and theoretically informed writer and an erudite companion as he takes the reader on perambulations through London, Paris and New York, mapping these cities vividly on the ground while also showing how each city is read through earlier travelers' subjective experiences: everyone (including the later Dickens!) reads London "after Dickens"; Ruskin's Venice, Pater's Rome, Wilde's London, all share in the same aesthetics of space as an "intertextual phenomenon" (42).

So far, so admirable. What is less successful, however, is Whiteley's attempt to shackle a book whose central image is the flâneur, and the free play of perambulation, to a single distinction, derived from Ruskin's Stones [End Page 226] of Venice, between theoria and aesthesis. Ruskin's theoria, Whiteley explains,

is interested in the intrinsic quality of the "truth" of the artwork, appealing to the "moral" sense, while aesthesis is interested in the sensory effects of the beautiful. Theoria is higher and more worthy than aesthesis …. Aesthesis is "morbid", indicative of a mind diseased … and the aesthetes are those who encourage forgetfulness and slumber. Theoria, on the other hand, is "the intellectual lens and moral retina" of true artists.


As a gloss on Ruskin's argument in one particular, highly influential, essay, this is unexceptionable. The problem is that Whitely extrapolates from this distinction in all his subsequent readings, forcing all his subjects to take one side or the other. This turns Dickens into a "formal realist" in the Ian Watt sense–even though it was Ruskin himself (in a spat Whiteley chooses to skim over) who attacked him precisely on the grounds that he wasn't realist enough. Whiteley is aware of the dangers of his approach and acknowledges in a footnote: "my treatment of realism … is strategic, and I am aware that it is partial" (49). He even acknowledges that Ruskin himself was uncertain about his terms: "we swiftly see that the distinction Ruskin seeks to draw between theoria and aesthesis is precarious at best" (60). And yet, perversely, he continues to use that distinction as the linchpin of his argument, producing as a result some egregious misreadings of Dickens.

In his Introduction, as he painstakingly maps his critical territory, deciding that "[t]he primary theoretical fulcrum of my analysis combines insights from Lefebvre and Benjamin, alongside others gleaned from psychoanalysis and poststructuralism" (33), Whiteley addresses that moment in Dombey and Son when the narrator wishes for "a good spirit who would take the house-tops...


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pp. 226-229
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