The City

Anne Humpherys and Anne Humpherys

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online November 2011 | | DOI:
The City

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The 19th century saw the rise of the world’s first great metropolis, London, and the transformation of several northern British small towns into the first major industrial cities. These great cities offered the pleasures of anonymity and the dangers of alienation. Urbanization was both a great leveler and a producer of new classes such as the merchant, the professional classes, and the gentry. Perhaps the most important element in these developments was the railway, the building of which transformed the landscape, the cityscape, and individual lives. Though at the beginning of the century little could be recognized as modern, by the end all the elements that would identify the modern world were in place—seemingly infinite variety, endless change in the built environment, and startling contrasts, as well as overcrowding, dirt, noise, crime, poverty, and ostentatious display. New opportunities of all sorts also arose in these cities—for work, for criminal activity, for adventure, and for pleasure and distress. The Victorians themselves were both fascinated and horrified by their cities, especially London, which, though not an industrial city, also presented the combined effects of rapid and uncontrolled growth. The contradictory responses generated by all this change and development resulted in an impressive amount of writing, especially in the periodical press, which itself was a product of urbanization. Journalists, a new class dubbed the Fourth Estate, tried to gain an overview of the constantly changing city, and novelists devised narrative and symbolic ways to represent the totality of the city. Much of this work was about the social problems, but there were also many sketches that were full of delight at the variety and oddity of city life. Most serious scholarship on the Victorian city, however, began only after World War II, partly due to early-20th-century negative responses to the Victorians’ perceived moralistic values and limitations on personal development. Among the first to react against anti-Victorianism were campaigners seeking to preserve Victorian buildings—the founding of the Victorian Society in 1957 was a sign of this shift. Historians were not far behind in collecting and mining the archives not only of London but of all the great cities, especially Manchester. Literary scholars also began to analyze the impact of the city on literary and artistic production. Though the scholarly interest in urban history never ceased, later-20th-century scholars and critics also began to write about more specific aspects of the city—gender, nationalism, race, and sectarianism. Finally, the subject of the problematics of representing the city, in particular London, came under critical attention in the first decade of the 21st century.

Article.  12675 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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