Alan Robinson, Imagining London, 1770-1900 (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). 291pp., 40 b/w illus. Index and notes. ISBN 1403932891. £50.00 hardback.
There have been several scholarly studies of nineteenth-century London in recent years mainly focused on the latter decades of the century of or the fin de siècle. Of the few exceptions to this trend, Alan Robinson’s Imagining London, 1770-1900 is the only one to consider painting and literature side by side in any depth. Moreover, the recognition that the latter decades of the eighteenth century are important when considering later developments is overdue. That changes in the economic, social and cultural life of the city is closely linked to its representation is hardly open to contestation, but what is seldom acknowledged is that the city — material and experiential — does not move to the convenient rhythm of literary and artistic periodisation. This opposition to recent trends that atomises the representation of London shorn of its broader material context is a timely reminder that when writing of representational spaces, the material and the imaginative are in constant negotiation. This has, historically, been more readily acknowledged in the work of London’s writers and artists than in some recent academic studies. This study is, therefore, a welcome addition to research on representations of nineteenth-century London.
The book is divided into eight chapters/topics. The first two chapters focus on the late Georgian metropolis firstly examining the art forms of the late eighteenth-century ‘modernising’ metropolis and then gendered London in the period. The latter is a particularly useful study to read alongside the intense interest in gendered London in the latter years of the nineteenth century including an extended discussion of Blake as well as the ubiquitous London ‘streetwalker’. The first solidly Victorian chapter lays the sociohistorical foundations for the later chapters. Here Robinson concentrates on the development of London as the world’s pre-eminent capitalist market and the social and cultural affects on London’s class structure, particularly the evolution of middle-class perceptions of the working classes and the ‘abyss’ of poverty, depravation and social stigmatisation with reference to the work of Meyhew, Gissing, Charles Booth, Morrison and Carlyle. This, not unexpectedly, leads into a chapter on Charles Dickens.
Much has been written about Dickens’s urban fictions; Robinson’s approach is both satisfying and informative in working through Dickens’s earliest works to the major novels. In many senses Dickens provides the bridge between the earlier chapters on Georgian and Regency London into the Victorian period. Early literary contexts such as Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821) are highlighted with a close attention to how Dickens’s characters embody key aspects of London’s economic and social development, reinforcing the impression that this chapter is pivotal to the book as a whole. Robinson’s study of Dickens’s London is an important contribution to Dickens scholarship and a satisfying overview of the urban landscape he dominated in fictional and imaginative terms. Moreover, Robinson’s attention to the literary context of his representation of London is exemplary. The observation that the ‘imaginary’ London offered by Dickens resolves around the 1820s and the 1860s is a an important and intriguing observation that encourages a re-reading of Dickens’s oeuvre.
The following two chapters form an extended disquisition on the painting of London from the 1820s into the 1880s. The focus on the shared topic of London enables Robinson to discuss a stylistically disparate range of artists — from the Pre-Raphaelites through to impressionism and the Aesthetes — in a manner that records the social tastes of a London market increasingly dominated by a wealthy, commercial middle class. Robinson is quite right to observe that the attention lavished on the relationship between the novel and the city has received extensive attention, painting has lacked a similar level of analytical attention. This is surprising, given that the art market increasingly turned towards the tastes and aspirations (and new money) of the same social class and this offers many fascinating opportunities to review correlations and convergences that Robinson’s groundwork should open up a valuable line of future enquiry.
Chapter 7 offers a long overdue examination of the representation of London in the works of Anthony Trollope. Perhaps inevitably overshadowed by Dickens as an urban writer, the middle and upper-class work of Trollope’s fictions provides a fascinating comparison between the former’s perceived radicalism and the latter’s ‘conservative liberalism’ that is an oversimplification of both writers oeuvre. Robinson reveals a detailed and nuanced representation of London in Trollope’s work that demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the underlying dynamics of London society. Trollope’s London is by no means a dull understudy to Dickens’s dynamism and challenges many complacent presumptions about his writing which reveals an author straining against the social constraints of both respectability and the expectations of his readers.
Robinson concludes his study by turning to Henry James’s London. James’s work explicitly brings together the aesthetic and representational concerns of both the painter and the writer. As an author James was often explicitly about the technical concerns of his work that has led to the suggestion that he has less concern with the material and experiential aspects of his subject, but Robinson reveals an author both engaged and fascinated by the gender, commercial, social and cultural debates about the city which reinforces the continuity of interest through the study as a whole. Through James the continuation of these concerns into Modernism is convincingly suggested.
Robinson identifies and explores the continuity between representational media and the material, experiential and imaginary conception of the metropolis. The significance of this book lies in this approach which is prevailingly Marxist in its approach with a few sallies into psychoanalysis. The utility, if not necessity, of Marxism to a study of this nature is undeniable. However, one is perhaps left with the feeling that one would have liked to see what an engagement with some more recent debates about the continuum between space and representation among thinkers more or less influenced by Marx would have added to this study, for example the writings of Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefebvre and Walter Benjamin. While the readings offered in each chapter are excellent, a broader conceptual framework would arguably have made the development of the argument more cohesive. As it stands while a clear thesis does emerge, it does have to be worked at leaving the chapters with the feel of more or less separate essays despite introductions that attempts to establish continuity and development. However, this is perhaps to ask too much from a single study offering such a wealth of detail and proposing so many possible lines of further enquiry. This is an excellent book and each chapter is a valuable contribution to the scholarly debate over the representation of London in late Georgian and nineteenth-century London, and indispensable to any scholar working on London in this period.
To Cite This Article:
Lawrence Phillips, ‘Review of Alan Robinson, Imagining London, 1770-1900 (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). 291pp., 40 b/w illus. Index and notes. ISBN 1403932891. £50.00 hardback. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 1 (March 2005). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2005/phillips.html. Accessed on [date of access].