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Lynne Hapgood, Margins of Desire: The Suburbs in Fiction and Culture 1880-1925
(Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2005). viii + 264 pp., 8 b/w illus.
Select bibliography, notes and index.
ISBN 0 7190 5970 4. £50.00

Keith Wilson

Lynne Hapgood’s study of the fictional representation of London’s suburbs is as widely dispersed in the generic territory it covers as its subject locations were around a rapidly expanding late Victorian/early twentieth-century London. Margins of Desire: The Suburbs in Fiction and Culture 1880-1925 is also a study of the popular fictions that residents of those suburbs once read in considerable quantity and of ‘those writings shaped more generally by suburban meanings’ (p. 9). Thus suburban fiction, in the sense that Hapgood defines it, is the product of a state of mind as much as a type of location. She sees its ‘apparent informality … the emphasis on what interested or delighted the reader, [and] the desire for immediacy and engagement with the present’ as ‘a catalyst for the proliferation of genres that were associated with the suburban imagination’ (p. 11).

The generic range of this study is certainly capacious. Divided into three sections, entitled respectively ‘Suburban Visions’, ‘Suburban Dreams’ and ‘Suburban Realities,’ with each part further subdivided into three chapters, Margins of Desire examines authors both well known and almost entirely forgotten: utopian visionaries, documentary realists, social prophets, prolific writers of Mills and Boon romances, like Sophie Cole and Louise Gerard, and canonic figures such as William Morris, George Gissing and E. M. Forster. The most enduringly popular renderings of the suburbs and the suburban cast of mind in this transitional 1880-1925 period are probably those contained in such minor comic classics as Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889) or George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody (1894). But the major social changes that rapid suburbanisation both responded to and influenced were reflected in a large quantity of the fiction that was published during the years when this diaspora was both literally and figuratively gaining ground. Notwithstanding the customary connotations of the term ‘suburban’, part of Hapgood’s aim is ‘to reveal that the suburban trick, whether in a social or a literary context, was to look ordinary and to be extraordinary’ (p. 4). Her comprehensive analysis of so many aspects of the suburbanising experience succeeds admirably in this aim.

After an introductory establishment of its terms of debate, the book begins with a discussion of the ‘utopian suburb’, drawing into association with each other two superficially very different works, William Morris’s News from Nowhere and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, and locating the centrality of the Thames to the formation of a suburban sensibility. What Hapgood sees as some of the dominant features of the fiction of the suburbs — ‘personal and social reinvention; the need for harmony between individual, culture and place; and the intrinsic value of the ordinary’ (p. 36) — typify equally these two generically quite different works, a connection which generates a fascinating politicised reading of Jerome’s famous jeu d’esprit. This leads into a chapter on ‘The Suburban Idyll’ as manifested in the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle, Keble Howard and John Galsworthy, which in turn leads to a discussion of the reaction against the suburban cast of mind in the work of Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas and E. M. Forster, in an exploration of the finally unsuccessful attempt to recover nature via a neo-Romantic imaginary. These three opening chapters together anchor Hapgood’s argument in a solid foundation of astute socio-political analysis, locating the distinctive period mood that typifies her chosen works in perceptively identified historical and cultural specifics.

The book’s next section, ‘Suburban Dreams’, complicates an argument whose primary inflection has thus far been class-based with the equally influential terms of gender. Indeed, gender and genre become inextricably interconnected in this stage of the analysis. Beginning with a chapter on the work of Elizabeth von Arnim and the ‘garden romance’ more generally, this section then moves into two chapters on ‘The Feminine Suburb’, one on women readers and the romance fiction they read in both books and popular women’s magazines, the other on the work of four writers of romances: Sophie Cole, Alice Askew, Louise Gerard and Mary Hamilton. Among the many insights generated by the detailed analysis of these largely forgotten works is the extent of their complementariness to the better-known imperial romances of male writers such as Haggard, Stevenson, Henty and Kipling. The focus on the reader in this section moves towards speculation about her implicit contributory role in the genre of romance fiction, whose plasticity ‘effectively removes it from the author’s hands and places it firmly in those of the reader’ (p. 165). To the extent that the suburbs were in themselves part of a democratising process that increasingly shifted socio-political power from centre to margins, and from masculine to more feminised modes and areas of influence, this identification of a shift in authority from author to reader reflects the seamless connection between social and literary analysis that distinguishes this study.

The book’s final section moves from romance to ‘Suburban Realities’, again in a tri-partite and cumulatively very assured analysis. It begins with a chapter on the working-class suburb as represented in the work of Edwin Pugh, William Pett Ridge, Shan Bullock and George and Weedon Grossmith. There is a tendency here to conflate for the convenience of the chapter title (specifically ‘The working-class suburb’) subtle but nonetheless marked class gradations. Certainly in relation to The Diary of a Nobody, for example, the Weedon Grossmith drawing of ‘The Laurels’, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway (described in the text itself as ‘a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement, with a front breakfast-parlour’) and the nature of Charles Pooter’s social pretensions invite speculation about where the secure lower-middle classes begin if Brickfield Terrace is meaningfully describable as working class. Surely such designators as Pooter’s mere possession of a ‘dress-coat and trousers’ that he can send to ‘the little tailor’s round the corner’ for a pressing in preparation for a Mansion House dinner necessitate dramatic qualification to the broad category ‘working class’ here. But whatever one’s quibbles about social specifics, this chapter’s discussion of whatever we are going to call the suburbs that are some rungs down the social ladder from the securely bourgeois ones is again very stimulating, not least in its welcome bringing out of the shadows of such writers as Edwin Pugh and William Pett Ridge. Discussion then moves to the bleaker visions of the suburban ‘cul-de-sac’, embodied, again in very different ways from each other, in the work of George Gissing and H. G. Wells. The final chapter on Arnold Bennett and G. K. Chesterton fulfils the promise of that opening identification of the suburb’s capacity ‘to look ordinary and to be extraordinary.’

Fully willing to acknowledge the pejorative associations that the term ‘suburban’ conventionally carries, Hapgood richly demonstrates the diversity of the attitudes, perceptions and modes of living to which the idea of the suburban is attachable. In her exploration of ‘the new themes and forms that the suburbs inspired’ (p. 4), she makes a most convincing case for her core claim that study of the innovatory impulses that energised the most massive social decentring that London, and the very idea of the city, had ever seen provides an important and as yet largely unexplored way of understanding literary engagements with the threats and challenges of the modern. This is a book that will become an essential text for anyone writing on the literary representation of both the city itself and its ‘coral reef’ expansion into the countryside during this transformative period.

To Cite This Article:

Keith Wilson, ‘Review: Lynne Hapgood, Margins of Desire: The Suburbs in Fiction and Culture 1880-1925’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 2 (September 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access]