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Heterotopic Suburbia in Edwardian Drama

Rudolf Weiss

1 Introduction: London suburbia, ‘Wiener Vorstadt’ and Foucault
A comparison between two imperial capitals at the turn of the century may serve as an introduction to urban phenomena relating to centre and margin. In the context of spatial liminality some intriguing dissimilarities between London and Vienna emerge. While the expansion of the British capital, essentially, took the direction from the centre to the periphery, that of the Austrian capital took place by closing the gap between the city centre and the suburbs, a gap which had opened up after the belated dismantling of the fortifications surrounding the city centre in the middle of the nineteenth century. There is yet another major difference between London and Vienna, one that is closely related to heterotopic suburbia. While the suburbs of the British metropolis were promoted, in proper bourgeois manner, as a haven for happy families, the ‘Wiener Vorstadt’, the suburbs of the capital of the Habsburg empire, a centre of decadence, was primarily associated with amorous adventures: an icon of the Viennese fin de siècle culture was the ‘süßes Mädel’, the sweet girl of humble origin, invariably resident in the suburbs. This cultural icon found its most eloquent and memorable representations in the plays of Arthur Schnitzler, for example in Der Reigen (La Ronde), in Anatol or in Flirtation (Liebelei). The young gentleman, the dandy, escapes from the coldness and sophistication of urban society into the warmth of suburban unpretentiousness, while the sweet girl temporarily flees from the tristesse, simplicity and poverty of suburbia into a more luxurious and pleasurable world until both return to their respective spheres, disillusioned yet ready for another romance. On the other hand, the families who were induced to move into the outer districts of London by the advertisements promising an idyllic life in an alternative space soon discover the darker sides of utopia.

With the concept of utopia we have arrived in Foucauldian territory. He maintains that “[utopias] are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of Society. They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces.”[1] Heterotopias are distinguished from utopias in that they are material as well as virtual. We may see heterotopias as “different spaces,” as “sites for resistance to the dominant culture,”[2] as “sites of marginality,”[3] as “liminal spaces.”[4] Heterotopias are countersites that represent, contest, and invert other places. I will argue in my paper that London suburbia is depicted in plays of the Edwardian period as a heterotopic site with a difference.

2 Advertising utopia
Before staging the plays the scene has to be set, in this context the expansion of the British metropolis into the suburbs, reformist ideas of town-planning and the development of the public transport system. In the Edwardian period London was characterised by two opposite trends, the overcrowding in the inner city areas and the development of the outer districts, where the population increased enormously.[5] One of the major forces at work in the extension of the city was the rapid growth of London’s Underground railway system. Apart from speculative investors, social reformers were involved in the planning and building of new settlements on the periphery of the British capital. One of them was Ebenezer Howard, the guiding spirit of the Garden City Movement, who “saw the garden city in social, economic and political terms –- a ‘social city’ as he termed it.”[6] He envisioned it as a “largely self-sufficient and self-governing community,” “developed and controlled on a co-operative basis.”[7] In general, this movement and similar initiatives were inspired by utopian literature, for example, by William Morris’s News from Nowhere.[8]

It is exactly this propagation of a utopian environment which we find in advertisements of the time which attempt to lure city dwellers into the suburbs. A telling example is the very first issue of the Metro-land guide published by the Metropolitan Railway: “The strains which the London business or professional man has to endure amongst the turmoil and bustle of town can only be counter-balanced by the quiet restfulness and comfort of a residence in pure air and rural surroundings.”[9]

In the Edwardian imaginary London featured as a divided city: “A dark, often fog-bound centre –- rife with dangers of … crime, disease and poverty –- was set against the image of a bright, healthy, suburban life.”[10] The well-known Golders Green Underground poster can be considered as the epitome of the promise of this promised land close to but not in the city. Essentially, it shows a locus amoenus, a rural idyll, an attractive house, a garden full of flowers, a small family –- the father watering the flowers, the mother sitting in a deckchair and knitting, the little daughter sitting on the lawn and helping her mother. A few strollers enjoying the pleasures of nature complete the image of comfort, leisure, delight and happiness. Only in the background we see a train, the connection to the wider world. The advertising slogan emphatically verbalises the assets of the new residential area: Golders Green, a place of delightful prospects. The quasi-paradisiacal image would not be complete without a poem. Six lines from Book IV (“The Winter Evening”) of William Cowper’s famous poem “The Task” illuminate and underscore the amenities of such liminal spaces:

‘Tis pleasant, through the loopholes of retreat
To peep at such a world; to see the stir
Of the great Babel, and not feel the crowd;
To hear the roar she sends through all her gates
At a sage distance, where the dying sound
Falls a soft murmur on th’ uninjured ear.[11]

3 Suburbia – an ‘undramatic’ setting?
Before the turn of the century London suburbs hardly ever featured as settings for plays. The natural habitat of Oscar Wilde’s, Henry Arthur Jones’s and Arthur Wing Pinero’s dramatic characters is Mayfair rather than Hammersmith. After the end of the season, the titled, the newly rich and the dandies would move to their houses in the country, i.e. range much further than the outskirts of the metropolis. Even in the Edwardian era, with rapidly developing suburbia, most dramatists, unlike a host of novelists,[12] did not take to this, it appears, ‘undramatic’ area. However, in the plays which are partly or wholly set in the districts on the periphery of London this locale does acquire special significance.

In one of his minor plays, even Pinero moves his characters from the fashionable ‘parish of St. James’s’ to suburbia. Although primarily featuring the moneyed class, The Freaks: A Suburban Idyll, derives some of its comedy and subdued sensationalism from the somewhat secluded and confined nature of its setting.[13] While the locale of all of St. John Hankin’s other full-length plays are residences of the gentry and the industrialist class in the country, his first comedy is located in suburbia. Significantly, the playwright, fond of giving his plays telling subtitles, specifies The Two Mr Wetherbys as A Middle-Class Comedy.[14]

The authenticy of the idyllic suburban existence as later advertised on the Golders Green Underground poster was already questioned before the turn of the century by none other than George Bernard Shaw. In the Irish iconoclast’s first play, Widowers’ Houses,[15] Sartorius’s outrageous landlordist practices are not restricted to slums in the inner city but also find their victims in suburban areas such as Bethnal Green. In contrast, the landlord himself enjoys the amenities of a more pleasant suburb; he owns a summer house in Surbiton. The secondary text at the beginning of Candida advances a comprehensive critique of the uniformity and monotony of suburbia, the “desert of unattractiveness”:

It is strong in unfashionable middle class life; wide-streeted; myriad-populated; well served with ugly iron urinals, Radical clubs, and tram lines carrying a perpetual stream of yellow cars; enjoying in its main thoroughfares the luxury of grass-grown ‘front gardens’ untrodden by the foot of man save as to the path from the gate to the hall doors blighted by a callously endured monotony of miles and miles of unlovely brick houses, black iron railings, stony pavements, slated roofs, and respectably ill dressed or disreputably worse dressed people …[16]

Although Reverend James Mavor Morell, the protagonist of the play, commands the best view of Victoria Park in Hackney –- the oasis of the suburban desert -– from St Dominic’s Parsonage, he has hardly any leisure time to enjoy the prospect. Moreover, the suburban semi-paradise of the popular Christian-Socialist is dramatically disturbed in the course of the play.

4 Lincoln’s Inn and Chislehurst: synchronous or counter-worlds in The Voysey Inheritance
In two plays by Harley Granville Barker we encounter different suburban associations. In The Voysey Inheritance (1905), Mr Voysey, the brilliant though criminal financeer boasts of his philosophy of a strict separation of business matters and private life, represented in geographical terms by Lincoln’s Inn and Chislehurst. Ironically and disastrously, he does not adhere to his own principles. When Old Voysey reveals to his son Edward his system of embezzling clients’ money, which is on the point of collapsing, the upright, honest and somewhat puritanical young solicitor is astounded and unnerved. When he does not turn up for the family dinner on Sunday –- he was worried and went through the accounts once again –- his father offers him the following piece of advice: “You must learn, whatever the business may be, to leave it behind you at the Office. Why, life’s not worth living else.”[17] In the second act he elaborates on this philosophy of life:

You must realise that money making is one thing, and religion another, and family life a third .. and that if we apply our energies wholeheartedly to each of these in turn, and realise that different laws govern each, that there is a different end to be served, a different ideal to be striven for in each …[18]

When Jan McDonald argues that “[t]he older generation, Mr.Voysey, George Booth and Colpus, have successfully organised their lives into separate compartments. Business has nothing to do with pleasure, religion with work, nor family with clients,”[19] she disregards the irony of the situation. While they profess this convenient compartmentalisation of spheres of existence, they actually do not adhere to it and do intermingle private life and business affairs, with somewhat calamitous results. As it turns out, some of his closest friends and frequent guests at the Chislehurst dinner table -– George Booth and Reverend Colpus -– are among the worst affected victims of his high risk investment schemes. Moreover, throughout the three of the five acts which are set in the Voyseys’ Chislehurst home matters related to the firm of solicitors make up a large part of the dialogue. Elliott M. Simon convincingly contextualises Old Voysey’s theory of compartmentalisation within the framework of the Voysey system of embezzlement and Edward’s undesired inheritance:

What [Mr. Voysey] says about life is true, yet it does not apply to Granville Barker’s conception of the dramatic problem. The audience sees, in the family portrait, that business, religion and ethics are all woven together into Edward’s dilemma and will follow the same laws within his personality.[20]

Mr Voysey appears to regard his home in the suburbs as a retreat from the stressful business of investment banking, where he can spend his leisure time among his family and friends. This view reminds us of the stereotypical image of suburbia propagated by the Metroland guide quoted earlier. In Granville Barker’s play this pseudo-utopia remains a construct with hardly any relation to reality. The dichotomy of business world and private existence is deconstructed, the quasi-alternative life away from the city unmasked as a fake; delightful suburbia, a heterotopic space, ideally the antithesis of central London, the inversion of the urban lifestyle, is uncovered as a place with many uncomfortable analogies to the city.

Old Voysey identifies his Chislehurst home with a happy family-life. However, we learn in the course of the play that this is another illusion as the Voyseys, representative of the large Edwardian upper-middle class family, display all the symptoms of disintegration. First of all, the family estate is a chimera, the Voysey inheritance not a large fortune but a burden of complicated illegal financial operations. The eldest son, Trenchard, quarrelled with his father and is no longer part of the family, Ethel, the youngest daughter, dies in childbirth, the artist son Hugh and his wife Beatrice are considering a separation, at the end of the play we do not know whether Edward, who has inherited the family business, will manage a turn-around or will be arrested. The Chislehurst family home of the Voyseys also holds a prisoner, Honor, the eldest daughter. This is what the narrator/commentator of the secondary text has to say about her fate:

Poor HONOR … is a phenomenon common to most large families. From her earliest years she has been bottle-washer to her brothers. While they were expensively educated she was grudged schooling; her highest accomplishment was meant to be mending their clothes. … In a less humane society she would have been exposed at birth.[21]

Hugh considers Trenchard’s dissociation from his family as a fortunate escape “[f]rom tyranny! .. from hypocrisy! .. from boredom! .. from his Happy English Home!”[22] Essentially, we are faced with a fragmented family. Fragmentation is a notion with which the Chislehurst community cannot cope. The attitude with which the church-window which Hugh Voysey has designed for the local church is received is characteristic of the narrow-mindedness and lack of discrimination of the Chislehurst residents. Major Booth Voysey, the military man in the family and voice of the people, declares: “I don’t pretend to criticise art. I think the window’d be very pretty if it wasn’t so broken up into bits.”[23]

5 The Madras House — suburban chaste fortress vs. urban temple of refinement
Another facet of the opposition between centre and periphery is the location of the two branches of the drapery establishment and the fashion house in another play by Granville Barker, The Madras House (1910). In this drama suburban and city addresses indicate opposite attitudes and lifestyles. Although the drapery establishment/fashion house of Huxtable/Madras is a family business the two branches of the firm are, significantly, located in different areas: the drapery in a suburb, the fashion house in Bond Street. Likewise, the managing directors live in different areas of London. The Huxtables and their six unmarried daughters live at Denmark Hill, Philip Madras in central London. The first act of Granville Barker’s The Madras House is set in the house of the Huxtables at Denmark Hill, which Mr Huxtable considers “a very ealthy locality!”[24] However, Constantine Madras, the man of the world turned Muslim, views the Huxtable family home from an entirely different angle. It is not the pleasant environment that Constantine focuses on but the social function of the house itself, which to all appearances is anything but healthy. He calls the Huxtable’s home the “chaste little fortress on Denmark Hill”[25] in reference to the fate of the six daughters. Pertinently, Eric Salmon relates the stifled lives of the Huxtable sisters to that of Honor in The Voysey Inheritance:

In Act I the prison is a Victorian-Edwardian family; the prisoners are the six unmarried daughters, varying in ages from twenty-six to thirty-nine: the case of Honor Voysey is, as it were, extended to its logical conclusion and becomes, though frighteningly, a reductio ad absurdum.[26]

The Huxtable sisters share the lot of many daughters of wealthy upper middle class families. They are not allowed any individuality, not even an identity determined by themselves. Their existence is shaped by three forces: their parents, the cult of class and the Victorian/Edwardian obsession with propriety. Essentially, this means that they are not allowed to work, that in that liminal position between middle and upper class they are not considered as eligible wives by men who would be acceptable to their class-conscious parents. This condemns them to a very restricted life at home, to an extended maidenhood which, in the course of time, will end in old spinsterhood. In view of the miserable existence of the six inmates of the middle class family, confined in the suburban prison, the facade of the attractive home in a healthy suburban ambience begins to crumble. In The Madras House the preferences are clearly reversed in that Jessica Madras, Philip’s highly cultured wife, “an epitome of all that aesthetic culture can do for a woman,”[27] who enjoys the pleasures of life in the city, is the exact opposite of the Huxtable sisters of Denmark Hill. Likewise, the domestic setting of act IV, the inner-city home of Jessica and Philip Madras, forms a telling contrast to the old-fashioned suburban house of the Huxtables, an antithesis which also signifies opposing life-styles as well as opposing views on the role of women. While the interior of the house in Denmark Hill is likened to a “family museum”[28] the drawing-room of the urban home of the Madrases, is described as “charming:”[29] “There is just nothing to jar, nothing to prevent a sensitive soul finding rest there.”[30] It appears that it is even too tasteful for the liking of the ironic persona in the secondary text, who voices a pointed comment: “(Really, Jessica’s home inclines to be a little too precious!)”[31] The first act focuses on the confined existence of the unmarried and unmarriagable Huxtable daughters in the domestic sphere of a largely Victorian household, a notion which was effectively visualised in the Edinburgh Festival production of 1992 by the costume of Mrs. Huxtable. The stern matron presiding over the suburban prison of middle-class Philistinism was dressed up like Queen Victoria. Conversely, the fourth act is dedicated to a prolonged discourse on Philip’s desire for Jessica to leave her cultured privacy and become more committed to public, to social affairs, on an equal basis with men, a requirement he voices for the emancipation of women in general: “Then there’s a price to be paid for free womanhood, I think … and how many of you ladies are willing to pay the price? Come out and be common women among us common men?”[32] We have moved away from Victorian repression and propriety towards the Edwardian spirit of reform.

6 Chains: “the destructive suburban spiral”
Elizabeth Baker’s Chains, first performed by the Play Actors at the Court Theatre in 1909, is a quintessentially suburban play. Three of the four acts are set in the home of Lily and Charley Wilson in Acacia Avenue. Although Sheila Stowell claims that “Acacia [is] currently the actual name of twenty-three streets in London (none in Hammersmith),”[33] she takes it for a fact that the Acacia Avenue the Wilsons live in is in Hammersmith. On the one hand, there is no evidence in the text that Baker places this street in Hammersmith, on the other hand, a recent web search produced only nine streets of that name in London, none of them in Hammersmith. As the house of Lily’s parents, the setting of the third act, is located in Hammersmith, and as it appears that the two locales are not too far apart, it could be argued that the Acacia Avenue of the play is that in Hounslow. In any case, the dramatic world of Chains is suburbia.

Socially we move among the lower middle-class and what Stowell calls the “upper-working-class.”[34] Charley Wilson, like several other male characters in the play, is a clerk who commutes to the city every day. The young couple lives in a small house with an even smaller back garden, where hardly anything grows. In order to supplement Charley’s meagre income and add to the family budget they have taken in a lodger, appropriately named Tennant. Charley is extremely dissatisfied with his life, the daily commuting, the tedious, monotonous, mind-numbing work in the office, and the boring domestic routine: “the oppressive conditions of suburban respectability.”[35] The reviewer for The Times found these conditions to be the harshest aspect of the lot of office workers: the trial “consists not in the work these city clerks do in the city, not in the routine of their occupations, not in their decent poverty, but in the narrowness, the ugliness, the vulgarity of the lives they lead at home.”[36] The lack of opportunies, the absence of any delightful prospects weigh heavily on Charley’s mind. While suburbia is advertised in utopian terms by social reformers as well as profit-makers the heterotopic counter-world of Baker’s realistic play subverts the notion of a better existence on the periphery of the city. Suburbia is not championed as a space to move to but a space to escape from. Here it is Australia which is constructed as a countersite to London suburbia, with wide spaces, fertile ground, ample opportunities, the prospect of a more rewarding existence.

In the same way as the Misses Huxtable in The Madras House are virtually incarcerated in their domestic prison, Charley Wilson, in his suburban prison, is held fast by the chains of his marriage, the duties of a husband and, at the end of the play by those of a father, and the conventions, moral and social codes of the middle-class. However, he makes an effort to break his fetters. Infected by the spirit of adventure of his tenant, who has given up his secure job as a clerk and emigrates to Australia, Charley begins to dream of, seriously consider and eventually plan his escape to the antipodes.

The configuration of characters in Chains is organised in terms of their acceptance of suburban complacency or their rebellion against it, or, on a more abstract level, in favour of or in opposition to change, in favour of action or inaction. Tennant and Charley, who are discontented with their monotonous and restricted existence, are ready to act in order to improve their lives. All the other figures in the play, with the exception of Lily’s sister Maggie, find their desire to escape and emigrate irrational and irresponsible. They all prefer a safe but monotonous and ill paid job and a boring yet regular suburban life to the insecure prospects and potential opportunities of an adventurous emigration. Only Maggie openly supports the two men. She herself, with the option to enter a marriage of convenience which would enable her to quit the hated job as a shop assistant, decides against throwing up “one sort of –- cage — for another.”[37] This kind of inaction, it is suggested, is the only possible form of rebellion “within the constrictions of her gendered existence.”[38] As Linda Fitzsimmons further argues, “[s]he opts not for freedom rather than enchainment, but for a less permanent form of chains and, crucially, a form that she actively chooses.”[39] At the end of the play Lily tells her husband Charley that they are expecting a child; this strategically placed information destroys all his visions of a liberated and more fulfilling life in the wide open space of Australia. Viv Gardner contextualises the clicking of the chains within the pseudo-heterotopic site of the outher districts of London: “[Lily’s] final ‘chain’ –- the news of her pregnancy –- thwarts Charley’s hopes of ever breaking out of the destructive suburban spiral that holds them both.”[40]

7 Conclusion
Within the Foucauldian philosophy of space heterotopias are defined as utopias come true, paradoxically sited within as well as outside society. Foucault’s well-known examples of heterotopias are ships, psychiatric hospitals, prisons, old people’s homes, brothels, also the stage or the cinema. Clearly, one cannot maintain that suburbia actually has close similarities to ships or brothels. However, suburbia was originally conceived as a heterotopia, a site of opposition to the dominant urban culture, simultaneously reflecting and transforming life in the city, a marginal, a liminal space juxtaposed to the centre in terms of work vs. leisure, stress vs. relaxation, pollution vs. fresh air, claustrophobic vs. open space, public vs. private sphere. In representative Edwardian dramas this utopian perfection and reversal of existing societal structures is deconstructed to a considerable degree. In two of Granville Barker’s plays the dichotomy of city and suburb is inverted, the suburban family home is exposed as the place of criminal business transactions in the Voysey Inheritance and as a prison for unmarried women in The Madras House. In Elizabeth Baker’s Chains suburbia does not feature as a heterotopic but as a dystopic space which induces enchained characters to visions of a very different utopia ‘down under.’ In the world of Edwardian drama the facade of heterotopic suburbia has not only received cracks but is virtually collapsing.


[1] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” transl. Jay Miskowiec,

[2] Peter Johnson, “Unravelling Foucault’s ‘different spaces'” (History of the Human Sciences 19.4, 2006), 81.

[3] Kevin Hetherington, The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering (London: Routledge, 1997), 17.

[4] Ibid. 41.

[5] Jane Beckett and Deborah Cherry, “London,” in Jane Beckett and Deborah Cherry, eds., The Edwardian Era (London: Phaidon Press and Barbican Art Gallery, 1987), 36.

[6] Simon Pepper, “The Garden City,” in Boris Ford, ed., Early Twentieth Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 101.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[8] Quoted in Dennis Edwards, London’s Underground Suburbs, 2nd ed. (Harrow Weald: Capital Transport Publishing, 2003), 16.

[9] Beckett and Cherry, 36.

[10] John R. Baird and Charles Ryskamp, eds., The Poems of William Cowper, vol. 2, 1782-1785 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 189.

[11] Explored in Lynne Hapgood’s Margins of Desire: The Suburbs in Fiction and Culture 1880-1925 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).

[12] Arthur Wing Pinero, The Freaks: An Idyll of Suburbia (London: Heinemann, 1922).

[13] St. John Hankin, “The Two Mr. Wetherbys: A Middle-Class Comedy,” in John Drinkwater, ed., The Plays of St. John Hankin, 2 vols. (London: M. Secker, 1923); the play was first performed in 1903.

[14] George Bernard Shaw, “Widowers’ Houses,” in The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw: Collected Plays with Their Prefaces, vol. 1 (London: Max Reinhardt, The Bodley Head, 1970).

[15] Gerge Bernard Shaw, “Candida,” in The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw: Collected Plays with Their Prefaces, vol. 1 (London: Max Reinhardt, The Bodley Head, 1970), 515.

[16] Harley Granville Barker, “The Voysey Inheritance,” in Dennis Kennedy, ed., Plays by Harley Granville Barker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 87.

[17] Ibid., 112.

[18] Jan McDonald, The ‘New Drama’, 1900-1914 (London: Macmillan, 1986), 74.

[19] Elliott M. Simon, The Problem Play in British Drama 1890-1914 (Salzburg: Universitaet Salzburg, 1978), 299.

[20] Barker, “The Voysey Inheritance”, 102.

[21] Ibid., 151.

[22] Ibid., 100.

[23] Harley Granville Barker, The Madras House, ed. Margery Morgan (London: Methuen, 1977), 73.

[24] Ibid., 101.

[25] Eric Salmon, Granville Barker: A Secret Life (London: Heinemann, 1983), 162.

[26] Barker, The Madras House, 57.

[27] Ibid., 1.

[28] Ibid., 111.

[29] Ibid., 111.

[30] Ibid., 111.

[31] Ibid., 130.

[32] Sheila Stowell, A Stage of Their Own: Feminst Playwrights of the Suffrage Era (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), 108.

[33] Ibid., 117.

[34] Ibid., 109.

[35] The Times (18 May 1910, 10), quoted in Stowell, 111.

[36] Elizabeth Baker, “Chains,” in Linda Fitzsimmons and Viv Gardner, eds., New Woman Plays (London: Methuen, 1991), 124.

[37] Linda Fitzsimmons, “Typewriters Enchained,” in Viv Gardner and Susan Rutherford, eds., The New Woman and Her Sisters: Feminism and Theatre, 1850-1914 (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), 198.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Viv Gardner, “Introduction,” in Linda Fitzsimmons and Viv Gardner, eds., New Woman Plays (London: Methuen, 1991), xi.

To Cite This Article:

Rudolf Weiss, ‘Heterotopic Suburbia in Edwardian Drama ’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 1 (March 2009). Online at Accessed on [date of access]