Dana Arnold, Rural Urbanism: London Landscapes in the Early Nineteenth Century, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). ISBN13: 978-0719068201. £50.00
An assumption made in many academic books about how London is represented and experienced by those who live there or visit it, whether books about its social history, its buildings or its literature, is that we can easily isolate the distinctiveness of the metropolis from the surrounding British countryside. It is further assumed that we can then continue this approach by situating London’s urban way of life in stark opposition to Britain’s rural environments and activities. This is a tradition that started long before Raymond William’s The Country and the City, of course, but Williams puts it rather nicely: ‘A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times.’ Bluntly put: London is usually taken as what the British countryside is not and vice versa, whatever else the presence of parkland, garden squares and recreational spaces might seem to suggest.
However, Arnold’s eloquently and cogently argued book serves very much as an alternative and deliberately corrective view to this paradigm of country versus city. Rural Urbanism focuses on a period in the history of London’s landscapes post-victory in the Napoleonic wars when urban development was unusually plentiful, focused and confident. Such urban development was consciously striving, as Arnold suggests, to change London into a suitable modern national and world capital to befit its status as global trade centre of a mighty and growing empire. It therefore resonates with the British Empire’s movement from a mercantile phase to one perceived as possessing military superiority as the greatest world power. However, Arnold’s book nonetheless argues that what determined the aims of this process was an aesthetic appreciation of landscape derived from remodelling rural estates and the great country houses of the time that had proved so successful in the previous century. This in itself offers quite an important alternative to the way most critics conceptualise urban spaces in London and the experience of those who live there because it effectively puts the country back into the city and makes the power of public display central to any discussion of the metropolis. Arnold’s argument places land management and the manipulation of nature into aesthetically pleasing forms as much at the heart of the city landscape as anything more markedly metropolitan, such as haphazard commercial patterns of thoroughfares, shops and houses.
While the book covers a relatively narrow historical period of London’s rebuilding, roughly that from the Georgian period into the Regency, and focuses almost exclusively on the West End of London, it draws on perspectives and ways of understanding architecture by practitioners, social critics, arbiters of taste and ordinary viewers of buildings and urban space that are rooted in the social movements and aesthetic fashions (such as the picturesque) that began outside of London. This has the effect of recontextualising this moment in London’s architectural history within the long eighteenth century. The development of London then shows how these intellectual and business practices that had originally grown up in the rural settings of the aristocracy and landed gentry were ‘portable’ between the country and city. While readers interested in London’s architectural, social, economic and cultural evolution will find this view to be challenging and stimulating, readers primarily interested in literature will be invited to question some of their assumptions about how the continual re-imaging and subsequent re-imagining of the metropolis in novels, poetry and drama may be affected by the issues that Dana Arnold explores. Jane Austen’s world, we might say, is closer in this analysis to the world of Dickens or Gissing than we might customarily think.
The ‘Introduction’ makes the framework of Arnold’s analysis clear and in particular shows how the book’s attention to the similarities between rural and urban landscapes offers a view that is largely different from that of previous commentators. Part One, ‘Rus in Urbe’ begins unusually for a book on London with an analysis of the English country house and how it came to express views held by the land-owning class (or the aspirant bourgeoisie) about individual and national identity through the relationship of architecture on the one hand and the new conception of landscape on the other. These in turn created a practice of making sense of the concrete relations of architecture and accompanying land as social relations and grew into a philosophy that chimed with ideas of wealth, power, taste and how these might be best displayed for public consumption. These ideas were carried from the country into the town: ‘London’s landscapes, whether a set piece of urban planning, as at Hyde Park corner, or a royal park, could be “read” by a viewing public whose senses were already trained to understand the meaning of self-consciously constructed rural spaces which explored the resonance between nature and antiquity’ (p. 1). However as the eighteenth century progressed and the landed gentry increasingly spent more time away from their country estates and in the city instead, this led to an expansion of London westwards and refashioned Westminster as the West End.
The next two parts of Part One of the book concentrate as case studies on two grand aristocratic style developments which were in fact led by the state: Bloomsbury and The Regent’s Park. Both in their own ways were examples of the countryside picturesque setting in which idealised Arcadian communities of gentry could live. Once such communities were built, though, it became necessary to help separate the poorer areas of the city from these new affluent developments, which explains the creation of Regent Street, described in Part Two of the book: the wide thoroughfare also serving as a means to move troops quickly across the city if this became necessary for public order in a London marked by increasing inequalities of wealth. London Bridge and its rebuilding according to Arnold is ‘an interesting counterpoint to the elite’s domination of the metropolis’ (p. 8), as here older bourgeois patterns based around the value of trade seemed to function and the rather utilitarian bridge that resulted after much public debate was something of a triumph by the traditional City of London burghers against the new ‘nationalist iconographies of the Metropolitan Improvements’ (p. 116). Hyde Park Corner and the Royal Parks both replicate the success of Nash’s Regent’s Park creation, but just as significantly set Buckingham Palace in the right kind of ‘picture’ that the new nationalist public expected of the seat of Empire and the nation. That is to say it fitted their own idea of the social order that the King must inhabit an extensive aristocratic house in its own parklands, even if in reality this is in central London.
There is much to enjoy in this carefully researched and lucid book, and it is salutary to recall that London’s westward expansion was so very different from what happened elsewhere in the metropolis and that the growing city was at least in part experienced in different ways by different interests. I would have liked to have known how this narrative turned out as the nineteenth century progressed, and this suggests there is still much more work to be done in this fascinating area of London’s history.
To Cite This Article:
Steven Barfield, ‘Review of Dana Arnold, Rural Urbanism: London Landscapes in the Early Nineteenth Century, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).’ Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 1 (March 2009). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2009/barfield2.html. Accessed on [date of access]