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All Eyes are on the City: Arthur Machen’s Ethnographic Vision of London

Joanna Wargen

The Victorian city has been perceived as a ‘social and psychological landscape, both producing and reflecting the modern consciousness’; it is Arthur Machen’s reproduction of this complex landscape which is the focus of this article (Sharpe and Wallock 6). The emerging ethnography of the nineteenth century reveals a complex relationship between the individual and the city, and one which Machen replicates in his novella The Hill of Dreams (1907). The ethnography of the period attempted, through observation and the recording of it, to portray the lives of the poorer members of London society. This observation is related to the role of surveillance of the individual in society and combined with attitudes to the poor and the architecture of the city, this process becomes one of empowerment and control, of the observer and the observed. I will be utilising the paradigm of the Panopticon which was invented for the purpose of prison reform, but was also employed by the early anthropologist Jeremy Bentham in his workhouse designs, to control and influence the poor that it housed. The Panopticon highlights how observation can empower and disempower the observer, and also illuminates how Mayhew’s ethnographic writing evinces an uncanniness typically associated with Gothic narratives. Essentially, both Machen’s fictional and nonfictional writing reveals a city that is both concealed in darkness and illuminated by light, and one which divides the population from the inner world of the home of the wealthy, and the exterior world of the impoverished. All of these themes are revealed through the paradigm of the Panopticon.

An Ethnography

Nineteenth-century London appeared to be a cityscape under constant cultural surveillance; this was partly created by the activities of social explorers such as Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth who endeavoured to understand the dynamics of the urban space and the urban poor. The relationship between the poor and the architecture of London is described in ethnographic work, but it is an incidental issue and not the primary focus of ethnography which was to explore the roots of poverty.

The topographic landscape of London became an issue of debate when the proximity of the poor to the affluent members of society was made starkly visible by Charles Booth’s social mapping of London in Maps Descriptive of London Poverty (1889), which formed part of his Inquiry into Life and Labour in London (1886-1903). He revealed a densely populated locale where the immediacy of the rich and poor were situated in uncomfortable proximity. Prior to the nineteenth-century revelations of Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth, the late eighteenth-century work of Jeremy Bentham initiated a trend of aiding and controlling the poor in an attempt to contain their detrimental impact on society. He believed that ‘the citizen could best serve his own needs, and those of society, by pursuing a policy of self-interest, but in some areas of government must take a more positive role, as in caring for the sick or insane’ (Longmate 48). Booth and Seebohm Rowntree established in the 1880s and 1890s that ‘[l]ow wages, unemployment, and old age, rather than character flaws, were shown to be the principal causes of destitution’ which contradicted Bentham’s assertions on the poor (Brundage 131). Yet, earlier in the century the problematic features of poverty were the focus of Bentham and his ‘philosophic radicals’ who concentrated on the negative impact of poverty that was perceived to be responsible for the spread of disease and immorality, and caused a financial burden on the rest of society (Longmate 48, Brundage 42-3). Bentham sought to instruct the poor through the use of the workhouse (Jary and Jary 472). He conceived of the Panopticon design for workhouse buildings, which utilised the effects of architecture to influence the poverty-stricken inhabitants through observation. I will be utilising the Panopticon to exemplify how London becomes a site of mass surveillance, which transformed the cityscape into an entity of its own by the empowerment of architecture in both scrutinising and affecting the inhabitants of the city.

Machen’s fiction and nonfiction displays a personal observation and portrayal of the city, although he does not intentionally target the poor, he reveals how the physical features of the metropolis are worthy of individual observation normally reserved for the poorer inhabitants of London. The cityscape is personified and becomes the subject of surveillance, but it also becomes a source of control over the inhabitants of the metropolis. Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1975) examines the relationship between discipline and observation. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries initiated a trend of social control by the utilisation of systems on societies that possessed mercantile economies; this was true of numerous European countries from the early modern period until the late eighteenth century (Foucault 194). The types of control exerted on society were based on ‘hierarchical observation’ where:

[t]he exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power, and in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible. (Foucault 170)

Bentham utilised the influence of surveillance in his architectural creation of the Panopticon design that ‘is polyvalent in its applications; it serves to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work’ (Foucault 205). The potential to influence many instrumental institutions was immense, but Bentham’s design was famously utilised for the building of workhouses. The Panopticon’s design consisted: ‘at the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower’ from there the supervisor would observe the inhabitants who are housed in cells within the annular building (Foucault 200). The supervisor is at all times visible to the inhabitants of the cells:

[b]y the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery. They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible. (Foucault 200)

Within ethnography, the supervisor is metaphorically substituted for the social observer, and encounters his subjects individually within their ‘theatre’ of poverty. Therefore, social observation is transformed into an experience of empowerment.

Mayhew in his ethnographic work London Labour and the London Poor (1862) describes a meeting between himself and a doll’s eye maker:

‘in the one I have black and hazel, and in the other blue and grey.’ [Here the man took the lids off a couple of boxes, about as big as binnacles, that stood on the table: they each contained 190 different eyes, and so like nature, that the effect produced upon a person unaccustomed to the sight was most peculiar, and far from pleasant. The whole of the 380 optics all seemed to be staring directly at the spectator, and occasioned a feeling somewhat similar to the bewilderment one experiences on suddenly becoming an object of general notice … The eyes of the whole world, as we say, literally appeared to be fixed upon one]. (Mayhew 345)

Prior to this encounter with the doll’s eye-maker, Mayhew consistently describes himself as the controlling force in the narrative, inspecting the poor of London with a detached and methodical approach. Yet, in this excerpt he appears to be disempowered by the sight of numerous eyes observing him; he is symbolically at the centre of the Panopticon of London enduring the effect of surveillance where ‘[v]isability is a trap’ (Foucault 200). Mayhew’s repositioning of the observer to the observed creates an uncanniness that is characteristically Gothic.

Mayhew also establishes the complexity of the individual trying to ascertain a coherent understanding of the city, and highlights the importance of ethnography in endeavouring to establish the relationship between the individual and the metropolis. Nicholas Freeman’s Conceiving the City (2007) examines the portrayal of London and the relationship it has with the individual. Freeman claims that the ‘reassessment of the relationship between the individual and the metropolis’ can be traced back to ‘fervid discussions of the city taking place in literary and artistic circles during the second half of the nineteenth century’ (Freeman, Conceiving the City, 3). He acknowledges that evidence of this ‘reconstruction’ can be found ‘after the Great Fire of 1666’, but ‘what was new in the late nineteenth century was a sustained, albeit haphazard, interest in developing a specialized language of urban life’ (Freeman, Conceiving the City, 3). It appears that a dual process was occurring throughout the nineteenth century, where the city and the inhabitants are constantly in the gaze of observers, with everyone engaged in observing and being observed by one another.

The city appears to be undergoing a process where it is reconstructed through surveillance, but the process is not solely empowering, it is also misleading, as the superficial is not always so easily readable. Within the topography of the city other processes take place: a mass adoption of the Panopticon system. The buildings of the city take on a power and force of their own, as Foucault suggests that:

[a] whole problematic then develops; that of an architecture that is no longer built simply to be seen, … or to observe the external space, … but to permit an internal, articulated and detailed control –- to render visible those who are inside it. (172)

This process of revealing the hidden ‘uncanny’ processes within the city was realised by the social mapping of London, which was in response to the dire consequences of disease that swept the city (Nead 19). The gravity of the problem was exposed in 1849 when 14,000 of the population perished (Nead 19). Edwin Chadwick ‘led the call for the single, centralised management for the supply of water and drainage in London’ (Nead 18). As Commissioner of the Board of Health he realised that sanitation was instrumental in relieving the city from the threat of sickness, but to implement this system he demanded that London should be ‘exhaustively mapped’ (Nead 19). The city required topographical scrutiny, which symbolised the penetration into the depths of the city itself, from what lay under the street. This mapping also signified that the metropolis was not solely the observational property of social scientists, but had become a place that was to be dissected and recorded by every conceivable method. The 1851 Skeleton Ordnance Survey of London showed the city ‘as potential process, as a geography of flow and movement’ becoming a cartographic version of the medical report on the city: a visual representation of the processes hidden within (Nead 24).

Machen’s London

In Machen’s autobiography he describes his life and experiences in London that were marked by extended periods of poverty. He communicates a personal relationship with the city, which extends from the superficial to an intimate understanding of the metropolis. He states that initially he first viewed the city from the aspect of an outsider: ‘I judged of London purely by its exterior aspects, as one may judge of a passing stranger in the street, and decide that he goes to an expensive tailor, without knowing anything of the condition of his banking account’ (Machen Autobiography 77). This superficial perspective of personified London was destabilised as he spent extended periods in the capital:

I began now to appreciate the fact that if you set out, without a map, from your house at 36 Great Russell Street and walk for half an hour eastward or northward you are in fact in an unknown region, a new world. (Machen Autobiography 202-3)

Machen refers to the mapping of London as pivotal to successfully negotiating the city, but this quote simultaneously suggests the idea he later develops, of an unknown and hidden London that cannot be mapped, and one which the individual cannot fully understand.

In Machen’s A Fragment of Life (1899-1904), Mr Darnell, on a solitary tour of London, describes the relationship of mapping and the individual’s experience of the metropolis: ‘I didn’t buy a map; that would have spoilt it, somehow; to see everything plotted out, and named, and measured. What I wanted was to feel that I was going where nobody had been before’ (FL 130).[1] Machen suggests that London cannot be defined by quantitative measurement, but the experience of journeying across the cityscape can enhance an individual’s perception of it. Any attempt to fully capture the essence of the city is, however, futile, as he states: ‘London considered either physically or intellectually is so vast and mighty a world, that the study of any one –- of even the smallest and least considerable –- of its aspects may well be the task of a lifetime’ (Machen Autobiography 64). Robert Mighall states that the failure to capture the city in late nineteenth-century fiction is a commonplace feature of Victorian fiction:

It is the narrator’s role to render it knowable, to put it into writing on the map. And yet the very act of describing or charting terra incognita involves, and … necessitates a mode of writing which defamiliarises and distances that which it purports to reveal. (44)

Machen further explores London, but also creates defamiliarisation and distancing by the desolation he evinces in his urban texts.

After spending most of his life in London, Machen developed an acute knowledge of the city, but what he derives from the metropolis is a sense of absence, devoid of life:

I believe that I have seen at all events the main streets of London at every hour of the day and night. I have viewed, for example, Leicester Square between four and five of a summer morning, and have marvelled at its dismal disarray and quite miserable shabbiness of aspect. (Machen Autobiography 19)

London is a place of degradation, a ‘grey wilderness’ which is the ambience he injects into his urban texts (Machen Autobiography 208). According to Freeman this desolation is symptomatic of ‘symbolist-inflected London fictions’ that frequently depict a ‘world of shadows and uncertainty’ (Freeman Conceiving the City 149). Machen only illuminates the joys of London when he reminisces about the older parts of the city recalling a:

London that was undisturbed in those days. Holywell Street and Wych Street were all in their glory in 1885, a glory compounded of sixteenth-century gables, bawdy books and matters congruous therewith, parchment Elzevirs, dark courts and archways, hidden taverns, and ancient slumminess. There were no great, blatant Australia Houses or Colonial Edifices of any kind about the Strand in those times: instead we had, the beauty and the green lawns of Clement’s inn and the solemn square of New Inn. (Machen Autobiography 173-4)

In the second half of the century there was a concerted process of demolition of the city and rapid modernisation (Freeman Conceiving the City 9). Many ‘historic landmarks disappeared: Doctor’s Commons was demolished in 1867, Temple Bar between December 1877 and early 1879’; these are a fraction of examples, and authors such as Machen and Henry James gave this process recognition by mourning ‘the passing of favourite buildings or streets’ in their writing (Freeman Conceiving the City 9).

Machen suggests that the new architecture of London, that had been born from British colonial successes, had taken away the majesty and the mysterious inner life of the older areas of the capital. It appears that the new architecture has degraded ‘beauty’ and life in the city, but has imposed the gaze of the colonial power in the city. The edifices of the city divide the population by its power, concealing an internalised world and influencing an external world. Life is embedded within the architecture which distorts it from the observer:

[t]he science of the great city; the physiology of London; literally and metaphysically the greatest subject that the mind of man can conceive … You may point out a street, correctly enough, as the abode of washerwomen; but, in that second floor, a man may be studying chaldee roots, and in the garret over the way a forgotten artist is dying by inches. (IL 52)

Although the city can be physically and superficially read, the lives that are contained within the structures are concealed, and unnoticed by the passing observer. London is divided into private and public worlds.

Hill of Dreams

The Hill of Dreams (1907), which is loosely based on Machen’s experiences in London, is structured around the life of Lucien, a young man from Caerleon, who is endeavouring to become a successful author. In his pursuit of literary achievement he moves to London, but only to face poverty and his eventual death. Machen introduces two ideas in this novella that can be linked to Foucault’s work on the Panopticon; these are the power of architecture, and the influence of light. These two themes are linked in the text to the city, where the metropolis is transformed into a living being. As a powerful entity the built environment has the capacity to influence society, and by the ability to control light it illuminates the lives of the inhabitants which reveals a type of theatre that Foucault describes in the Panopticon. Lucien is initially enchanted by the city, desiring ‘to set himself free in the wilderness of London and to be secure amidst the murmur of modern streets’ (HD 98). London appears to gain a voice through the ‘murmuring London streets’, but consistently it is revealed as possessing an absence, of ‘waste places’ (HD 103, 167). The life within it appears to be as absent as the cityscape, as Lucien endeavours to reject the mundane structures of modern city living as ‘[h]e freed himself from the obtuse modern view of towns as places where human beings live and make money and rejoice and suffer, for from the standpoint of the moment such facts were wholly impertinent’ (HD 151). Lucien, like the ethnographer, sets out to penetrate the real life contained within the city structures, to illuminate the lives of those that dwell in ‘the city of the unending murmuring streets, a part of the stirring shadow, of the amber-lighted gloom’ (HD 162).

When Lucien initially embarks on his social exploration of the city, it becomes a place of contrasts:

[o]ne of the blistered doors over the way banged, and a woman came scurrying out on some errand, and the garden gate shrieked two melancholy notes as she opened it and let it swing back after her. The little patches called gardens were mostly untilled, uncared for, squares of slimy moss, dotted with clumps of coarse ugly grass, but here and there were the blackened and rotting remains of sunflowers and marigolds. And beyond, he knew, stretched the labyrinth of streets more or less squalid, but all grey and dull, and behind were the mud pits and the steaming heap of yellow bricks, and to the north was a great cold waste, treeless, desolate, swept by bitter wind. It was all like his own life … a maze of unprofitable dreariness and desolation, and his mind grew black and hopeless as the winter sky. (HD 174)

The city is depicted as alive with jarring melodies emanating from the ordinary actions of the people, yet the sparse land that remains in the grey built environment is left to waste, akin to the remainder of the cityscape which lies ‘desolate’ and dreary. Lucien embodies the desolation of the city by his inability to create writing that will lead to his success; it appears that the city suppresses his creativity rendering him as unproductive as the city gardens.

Light appears to have the opposite effect in the narrative, as it highlights and reinvigorates life instead of merely manipulating those captured within the trap of visibility. The influence of light manifests itself as a form of power in illuminating those which it captures, and Lucien who bears witness to it. He takes his own form of surveillance onto the streets in an attempt to reinvigorate the humanity he believes he has lost in his time spent in London:

As he paced down the footpath he could often see plainly across the frozen shrubs into the homely and cheerful rooms, Sometimes, late in the evening, he caught a passing glimpse of the family at tea, father, mother, and children laughing and talking together, well pleased with each other’s company. Sometimes a wife or a child was standing by the garden gate peering anxiously through the fog, and the sight of it all, all the little details, the hideous but comfortable armchairs turned ready to the fire, maroon-red curtains being drawn close to shut out the ugly night, the sudden blaze and illumination as the fire was poked up so that it might be cheerful for father; these trivial and common things were acutely significant. (HD 194)

The light conveys a sense of the warmth in the home that captures Lucien’s attention to the lives and the love contained within the buildings. The descriptions give insight into a quasi-theatre, with the window framing the stage of the sitting room, and the fire transformed into the stage lights, creating a moment for the observer to survey the lives inside. Unlike ethnography and the Panopticon, this process is carried out in an attempt to affect the observer, and not the observed.

Karen Chase and Michael Levenson in The Spectacle of Intimacy (2000) explore the relationship between the public and private lives of the Victorian family and the influence of the built environment on the family unit. They determine that the 1851 census was pivotal in changing how families acted in the public arena; it resulted in the adoption of ‘modes of public performance’ where ‘domestic life itself was impelled towards acts of exposure and display … a pride in domestic achievement drove towards overt expression’ (Chase and Levenson 6, 7). However, this spectacle of harmonious domestic life does not apply to the poorer members of society: those without the security of the traditional house. Mayhew, in his descriptions of costermongers in London, reveals the notion of home and hearth being alien to this class of society:

[t]he notions of morality among these people agree strangely with those of many savage tribes. They are a part of the Nomades of England, neither knowing or caring for the enjoyments of home … The tap-room is the father’s chief abiding place; whilst to the mother the house is only a better kind of tent. (Mayhew 43)

The poor are not privy to the security and care of the home, living quasi-nomadic existences and regarding the home as simply a place of shelter. However, the home or the house becomes a symbol of division between the wealthy and the poor.

Chase and Levenson describe the importance of the boundary of the wall in protecting the family, but it simultaneously segregates them from the outside world; as it is transformed from a physical force to a ‘social force’ separating ‘privilege from dispossession, and privacy from public life. It converts free space into a series of domestic parcels’ (Chase and Levenson 143). Lucien appears to belong to the exterior life of London, and part of the dispossessed populace who are segregated from the domestic world that the built environment has created. He encounters the dispossessed population, those not privileged to be on the inside, in the haven of the domestic space. Yet, this space is highlighted by the repetition of light that Machen utilises to depict the street scenes in The Hill of Dreams. The influence of the illuminated outside space has an unexpected impact on the text; as the novella progresses the city from a place of daylight grey to an illuminated place against the backdrop of night. Lucien views the city streets where ‘the shops seemed all aflame, and the black night air glowed with the flaring gas-jets and the naphtha-lamps, hissing and wavering before the February wind’ (HD 196). He appears to be sensing the city from a different perspective.

Aided by the light, he witnesses an alternate and dark facet of the city: ‘[t]he lurid picture of that fiery street, the flaming shops and the flaming glances, all its wonder and horrors, lit by the naphtha flares and by the burning souls’ (HD 203). Although Machen is portraying London by night as a city possessed with lost souls, it implicitly depicts a city dominated by a hidden population that is banished from the domestic space. Deborah Epstein Nord suggests that there was a bifurcation of the city into what became two nations: one of the poverty-blighted East End and the other, the prosperous West End of London (123). This separation was entrenched by the fin de siècle into emblematic representations of both where ‘the West represented all that was bright, open, dazzling, and enlightened; the East all that was dark, labyrinthine, threatening, and benighted’ (Epstein Nord 123). Therefore, Machen is reflecting the poverty-stricken population, those with unconventional family lives and ensconced in the dark depths of the East End. Leveson states:

[t]he millions of poor who streamed through the cities had failed to comprehend the resources of the wall. They were radically external creatures, whose exposure to open space, especially open urban space, deprived them of the indispensable pedagogy of home. (146)

The idea that the poor can be described in terms of alterity is exhibited by the fact that they are deemed to be ‘creatures’ and by the darkness in which Machen describes the exterior population of London; both the poor and the city manifest a Gothic quality.

Machen describes a city of contrast that is light and dark, alive and dead, observing and observed. His work encompasses the essence of Victorian ethnography that endeavoured to capture the city and the life within it. Machen’s London is a space that has the power to both degrade and enlighten the individual, yet, his writing suggests a city that only invigorates the privileged few in the traditional family unit. London is a locale of gloom and emptiness by day, where urban clearance has instigated a modern architectural surveillance through the erection of colonial edifices. By night the light of the city illuminates the lives within it, but only middle-class families are protected by the walls of the buildings, and illuminated by the natural warmth of the fire. In the darkness of night the poor wander like lost souls with only the light from naphtha to recognise the lives that they lead. Machen creates a living Panopticon which embodies the metropolis as a site of mass surveillance which observes the theatre of life that dwells within it.


[1] The following novellas will be abbreviated in parentheses: A fragment of Life (IL), The Hill of Dreams (HD), The Inmost Light (IL).

Works Cited

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To Cite This Article:

Joanna Wargen, ‘All Eyes are on the City: Arthur Machen’s Ethnographic Vision of London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2010). Online at Accessed on [date of access].