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Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London 
264 pages, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Second printing, 2005.
ISBN-13: 978-0300107708. £20.

Reviewed by

Tzu Yu Allison Lin

The Literary London Journal, Volume 9 Number 2 (September 2011)


<1> In Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London, Lynda Nead brings together images and literary metaphors to reveal the form and condition of modernity, particularly showing Victorian London in its visual and verbal representations. By reading the city’s past, Nead argues that ‘modernity is also used, however, as a category of historical and philosophical analysis and as a way of classifying the particular conditions of that epoch’ (4). To read Victorian London in terms of modernity, Nead uses the work of French theorists, particularly Michel Foucault and Michel de Certeau, aiming to see ‘the spaces the modernity’ in Victorian London (7).

<2> Literary metaphors are based on the visible world. London locations become visual codes, revealing the ‘unified, metropolitan government’ of the city (17). And yet, if ‘modernity’ is the correct term to define Victorian London, I wonder, what is the relation between this London and the city of Paris, Walter Benjamin’s nineteenth-century capital? First of all, Nead uses a methodology similar to Benjamin’s, illustrating streets, arcades, gas and light, as well as the ruins of London. These city spaces indicate details of an immense project, which would make London the greatest city of all times. For instance, the ‘high-class shops’ construct the interior of the arcade from ‘the City to Regent Street’, in a way which makes Victorian urban planning seem ‘futuristic’ (29). The city plan creates ‘a micro-city, a mini-metropolis’, and ‘a new class of Londoners’ (28). The juxtaposition of old and new buildings suggests not only the ‘futuristic’, but also the sense of ‘improvement’ (29), as the city becomes a huge ‘construction site’ in the process of modernisation.

<3> Using the word ‘Babylon’ in the title of her book, Nead refers to Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit by way of Nancy Aycock Metz’s article, ‘Little Dorrit’s London: Babylon Revisited’. Yet a quotation from Dickens’s novel and a full discussion of how Babylon comes to represent London, or indeed London Babylon, would bring greater depth to Nead’s use of the word. Even so, as the capital of an empire, Victorian London is full of literary and visual signs of modern myth. Photography demonstrates the ‘signs of the metropolitan’, illuminating ‘a changing urban geography’ and ‘altered spatial relations’ (32). In the process of modernity, the city of London develops the new, which is still haunted by the old, creating ‘a disturbing’, ‘almost phantasmatic dialogue between the past and the present’, as in de Certeau’s ‘mid-nineteenth-century Republican France’ (32).

<4> Indeed, the new is haunted by the old. Yet the identity of London seems to be stronger in terms of the city’s experience of modernity, particularly in Nead’s discussions of London’s underground system. The construction of Metropolitan Underground Railway ‘was begun in the winter of 1860’ (39). It was the first in the world, making links for residential and commercial areas of London. Nead uses many visual images to show how technology constitutes a new sense of urban sublime, as the ‘forms of the tunnels, the trench, the vault and scaffolding’ (39) change the daily life of the city residents. Some of the photographs in Nead’s book document a sense of the surreal in London by juxtaposing old buildings and new constructions of London in the central parts of the city, including Westminster, Parliament Square and the Houses of Parliament. Yet Michel Foucault’s ‘phantasmatic spaces’ reveal another kind of space, which comes to ‘resist social ordering’, ‘including brothels and boats’ (7). The process of modernity, as Nead argues, comes to reveal a particular period of a city, when Victorian London becomes the spectacle of ‘crumpled time, drawing together past, present and future’ (8).

<5> The work on the Holborn Viaduct from Farrington Street clearly marks ‘a great Victorian way’ (53). According to Nead, ‘[o]n 13 November 1869 Queen Victoria made a rare public visit to the City of London to open the new Viaduct and although scaffolding was still visible, the crowds of people who lined the streets and the press were pleased by the outcome’ (52). The city’s experience of modernity is ‘a different approach to improvement’ (55). Comparing London and Paris shows that while ‘urban space in Paris was treated as a totality, in London modernity took the form of a collection of partial and unrelated projects for street building and land reclamation’ (55 – 56). At a time when Queen Victoria ‘is Empress of India’ (56), London sees itself ‘not as metropolis but as capital of an empire’ (56). In this way, Nead clearly defines the uniqueness of London’s experience of modernity.

<6> Cremorne Pleasure Gardens in Chelsea also offered the ‘a testing ground for metropolitan identities and behaviours’ (120) of Victorian London, making a ‘highly developed and complex leisure industry’, ‘with new and emerging forms of public urban entertainment’ (109). The gardens represent a ‘mini-metropolis’ (113), but away from the street of London, with ‘the trees, lawns and flower-beds’, ‘statues’ and ‘fountains’ (110). Londoners at that time could visit Cremorne with their families to watch fireworks, drink, dine and dance. The gardens created huge opportunities, bringing business and leisure together. Nead discusses social dancing as ‘an icon of contemporary gender relations’ (128) in that it can be interpreted through the gestures and behaviours of men and women (130). Nead uses the painting of Phoebus Levin, The Dancing Platform at Cremorne Gardens (1864), Figure 48, to reinforce the idea that these gestures and behaviours construct Cremorne Gardens as a meaningful gendered ‘social space’ of Victorian London (130).

<7> Nead’s book makes a remarkable contribution, creating a Victorian map of London through different perspectives, bringing London and its representation together in a way in which visual and verbal arts, spaces of order and disorder, imperial glory and everyday urban myths of modernity come to synthesise old and new London.

To Cite This Article:

Tzu Yu Allison Lin, ‘Review of Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London, Yale University Press, 2000’, The Literary London Journal, Volume 9 Number 2 (September 2011). Online at Accessed on [date of access]