The Nether World
and the Late-Victorian Culture of Reform
Michelle Allen & Shannon Fellow in the English Department, University of Virginia
This paper grew out of both a fascination with literary map making and a persistent question about The Nether World. Why does Gissing chart the routes of his characters so precisely? What is the significance of the fact that Bob Hewett, for instance, walks from Shoreditch Station to Smithfield via Whitecross Street and Long Lane? More to the point, why does Gissing specify Hewett'0s route at all, noting that when he leaves Smithfield, he passes through St. John's Lane, “beneath St. John's Arch, thence to Rosoman Street and Merlin Place?” By way of answering this question, I will consider the geography of Clerkenwell both as it is constructed in the novel (published in 1889), and as it was shaped by projects and representations of urban improvement in the 1870s and 1880s. In order to do this, I have drawn up a series of maps that represent these geographies, attending closely to the imagined relationship between poverty and urban form—an area of mutual concern for Gissing and for many social reformers. What we find when we juxtapose these maps is a vision of the city and of urban poverty that registers both large-scale processes of spatial and social formation, and the individual experience of urban life. The former may have a profound influence on the built environment, while the latter may have little impact on urban form; but the individual's daily activities and movements nonetheless constitute a significant part of the life of the city. By recognizing the mundane aspects of urban experience, at the same time that he evokes the processes of urban transformation over time, Gissing provides a conception of the lived city that in its very complexity highlights the limits of what we might call a “planning perspective” when applied to the experience of the urban poor.
Before turning to Gissing's conception of the city, I want to delineate the generalized view of the city and its inhabitants that I associate with a planning perspective. Such a perspective, while not necessarily without sympathy for the poor, does give precedence to the rational organization of urban space over the claims of the individual. For instance, when a reformer like George Shaw Lefevre of the London County Council looked at “the tangled and confused map of London” in 1899, he saw “a vast field . . . for improvements of all kinds”: nothing simpler than to drive “[b]road avenues and boulevards” through dense concentrations of slum property. As generations of reformers had recognized, the creation of wide streets would ease traffic moving between the city and suburbs, allow a free passage for fresh air in an otherwise congested area, and open up working-class enclaves to the scrutiny of the higher classes. Of course, the approach was not confined to nineteenth-century London; it is exemplified in Haussmann's much more systematic reorganization of Paris in the nineteenth century, and in Mussolini's mandate to carve modern streets out of an ancient and cluttered urban fabric in twentieth-century Italian cities (Kostoff 9-11). In all these cases, slum clearance—the demolition of inferior property—was seen as the fundamental tool (if not principle objective) of urban modernization. The fact that these clearances displaced hundreds or thousands of people at a time was an unfortunate side effect, but as many social reformers optimistically imagined, they would find more salutary housing elsewhere.
The case of Clerkenwell is significant in this context because in the second half of the nineteenth century its spatial and social topography was dramatically altered as a result of commercial expansion and metropolitan improvements. As slums were razed in the City of London for the purpose of constructing warehouses and office blocks, railways and docks, the evicted residents migrated into neighboring areas like Clerkenwell, significantly increasing the population. In Ragged London in 1861, John Hollingshead estimated that two-thirds of Clerkenwell's population was tied economically to the City; the district was “filled with labourers, artizans, needlewomen, and girls employed in many fancy trades, and the capital and enterprise of the city of London [were] largely responsible for them all” (18). During the same period, clearances in Clerkenwell itself for new streets, model dwellings, board schools, and the like exacerbated what was becoming a dire situation: acute overcrowding coupled with the inevitable degradation of living conditions. Houses that had once been occupied by independent middle-class families were carved out into tenements that often housed as many families as there were rooms. The courts and alleys that were a legacy of Clerkenwell's medieval past were similarly crowded with people and flooded with filth.
To get a more concrete idea of how this dynamic of improvement and overcrowding played out in Clerkenwell, we can begin with the Farringdon Road project. The new street slowly pushed its way through Clerkenwell in the 1840s and 1850s, and in the process wiped out a good portion of the Saffron Hill area (slums nonetheless preserved to posterity as the unsavory haunt of Fagin in Oliver Twist). To make way for the Farringdon Road extension, 1600 houses were demolished, displacing a population estimated by the Times to number 16,000. The construction of Farringdon Station and the Metropolitan Railway, which opened in 1863, further disrupted the area.
Where the newly houseless population settled is difficult to determine, but we know from contemporary reports that evicted tenants did not venture far. Some may have settled in the alleys just off Gray's Inn Road or, urther east, in those behind Turnmill Street or off Wilderness Row. According to the Builder, these sites were the last refuge for victims of clearances and thus were “miserable in the extreme.” In the heart of Clerkenwell, Frying Pan Alley was perhaps one of the worst of these refuges, with its densely packed houses, multiple twists and turns, overflowing dust bins and standing sewage. The narrow entrance into the alley measured a mere two feet, six inches—reportedly, barely wide enough to get a coffin out, even on its side. No wonder then that like Saffron Hill before it, Frying Pan Alley became in its turn a casualty of improvement.
In 1872, the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) began work on the street improvement scheme that would ultimately connect Oxford Street with Old Street. The wide swath that became Clerkenwell Road took out Wilderness Row, cut through St. John's Square (as Gissing bitterly notes in The Nether World), then passed through Red Lion Street and across the courts of Turnmill Street. Crossing Farringdon Road, the street continued through the densely populated areas of Hatton Garden and what remained of Saffron Hill. In 1877, the Times reported that the resonantly named streets of Lamb Court, Bit Alley, Rose Alley, and Frying Pan Alley “may now be numbered with the past.”
Improvements continued in Clerkenwell at the high price of reduced house space and ever greater crowding. In addition to the streets taken for Clerkenwell Road, the Metropolitan Board cleared the sites of Coppice Row and Pear Tree Court in the mid-1870s for model dwellings. Vineyard Court was also cleared for model dwellings, in this instance the Farringdon Buildings which figure prominently in The Nether World. And in the 1880s, Gray's Inn Road was widened and slum property all along the road's course was razed.
Overcrowding in Clerkenwell rose to national prominence when the Royal Commission on Working Class Housing made the parish the focus of its investigations in 1884. In this next map, we see in purple a number of the sites of overcrowding identified in evidence for the Commission, alongside the improvements sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly linked with them. Just to point out a few of these sites: at the top of the map are Spring Street, St. Helena Place, Noble Street, Wilmington Place, and Margaret Street. The report of the Royal Commission goes into great detail about these and other streets and even individual dwellings, noting, for instance, that “at 15, St. Helena Place, a house was described containing 6 rooms, which were occupied at that time by six families, and as many as eight persons inhabited one room.” As a whole, what the map represents is the geography of poverty as it was perceived and to some degree produced by housing reformers, social explorers, and others at the end of the nineteenth century. It is a geography marked both by what must have been thrilling improvements— such as the Thames Embankment and the Metropolitan Underground Railway— and by persistent overcrowding and inadequate living conditions for the poor, each seemingly bound in a reflexive relationship with the other.
Gissing locates The Nether World in the midst of this overtaxed space— the marks on the map in green indicate the proximity of some of the sites in the novel to the actual sites of overcrowding in Clerkenwell. Further, Gissing sets the action of the novel at a time, 1879 and onward, when Clerkenwell was still feeling the shock of improvements. By doing so, he evokes—and ultimately revises—the geography of poverty defined by contemporary reformers.
Again and again in the novel, Gissing enforces connections between explicitly named improvements and material and spiritual destitution. For instance, he sites a conspiratorial meeting between urban degenerates Clem Peckover and Bob Hewett on the Thames Embankment— probably the most resonant symbol of metropolitan improvement in the period. He maligns the new Clerkenwell Road in the context of a fond reverie on the medieval St. John's Arch. While the Arch seems to reflect the spiritual and aesthetic values of its age, the nineteenth-century road and the modern buildings around it reflect instead the triumph of commercial values, what Gissing calls, “the sordid struggle for existence.” Similarly, the Farringdon Buildings, where the Hewett family lives for a time, appall Gissing because of their stark utilitarian character: these monuments to philanthropy resemble nothing so much as barracks, “housing for an army of industrialism.” But the real horror of the model dwellings—of the newly rationalized urban order—lies with their tendency to dehumanize their inhabitants, to drain them of vitality and dignity: the vast, monotonous walls, seven stories high, enclose “a weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality. . . of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender.”
The representation of Clerkenwell Close in the novel figures importantly in this context. Hollingshead had identified the courts of the Close as “the worst nests of overcrowding in the district.” In The Nether World, it serves as the site of Mrs.Peckover's generously populated tenement house, where several key characters, including the unlikely heroine Jane Snowdon, live at the novel's opening. The tenement is representative of its class: once a single-family home, it has become a lodging for at least 13 people from several families. Not coincidentally, the Close is at the epicenter of Clerkenwell's spatial upheaval. Bound by Clerkenwell and Farringdon Roads, it is adjacent to Coppice Row and Pear Tree Court, two sites I have already identified as targets of the MBW's clearances.
From this view of a fairly localized degradation, Gissing expands his scope, imagining more generally the antagonistic relation between an improved, or modernized, urban environment and the lives of the urban poor. From the vantage of the Farringdon Buildings, Gissing directs the reader's gaze out upon Clerkenwell and the City through the eyes of the thwarted Clara Hewett. She first sees St. Paul's, then Newgate, Bartholomew's Hospital, and Smithfield. Nearer still, she stares out on the “tract of modern deformity, cleft by a gulf of railway, between Clerkenwell Road and Charterhouse Street”—a deformity characterized by lines of hoarding and tracts of waste space, and born of thirty-odd years of clearances. But down below her window in Farringdon Street, Clara sees a sight more distressing still— that is, the fruitless struggle of human life. Viewed from the height of the building, “ human beings” writes Gissing, #8220; seemed to toil in exasperation along the strips of pavement, bound on errands, which were a mockery, driven automaton-like by forces they neither understood nor could resist.” In some sense, this is a characteristic perspective in The Nether World—the bird's-eye view that encompasses at once the urban scene and the social and spatial processes that shape it. Here we see with Clara, human beings in all their insignificance, buffeted about by implacable forces that, in the final lines of the novel, Gissing terms “the brute forces of society which fill with wreck the abysses of the nether world.” The important point the novel makes is that these forces exert themselves spatially. The built environment of the nether world oppresses its inhabitants in a very real way because it is through the environment— through clearances and model dwellings and railways—that the interests of the powerful are expressed and reproduced.
I think this is the vision of London we are most likely to associate with The Nether World, the vision of a determinate landscape, of—to borrow from John Goode—“ an indifferent terrain which acts like a fate.” But Gissing provides another, very different perspective on life in the nether world, one which complements the first and which contributes to the complexity of the novel's geographic imagination. In the novel, Gissing also represents the city on a human scale, as it is experienced by the characters who inhabit and move through it. In other words, Gissing affords a view of the lived city, defined by what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan calls “ the daily patterns of work and play.” Tuan's theory of urban development and perception is useful for understanding Gissing's representation of the city; for while Tuan explains that cities are shaped predominantly by large-scale, organized interventions, he also recognizes the very limited, but significant role that the mundane activities of ordinary citizens play in shaping the life of the city.
We can begin to appreciate Gissing's multivalent conception of the geography of poverty by looking at a handful of the routes characters take in the novel and also at the relation of these routes to the dominant spatial forces I have already described. The first feature to note is the emphasis on movement. This is perhaps an obvious point, but one worth making, given the emphasis on stasis in much of the contemporary literature on urban poverty. In Parliamentary reports or journalistic exposés, it is the intrepid investigator who is most likely to move through the streets of poverty, while the poor are pictured crowded together in a back court or huddled together in a bare room. Gissing too shows us poverty-stricken people prostrate in their make-shift quarters and sprawled on stairways, but then he also shows us characters in motion, as they run errands, go to work, or meet friends. In this way, the novel recognizes the poor as actors in the urban environment, however constrained their roles. This is confirmed by the pattern created by the characters' routes— the pattern of human behavior— seen against the formalized pattern of the planned city. Characters tend to avoid the major arteries of Farringdon and Clerkenwell Roads, preferring instead to circulate through the by-ways around Clerkenwell Close. This suggests that although characters are certainly not exempt from the pressures of the built environment, they may nevertheless use space in ways that are not always prescribed. They have room to maneuver.
Within The Nether World, then, space is not only active, but also personal. How and why characters walk where they do may have less to do with concerns about efficiency, than with the thoughts, emotions, and needs of the individual in the moment. For instance, what brings Michael Snowdon to Clerkenwell Close at the novel's opening is the search for his granddaughter Jane; however, as his gait suggests, his mind is divided equally between his search in the present and memories of his past: he “walks slowly across Clerkenwell Green, and by the graveyard of St. James's Church [stands] for a moment looking about him.” Again, he pauses before the Middlesex House of Detention long enough to register his silent outrage over a system that keeps a disempowered populace in its place. For Snowdon, walking is reverie, and his experience of the Close is one of personal and political reflection.
Taking up Jane Snowdon's route where her grandfather stops, we see her move from the corner public house to the tenement and back out again as she runs errands for her relentless mistresses the Peckovers. Jane's movement is characterized primarily by its speed: she darts through the crowds in a way only absolute mastery of the neighborhood would allow. Although she runs partly in an effort to escape criticism or injury from the Peckovers, she also runs in sheer eagerness to reach Sidney Kirkwood whom she is ordered to bring back to the Close. For Sidney, we learn, “was one of the very few persons who had ever treated [Jane] with human kindness.” Jane's errand—superficially trivial—is thus charged with the feelings of an eager and affectionate heart. Here and elsewhere in the novel, her movement through the city streets serves to express her desire for human connection—a desire that she is able to fulfill to a small degree by walking.
By way of conclusion, I'd like to return to the question with which I began—that is, the significance of Gissing's precise, experiential mapping of his characters' movements through the city. I want to be careful not to overstate the case—because after all The Nether World affords a very bleak view of human possibility—but I do think the attempt to map the individual uses and meanings of the city restores some little integrity to the dispossessed people of the nether world. Indeed, from this perspective, the novel may be seen to revise the geography of poverty conceived by reformers and invoked by Gissing himself. For The Nether World takes into account the idiosyncratic, personal relationship people have with space—especially familiar space—even within the context of a hostile and unyielding urban environment.