Barbara Leckie's Open Houses addresses nineteenth-century documentary and print culture dedicated to convincing the reader of the wretchedness of housing of the poor and its urgent need for reform. It illustrates the ways in which "looking into" these houses animated new models for social critique in tandem with new forms for the novel.
2018 | 312 pages | Cloth $79.95
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Table of Contents
Introduction. "Let Us Look Into the House" 1
Chapter 1. A Simple Idea of Architecture
Chapter 2. The Dark Side of the Interior
Chapter 3. "The Ruined House": Charles Dickens's Bleak House
Chapter 4. The Mediating Imagination: George Eliot's Middlemarch
Chapter 5. The Interpenetrating Imagination: Henry James's The Princess Casamassima
Conclusion. The Epistemology of the House
Introduction. "Let Us Look into the House"
History was too much occupied with courts and camps to spare a line for the hut of the peasant or the garret of the mechanic.In the early pages of Charles Kingsley's novel Alton Locke (1848), Alton longs to write of the magical and beautiful tropical lands familiar to him from missionary publications. He soon meets Sandy Mackaye, however, who asks him, rhetorically, "Whaur de ye live?" and entreats him to write about his experience of East London (94). Taken aback, Alton protests that such a topic would be "unpoetical" (96). Mackaye, in turn, takes issue with Alton's evaluation, "No poetry there!" he counters, "Come wi' me, and see." The two men enter a "huge, miserable house," once a mansion for a single family but now whittled away to its very bones, the banisters either burnt for firewood or rotting to the touch, the damp plaster peeling from walls and ceilings, and the windows patched with rags. They make their way up a dark stairwell to a "comfortless" garret. There "was no bed in the room—no table" (97). This is the home of a quiet, kind, struggling family. Mackaye seeks to help them, and a warmhearted conversation of adversity and resilience follows. On leaving, Mackaye expounds to Alton the poetic merits of what they have witnessed lest he (or the reader) still be in doubt: "every garret is a haill Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained; and will ye think it beneath ye to be the 'People's Poet'?" (101).
—Thomas Babington Macaulay (1848)
Toward the end of the novel, in a chapter entitled "The Lowest Deep," Alton visits another vitiated domestic interior, this time of the Paradise Lost variety. Alton's life has reached a dire pass before this visit; he stands on the banks of the Thames contemplating suicide when his friend, the aptly named Jemmy Downes, appears through the mist, unaware of Alton, and also contemplating suicide. Alton quickly pulls him to safety and, in saving Downes, also saves himself. Angry at Alton's interference and his suggestion that Downes return home to his bed, Downes impatiently takes Alton's arm and invites him to his home for a "Jacob Island's tea" (315). As they walk, dull gas lamps just serve "to make darkness visible," the windows they pass are again broken and patched, houses are shrouded in fog, stagnant water pools at their feet, and "spectral dogs" prowl on a "black, formless mound" (316). Finally, at a dead end, they arrive at Downes's house: "And what a room! A low lean-to with wooden walls, without a single article of furniture; and through the broad chinks of the floor shone up as it were ugly glaring eyes, staring at us. They were reflections of the rushlight in the sewer below. The stench was frightful—the air heavy with pestilence. The first breath I drew made my heart sink, and my stomach turn. But I forgot everything in the object which lay before me, as Downes tore a half-finished coat off the three corpses laid side by side on the bare floor" (317). The bodies are Downes's wife and his two children, killed, Alton tells us, by the "poisonous exaltations" (317) coming from the sewer water eerily throwing its reflections below. This diagnosis follows the tenets of sanitary reform with which Kingsley was closely acquainted. But it also intimates a remedy more congruous with architectural than sanitary matters: entering the house, seeing the interior, uncovering what is hidden, and publicizing it to the world. There is a sense, for example, that uncovering the bodies beneath the coat—the death of this family—is a way to offer meaning in its bluntest form. It "was the very mouth of hell—that room" (319), Alton concludes.
Kingsley takes up dwellings of the poor again in his 1858 preface to Yeast. "If half the money," he writes, "which is now given away in different forms to the agricultural poor could be spent in making their dwellings fit for honest men to live in, then life, morals, and poor-rates would be saved to an immense amount" (iii). For Kingsley, as for many others, the first problem to redress with respect to poverty is the dwellings of the poor. But despite the massive documentation on this topic—in novels like Kingsley's and, more extensively, in the burgeoning governmental reports and journalistic accounts—the solution to the problem that Kingsley identifies, making dwellings fit for honest men and women to live in, remains elusive. Kingsley concludes on a note that recalls Mackaye's advice to Alton above: "Let us make our people feel that we speak to them, and feel to them, as men to men, and then the more cottages we enter the better" (vii). He circles back, then, to the simple fact of entering the house. In 1763 William Pitt had declared that the homes of the poor were protected spaces in his famous declaration: "The poorest man in his cottage bids defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail—its roof may shake—the wind may blow through it—the storm may enter—the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter—all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!" (cited in Gauldie 118). But by the 1830s and ’40s it was not just connecting with the poor, then, that was perceived to be the ticket to recovery; it was also, and primarily, entering and recording the interiors of the poor.
Open Houses traces the new fascination with housing of the poor—seeing these houses, entering them, and, especially, writing about them, rendering them "poetical" or not-poetical—in nineteenth-century print culture in England from the late 1830s through the mid-1880s. There is, however, an important distinction between the print accounts I address in this book and my opening example from Alton Locke in which Mackaye implores Alton to write about where he lives, the houses he knows. In the nineteenth-century novel these descriptions of interiors are few and far between. The vast majority of the literature on housing of the poor is nonfiction. It is, moreover, not written by the "People's poet." Instead, these views come from the perspective of middle-class writers who are writing about houses and places they do not know; if Mackaye were to ask them "Whaur de ye live?" their answer, like Kingsley's had he been asked, would most pointedly not be in the places about which they write. Mackaye urges Alton to write about the domestic spaces of the poor to validate their worthiness, to render them proper topics for poetry and literature, and to do so from the perspective of one who is immersed in their environs. In this book, by contrast, I address the massive documentary and novelistic print culture that seeks to convince the reader of the wretchedness, unworthiness, and antipoetic quality of housing of the poor and, accordingly, its urgent need for architectural reform.
Open Houses begins in a period that saw the burgeoning of housing and building societies and the rise of architecture as a profession that was articulated, in part, through its relationship to housing of the poor. At the same time, these newly formed fields were not at all exclusive. From the 1820s to the ’40s, John Loudon and others made frequent appeals to laypeople, and especially to women, to become more involved in domestic architecture and architectural reform. In the 1840s, the field of architecture began to be professionalized precisely when many central architectural and art theorists were also making links between architecture and politics. This book, however, puts its emphasis neither on these societies nor on the rise of professional architecture but rather on the explosion in printed works related to housing of the poor. In his impressive study of the history of housing, John Nelson Tarn suggests that housing becomes a "literary [that is, print] phenomenon" in the 1870s (71); in other words, after 1870 there was very little investment in social housing initiatives and the topic, from this point forward, can be traced primarily in print. But this observation obscures the massive print output on architecture and housing reform that began in the 1830s and ’40s and continued throughout the century. This book, then, returns to the period in which countless commentators were suddenly sparing many lines "for the hut of the peasant or the garret of the mechanic"; indeed, Macaulay's quotation, referring to England in the seventeenth century, was one of the most oft-cited passages in the mid-Victorian social housing debates. Open Houses at once reanimates these debates through one of their most frequent gestures—looking into the house—and illustrates the ways in which they intimate new models for social critique and reform in tandem with new forms for the novel.
The Architectural Idea: The Difference the Description of an Interior Makes
"The cottage homes of England!" stand beautiful in poetry, with their whitewashed walls, and porches wreathed with vines and roses; but let us, with the doctor, look within."Come wi’ me, and see" the house, Mackaye urges Alton. "Let us look into the house," Godwin writes in London Shadows (7). "Come, follow me," Ellen Ranyard entreats her reader (5). Here are three midcentury appeals—from a novelist, an architectural journalist, and an urban missionary, respectively—to enter the houses of the poor through the medium of print. What accounts for this sudden interest in looking into the houses of the poor? Why are the middle classes banding together with such energy and urgency to visit the houses of the poor and write about what they see? What difference does it make when we focus on the houses and architecture of the poor rather than, as has usually been done, on the more general fields of geography, social exploration, and sanitary reform? In Open Houses, I put an emphasis on the architectural idea: the idea that architecture could be used to shape not only built space but also the behaviors of the occupants of that space; and the idea, more broadly, that architecture was a defining category of analysis for personal, social, political, and national formations. Many critics have pursued the architectural idea in the context of public architecture but its critical purchase in terms of domestic literature, and especially in terms of housing of the poor, has not received the attention it deserves in cultural and literary studies.
—from a review of Edwin Chadwick's Report in Taits (1842)
There are fifteen houses in this narrow place. Let us take at random one and look into the interior. . . . Let us look into the house in an adjoining street.
—George Godwin, London Shadows (1854)
Long before Michel Foucault popularized Jeremy Bentham's vision for the panopticon, Edwin Chadwick, to whom I will turn in Chapter 1, saw the promise of Bentham's proposal for controlling the British poor by means of the built environment. The potential of architecture to shape the subject was warmly appreciated in this period. Chadwick, for example, attempted to build a workhouse along the lines Bentham recommended and to improve the homes of the poor to offset what he perceived to be the negative impact of the built environment in its current state. Quick to comprehend the architectural connections between the prison, the workhouse, and the house itself, Chadwick was committed to the idea of architecture; that is, he was committed to the ways in which architecture and the built environment could be manipulated to produce certain effects. Bentham, in an oft-cited and dramatic passage, put it this way: "Morals reformed—health preserved—industry invigorated—public burthens lightened—Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock—the Gordian knot of the Poor-Laws not cut, but untied—all by a simple idea in architecture" (31). While this passage is typically read in relation to the idea of the panopticon, it presupposes the idea of architecture in general as a mechanism through which to exercise social control as well as social improvement. The intertwined concerns of morals, health, public responsibilities, economy, industry, and architecture concisely capture the focus of philosophers and social reformers like Bentham in the eighteenth century. These concerns will develop, for example, into the subtle and sophisticated utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill in one direction and the more strategic and ruthless bureaucratic utilitarianism of Chadwick in another.
The architectural idea is not only manifest in the built environment but also in the words, images, and narratives used to describe it; indeed, the two are interimplicated. Ato Quayson, for example, defines "colonial space making" as a relational activity that is inseparable from society, politics, and "symbolic and discursive structures" (344), a point that may be extended to the space of the house as well. The supple interplay between words and images (and their generic forms and conventions) and the built environment is part of a more recent relational and dynamic approach to architecture in general. In this context, the house is not an inert or neutral setting for social action but rather a charged, changeable, and lively social force in its own right. As Bill Hillier puts it, the built environment "is not simply a background to social behavior—it is itself social behavior" (388). Further, Robin Evans has articulated housing as an activity rather than a place (97), John Macarthur has put an emphasis on architecture as a series of relations rather than a static field (113-14), and Susan Bernstein has sought "to mobilize the house into the gerund 'housing'" (13). This latter point asks us to imagine the house not as a noun but as a verb. Many of the examples in this book will attempt to give the reader a better idea of exactly what this relational approach to architecture might look like and the ways in which it at once mobilizes the built environment of the house (as a planned or unplanned structure) in dynamic relation to its inhabitants, users, observers, and the print and visual culture through which it is both described and shaped. The architectural idea as I discuss it is accordingly about yoking together the built environment and print culture. From the perspective of a literary critic, this approach affords a rich and productive perspective on a topic—housing of the poor—that has been otherwise approached through different lenses.
It is in this context of architecture as at once dynamic, productive, and inescapably bound up with images and ideas that I want to revive the print documentation related to "looking into" housing of the poor that flourished, on the one hand, with astonishing vigor and panache ("look what we have seen!" these reports exclaim) and, on the other, with moral consternation, distress, and petitions for reform ("look what we have seen!"). Open Houses asks what it means, then, to "look into the house" in a period when the house was a newly private domain and when architecture was, in John Ruskin's words, a "distinctively political art" (Seven Lamps 2). It addresses this question at once to documentary material and to the development of the novel, a genre long associated with domesticity and interiority. It considers the language adopted to describe interiors in tandem with the extraordinary rise of these descriptions in print culture. My first goal, accordingly, seeks to bring this outpouring of print on housing of the poor into dialogue with architecture, the novel, and nineteenth-century modernity.
It strikes me as indisputable that the book's first goal is valuable and that it redresses an important omission in the scholarship to date. My second goal, however, is more speculative, and possibly more controversial. It tackles the epistemological questions that these descriptions inevitably, if often implicitly, raise; and it asks us to pause and look more closely at the epistemological model underpinning them. Much of the print material that I address adopts an exposé framework similar to what we see above in the Paradise Lost interior in Alton Locke: the room is uncovered or exposed and so too are the dead bodies. But this description, like others in this book, suggests an uneasy coupling of two ideas about the interior. On the one hand, we can look inside and expose the miseries therein; most writers take this ideological goal as their point of departure and attach it to a political petition for housing reform. On the other hand, the very concept of the interior no longer obtains. The uncovered bodies often died, in large part, because of the fragility, the porousness, and the openness of that very interior; this porosity and openness has implications not only for the house but also for exposé forms. We will often see the push and pull of these two approaches in the pages that follow: the desire for an exposé to generate political reform and the sense, not quite formulated, that the porous, vitiated interior (the interior, in short, that is not an interior) requires a rethinking of the genre of exposé itself.
To develop the challenge to exposé narrations and their claims to representational accuracy posed by nineteenth-century print accounts of housing of the poor, I turn toward a very different model of knowledge, one that can be understood, in part, as Durchdringung or interpenetration, a term the modernist architectural theorist Sigfried Giedion uses in reference to new innovations in nineteenth-century architecture (Building 120-42). Giedion elaborates that the new architecture he identifies in the iron and glass structures of the Crystal Palace and other exhibition spaces "engenders floating relations and interpenetration. The boundaries of architecture are blurred" (Building 90). In the context of the Eiffel Tower and the Pont Transbordeur he writes: "[We] confront the basic aesthetic experience of today's building: through the delicate iron net suspended in midair stream things, ships, sea, houses, masts, landscape, harbor. They lose their delimited form: as one descends, they circle each other and intermingle simultaneously. One would not want to carry over into housing this absolute experience that no previous age has known. Yet it remains embryonic in each design of the new architecture: there is only a great, indivisible space in which relations and interpenetrations, rather than boundaries, reign" (Building 92-93). I was struck by this passage's resonance with what I was seeing in the print descriptions of housing of the poor: relations and interpenetrations, blurred boundaries, intermingled spaces, nondelimited form, and a sense of transparency. Houses of the poor in England, of course, were in every way the antithesis of the new architecture Giedion describes, but his language offers a vocabulary to describe what we find in representations of housing of the poor. They were not spaces in which one would want to live; as Giedion notes above, one would not want to carry over this experience into housing. By exchanging boundaries for relations and interpenetration, delimited form for intermingling, Giedion gestures toward an epistemological model unmoored from models of uncovering, exposing, or, in Susan Sontag's words, seeking the subtext "'behind' the text" (6). It is in this context that the print accounts of housing of the poor are part of a modernity story that has yet to be told.
Interpenetration, importantly, also puts a focus on form in the word itself: it moves away from penetration (which infuses so much of the housing literature as we will see) to a focus on the inter, the "between." This focus leads us directly to mediation. John Guillory's history of the "media concept" is relevant here (321). The medium has always existed, needless to say, but, as Guillory puts it, after Aristotle it is neglected by critics for "two millennia." It reemerges as a focus of inquiry, he argues, with "the proliferation of new technical media" like the telegraph and phonograph that draw our attention to the medium of communication (321). "It is much easier," Guillory notes, "to see what a medium does—the possibilities inherent in the material form of an art—when the same expressive or communicative contents are transposed from one medium to another. Remediation makes the medium as such visible" (324). If the invention of printing is the "first truly major practice of remediation" (324), it is not until the late nineteenth century that the media concept begins to be noticed and theorized in the way we understand it today. I will be arguing, however, that mid-nineteenth-century commentators committed to exposé both invest a great deal of confidence in the transparent accuracy of the representations they make and increasingly begin to question them too. This questioning brings mediation to the fore in the mid-nineteenth century in ways that have not been fully appreciated. That is, it is not only transposition to new media that makes the medium visible but also the fact that existing media were not performing in expected ways. In this book I address how print culture mediated houses of the poor and, in doing so, made mediation itself a category of analysis.
To do so I want to rehabilitate Raymond Williams's shift from reflection to mediation, a shift that he raises only to reject. Exposé narrations, of course, are indebted to reflection theory. And reflection theory itself has been a staple of Marxism, realism, and certain models of knowing. In Marxism, art is understood to reflect social reality; in realism, art is understood to reflect a world out there; and in certain epistemological models, knowledge is measured by its accurate representation of an external world. All of these positions have been vigorously challenged and it is not my goal to revive those debates here. The nineteenth-century exposé narrations on which I rely in this book uphold a relatively untroubled confidence in reflection theory. And they couple it with an Enlightenment confidence in print culture to promote social justice. For the most part they are animated by a keen desire to get it right and, accordingly, to provoke political action. It is this impulse, and what happens when it begins to be questioned, that I want to address in relation to my second goal outlined above. In other words, while I am eager to return these representations of housing of the poor to the central position they carried in the nineteenth century (my first goal), my second goal does not address the accuracy of the representation or the biases of the writers but rather the model of exposé itself. It is the model of exposé that dictates questions of accuracy and much of the thrust of this book is to trace what happens when its tenets no longer obtain. I will be examining, in short, the confidence invested in exposé representations of housing of the poor, what happens when this confidence falters, and what alternative models for knowledge and political agitation emerge in its place.
It is here that Williams's elaboration of the shift from reflection to mediation is useful to me. He begins with a Marxist model of reflection—the cultural work reflects the base (the conditions of production)—but he hesitates. The base, he maintains, is always part of a process that transforms cultural representations and is transformed by them; it is not, as he puts it, "an inert object" (Marxism 97). There is a problem, he continues, with the metaphor of reflection because it suppresses "the actual work on material—in a final sense, the material social process—which is the making of any work of art" (Marxism 97). What is left out, in other words, is materiality and process. Mediation speaks to both of these omissions but Williams notes that mediation also introduces a new problem: dualism. Mediation occurs between two poles. It is only with the Frankfurt School, and Theodor Adorno in particular, that this problem is redressed. Adorno notes that "Mediation is in the object itself, not something between the object and that to which it is brought" (cited in Williams, Marxism 98). Williams elaborates: "Thus mediation is a positive process in social reality, rather than a process added to it by way of projection, disguise, or interpretation" (Marxism 98-99). Nevertheless, Williams more or less drops the critical purchase of mediation for cultural studies because of what he sees as its virtually inevitable return to dualism. Still, what Marxism brings into the picture, Williams makes clear, is the material social process: representations work through a medium that is both mobile and an inextricable dimension of the representation itself.
Clifford Siskin and William Warner also take up these issues. Commenting on Guillory's discussion of "the media concept" in relation to communication studies, they write: "Unlike representation, mediation can 'capture' the 'hidden complexity of the process' it has for so long purported to describe—particularly the issue of 'in what' form a representation is transmitted" (7). This language, however, returns to that sense of dualism that Williams wants to avoid: the idea of a representation being transmitted through some vehicle from here to there. The "in what," when coupled with "representation" and "transmitted," can suggest a container for that representation rather than the way in which the representation and its medium are inextricably bound together. Indeed, even the language here pulls apart representation and medium (as does reference to content and form) that should instead be understood as fused. Mediation, by contrast, by focusing on the material or medium (the "in what" so to speak) in combination with the dynamic sense of process can, as Adorno suggests, hold these different relations together in the object. It maintains their animation. Another way to put this point is that every time we take the meaning from a given representation and communicate it to others we, however subtly, change the meaning; there is never meaning without the medium and the one cannot be extracted from the other. Michael Warner puts it like this: "What is transmitted does not preexist the transmission; it exists in and through the transmission; American liberty [his example] is created retroactively, by the words, actions, and new institutions that carry the transmission" (105). It exists in and through the transmission. This is the point that Adorno is trying to make in his insistence that mediation is in the object. But how does this shift from representation or reflection to mediation relate to housing of the poor, a topic that, unlike American liberty, rests on offering records of existing conditions? In this book I turn to a series of representations, indebted to Enlightenment principles of the transparency of print and its role as a catalyst for social change, that begin to put a focus on the medium and on mediation. There is simultaneously an exposé of the interior and an attention to its print mediation, interpenetration, and porousness that, taken together, uphold form as relational and dynamic, that take into account, in other words, materiality and process.
My desire to attend to form and mediation—to the fact that information is always communicated through some form from which it cannot be detached without changing the character of that information—derives from my sense that it may better enable the rallying of our desires for political reform. If one's political work is to generate exposés, mediation helps us to understand how that approach may or may not work. And if this attention to mediation emerges indirectly in the documentary accounts of housing of the poor, it is taken up more forcefully in the novel. The visibility of the medium does not tend to lead documentary commentators to question their capacity to offer an accurate picture of existing conditions. Instead, they question the unexamined bond between print and reform. The novel, by contrast, positions itself as a genre that may be able to generate the reform that print exposés are unable to effect and, through its attention to the medium, challenge or revise the very realism that is one of its main principles.
In the first section of this book, I trace documentary accounts in which the interior gains importance in relation to subject formation. In Edwin Chadwick, George Godwin, Henry Roberts, and many others, architecture becomes a key category of analysis as commentators at once describe inadequate housing conditions, tabulate their impact on inhabitants, and call for improved designs. As print culture dedicated to housing of the poor proliferates, and as housing conditions fail to improve as a result of the exposés, commentators become aware of the print form itself. This awareness increasingly shades into skepticism about print's capacity to generate change. That is, as commentators become aware of the mediation of the interior (as an experience bound up with the relations—exterior, threshold, architectural barriers, and so on—by which it is defined) and the mediation of the print accounts (as they shift from rural report to blue book to novel and back or as they shift from journalism to book form), they begin to lay the foundation for the dissolution of the interior as such and the erosion of the bond between exposé and amelioration. The second section of Open Houses turns to the novel. The novel opens a space for the exploration of mediation in terms of form and for an analysis not only of the limitations of exposé—the relatively straightforward questioning of the documentary accounts—but also a more spirited confrontation with the mechanisms of exposé. That is, if mediation draws our attention to the medium—of the house, of material culture, of print culture—it also draws our attention away from what is exposed and toward a consideration of the category or model of exposé.
The architectural idea with respect to housing of the poor suggests not only the interimplication of people and the built environment, language and physical form, but also a reform agenda, a petitioning for social change through, among other things, the powerful nineteenth-century resonance of the domestic dwelling. It is a petitioning that does not stop in a dark room on that dead-end street with Jemmy Downes and Alton Locke. It does not stop with an exposé of the interior and the three dead bodies hidden within but rather interrogates the mechanism of exposé itself. A focus on the architectural idea takes the language of this description—the darkness, the rats, the death—as the beginning and not the end of the analysis.
In his study of orientalism, Edward Said extends to geography Giambattista Vico's observation that people "make their own history, that what they can know is what they have made"; the Orient is not "an inert fact of nature" but rather "an idea" (4-5). In this book I want to extend this observation to architecture as well. This is a study of the many primarily middle-class commentators who felt called upon, for a variety of reasons, to represent housing of the poor to a public for whom these houses were figured as unknown. It accordingly becomes a study of knowledge, how one knows, what counts as knowledge, and what one does with such knowledge. The upsurge of representations of housing of the poor in a range of political and cultural venues catalyzed a reconsideration of both the bond between representation and reform and the model of knowledge on which it rested. By putting these representations into dialogue with mediation (with its focus on materiality and process or relations) and interpenetration (with its evisceration of any space that might count as an interior) I want to suggest a rethinking of nineteenth-century modernity.
"The Homes of London Crystallized; or the Great Transparency"
An article entitled "The Homes of London Crystallized; or the Great Transparency" (1851) makes vivid the new midcentury calls to "look into the house" via a language of transparency. This article brings together what are at first glance two very disparate architectural structures: the quintessentially modernist Crystal Palace that prompted Giedion's reference to interpenetration; and dwellings of the London poor. The narrator begins by enthusiastically describing his visit to the Crystal Palace; it prompts in him proud reflections on his position as an Englishman and the many wonders of which his country is capable. Still marveling over the beauty he has witnessed, the narrator retires to a chair in St. James Park and has a sudden "strange fancy" of how remarkable it would be if all of London could become exposed to view in a manner that resonates with the glass structure of the Crystal Palace. "What," he wonders, "if all these massive walls were suddenly to become transparent, and London converted into one vast glass bee-hive!" (155). He wishes that some Asmodeus-like figure were available to perform this exposé for him and, reflecting with satisfaction on the sights he would see, he falls asleep. No sooner is he asleep, however, than he falls into a reverie in which his wish is granted by an old man with a magic wand that makes walls "instantly . . . transparent" (155). The narrator immediately tells the old man that he wants to see inside private buildings rather than the public buildings that are already available for his perusal. The old man complies. He shows the narrator aristocratic and middle-class homes that satisfy in all the particulars the narrator had imagined.
But when the old man entreats the narrator to follow him down "a narrow lane . . . through dark and cheerless alleys" the narrator's complacent view is abruptly challenged. They arrive at "a gloomy court surrounded by tall piles of buildings, of a most wretched and dilapidated appearance. At the touch of the revealing wand, these dusky walls instantly became purified into a transparent medium. God of love and pity, what scenes of unutterable debasement, pollution, and misery, were then disclosed to my view!" (156). He continues in terms common in many other print descriptions of houses of the poor in the period: "Each of the rooms of these many-storied buildings was tenanted by one, two, three, four; nay, in some instances by five families, huddled together, or barely separated by the space of a few inches, on straw, rags, or shavings, without distinction of age or sex, in a state of indescribable filth and wretchedness. The impurity of the surrounding atmosphere, the revolting sight, almost made me stagger backward for a moment. I turned in horror to my guide" (emphasis in original 157). Surely, he says, there is some mistake. These buildings and rooms must be anomalies. There can be no more of them. They must, he implores, be exceptions to the rule of "domestic affection" he has observed in the old man's earlier revelations. But the old man disabuses him of such a mistaken view; "There are thousands of such exceptions," he remarks (emphasis in original 157).
The narrator feels "sick"; the pride he had in his country, generated by the splendor of the Crystal Palace and confirmed by the first houses he saw, is crushed. "What can I do to remedy such dreadful evils?" (157), he asks, a question that chimes with the conviction that once one knows social distress, alleviation will follow. Many things, the old man replies. In a Christian register, he suggests helping others in need and closes with the injunction to "remember . . . what you have seen is reality" (158). The narrator wakes from his sleep with the old man's words still in his head and with the sense that he must, indeed, do something. He writes: "Perhaps many among you have never heard of the sad state of things existing around your homes, and which have now been brought before you. Others, possibly, like myself, may have heard, shuddered, grieved, resolved;—but have also allowed their good resolutions to fade away, under the mingled influence of humility, faint-heartedness, and personal interests and occupations" (158-59). This time, he vows, the good resolutions will not fade away. He concludes as follows: "Think, resolve, speak, act! Let neighbours and fellow-parishioners form associations without needless delay. Let head, heart, hand, and purse be engaged in the work; nor let us ever rest till this foul reproach be rolled away from our country; and all our great town can bear to be transformed to crystal cities" (160).
"Homes of London" makes vivid the "great transparency" that is implicit in almost all of the exposé representations of housing of the poor in the nineteenth-century. If exposés maintain an interior divided from an exterior and expose the interior accordingly, transparency dissolves this distinction and, especially with the introduction of glass as a building material, imagines an interior that is always already open to view and, as a result, never quite an interior as such. Here a dream and a magic wand do the work that print commentators routinely perform without these supernatural supports. "Homes of London," in other words, makes visible and obvious a mechanism of exposé and reform that is often overlooked in criticism's focus on what is described in the house. It also illustrates the felt affinity between modes of modern architecture and housing of the poor, captured here through an imagined transparency, that I will explore in more detail in this book. But this essay also, curiously, undermines its own claims to exposé. The narrator is taken on a tour of London that illuminates housing of the poor, he expresses shock and bewilderment at what he sees, and he records his disturbing adventures for the reader so that we too may be moved. One thing he can do, then, is put the information disclosed into print. And yet when the essay concludes we learn that the narrator has only described what he already knows. He has "shuddered, grieved, resolved" and failed to act on previous occasions. It is this double gesture of both exposing social injustice and undermining that exposure that marks the documentary narration of housing of the poor in nineteenth-century print culture.
The Architecture and Literature Intersection; Or, Implications for Modernity and the Rise of the Novel
the open space of the street is the antithesis of the room . . .I have highlighted thus far the extraordinary print output dedicated to architecture and housing of the poor in nineteenth-century England in relation to the architectural idea and the emergence of the trope of looking into the house. I have suggested that this looking, considered closely, poses a challenge to the depth epistemologies that at first glance it seems to support; and I have recommended interpenetration and mediation as alternative approaches to material that has tended to be addressed in terms of secrecy and depth. But I have not yet considered the genre of the novel or the appeal to "poetical" accounts of housing of the poor referred to by Kingsley above. Needless to say, houses have long been of interest to theorists of the novel; numerous studies, for example, explore the role of the house and home in the British novel and critics are agreed on the relevance of the house to the rise of the novel. And yet these studies uniformly fail to consider the single most vital and impassioned context through which the house became visible in the nineteenth century: the houses of the poor.
—Philip Fisher, "Torn Space"
Further, when the house is addressed it tends to be understood in terms of the realist novel and not in terms of modernity. That is, while house and home inform our understanding of the British novel, it is only the British novel in its realist form. In "Torn Space," for example, Fisher contrasts nineteenth-century realist novels that, he argues, primarily take place in houses and even rooms, with modernist novels, exemplified by James Joyce's Ulysses, that primarily take place in the streets or in houses and rooms that begin to resemble streets. This contrast between houses and streets can also be found in a number of critics for whom houses are shorthand for an earlier, more realist, period and streets are shorthand for modernity. Sharon Marcus's approach to housing and architecture in Apartment Stories draws attention to this alignment: "The absence of residential spaces seems to go without saying in accounts of modernity which define city life as the public life that takes place in collective spaces of exchange or display and describe home life as private, concealed, and self-enclosed, often taking their cue from [Walter] Benjamin's notion of the home as a hermetically sealed 'interior,' isolated from its surroundings" (6). Hilde Heynen similarly writes that "modernity is often described as a condition that is diametrically opposed to dwelling" (15).
Not surprisingly, then, in several studies of nineteenth-century modernity, the house is absent as a critical category. In Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London, Lynda Nead, for example, counters Marshall Berman's approach to modernity with a shift from Paris to London, and from Benjamin to Michel de Certeau "to tell a different story of modernity" (6). Her subtitle highlights one of her foci as streets, and the title of her first section, "Mapping and Movement," nicely captures Certeau's elaboration of the map (the static aerial view) and the tour (the dynamic street view). Nead's approach is itself echoed in the work of Ruth Livesey, Ellen Ross, Kate Flint, Pamela Gilbert, Michelle Allen, and Simon Joyce, all of whom explore the critical purchase of "mapping and movement," to adopt Nead's terminology, to comprehend the new urban spaces of London but overlook or sidestep the house and the ways in which it was inescapably defined in relation to the street.
The introduction to Deborah Nord's Walking the Victorian Streets underscores this invisibility of the house as a category for critical inquiry. Drawing on Raymond Williams, she links urbanization and modernity with walking through city streets: "The novelist-spectator passes invisibly through the crowd and then behind the facades of buildings, extending what Williams, thinking primarily of Dickens, calls 'a potent and benignant hand, which takes off the housetops and shows the shapes and phantoms' within. He discerns the patterns of social relations that remain hidden to the uninitiated or the indifferent; he is investigator and theorist of poverty, disease, and class difference" (1-2). The novelist-spectator moves very quickly, however, from the streets to the interior ("behind the facades of buildings," lifting off the housetops and looking within) thus marking an almost seamless transition from city streets to the houses on those streets and their interiors. Nord, however, foregrounds the streets rather than the houses, despite her own commentary that testifies to the importance of houses. When one turns to the chapter of The Country and City from which the Williams quotation is taken, an even more pronounced interconnection between street and house arises. For Charles Dickens, too, Williams claims, the emphasis is on urbanization, walking, and the city street. And yet almost all of Williams's descriptions of this new city life and the "new kind of novel" that it generates (154) are of houses and not of city streets. It is surprising in this context that Williams argues that the project of "representing and understanding" new urban life begins with the flaneur. For surely the house—or rather, the newly visible dwellings of rapidly expanding urban populations—makes an important contribution here too.
And yet what house? Is it the house of the middle-class reader? Or is it a house similar to the houses that Alton Locke and "The Great Transparency" narrator visit above? The passage on which Williams relies, and which Nord cites, comes from Dombey and Son (1846-48); it refers, famously, to the removal of roofs to see within houses, a desire that is all the more urgent in the face of the complex and disorienting movements of modernity. Here is the original passage:
Oh for a good spirit who would take the housetops off, with a more potent and benignant hand than the lame demon in the tale, and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes, to swell the retinue of the Destroying Angel as he moves forth among them. For only one night's view of the pale phantoms rising from the scenes of our too long neglect; and from the thick and sullen air where Vice and Fever propagate together, raining their tremendous social retributions which are ever pouring down, and ever coming thicker. Bright and blest the morning that should rise on such a night; for men . . . would then apply themselves . . . to make the world a better place. (155)This is not an interior, then, that corresponds to the middle-class bourgeois domestic interior that Dickens so often celebrates in his fiction. It is much more closely aligned to the interiors of the poor and working classes. And yet it is still an interior; moreover, it is an interior, like the interior in "The Great Transparency," that readers need to see. This passage is usually emphasized as emblematic of realism, and the fact that it takes housing of the poor as its focus is important here: realism is defined through housing of the poor. The passage perfectly depicts the movement from exposé to reform on which commentators relied: when the interiors of such houses are made visible, actions that tend "to make the world a better place" will follow. This passage pinpoints not domestic relations within the household but "Vice and Fever" conjoined; it anticipates the questions of spatial and interpersonal relations raised by Bleak House in precisely the same registers of disease, darkness, and neglect of domestic interiors. Dickens's "new kind of novel" is alert to the continuity between street and house and at once intrigued and disturbed by it. If we think of "the new experience of the city" (Williams, Country 154), it was not just the experience of the street that changed and captured the imagination but also the new experience of housing of the poor. Indeed, it is not the interiors of the middle classes but the domestic interiors of the poor that most unsettle prevailing accounts of modernity. These interiors suggest not the closed and protected bourgeois interiors with which we most often associate the novel, but the open, unaccountable, troubling, illegible, and fractured interiors documented in the discourse on housing. These interiors, like Georges-Eugène Haussmann's boulevards in Paris, sent a jolt into received ways of experiencing space and profoundly altered such orientations to the point of bringing into being a new sensibility. That is, it was not just streets, arcades, and walking but also the compromised domestic interiors of the poor, so abundant and so extensively documented, that at once precipitated and symbolized the shift to modernity.
If the topic of housing of the poor is relevant to the rise of the novel in relation to its content, it is also relevant in relation to its form. Like the many documentary commentators who contributed to the discourse on housing, many novelists in the mid-nineteenth century were committed to using print to advocate for social reform in a way that is now often forgotten. Unlike many of these commentators (but not all), many novelists (but not all) were inclined to reflect on the best form through which to make their case most effective. If we recall the critical purchase of the architectural idea in the period, an important dimension to the rise of the novel comes into focus. Critics of the Victorian period have long discussed the novel in competition with more familiar cultural forms such as the sermon or the newspaper. But consider that the period saw architecture as the art form above all others that reflected national and political values, shaped subject formation, and married form and function. What would it mean for a novelist to think of the novel not as a work of art but as a work of architecture? What if, in other words, novelists begin to see their role in producing a novel as in some way aligned with, or comparable to, building and writing about houses? What if, frustrated by the lack of traction the documentary exposé approach was getting, they begin to see their genre as offering an alternative approach to petitions for social reform? After all, unlike a work of art in the context of which function could appear tenuous or remote, a work of architecture was readily understood as functional or useful.
I want to suggest what will at first appear like a critical leap because it is so remote from our ways of thinking about the novel: it was precisely housing of the poor and the architectural idea that prompted novelists to (1) rethink the genre of the novel in terms of form, (2) offer a subtle and compelling case for the novel as a work of architecture, and (3) offer a persuasive argument for the novel's intervention in social debates. Open Houses turns, accordingly, to the overlooked intersection of housing of the poor, architecture, and the rise of the novel. Because this project seeks to demonstrate the impact of housing of the poor on the rise of the novel, it does not restrict its inquiry to the subgenres for which this topic, at first glance, appears most salient (such as the industrial novel, the social problem novel, and the slum novel). I argue, rather, that the discourse on housing was a central and shaping component even in those novels most apparently removed from the representational and formal questions posed by this discourse. Engagement with housing for the poor, then, is not marginal but rather central to the novel's development as a middle-class form and its dialogue with modernist developments. I want to question the distinction that is typically made between the closed form of the realist novel and the open form of the modernist novel, and I want to reconsider one of the central tenets of modernity—its association with urban streets—to pose an alternative version of modernity more congenial with architecture and housing of the poor.
In Open Houses I focus on three nineteenth-century novels by canonical writers—Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1852), George Eliot's Middlemarch (1872), and Henry James's The Princess Casamassima (1886)—in which housing of the poor and architecture are pivotal to the novel's development. And yet, with the possible exception of Bleak House, neither housing of the poor nor architecture even register in critical treatments of these novels. At a time when agitation for urban housing reform was on the rise, Dickens's avid and unrelenting inquiries into housing of the poor and the urgency and explicitness with which he addressed this topic in his novels—unless people "set themselves in earnest," he warns in an 1854 speech, "to improve the towns in which they live, and to amend the dwellings of the poor, they are guilty, before god of wholesale murder" (117)—does not translate into any sort of extended critical treatment of this topic in relation to his novels. Similarly, Eliot writes Middlemarch in the wake of England's most extensive inquiry into rural housing conditions and laborers' cottages (the Royal Commission on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture ); she is interested in the genre of the novel as a vehicle for social reform; she is clearly engaged with the pressing issues of her day; and the central character in her most celebrated novel aspires to be a "great architect" of laborers' cottages. And yet housing of the poor in Middlemarch nevertheless is relegated to only passing notice in the criticism to date. Finally, James's The Princess Casamassima is composed in the wake of the 1883 The Bitter Cry controversy, the most vivid print spike on the topic of housing for the poor in the nineteenth century; James articulates his aesthetic practice in domestic/architectural terms ("the house of art" and "the house of fiction"); and "house of the masses" is embedded in his novel's title. And, again, housing of the poor is almost entirely overlooked in the critical commentary on this novel.
Just as the value of Open Houses's first goal, to revive documentation on "looking into" housing of the poor in the nineteenth century, strikes me as undebatable so, too, it seems undebatable that each of these novels should be considered in dialogue with the topic of housing of the poor. But again, I also want to argue for another, potentially more controversial, point: that each of these novels uses the vehement and charged print visibility of housing of the poor as a springboard for innovations in the novel itself that have everything to do with the architectural idea, mediation, and interpenetration. The development of the nineteenth-century novel, in other words, is intimately and inextricably intertwined, thematically and formally, with housing of the poor. Dickens, Eliot, and James consider the novel as a "bleak house," a "home epic," and a "house of fiction" respectively; and they use housing of the poor as a productive intertext and point of departure for their articulation of the novel's formal innovations.
Without exception, the novels addressed here were written in houses or rented lodgings or hotels, and the authors, like most of us, shared a lived architectural experience. At the same time, all of the authors were aware of and wrote in the context of homelessness, substandard housing, petitions for housing reforms, and studies supporting the connection between poor housing and the spread of disease. If it is true, as Said argues, that the imagination of empire informed their work (Culture), it is no less true that a class division between the well housed and the poorly housed also did. Open Houses brings the architectural idea back into the central position it occupied in nineteenth-century England and revives its relation to interpenetration and mediation. In doing so, it reconfigures how we understand depth epistemologies, agitation for social reform, innovations in the genre of the novel (to which both social reform and depth epistemologies were related), and the contours of nineteenth-century modernity in general.
The Table: A Conclusion
There was no table, no bed.The account I am offering in Open Houses is an account of what follows when we highlight housing of the poor in relation to nineteenth-century print culture. It is an account of social distress, documentary narrations, novelistic innovations, and appeals for social reform. But it is also, necessarily, an account of how connections get made and how stories of connection get told. To clarify this point, I want to turn to the table. I have cited two prominent approaches to the table in my epigraphs to this section: Foucault's epistemological elaboration of the table's role in shaping what is known by providing the categories through which knowledge is organized; and Arendt's social-spatial recognition of the role the table plays in organizing people in space and defining the questions they ask. Or, in Arendt's suggestive example, the ghosts they beckon.
—Charles Dickens, "The Quiet Poor" (1854)
There are no bedsteads, chairs, or tables . . .
—George Godwin, London Shadows (1854)
I use the word "table" in two superimposed senses: the nickel-plated, rubbery table swathed in white, glittering beneath a glass sun devouring all shadow—the table where, for an instant, perhaps forever, the umbrella encounters the sewing machine; and also a table, a tabula, that enables thought to operate upon the entities of our world, to put them in order, to divide them into classes, to group them according to names that designate their similarities and differences—the table upon which, since the beginning of time, language has intersected space.
—Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1966)
To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates at the same time. The weirdness of this situation resembles a spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible.
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958)
In Foucault's formulation, the table helps one to know how to evaluate and codify information; if one follows his theory of the episteme, it also gives one the key to grasping the rules underpinning a given period's organization of what counts as knowledge. In Arendt's formulation, the table helps one to orient one's self in space. At its most simple, certain meanings follow from sitting at the head of the table and certain connections are made by people around a table—familial, bureaucratic, or governmental. One need only imagine, as Arendt does, the disappearance of the table to comprehend how powerfully material objects organize not only space but also people in space and their relations to each other.
In Open Houses both of these versions of the table have a bearing on my analysis. In terms of the epistemological table, I consider what counts as knowledge in English print culture from the 1830s through the mid-1880s. This approach involves both identifying the dominant models on which commentators based their studies and considering the ways in which their inquiries challenged or put pressure on those very models. In particular, I focus on an epistemological model that locates knowledge spatially and metaphorically inside built structures; or, in a variant of this model, underneath material structures. Knowledge can, accordingly, be uncovered, unveiled, revealed, exposed. And I consider the ways in which narrative documentation of houses of the poor both affirmed and challenged this model. By attending closely to the different and competing forms such documentation took, I further link this epistemological model to agendas for social reform that continue to drive and inform political debate today.
In terms of the social-spatial table, I consider the ways in which architecture, the built environment, and ways of using and narrating space are linked to the ways of knowing outlined here. This second mobilization of the table, then, can be understood as a subset of the broader epistemological approach that Foucault's epigraph defines. But it is important to me for the way that it introduces social actors into a space that otherwise might be considered in terms too static and unrealistic to be useful. In Arendt's analysis, like the architectural critics on whom I rely, space does not serve as a backdrop or background to social action but rather as a defining element of it. Arendt's table, accordingly, mediates or, in her terms, "relates and separates" (52); it defines vectors of connection and disconnection that are always present in any encounter however bereft of people, or tables for that matter, it might seem. It reminds us that tables, which are a stand-in for things in space, always shape our experience of that space: where we are in space (figuratively and literally), how we move in space, how we see that space and our relation to others and ourselves within it. In many ways, the documentary accounts of housing of the poor seek to find the missing table that would explain the connections between people that otherwise do not make sense. With its thematization of connection, Dickens's Bleak House is an obvious example of this impulse but we can also see it in the most simple and rudimentary representation of a room that baffles comprehension and yet seems, nevertheless, to viewers to have some meaning that they need and seek to comprehend. The table, in other words, helps to explain what we are all doing here.
Let us look into the house. This book tells the story of print exposés of interiors that are fraught, bewildering, and redefining; of architecture that is presented as an antidote, a corrective measure, to consolidate accepted models of subject formation; and of an architectural idea that undergirds this consolidation and invests architecture with a shaping power. This book also tells the story of a scholarly forgetting. Our current scholarly "tables" do not make room for housing of the poor as it was engaged with in nineteenth-century print culture. They do not have an algorithm for the upsurge in representation, the frenzy for reform, just as they do not have an algorithm for its deflation, for the sudden discouragements, for the questioning of methods and processes and goals. Open houses: this idea suggests what we might think of as a turning of the tables, a willingness to see houses as open, porous, interpenetrated and a willingness, too, to tackle the implications of the open house as an unstable, broken, torn, and ripped form that offers new insights into how we know.
Many of the descriptions I relate in this book are bleak, bordering on boring with their repetitions and statistics and evisceration of narrative, but many also burn with a kind of radiant possibility: that this description itself will change the world. This hope smolders and reignites, smolders and reignites, throughout the century. And it continues to do so. One of the perhaps less buoyant aspects of this book is its retreat from, and challenge to, this pattern. Open Houses calls for a different type of description, a description that invests not in the exposé that, by the end of the nineteenth century, had been roundly critiqued by documentary writers, critiqued in different ways by novelists, and demonstrably shown to be ineffective by the lack of traction such exposés made in public discourse. Open Houses turns instead to a mode of inquiry more closely aligned with the interpenetration and mediation that emerges in tandem with the architectural idea.
There is, finally, a third sense of the table that I want to consider: the material table. To be sure, my approach in this book holds that tables—their presence or their absence—will always be seen through an interpretive grid that makes them intelligible. There is no pure table, as such. This is not to say, of course, that material tables do not exist, but rather that their materiality takes on its meaning in a social/political nexus inescapably informed by cultural discourses and practices. The material table, in this context, will at first glance appear beside the point.
To commentators on housing of the poor, however, the table in the room—its presence or its absence, its state of repair or disrepair—signified a whole domestic world that was not directly related to either epistemological or social-spatial relations (however much these approaches also could not be detached from it). When a commentator enters a room, for example, and records that there is no table, he or she is not only recording the absence of a physical thing but also the absence of an entire domestic ideology that inheres in that thing. That is, things—tables, for example—signify in ways that extend well beyond their material structure, and yet these material things, their presence or absence, are the point of departure for analysis.
They remind us, by their tactile there-ness, that we are in a built environment. They remind us of the things that people touch and hold, open and close, polish and put away. They remind us that these are homes defined in part—and in housing of the poor as described by middle-class commentators, in main—by the ways things signify. Most of the homes of the poor in the documentary literature are not evaluated by conversations that may or may not take place at tables that may or not be there; they are not evaluated by interfamilial relationships—between parents and children, between siblings, between spouses; and they are not evaluated by stories told within the home. They are evaluated by the things that are in the home (and especially by the things that are absent) and they are evaluated by the material dimensions of that home itself. For this reason they do not easily cohere into narratives that carry a great deal of immediate interest. As Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc's The Story of a House confirms, even architectural stories of houses require people; and homes without people are not homes at all but only structures minimally subsisting in rapidly changing rural and urban environments. The material things—the table or tables—are, therefore, important to my analysis here. They go against the grain of other inquiries and demonstrate to us what is so grievously missing in these accounts. By attending primarily to things (and, indeed, to people as things), these accounts have fallen off the grid by which stories become historically intelligible. The commentators on which I focus in this book observed many homes of the poor in which tables were absent and then returned to their homes to write about what they saw on their own tables in the hope that these matters would be discussed at larger tables, in larger forums—governmental or bureaucratic—and that the tables about which they wrote—their statistical compilations—would produce reform that would circle back quite simply to, among other things, an adequate table in an adequate room.