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Fount of modernity

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Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London By Lynda Nead. Yale University Press, 2000. 251pp. £19.95

In the 1860s, London was literally torn into pieces. The first underground railway slashed through Clerkenwell and the northern edges of Bloomsbury and Marylebone; the Thames was embanked and sewers constructed; the Houses of Parliament completed and the Law Courts begun. If this indicated a process of modernisation it was, as Lynda Nead concludes Victorian Babylon, 'Modernity. . . built upon the image of ruin'. London's new face was brutally wrought from the medieval and Georgian city, never quite obliterating or transcending it.

Nead looks at three themes: mapping and movement; gas and light; and streets and obscenity. The first two are fundamentally important to the new Babylon rising on the ruins of the old and, if the implications of the name are taken, condemned by its surfeit of greed and hubris. Mapping became essential as the city grew - downwards as well as outwards - and its size led to new patterns of movement. Gas transformed the possibilities of night time for leisure, shopping and vice.

Streets and obscenity is more specific, focusing on Holywell Street off the Strand, whose booksellers were noted for their naughty publications, and the attempt to control such public spaces through the Obscenity Act of 1857.

These specifics, however, epitomise the concerns of new types of visual and social experience and the problems they were thought to pose.

Nead's broad researches throw up some amazing gems, such as Joseph Paxton's Great Victorian Way of 1855, a proposal for an extraordinary arcaded ring road. But even without this unbuilt scheme there were enough dramatic changes in urban life to defeat conventional interpretations.

Nead addresses the methodological problems directly and impressively, avoiding the trap of dependence on Walter Benjamin, whose perceptions about modernity were so shaped by the Paris of Haussman and Baudelaire.

In debunking the myth of the flaneur as the archetypal modern person - alienated, insecure and male - she draws on theoretical work by people such as Elizabeth Wilson and, most persuasively, on a treasure trove of correspondence in The Times from 1862.

'Paterfamilias from the Provinces' wrote to complain that his daughter and a young female companion (both unmarried) had endured an improper approach from a young man. From the responses, Nead shows that young women did walk the streets alone, and that streets offered some scope for quasi-erotic encounters whose propriety was questionable but not necessarily prohibited.

Although Nead's combination of archival research and theoretical interpretation is generally persuasive, there are one or two quibbles. She extrapolates much from the artist Arthur Boyd Houghton's representations of street life but makes little allowance for the artist's own interpretation. It is always tricky to use paintings so directly as historical evidence (a trap that makes Mark Girouard's Cities and People slightly less impressive than some of his other work).

It is also rather disconcerting to read statements such as 'mid-Victorian London was defined through a semiotics of gas', a claim which can only be allowed if many other semiotics are let in too.

These, though, are minor reservations.

Nead's work is especially impressive in drawing on a range of interpretative ideas without being unduly dogmatic. Above all, she realises that Victorian London is not nineteenth-century Paris or twentiethcentury Los Angeles, and merits its own methodology. The alternative is either to force an ill-fitting template or to retreat into the brilliant but intuitive perceptions of Peter Ackroyd.

In showing how London might be interpreted during the formative years after the establishment of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855, Nead persuasively reclaims the city as one of the central founts of modernity.

London's size and position within what was, after all, the pre-eminent industrial, commercial and political power of the time, means that its experience of modernity was the most intense - at least until Berlin and New York expanded at the century's end.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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