Unknown London: Early Modernist Visions of the Metropolis, 1815-45
Newey, Katherine, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film
John Marriott, ed., Unknown London: Early Modernist Visions of the Metropolis, 1815-45. Consulting editors: Masaie Matsumura and Judith Walkowitz. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2000.6 volume set. £495.
Unknown London, carefully edited by John Marriott, and well produced by Pickering & Chatto, is a series of facsimile versions of key documents about London. But that bland description does not do justice to such a varied collection, one that signals the extent of the merging of the disciplines of social history, economic history, popular literature, and theatre in nineteenth-century studies. Contemporary scholars in all these disciplines will find much that is useful in these volumes. Here are both familiar materials and new documents - or perhaps new combinations for reading. The selected texts are set within a provocative editorial argument about the essential modernity of early nineteenth-century journalism, fiction, and drama centred on London.
The contents of this six-volume set make available to scholars and students a range of sources not usually held outside of large, long established (or wealthy) research libraries. A full list of what Marriott includes is worth recounting here - if only to help readers of Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film persuade their local libraries that the rather steep price is well worth it for the opportunity to provide a compact, impeccably-researched collection of otherwise rare materials, in a form robust enough to withstand generations of use. Marriott reprints, in facsimile versions, in Volume 1, The London Guide (anonymously published by John Badcock), and Tom and]erry, W. T. Moncrieff's adaptation of Pierce Egan's hugely popular Life in London - this last in a Dick's Standard Plays edition, complete with the illustration supposedly drawn from the Adelphi Theatre's production in 1822, and cast and costume descriptions. Volume 2 is entirely given over to the text of Egan's Life in London (1821), the importance of which, writes Marriott in his short introduction to Egan's fictional journalism, "[I]t is difficult to overstate" (2: vii). The reprinting in Volume 3 of George Smeeton's Doings in London (1828) provides an opportunity to compare and contrast these key 'fictional' versions of London. Smeeton was clearly attempting to revise Egan's comic tour of the city. The combination of texts in Volume 4 indicates the richness of Marriott's editorial philosophy in this collection: it includes a further work by John Badcock (publishing pseudonymously as Jon Bee), A Living Picture of London (1828); George Cruikshank's comic cuts, Scraps and Sketches (1828-32), as well as his My Sketch Book (1834-6) - which includes that well-known arrangement of London social classes into theatre seats, "Pit, Boxes & Gallery"; Robert Seymour's drawings ( 134-6), published with a miscellany of stories and poems written by 'Crowquill' in Seymour's Humorous Sketches (1866); and two plays, each dealing with the lives of London in different ways - W.T. Moncrieff's Newgate play, The Heart of London (1830), and Douglas Jerrold's domestic drama, Martha Willis (1831). Volume 5 contains a similarly eclectic mix of source materials, representative of the struggles of life in London in the late 1820s, with its frauds, 'universal scramble for money,' speculation and swindling (Marriott, 5:1): How to Live in London, Anonymous (1828), George Cruikshank's Sunday in London (1833), John Buncombe's The Dens of London Exposed (1835), A. C. Campbell's play The London Banker (1844), and two additional plays by the ubiquitous W.T. Moncrieff - Sam Weller (1837) and The Scamps of London (1843). All focus on the documentary realities of poverty in London. The final volume is taken up with the rather more serious and less sensationalist account of London by James Grant, Sketches in London (1838), and an index - both name and subject - to all six volumes, an addition which makes the whole collection quickly usable.
Despite this breadth, comprising over 2,500 pages in six volumes, Marriott admits to the difficulties of making his selection-or rather deciding what to leave out. In the end, he argues, individual texts were included because they "were among the most popular published in this period" and also because collectively "they best illustrate the transformation in perception evident in the literary appropriation of the metropolis" (1: xii).
Much can be adduced from this survey of the contents of Unknown London. The collection starts from the premise that popular journalism, fiction and drama, writing from the bohemian subcultures of London, comic sketches, and the miscellanies of reportage, sensationalism, and high-minded journalism are an essential part of any history of London. The inclusion of apparently ephemeral textual material, such as title pages, illustrations, and advertisements, suggests the added value of contextual material in understanding the character of these representations of London. Marriott argues that the 1820s and 1830s offer a defining moment for the representation of the city through the intersection of the textual, the visual, and the dramatic (1: xi); certainly multi-disciplinary work of this sort is central to various recent scholarly reassessments of the period, and Marriott builds on the work of scholars such as Brian Maidment and Martin Meisel (although Marriot makes no reference to the latter) in attempting to draw together a variety of ways of 'reading' urban culture across genres and media. But in his introduction to the collection, Marriott goes further than many scholars, suggesting that writers' encounters with the London of this period constitute a formative moment of modernity. In pursuing this argument, Marriott acknowledges the complex literary and cultural politics with which he engages, as he challenges the conventional periodisation of both Romanticism and Modernism - although he also posits that "[A]ny alignment of literary modernism to a particular moment is to an extent arbitrary" (1: xxvi). Marriott's thesis in Unknown London -made explicit in his editorial commentary and implied by the primary sources represented - complements in interesting ways Peter Bailey's account of the 'popular modernism' of the late nineteenth century in his essay 'Theatres of Entertainment/Spaces of Modernity: Rethinking the British Popular Stage 1890-1914.'1 Both scholars make fundamental challenges to high cultural assumptions about the nature of modernity and literary Modernism - assumptions that have long served to alienate the multifarious world of the literary and entertainment subcultures from mainstream accounts of the nineteenth century and, more specifically, theories of Victorianism. Marriott and Bailey's shifting of the focal points of historical and cultural change are not so far apart chronologically as their essays might at first glance suggest. Drawing on Jonathan Crary's study of Victorian visuality,2 Marriott argues that the art of the 1870s and 80s was a 'delayed symptom' of the'systematic shift in perception' of the 1820s (1: xxiii), and insists that many of the essential features of modernity commonly identified as high Modernism - aesthetic encounters with urban and mechanistic organisations of human society, acute awareness of a fragile and fractured human subject, a sense of imminent or actual crisis in society and human subjectivity, and experimentation in style, voice, and form - can be found, for example, in the work of Egan, Jon Bee (John Badcock), and John Duncombe. Marriott is particularly interested in these writers' sense of history and historicity, and their self-conscious positioning as both observers and participants in the materiality of this new London, at an originary moment of the modern world of the same order as London, 1910 - when, according to Virginia Woolf, 'human character changed.' One might not readily think of ex-pornographer and underground Radical publisher John Duncombe and selfconfessed highbrow Virginia Woolf in the same frame, but Marriott's provocative argument suggests that perhaps we should at least think about that possibility.
From these brief observations, it is obvious what the theatre historian may find useful in this collection. At the very least, here is a collection to which to send colleagues who insist on yet another study of Dickens as the nearest thing to an authentic representation of low life in London, or who find dealing with melodrama painful for its 'bad' writing and fanciful plots. Unknown London also provides a rich store of source material for teaching -1 could write another thousand words suggesting courses one could construct out of all permutations of these texts. It is refreshing to find a collection in which theatrical representations of the city such as those found in Moncrieff, Campbell, and Jerrold are central to the argument being made about cultural history. But more important, perhaps, is Marriott's embedding of theatre and theatricality in new forms of cultural production. While the bare scripts of Moncrieff and Jerrold could do with the inclusion of more contextual material, such as playbills and reviews, reading Moncrieff against Egan, as Marriott suggests we do, reveals fascinating ripples in early nineteenth-century grapplings with the material realities of London, and the struggles over literary authority in ways of doing so. That the theatre was central in such cultural struggles has always been understood by a knowledgeable minority. Unknown London makes available a readily accessible, well-edited, and judicious selection of material to reach a majority audience.
1 Nineteenth Century Theatre, 26:2 (Summer 1998), 5-24.
2 Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P, 1990.)
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Publication information: Article title: Unknown London: Early Modernist Visions of the Metropolis, 1815-45. Contributors: Newey, Katherine - Author. Journal title: Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film. Volume: 30. Issue: 2 Publication date: Winter 2003. Page number: 87+. © Manchester University Press Jun 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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