Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Scandals in Sodom: The Victorian City's Queer Streets

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Scandals in Sodom: The Victorian City's Queer Streets

Article excerpt

In 1845, Friedrich Engels described the urban territory inhabited by the English working classes as an "ill-built, ill-kept labyrinth of dwellings" (582). Forty years later, the filthy, labyrinthine tangle of streets through which W. T. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, meandered was paved with the same clutter of bricks. But for Stead, London's East End's "labyrinth of dwellings" also sheltered a beast. In 1885, Stead investigated and published a scandal that would eventually lead to the Criminal Law Amendment Act. This bit of legislation not only raised the age of consent for girls from thirteen to sixteen, it also further restricted prostitution and criminalized sodomy. (1) In the "Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon," Stead introduces his readers to the horrors of London's brothels and the collection of unwitting maidens tricked inside:

    I have not yet lost faith in the heart and conscience of the English
   folk, the sturdy innate chivalry and right thinking of our common
   people; ... I am not without hope that there may be some check
   placed upon this vast tribute of maidens ... which is nightly levied
   in London by the vices of the rich upon the necessities of the poor.
   (pt. 1) 

Stead's illustration of the plight of the poor hinges upon London's antipodal economies. And as with any good melodrama, the villain is well defined. Judith Walkowitz tells us that Stead's "Maiden Tribute" "introduced human interest stories that exposed the secrets of the rich and incited sympathy for the domestic plight of the poor" (84).

But Stead's expose not only revealed the alleged catalogic crimes of the rich, it also introduced its readers to a geography of urban iniquity. In this article, I will explore the connection between what Richard Dellamora calls "Victorian sexual dissidence" and fin-de-siecle representations of nineteenth-century London's streets (vii). While the texts themselves perform ostensibly disparate services for their readers, Stead's "Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon" and John Saul's Sins of the Cities of the Plain both describe an urban character that is either playfully or problematically polysexual. It is this polysexuality that measures the urban scape with a queer legend. Stead and Saul offer us a queered version of "darkest London" that "locates and exploits the incoherencies [between sex, gender, and desire] which stabilize heterosexuality" (Jagose 3). Both texts guide their readers through London's queer streets.


While Stead's "Maiden Tribute" revealed the dark ditches of London's east side to the penny-paper reading public, he was not the first to conduct a guided tour through the seamier side of the city. In 1869, Thomas Archer published The Terrible Sights of London; in 1870 James Greenwood published The Seven Curses of London; and that same year, in his tortuously titled Prostitution, Considered in its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects, in London and other large cities and Garrison Towns, with Proposals for the Control and Prevention of Attendant Evils, William Acton published an account of his own "pilgrimage" into the dark heart of London. (2) Each account describes an urban landscape of squalor and human misery. But each account also treats the subject of the city as a sight, albeit a disturbing one, to be seen. Stead's "Maiden Tribute" similarly reveals the spectacle of "London's Inferno." Stead tells us that London, a sort of resurrected Sodom, "seemed a strange, inverted world [that was] the same, yet not the same, as the world of business and the world of politics" (pt. 1). In this world, "statesmen [were] reckoned up from the standpoint of the brothel." But Stead's underworld is not only a sort of chaos in which "the costermonger, the businessman, the prostitute, the clerk, the nanny, and the crossing-sweeper jostle for a place." The world he encounters is adulterated and potentially adulterating--it represents a sort of liminality that transforms its populations. …

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