Semi-Detached Empire: Suburbia and Imperial Discourse in Victorian and Edwardian Britain

By Kuchta, Todd | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Semi-Detached Empire: Suburbia and Imperial Discourse in Victorian and Edwardian Britain


Kuchta, Todd, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Imperialism's impact on urban and rural Britain has been the focus of much literary and cultural criticism, yet such work largely ignores the suburban development that arose during the age of empire. This article reads imperialism as central to the discursive construction of the Victorian and Edwardian suburb. While suburbia appeared to some as a bastion of national strength and racial regeneration, others viewed it as a threatening terra incognita, whose inhabitants comprised a barbaric species beyond the pale of authentic Anglo-Saxon culture. Still others criticized suburban sprawl as emblematic of the British empire's inherent degeneracy and impending decay. The tension between these perspectives is illustrated by examining the writings of two prominent commentators on the Victorian and Edwardian suburbs: journalist Sidney Low and Liberal politician C.F.G. Masterman.

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The imperial foundation of Britain's domestic sphere has been the focus of much recent literary and cultural criticism, which traces life in the frenetic city and idyllic countryside alike to colonial expansion and exploitation. Edward Said, Fredric Jameson, and Anne McClintock have uncovered connections between what were once considered the wholly separate spheres of domestic and imperial, or metropole and colony. (1) And McClintock, Rosemary George, Inderpal Grewal, and Vincent Pecora have shown how British notions of home and domesticity were exported across the empire, playing a significant part in the colonial mission abroad. Their work extends the argument made by Raymond Williams in The Country and the City that late Victorian imperialism represented the global expansion of Britain's urban-rural dynamic, and that "this dramatic extension of landscape and social relations" coincided with "a marked development of the idea of England as 'home,' in that special sense in which 'home' is a memory and an ideal" (281).

Yet it was during the 1880s, when Williams claims imperialism shaped a distinctly English notion of home in both country and city, that a relatively new residential and domestic environment was colonizing Britain's very own landscape. Although modern suburbs first emerged outside London in the mid-eighteenth century, and experienced their greatest growth between the two world wars, it was from the 1880s on that their development became especially pronounced. (2) Indeed, during the last decades of the nineteenth century, suburbs would shill from exclusive enclaves for the wealthy to commonplace communities for the masses. In the 1880s, the four places in Britain with the largest population increase were London railway suburbs for the working and lower middle classes (Porter 234). In the nineties, the nation's fastest growing areas "were almost all suburban in character" (Dyos, Victorian 20). By the turn of the century, Britain's ten largest towns included three London suburban boroughs (Inwood 572). Nor was the trend limited to London. F.M.L. Thompson estimates that as early as the 1850s, suburbs were cropping up in every English town with a population over 50,000 (5-7). Within a few decades, the industrial centers of Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds boasted well-known residential communities, as did Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, and Cork. (3) "On the outskirts of every city" in Britain, as Asa Briggs points out, "undeveloped land was turned into suburbia" (28).

Thus, while the country and the city may have become Britain's imaginary homes in the age of empire, the nation's citizens were increasingly moving to the suburbs. Yet literary and cultural critics remain bound to Williams' urban-rural axis, overlooking the mutually constructive relations between suburb and empire. (4) Colonial wealth contributed to the rise of suburbia during the last decades of Victoria's reign, when institutions of colonial investment and trade swelled the ranks of suburbia's representative figure, the clerk. …

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