Friday, February 12, 2021

Nathaniel Robert Walker's "Victorian Visions of Suburban Utopia"

Nathaniel Robert Walker is an Associate Professor of Architectural History at the College of Charleston.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Victorian Visions of Suburban Utopia: Abandoning Babylon, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my new book has almost everything. I was, in fact, rather amazed and delighted to see how many different themes and issues from the book made an appearance on that single page! There was only one thing missing—but it was the most important thing of all. It was as if the page had the whole ice cream shop, including staff and customers, and money was changing hands, but there was no ice cream.

The basic premise of my book is that, before suburbs slowly but surely came to dominate many of our lives in the 1900s, there was a century or two of dreaming for an ideal suburban world…a world far from the dense hustle and smoky bustle of industrial cities, away from the slums and the stones. These dreams took several forms, with the most important being dozens upon dozens of Victorian science-fiction and utopian novels that foretold a future of mechanized, high-tech suburban bliss. To help my readers understand these sometimes wonderful and sometimes insane (and sometimes wonderfully insane) visions, I have to situate them in context, fleshing out the real urban world as Victorian architects worked in it, critics and reformers debated it, and everyday people experienced it. I have to help my readers understand the ways that Victorians drew upon older sources—such as the Bible or popular poetry from bygone eras—and leveraged emerging sciences to condemn cities and raise the possibility of a suburban alternative. Page 99 is full of this contextual discussion and offers almost every species of it. It takes my readers to London in 1847, as an important writer discusses a plan by an architect to disperse the poor of London from their foul rookeries by building new commuter cottage suburbs on railway lines:
…many Victorians saw Moffat’s scheme as a viable path to urban redemption. Andrew Winter of The People’s Journal was absolutely convinced; he argued that the wealthy were already leaving the city behind, such that the commercial and business district of “London proper at night, as far as the houses are concerned, is nearly deserted.” This was a fact, as the suburban fringes had proven so tempting that by the middle of the century, even middle-class families had all but abandoned the heart of London. Most commutes still required lengthy journeys by carriage, omnibus, or foot, but a small number were accessible by train. A three-mile hike from a humble but decent terrace house with a rear garden to a centrally located office would not be unusual for an average clerk, who might even celebrate the exercise.

The time had come, Winter argued, “when the working classes should follow the good example set by their superiors in the social scale.” If one rolled out a map of London and studied its “terrible physiology,” it would become clear that its streets were “but the frontier of a kingdom of which the upper classes know as little as of the interior of Japan.” Slums filled the nooks, lanes, and courts that made up the core of blocks, which “caged” London workers. In the industrial towns, he lamented, people lived in cellars and died young. In dramatic moral terms that can perhaps best be described as Augustinian, Winter argued that the problem cut straight to the original spirit of humanity:
... there is a moral as well as a physical scurvy—as the lime to the sailor in the great ocean, so is the smallest plant . . . to the poor mechanic shut up in our vast brick-and-mortar Babel. Trees, flowers, and “the green garniture of fields” are the natural companions of man, and in proportion to the length of time which you banish him from their society, so will he be distorted from the true image in which he was originally made. It was no idle saying—God made the country, but man made the town.
Page 99 gives us so much: an historical discussion of real London, reference to an architect’s railroad reform scheme, and a healthy chunk of journalistic criticism that summoned the Bible, evoked the ancient writings of Augustine and a dead British poet, threw the gauntlet in terms of hygiene and medicine, fretted over a growing gulf between the classes, and even exhaled a thin whiff of racism. It is Victorian urban criticism in a nutshell. The only thing that is missing is the core of my book: utopian science-fiction visions of a radical new future. So, perhaps Page 99 is perfect in every way. It establishes the urban world of the 1880s, its problems, and its debates, and then, I can only hope, leaves readers wanting to learn more about Victorian dreams for a solution: visions of suburban utopia that could be beautiful and enchanting, while also horrible and destructive.
Learn more about Victorian Visions of Suburban Utopia at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue