Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London
explores not only the challenges faced by reformers as they strove to
clean up an increasingly filthy city but the resistance to their efforts.
Beginning in the 1830s, reform-minded citizens, under the banner of sanitary
improvement, plunged into London's dark and dirty spaces and returned with
the material they needed to promote public health legislation and magnificent
projects of sanitary engineering. Sanitary reform, however, was not always
met with unqualified enthusiasm. While some improvements, such as slum
clearances, the development of sewerage, and the embankment of the Thames,
may have made London a cleaner place to live, these projects also destroyed
and reshaped the built environment, and in doing so, altered the meanings and
experiences of the city.
From the novels of Charles Dickens and George Gissing to anonymous magazine
articles and pamphlets, resistance to reform found expression in the nostalgic
appreciation of a threatened urban landscape and anxiety about domestic autonomy
in an era of networked sanitary services. Cleansing the City emphasizes the disruptions and disorientation occasioned by purification-a process we are generally inclined to see as positive. By recovering these sometimes oppositional, sometimes ambivalent responses, Michelle Allen elevates a significant undercurrent of Victorian thought into the mainstream and thus provides insight into the contested nature of sanitary modernization.
Michelle Allen is an assistant professor of English at the U. S. Naval Academy. She has published an edition of Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore.