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« The Publication of OUR MUTUAL FRIEND | Main | Hammett and the Roots of Film Noir »
Wednesday
Jan152014

Victorian Order: Incessantly Repeatable

"[Mr. Wilfer's] black hat was brown before he could afford a coat, his pantaloons were white at the seams and knees before he could buy a pair of boots, his boots had worn out before he could treat himself to new pantaloons, and by the time he worked round to the hat again, that shining modern article roofed in an ancient ruin of various periods."

--OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, Book I, Chapter 4, first paragraph

No period of European history has become so obsessed with notions of personal, social, cultural, political, and artistic order as the nineteenth century. These notions were grounded in the growing industrialism: you can keep your house clean with any number of solvents and with a mechanized system based on industrial tools; you can keep yourself clean with running water, a flush toilet, and some of the very same solvents. If you see your body as a machine, you can (and should) clean it. If you treat your house as an industrial system, you can (and should) control it. If you treat cooking as a mechanized process, you can standarize it into chemical formulae (a.k.a. recipes).

As long as you hide it. Mr. Wilfer's problem as a member of the growing lower middle class is that he can buy the necessaries to stave off ruin (dust?), but he can't hide that he's buying them in the first place. This old coat? Had it for years. The goal is to be orderly without seeming to try. And Mr. Wilfer is trying very hard.

Here are three cultural examples of the mechanized order-mania that are not directly related to OUR MUTUAL FRIEND but offer context.

1. In the mid-Victorian age, photographs were the new must-haves. They were a mechanized way of preserving (ultimately, by reproducing) a cherished image (or an industrial memory, as the case might be). Those photographed had to sit for hours for the exposure. And so babies--perhaps the second most photographed subject in the nineteenth century--had to be held still. The only way to accomplish that--hiding the rage for order while practicing it in a mechanized environment--was for the mother to hide behind the scenes, holding little Johnny or Janey for the duration. 

Thanks, Mom!Mother is in the cloth! In most cases, she is cut out of the shot, the baby seen against a background of velvet or brocade. But in some pictures, the original frame has been preserved. If you pull back, there she is, hiding, holding. It's order by trick, as it were.

2. If Victorians loved to photograph babies, they loved even more to take pictures of the dead. After Uncle Fred or Aunt Emma died, you propped them up in a chair and took their picture--often with your family at their sides. Now they could finally be still for that picture! In death, there was an order that fit the newly mechanized world.

Emma, you never looked better.The eyes were always the problem. They tended to fly open--and remain so. It sort of broke the (enforced) mood of (industrial) remembrance. The solution? Sew them shut but paint them back on, a nightmarish display of that compulsion for order in the face of the decay that is life. (I'll spare you a picture of painted eyes.)

3. No bit of ordered industrialization matches the London sewers. According to Rose George in her consummate book on all things sanitary, THE BIG NECESSITY (a must read!), no one is exactly sure to this day how many miles of tunnels are in the London system because of its endless crooks, bends, unused tunnels, doubled-up tunnels, and outright wrong turns no longer in use.

It all started in the mid-1850s with the introduction of flush toilets. Before then, London had been a maze of cess pools, emptied (sort of) by the "night soil men" (or sometimes "nightmen"). And not only London. In the mid eighteenth century, flashy Versailles had been an open pit--not outside the castle but within. The hallways and rooms were littered with human defecation. People apparently were too busy for chamberpots. Visitors complained that the grand hall of mirrors was nothing but a loo. The court ordered more and more screens to be set up throughout to hide what was apparently an unstoppable problem.

With the coming of indoor plumbing, the problem was eliminated (ahem) in a modern, mechanized way: it went into an overflow of water and left your house. What happened after that was not your concern. It was disappeared, as it were.

Before the building of the London sewers, whatever was flushed went by gravity through wooden troughs and open ditches right into the Thames. Children, mostly orphans called "mudlarks," scavanged the muck on the banks for valuables. (Apparently people were already flushing everything; today, iPhones are one of the most valuable commodities fished out of the London sewers.) In the very hot summer of 1858, London finally underwent what came to be known as "The Great Stink." The Thames turned so foul, so polluted, that it was blamed (erroneously) for cholera outbreaks. Parliament itself was engulfed in a noxious miasma. Something had to be done. MPs were inconvienced!

The Crossness pumping station, built between 1859 and 1865: beautifying the unspeakable.Sewers were constructed throughout the 1860s (while Dickens was at work on OUR MUTUAL FRIEND), including six trunk lines that measured over 100 miles. They ate up London's now-forgotten "other" rivers, tributaries of the Thames and Lea (the Peck, Tyburn, Fleet, and at least a dozen others which are now incorporated into the modern sewer system). Pump houses were built where gravity proved inefficient. Those sewers didn't exactly clean the water; they just got it farther from London. It was Kent's problem now. And so order was maintained. Or the illusion of it anyway.

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