Gissing and the Topographies of Lambeth, Part Two: From Lambeth Walk to Brixton and Beyond

A1 Journal article (refereed)

Internal Authors/Editors

Publication Details

List of Authors: Jason Finch
Publication year: 2018
Journal: The Gissing Journal
Volume number: 52
Issue number: 4
Start page: 25
End page: 43


Opening paragraphs in lieu of abstract:

of naming and definitions of spatial boundaries recorded in literature,
especially in realist fiction such as George Gissing’s with its precision about
toponyms, not only record but actually structure people’s urban life
experiences. Around the edges of late Victorian and Edwardian London new
districts were created when railway lines were built into areas of fields
formerly beyond the city’s boundaries, making the population increasingly
“distributed into social areas” that were physically separate from one another.[i] The naming of stations and
the simultaneous construction of houses around them could suddenly bring an
area into being that had never been before, as at Golders Green in North London
where the northern terminus of the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway
opened in June 1907. Such new districts of very large cities have a nebulous
existence until sufficient signs and labels become attached to them for their
existence to seem reliable and secure.

of standing distinct from one another like country villages surrounded by
fields, the numerous new districts blurred into one another, and their
relationship was one of grading, of the threat of rise and fall. Such
gradations and shifts could be detected throughout the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, at levels ranging from the individual house to entire sectors of the
city. Jerry White shows, quoting the writer John Holloway’s later memoir of a
1920s childhood in Norwood, how people in outer South London then were
conscious of “the slightest distinctions between the streets”.[ii] The same applied at
Stepney, in inner East London, where one side of a street considered itself
more genteel than the other because the houses there had basements, according
to the Jewish East End memoirist Willy Goldman.[iii] A name attached to a
district could become a millstone, if the name became linked to slumminess or
some other sort of bad reputation. As well as appearing, whole districts could
shift, expand and contract, or even disappear altogether. Today, Lambeth shades
into Waterloo, Kennington and Vauxhall. “Horsley Down” was written in large
letters over a portion of London immediately south of Tower Bridge on an 1891
map, but no Londoners alive a hundred years later would ever use the name for a
London district.[iv]
Cities have a remarkable ability to forget, or rather perhaps what is
transmitted between human beings of different generations is a tiny proportion
of what the earlier generations knew and felt.

is well known as a writer of place, but the definition of localities through
the establishment of boundaries and the application of names which might or
might not stick in the longer term are more important to his writing than has
so far been appreciated.[v] Whereas much of Gissing’s
1880s fiction memorializes threatened and disappearing slums in Victorian inner
London, the work of his 1890s fiction, vitally, is that of creating the South
London suburbs. This act of creation exists in productive abrasive dialogue
with another such act, namely the official creation of new metropolitan
boroughs, municipal boroughs and urban districts in the reformed local
government environment of late Victorian England.

[i] Hugh Clout, The
Times London History Atlas
(London: Times Books, 1991), p. 88 (the same
page containing a map of “London’s Growth 1800–1914”).

[ii] Jerry White, London in the Twentieth Century: A City and Its People (London:
Viking, 2001), p. 124.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Stanford’s
Library Map of London and its Suburbs
(London: E. Stanford, 1891), sheet
11, reproduced in Peter Barber, London: A
History in Maps
(London: London Topographical Society in association with
The British Library, 2012), p. 271.

[v] The cartographic approach developed by Richard
Dennis, for example in “Mapping Gissing’s Workers
in the Dawn
,” Gissing Journal
46:4 (October 2010), pp. 1–20, and “Thyrza’s
Geography,” in George Gissing, Thyrza,
ed. Pierre Coustillas (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2013), pp. 560–567, is an
important precursor to these articles. But I perhaps see place as more
fleeting, more imagined, more evasive than Dennis does.

Last updated on 2019-19-06 at 05:37