BOOK REVIEW / Ancestral vices: City of Dreadful Night: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London - Judith R Walkowitz: Virago, pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
LUST, SEX, danger, excess: the stories remain the same, but there are always new ways of telling them. In City of Dreadful Night Judith Walkowitz leads us, by way of fiction, into a dense and multi-textured historical study of sexual attitudes in 1880s London.

George Gissing, R L Stevenson and Charles Dickens presented a monstrous city of stark and terrible contrasts, of labyrinthine alleyways and fog-shrouded mysteries. The intellectual middle classes were particularly drawn towards that alien netherworld, the East End, a focus for secret fantasies and fears. Here were the 'lowlife deeps', here beneath the gaslight lurked Mr Hyde, here Bill Sykes murdered Nancy, here one could buy a 'fourpenny knee-trembler' - here were the people of the abyss. Images of crime, danger, fragmentation and transgression passed almost seamlessly into the work of Victorian social historians such as Charles Booth: 'What a drama it is]' he exclaimed. Whether fact or fiction, such representations of the dispossessed did much to mould attitudes and conventions.

Middle-class women were drawn to this inferno as powerfully as men, and for complex reasons. By the 1880s, fleeing the ennui of Victorian domesticity, they began to emerge into public life, and there was considerable agitation over gender roles. The moral campaigns of these 'New Women' focused intently on their fallen sisters, the prostitutes, victims of a brutally unchanging male sexuality.

Walkowitz focuses on the women who entered public sexual debate in response to the great scandals of the decade. In 1885 W T Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, published 'The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon', which laid the foundations of modern tabloid titillation. In a highly personal style he described how 'poor daughters of the people' were being drugged, raped and lured into prostitution. Famously, he described buying a young girl for pounds 5. Drawing heavily on fictional forms - melodrama, pornography and the Gothic - he created a moral panic which led directly to the raising of the age of consent and the criminalisation of homosexuality. The press was learning to manipulate narrative so as to play on public fears - much as it does to this day.

Whitechapel was 'portal to the filth and squalor of the East' and it was here that all the middle-class concerns with the symptoms of poverty - street-crime, prostitution and disease - were wrenched into sharp relief when Jack the Ripper threw down those pathetic corpses: wretched women, grotesquely mutilated and savaged yet again in print. Walkowitz draws parallels with the Yorkshire Ripper case a century later (the distinctions between 'pure' and 'impure' women, and the eroded credibility of law and order), and demonstrates how little has changed, or indeed can change, within the dichotomous nature of our thinking. Disputes over pornography, vice and male violence remain unresolved within British feminism.

The intelligence of Walkowitz's analysis demonstrates post-structuralist critical theory at its best. She shows that a flexible, multi-faceted view of the past can reveal how facts are themselves composed of fictions. Work like this is full of hope for a deeper understanding of our future through our past.