BOOK REVIEW / Middle-class melodrama of labyrinthine lust: 'City of Dreadful Delight' - Judith R Walkowitz: Virago, 16.99

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The Independent Online
THAT acme of malls, Whiteleys of Bayswater, does not merely provide a roof for a collection of shops. It presents mimicries of urban scenes, like the square or the pavement cafe, in a setting whose every smooth white surface denies the dirt and confusion of the real city outside. A century ago, it did the same thing in a different way.

In the Victorian city it was the flaneur, the wandering male commentator, who did the walking and the looking. With the advent of department stores, of which Whiteleys was the first, the middle-class woman was offered a secure space in which she too

could enjoy 'an immense symposium of the arts and industries of the nation and of the world'. In some respects, however, the invention of shopping exacerbated Victorian anxieties. Respectable women in the street could not always be distinguished from women of the street - particularly in the West End, where the new forms of consumption failed to dislodge the area's traditional sexual commerce. A woman in public was unavoidably associated with sexual danger, either as vector or potential victim.

Sometimes she could be both. The prime narrative of the era was that of Jack the Ripper, whose victims were women of the so-called unfortunate class, murdered and mutilated in the alleys of Whitechapel, the darkest convolutions of the 'labyrinth' that London was seen to be. From Judith Walkowitz's encyclopaedic account, it would seem that no species of fear was excluded from the story. The medieval anti- Semitic lore of blood sacrifice returned in rumours that the Ripper was a Jew; contemporary anxieties about the cruelty of medical science and vivisection were aroused by suggestions that the sexual mutilations could only have been performed by somebody with medical expertise. But the most fertile belief was that the Ripper was a member ofthe upper classes. To lessen the mystery of his identity, he was cast as the villain of a melodrama.

That role held a perverse fascination for the social actors of the day. The journalist W T Stead, who first suggested that the Jekyll and Hyde story might throw some light on to the nature of the Ripper, developed a disturbingly ambivalent persona in the course of his sensational crusade against child prostitution. When he masqueraded as a well-to-do 'Minotaur' to carry out his project of buying a girl for pounds 5, he took no heed of the fear and distress be caused the child; he simply stopped short of defloration and claimed a higher moral purpose. He intertwined melodrama and pornography; many people saw an ugly irony in the fact that children on street corners were hawking the kind of story previously available only in clandestine fiction.

The other leading character is Josephine Butler, the champion of fallen women. For Walkowitz, Butler and Stead are supreme exponents of the masquerade undertaken by those of the elite who sought to explore Darkest London. Butler dramatised herself as an embodiment of suffering womanhood, identifying her own pain, as a bereaved mother, with the misery of her outcast sisters. She placed herself in the foreground of their story, as the heroine, and used the figure of the female victim to challenge the

idea that it was women who defiled men.

There were other notable players in the drama, such as Mrs Weldon, the spiritualist who outwitted the men of medicine sent by her husband to have her incarcerated as a lunatic, and Karl Pearson, founder of the Men and Women's Club, where progressive

thinkers gathered to discuss the sex question. But there were also the plebs, and here one is left with certain reservations.

City of Dreadful Delight is an important synthesis of an extensive body of writing. But despite its protestations, the common people are overshadowed by the middle- class radicals, predecessors of the book's intended audience. Could it be that the left-feminist academic fascination with the late Victorian period contains a slight nostalgia for the days when early modern experiences like shopping and discussing sexuality were the preserve of the elite?