A novel about urbanizing London and its social networks in Dickens’ Bleak House

As London grew tremendously in the 19th century, Charles Dickens tackled the city as the subject of the novel Bleak House:

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In The Turning Point, the literary scholar Robert Douglas-Fairhurst studies Dickens’s mid-career reinvention by zooming in on this single year, 1851. It was the year of the Great Exhibition in London. Marvels from around the world—an enormous diamond from India, saxophones from Paris—were displayed in the Crystal Palace, a colossal structure made of glass. (The young socialist polymath William Morris was reportedly so overcome by the exhibit’s crass materialism that he rushed from the glittering halls and vomited in the bushes.) Beyond the Crystal Palace, the world was becoming modern. The train and the telegraph made long distances feel short. Commentators hailed the progress of industry, as Britain’s robust manufacturing sector exported textiles, steam engines, and more. Yet the streets of London teemed with the starving and desperate. Raw sewage caked the banks of the Thames. Prescient British scientists warned that the destruction of tropical rainforests could yield “calamities for future generations.”…

In late November, Dickens began the work that became Bleak House, determined to wrest the chaotic realities of a world in flux into a narrative shape. Earlier industrial or “social-problem” novels by authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Benjamin Disraeli had aimed to document the suffering of workers and poor people; Dickens himself had presented a scorching critique of the Victorian workhouse system in Oliver Twist. With Bleak House, however, he sought to do something different: assimilate the new sensations of urban capitalism—marked by bewilderment, bureaucracy, and the collision of strangers—into a multi-plot novel…

Some authors find it necessary to maintain distance from the society they’re writing about. Dickens felt the opposite. The world he created in Bleak House arose from his enmeshment in the city of London and his familiarity with the streets on which he walked as many as 20 miles a day. From its first word—“LONDON”—Bleak House announces itself as a study of contemporary urban life…

Through images of shared engulfment—fog, mud, disease—Dickens joined together seemingly disparate elements of modern life. He also presented an implicit case for social reform. By tracing the vectors that link various levels of society, such as disease, kinship, and the simple fact of shared residence in London, Dickens encouraged his readers to think of the rich and the poor as, in Douglas-Fairhurst’s summation, “parts of the same story.” Processing the chaos of London through a powerful and idiosyncratic imagination, he depicted a community bound together in a common fate.

The growing cities of Europe in the 1800s did not escape the attention of writers, sociologists, and others. The speed at which cities grew and changed was unprecedented. I would argue that what it all means for human life and society is still being sorted out as we examine and adjust to a highly urban world with huge population centers.

Examining the city in the novel – and in other creative forms – is essential for helping people make sense of new phenomena. It is one thing to produce a factual report about urban change; this number of people moved, here are the conditions in which people live, here is the amount of money flowing in and out, etc. It is another thing to tell the stories of people there and then connect those stories to each other and to the larger whole.

As an urban sociologist, I would be very interested in a literature course that addresses urban novels and literary works.

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