The Age of Ruins is past. Have you seen Manchester?" was the advice given by the worldly Sidonia to a youthful Tory idealist in Benjamin Disraeli's novel Coningsby . In this book, Tristram Hunt has rediscovered and recreated in an engaging, zestful style the Victorian age of great cities. An intellectual generation ago, the Victorian city was at the forefront of the new subdiscipline of urban history, pioneered by Asa Briggs (whose marvellous Victorian Cities is scarcely noted here) and extended by H. J. Dyos, E. P. Hennock, and M. Wolff, while the literary critic Raymond Williams illuminatingly contrasted cash and culture, city and country, and Lord Clark had long charted the Gothic Revival. Those familiar with this literature will immediately recognise the narrative of the Victorian city presented here.
Inevitably, it starts with Manchester, Briggs's "shock city" of the Industrial Revolution, Hunt's "New Hades" where factories, pollution, overcrowding and horrific death rates gave rise to stinging critiques of industrialism whether by doctors, social reformers, novelists (Gaskell and Dickens) or revanchist intellectuals of the Right or Left (Southey, Carlyle, Engels).
Yet the search for identity by the industrial middle class soon generated an alternative vision of the city, with a liberating mission, the centre of culture, architectural grandeur and the practice of civic values. Hunt's "Jerusalem" (surely not, as he implies, William Blake's?) was propagated by Thomas Macaulay, approved by the French visitors Francois Guizot and Hippolyte Taine, and put into effect by Manchester's cotton lords, inspired to recreate the "Florence of the 19th century".
Where Manchester led, Birmingham soon followed but with a far more strident and self-conscious municipal gospel fashioned by the nonconformist divines George Dawson and Robert William Dale and translated into stone and cement by Joseph Chamberlain, who stands in Hunt's account as the epitome of the modern civic leader. Elsewhere - earlier in Liverpool, later in Glasgow - cities were similarly transformed, first by merchant princes but later by civic socialists seeking to pay as much attention to the slums and dwellings of the poor as to the fashionable cultural spaces of the elite.
Yet this urban civic renewal proved short-lived - too many active citizens, such as Chamberlain, could not ignore the lure of empire and metropolis, and by the end of the 19th century, cities were already unmanageable, neglected and overgrown. The mid-Victorian ideal of urban civilisation was too far in retreat to be rescued by the well-meaning Ebenezer Howard, whose garden cities simply prettified in a few cases the irreversible trend to suburbanisation and inner-city decay. Only in recent years does Hunt detect some encouraging signs of a return to Victorian civic values, borne aloft in the penthouses of Manchester, encouraged by European cultural competition and given scope for initiative by the relaxation of the deadening hand of central government.
This, then, is a classic Victorian tale of cities: sinful, redeemed temporarily, but ultimately damned. Inevitably, the focus of the book is on the new industrial cities of the north.It makes few references back to the urban renaissance that some have discovered in Georgian Britain, and one suspects a different story might be written about the smaller cities of Victorian Britain where many urban dwellers still lived. London, neither new nor industrial, sits uneasily in this account but occasionally provides useful illustrative contrasts - the difficulties of co-ordination among numerous metropolitan authorities, the marvels of Joseph Bazalgette's sewers, the bitter cry of outcast London, the absence in the metropolis of the civic pride, which stands here as properly Victorian, infused by provincial middle-class culture and nonconformist religion.
But we get little sense here of London the imperial world city or, in the provinces, the rise of civic universities as a stage in the remaking of the late Victorian city. Given Hunt's inclusion of J.B. Priestley and George Orwell, it is odd that the civic ideas of town planners such as Patrick Geddes and Patrick Abercrombie are omitted. Disappointingly, this book does not challenge significantly the existing literature, but it does present with freshness and vigour the leading features of 19th-century urban history.
In so doing, Hunt successfully fulfils his own civic mission, to help "renew our perception of Britain's urban identity". His account is punctuated by lively vignettes of the leading idealists, propagandists and activists, ranging from the failed banker but successful "renaissance man" of Liverpool William Roscoe to the erstwhile Nebraskan frontiersman and parliamentary scribe Howard.
Hunt is well versed in the printed primary and secondary sources of civic history and, while he spurns the contours of the postmodernist city, he speaks in several authorial voices - the historian rediscovering the past, the flâneur traversing the urban present, the policy adviser urging in his epilogue the recovery of Victorian civic values. At times, Hunt perhaps strains too hard for literary effect - the hackneyed tales of the Ruskins'
unconsummated marriage and Livingston's jungle meeting with Stanley hardly need to be retold here, and at times accuracy of detail is sacrificed to a neat pattern of interpretation (Richard Cobden, for example, was not London born, nor was Edward Baines a Unitarian). The language and tone are idiomatic and enthusiastic, although the copy editor might have rescued the author from the repeated misuse of "disinterested".
For the most part, this volume is well produced and handsomely illustrated, although two chapters have the wrong running titles. It is a difficult choice for an academic historian to decide whether to write a monograph seeking to revise knowledge for a select scholarly audience or a general work tackling a big theme for the educated layman. In taking the latter route, Hunt has produced an impressive, enjoyable and rewarding book.
Anthony Howe is professor of modern history, University of East Anglia.
Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City
Author - Tristram Hunt
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 432
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 297 60767 7