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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The politics of public space : cultural anxiety, Victorian literature, and the city of Paris Mann, Paisley Claire


“The English have invented the house,” writes Philip Gilbert Hamerton in Paris in Old and Present Times (1885), and “the French have invented the street” (219). Given the privileged position of the middle-class home in Victorian culture and the relationship between Parisian street and revolutionary unrest, Hamerton’s assessment would seem to place England as superior to France; indeed, examples of similar cultural dichotomies recur in nineteenth- century literature and culture, and scholars have often noted Britain’s francophobia. However, my dissertation argues that British texts about Parisian public space complicate this cultural hierarchy. At mid century, the Victorians’ increasing anxiety about Britain’s international reputation and its response to social and political problems coincided with the large-scale urban changes that Paris underwent during Haussmannization; I contend that the concomitance of these events led many Victorians to question the grand narratives of Britain’s superiority and to position Paris as the more physically and socially desirable civic space. I trace this discourse through four novels from the second half of the century—Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Eleanor’s Victory (1863), Anne Thackeray Ritchie’s Mrs. Dymond (1885), Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima (1886), and Mona Caird’s The Daughters of Danaus (1894)—as well as through travel writing and articles in the British press, arguing that the Parisian street, with its concentrated glow of artificial light, cross-section of classes, public leisure, and inclusion of women, contributed to a discourse of cultural anxiety about Britain’s own technology, urban development, and socio-spatial practice. While the Victorians’ Paris was in part a fictive space, one that appeared more inclusive than the Paris its inhabitants experienced, these perceptions nevertheless forced many Britons to reassess the appearance and function of Britain’s analogous public spaces and also the ideological values—of privacy and interiority, class and gender divisions, public restraint, and social and spatial conservatism—that had contributed to their creation.

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