Judith R. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London, London: Virago, 1992. Pp.xiv + 353. £16.99 (pbk.). ISBN 1-85831-517-9.
Neither W.T. Stead nor Karl Pearson has (to my knowledge) been put forward as candidates for Jack the Ripper. By placing them in the same narrative framework, Judith Walkowitz suggests, without explicitly stating, the analogies between both Stead's explorations of 'London's Labyrinth' and Pearson's wish to open up and dissect women (and his mutilation of Maria Sharpe into a helpmeet), and the Ripper's activities in Whitechapel. When G. B. Shaw jestingly hypothesized that the Ripper was a 'scientific sociologist' (p.200) did he perhaps have Pearson in mind?
Among these discussions of 'cultural events of the 1880s' (p.10), Walkowitz's placing of 'The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon' as a paradigm of the crusading press campaign deeply and sinisterly implicated in the 'abuses' it purports to condemn, is superb. Perhaps the timing of 'The Maiden Tribute' could have been emphasized a little more strongly; with the suspension of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1883 the campaign against them could have been assumed victorious. Stead appropriated the rhetoric and themes of anti-CD agitation to inscribe a very different narrative, a melodrama of innocent child victims and conspiracies of entrapment, which had profound connections with contemporary pornographic motifs.
It is frustrating that Stead's erasure of the stories of female agency explicit in the work of Josephine Butler and the Ladies' National Association for the Repeal of the CD Acts has not been further explored in terms of the influence (if any) of narratives of conspiracy and victimization on the practical activities of social purity organizations (especially given the schism soon to come between the National Vigilance Association and those who felt that it was betraying Butler's ideals). These early demonstrated a split between the impulse to help women and children in unspectacular practical ways and the drive to censorship. Did social purity groups suffer the tensions of an uneasy alliance between the former supporters of the defunct Society for the Suppression of Vice, with its clean-up-the-streets agenda, and the Anti-CD Acts campaigners, with their (not altogether harmonious) combination of feminist and civil libertarian concerns? What indeed is the relationship between media scandals such as 'The Maiden Tribute' and workers 'in the field'--by the 1920s social purity workers responded to recurrent press scares about 'White Slavery' with a weary sense that such melodramatization was part of the problem. This is the kind of exploration we might have expected from the author of Prostitution and Victorian Society.
Walkowitz's discussion of the Men and Women's Club has already appeared in different form and is justly well-known. As an archivist, I would, however, dispute that the survival of the records of a society indicates the members' sense of historical importance (just as I would dispute conspiracy theories deduced from non-survival). This club was not an unique attempt to get the sexes together to talk about sex, in a serious, rational, truth-telling, 'scientific' way. There were less extensively documented attempts among progressive radical circles at the time (e.g. around Katherine Conway and John Bruce Glasier). The dramas of Karl Pearson, Olive Schreiner, Maria Sharpe and the surrounding group, its sexual and emotional politics make a story, as Walkowitz herself remarks, perhaps dangerously seductively 'like... a classic Victorian novel' (p.167) or a soap opera. Pearson, an archetypal black marble pillar of Victorian masculinity, appears more successful at inspiring the women of the circle to study at the British Museum Reading Room than to reveal their own sexual thoughts and feelings, while ironically the excluded Havelock Ellis did elicit such accounts, in some cases from the same women.
The chapters on the spiritualist Georgina Weldon's campaign against her husband's attempts to confine her in a lunatic asylum, and on Jack the Ripper and the Ripper phenomenon, have also appeared previously as journal articles. It is good to have them together in one volume, but at times, reft away into yet another in the 'series of multiple and simultaneous cultural contests and exchanges', I felt cheated of further development of issues already raised. Even, cynically, to wonder whether 'highlight[ing] a shifting pattern of cultural and social perspectives' (p.10) was just an excuse for pasting existing articles together into a book.
Perhaps the long-awaited follow-up to Prostitution and Victorian Society could not be expected to fulfill the expectations raised by succeeding such an epoch-making work. City of Dreadful Delight is a little disappointing, but perhaps only because one really wants to hear what Walkowitz would have to say on the further questions stimulated by what is here.
Lesley A Hall
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine