Sketches of the Metropolis: Pub-Crawling with George augustus Sala in Household Words
University of Kent and University of Sydney
eviewing John Timbs’s Curiosities of London (1855) in an essay of that title in Household Words on 23 June 1855, George Augustus Sala reflected upon the current fad for literature devoted to the metropolis: There is scarcely a writer at the present day, I believe, connected with the periodical press, but who has written picturesque, humorous, or descriptive sketches upon the sights, characters, and curiosities, moral and physical, of the Great Metropolis, the Great Wen, the Modern Babylon, the World of London, the Giant City, the Monster Metropolis, the Nineveh of the nineteenth century, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I even think that desultory essays upon some London curiosities have from time to time found their way into this journal. (497)
Indeed they had, many of them by this most loquacious and bohemian of Dickens’s “young men.” Given the global remit that Dickens had projected for Household Words in the “Preliminary Word” with which he opened its first issue – not just to “treat of the hopes, the enterprises, triumphs, joys, and sorrows, of this country only, but, in some degree, of those of every nation upon earth” (1) – and given London’s status as cosmopolitan “World City,” the metropolis was a crucial source of copy for his new periodical. The journal published urban travel writing by a range of contributors – John Hannay, William Blanchard Jerrold, John Hollingshead, as well as Dickens himself. But Sala is arguably its preeminent urban spectator, frequently adopting an obvious flâneurial role in contributing some of its most significant sketches of the metropolis. This was a journalistic genre than spanned Europe. Martina Lauster’s superb comparative study of nineteenth-century journalism and its physiologies, Sketches of the Nineteenth Century (2007), argues for the Vol. 30, No. 1, March 2013
significance of these city sketches, contending that they “occupy a central space in the networks of knowledge that are so characteristic of the Victorian Age and its European equivalents” (13). Taking issue with Walter Benjamin’s critique of the flâneur and his dismissal of the Physiologies as “innocuous portraits of social types, … [designed] to make a disturbing, dangerous urban world look familiar,” Lauster argues that “on the contrary, these publications were in their very conception a parodist form, wittily subverting the portrayal of Parisian and French types” (14).1 The Physiologies and natural histories enjoyed their greatest vogue in the 1840s (Lauster 14). But they were given new life in Household Words in the writing of Sala. His cosmopolitan pen-portraits of London for Dickens’s journal can be seen as offering a challenge to Benjamin’s account of the flâneur and of feuilleton writing about the city; but they also represent an apprenticeship in the techniques of “word-painting” that would become the hallmark of his later special correspondence. It is these two aspects of Sala’s journalism for Household Words that I focus on here, using a series of his sketches of London pubs as illustrative. The French physiologies of the 1840s were popular sketches involving the application of a quasi-scientific method of categorizing types to the humorous study of social life. They descended from Louis-Sebastien Mercier’s Tableau de Paris of 1776–88. This was a series of eyewitness accounts of Parisian coffee-houses, changing fashions, old clothes markets, bill-stickers, street singers and so on which, according to Lauster, marked “the birth of city sketches,” “the inception of verbal drawing as a discursive form capturing contemporary metropolitan mores” (144). Sala mentions his ambition to “bring Mercier’s Tableau … down to the present day” (vii) twenty years later in his preface to the second edition...
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