In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The City

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
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  • World Cities

Victorian Literature The City
Anne Humpherys
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0086


The 19th century saw the rise of the world’s first great metropolis, London, and the transformation of several northern British small towns into the first major industrial cities. These great cities offered the pleasures of anonymity and the dangers of alienation. Urbanization was both a great leveler and a producer of new classes such as the merchant, the professional classes, and the gentry. Perhaps the most important element in these developments was the railway, the building of which transformed the landscape, the cityscape, and individual lives. Though at the beginning of the century little could be recognized as modern, by the end all the elements that would identify the modern world were in place—seemingly infinite variety, endless change in the built environment, and startling contrasts, as well as overcrowding, dirt, noise, crime, poverty, and ostentatious display. New opportunities of all sorts also arose in these cities—for work, for criminal activity, for adventure, and for pleasure and distress. The Victorians themselves were both fascinated and horrified by their cities, especially London, which, though not an industrial city, also presented the combined effects of rapid and uncontrolled growth. The contradictory responses generated by all this change and development resulted in an impressive amount of writing, especially in the periodical press, which itself was a product of urbanization. Journalists, a new class dubbed the Fourth Estate, tried to gain an overview of the constantly changing city, and novelists devised narrative and symbolic ways to represent the totality of the city. Much of this work was about the social problems, but there were also many sketches that were full of delight at the variety and oddity of city life. Most serious scholarship on the Victorian city, however, began only after World War II, partly due to early-20th-century negative responses to the Victorians’ perceived moralistic values and limitations on personal development. Among the first to react against anti-Victorianism were campaigners seeking to preserve Victorian buildings—the founding of the Victorian Society in 1957 was a sign of this shift. Historians were not far behind in collecting and mining the archives not only of London but of all the great cities, especially Manchester. Literary scholars also began to analyze the impact of the city on literary and artistic production. Though the scholarly interest in urban history never ceased, later-20th-century scholars and critics also began to write about more specific aspects of the city—gender, nationalism, race, and sectarianism. Finally, the subject of the problematics of representing the city, in particular London, came under critical attention in the first decade of the 21st century.

General Overviews

The study of the 19th-century city was part of the post–World War II efforts to preserve Victorian buildings and interest in urban history. Among the earliest results of this interest was Briggs 1990 (first published in 1963), a study of five major cities, including one in Australia. This was followed by Dyos and Wolff 1973, a magisterial two-volume collection of essays on the Victorian city, which still is the place for all study of the Victorian city to begin. In the following three decades, various aspects of the Victorian city were subjected to major historical investigation and literary analysis, including government and the various structures the city incorporated (Johnson and Pooley 1982). Other edited collections brought together essays on different aspects of the city, such as Morris and Rodger 1993 and Mancoff and Trela 1996. A reprint of an earlier study (Kellett 2015) gives a definitive analysis of the impact of the railway on the Victorian city. Higgs 2014 provides a good social history of the minutia of daily life in the 19th-century city. Coleman 1973 is an early collection of contemporary responses to the Victorian city and was designed for classroom use, a sign that study of the Victorian city was now part of the school curriculum.

  • Briggs, Asa. Victorian Cities. London: Penguin, 1990.

    One of the first indispensable books on Victorian cities. Includes discussions of Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Middlesbrough, and London as well as Melbourne in Australia. A balanced account of the achievements and failures of the 19th-century city. First published in 1963.

  • Coleman, Bruce Ivors, ed. The Idea of the City in 19th-Century Britain: Birth of Modern Britain. London: Routledge, 1973.

    Fifty-three extracts of 19th-century commentary on the city, including London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Glasgow, organized chronologically. Includes poetry, the novel, and essays. Designed for classroom use.

  • Dyos, H. J., and Michael Wolff, eds. The Victorian City: Images and Realities. 2 vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

    Though almost forty-five years old, still an essential collection of essays on the Victorian city. In two volumes, with thirty-eight essays on all aspects of the subject by major scholars, 434 illustrations, and twenty maps. Emphasis on poverty and the working class.

  • Higgs, Michelle. A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword History, 2014.

    In ten chapters covering all aspects of daily life in the Victorian city, from finding a place to live to “encounters with the opposite sex,” Higgs provides a balanced social history of how people lived in the Victorian city.

  • Kellett, John R. The Impact of Railways on Victorian Cities. London: Routledge, 2015.

    Originally published in 1969. A comprehensive and thorough study of the impact of the building of the railroads in general with case histories of the five largest cities: Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, and London. Six other chapters cover the growth of the railways and their social impact.

  • Johnson, J. H., and Colin G. Pooley, eds. The Structure of 19th-Century Cities. New York: St. Martin’s, 1982.

    Includes an introduction and ten chapters by major scholars, organized into three sections: housing and the urban environment, retailing and the urban economy, and the social structure of the town. Cities discussed include Cardiff, Huddersfield, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Merthyr Tidfil, Nottingham, Salford, Sheffield, and Wolverhampton.

  • Mancoff, Debra, and D. J. Trela, eds. Victorian Urban Settings: Essays on the 19th-Century City and Its Contexts. Literature and Society in Victorian Britain 1. New York: Garland, 1996.

    Thirteen essays, including an editors’ preface and an introduction, grouped into three broad categories: “Mapping the Victorian City,” “Constructing Identity in an Urban Setting,” and “Imagining the Victorian City.” Substantive references to London, Manchester, and Glasgow. Papers originally presented at the 1993 annual meeting of the Midwest Victorian Studies Association.

  • Morris, R. J., and Richard Rodger, eds. The Victorian City: A Reader in British Urban History, 1820–1914. London: Longman, 1993.

    Important collection of eleven essays on varied aspects of the city in general: sections on “The City and Its People,” “The Physical Fabric of the City,” and “The Social Fabric of the City.” Valuable introduction about the development of urban history and the 19th-century city.

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