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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, February 21st, 2006


 

Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City

by Tristram Hunt

The Not-So-Second City

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

This is among the best -- among the most ambitious, sweeping, original, and significant -- books of urban history to be published in the past decade. Hunt, one of those young, audacious, and brilliant British historians who write with sureness and verve, has taken on a huge subject: the Victorians' response -- political, architectural, religious, and intellectual -- to the rise of the modern industrial city. The political, social, moral, public-health, and infrastructure problems created by the chaotic and fetid cities of the Industrial Revolution were unprecedented and, at first, overwhelming (life expectancy in the slums of Glasgow and Liverpool in the 1840s dropped to levels unseen since the Black Death). In defining the conditions the early Victorians confronted, Hunt turns at first to the usual sources -- Carlyle and Elizabeth Gaskell, Engels and Mayhew -- and his survey is fluent if rather predictable. But then he boldly illuminates how the industrialized city and the problems it engendered came largely to dominate and define Victorian literature, philosophy, aesthetics, and, above all, politics and architecture. Hunt ranges with authority from Southey's anti-industrial diatribes to Glasgow's waterworks to Ruskin's influence on civic architecture in the Midlands. He fully hits his stride, though, when he explicates the extraordinarily effective measures that the conscientious, evangelical, middle-class municipal leadership took in the second half of the nineteenth century to subdue dangerous and unlovely cities and transform them into clean, well-lit, well-governed, culturally confident metropolises. (One of his most perspicacious insights is to trace the direct line between the burghers' ideal of civic virtue and the development of municipal socialism.) Hunt's is above all a tale of merchant princes in Manchester and Liverpool, in Glasgow, Leeds, and Birmingham (that city's mayor, Joseph Chamberlain, is the dominant personality in the book), who built not only roads and sewers but galleries, libraries, and some of the greatest edifices and public spaces of nineteenth-century urban civilization -- Bradford's Venetian Gothic Wool Exchange; Liverpool's Albert Dock and St. George's Hall (which the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner praised as among the greatest neo-Grecian buildings in the world); Birmingham's broad boulevards, stately squares, and grand domed council house; and Manchester's palazzo-inspired warehouses and magnificent neo-Gothic town hall. Hunt evokes a time of intense public-spiritedness, upright municipal leadership, and a strong and locally rooted civic culture (which was, as he notes, "more often than not the indigenous product of a Nonconformist conscience") that thrived before a mobile national elite absorbed it. Although he recognizes that the clock can't be turned back, he has clearly written a paean to the provincial bourgeoisie. Formerly much maligned, that group has recently received sympathetic treatment in two other histories of equal discernment but narrower scope: Simon Gunn's The Public Culture of the Victorian Middle Class, and Public Lives, an affectionate portrait of middle-class Glasgow families, by Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair.


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