Dirt in Victorian Literature and Culture: Writing Materiality

Sabine Schülting’s Dirt in Victorian Literature and Culture comes at a welcome time as the Victorian sanitation movement, as well as studies on dust and dirt, are gaining attention in Victorian Studies. Her book is a useful contribution to the existing work on dirt in Victorian literature and culture, as she not only explores representations of waste and refuse in sanitary, social and fictional texts, but is also interested in how dirt is reflected in these texts’ aesthetic and narrative features.

In her first chapter Schülting focuses on the Victorian fascination with the recycling of dirt. She places Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor in dialogue with Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House, which allows her to convincingly show the similarities in these texts. All three share an obsession with categorizing, hoarding and ordering waste and recyclable material. Moreover, they all value dirt in a similar way, as they promote the view that all waste is potentially of value as long as the dirt is pure,“i.e. when its original ingredients are not mixed with other matter” (23). For dirt to become valuable, it thus has to be shifted through and ordered. Schülting explains how these texts reproduce this act of awarding value to dirt by separating the pure from the impure in their narrative structure as well. Through his descriptions Mayhew, for example, is able to transform dirt “into the most fixed of signifiers: numbers, which signify monetary wealth” (29). And in Our Mutual Friend Dickens invites the reader to look on as the characters sift through their chaotic lives, in an attempt to attribute meaning to it. According to Schülting the storyteller himself resembles the dust-sifter “in that he also looks for discarded material that can be reused”, thus “exploring the narrative potential of old things and waste matter” (36).

Schülting continues to build upon this idea of separating pure and impure dirt in her second chapter in which she explains that the Victorian discourse on class mirrored this notion. The Victorians distinguished between the dirty, but hard-working working-classes members, or the “Great Unwashed”, who were simply ignorant of their own dirt, and the paupers who refused to conform to the middle-class standards of hygiene and whose misery was consequentially interpreted as the result of “their moral and physical filthiness” (54). Schülting explains how cholera, the “filth disease,” came to be viewed as a punishment for the latter group. And how, as a result, the abject pauper became increasingly dehumanized and merged with his dirty surroundings. Dirt and diseases connected with dirt, on the other hand, became personified and even began to supplant humans as the protagonists in narratives. She convincingly converges these arguments in her reading of Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, in which she shows how the characters’ acceptance or rejection of middle-class standards of hygiene determine their physical and moral transformations. Whereas the protagonist is rewarded with “an education combining Christian morality, nationalism, and nineteenth- century sanitary principles” for his desire to be clean (71), the Doasyoulikes who reject cleanliness are instead “punished by degeneration, lose their humanity, and eventually have to face extinction” (71).

In her third chapter Schülting argues that the Victorian middle-class desire to narrate and understand the lives of the poor was a “biopolitical” attempt to obtain power over those lives. She contends that authors represented the pauper’s lives in the slums as “bare life”, i.e. as “deprived from all elements of (civilized) human existence” and thereby reduced them to the status of waste, in order to ideologically exclude them “from the arena of politics by discursive inclusion” (81). Building upon her argument in the previous chapter, Schülting sets out to explore the strategies employed by authors such as Dickens, Morrison and Mayhew in their attempt to dehumanize, and thereby desentimentalize the poor. She argues that this desentimentalization is also reflected in the narrative structure of late-Victorian novels. Through an analysis of George Gissings’ The Unclassed, as well as George Moore’s A Mummers Wife and A Modern Lover she lays bare the ‘poetics of dirt’ which these Naturalist novels exhibit. She shows how, as a result of their resistance to sentimentalization, “there is no beautiful dead body [in these novels], but a focus on the materiality of the corpse and the disturbing details of physical decay. The narrative no longer seems to evoke sympathy but dwells on disgusting details” (108). By thus challenging middle-class ideologies and aesthetics, these Naturalist novels produce a type of dirt that fails to signify or symbolize: the dirt in them is simply unrecyclable, redundant and disgusting waste matter.

In her fourth chapter Schülting explores the affective economies that underlie sanitary and fictional texts produced during the mid- and late-Victorian era, focussing particularly on the emotion of disgust. In the first part of the chapter Schülting shows how Hector Gavin’s Sanitary Ramblings uses disgust in an attempt to construct social cohesion and to redraw class boundaries, by inviting his readers to sympathize with the poor, whilst at the same time emphasizing the difference in the way in which the readers and the slum-dwellers react to dirt (127). Whilst the narrator and his reader display disgust at the dirty environment the poor are forced to live in, the poor are unware of their own deplorable situation and fail to feel disgust. In the second part of the chapter, Schülting persuasively argues that Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima rejects the bourgeoisie sympathy and philanthropy advocated in Gavin’s text, and instead uses disgust to promote an aesthetic ideal. He does so by inviting his reader to sympathize with the highly sensitive character of Hyacinth who, with his “heightened susceptibility to strong feelings is ‘the only sort of person on whom we can count not to betray, to cheapen or, as we say, give away, the value and the beauty of the thing’” (136). Turning to “A Night at the Workhouse”, Schülting suggests that James Greenwood used disgust purely for sensational purposes, arguing that his repeated emphasis on his inability to describe the interior of the workhouse and conditions of the poor highlights “the gap between textual representation and reality”, and thereby “enhances the sensationalism of his text and excites the reader’s desire for a closer gaze at the scene, which, by implication, can never be fully satisfied – an ideal strategy for serialization” (141).

In her final chapter, in which she explores representations of dirt in (post-)colonial literature, Schülting brings together the ideas introduced in previous chapters. She shows that, after the discourse on sanitation made its way to the colonies through, amongst others, the soap advertisements of brands like Pears, authors such as J. M. Forster and Ahmed Ali began to use a “poetics of dirt” to create “a writing that deviates from, or even challenges, imperialist discourse” (153). In her analysis of A Passage to India, for example, Schülting argues that the novel destabilizes Indian stereotypes connected to dirt by repeatedly showing that they are always the product of a misunderstanding between the native Indian and English characters. Schülting attributes these misunderstandings to the instability of meaning, which according to her, is inherent to colonial discourse. Yet, this is not the only way in which A Passage to India challenges colonial discourse. By displaying the fetishization of the body of the dirty, Indian poor, the text also undermines the discourse of colonial civilization by questioning whether British philanthropy was not simply an excuse to gaze at the both attractive and repelling “dirty” Indian body, rather than the result of a real desire to offer assistance.

In Twilight In Delhi, published in 1940, Ahmed Ali uses the ‘poetics of dirt’ to converge Indian tradition with English colonial discourse. As Schülting explains, the dirt in this novel is an allusion to the poetic genre of the Urud shahr-ashob, which represented “the breakdown of the established order, the dislocation of the social, economic and moral life of the people, and the topsy-turvey nature of things” (171). Schülting argues that the use of dirt enables Ali to symbolize the chattered dreams of the male characters and the disintegration of Indian tradition and society, whilst simultaneously ground his novel within British sanitary discourse. As such, Schülting argues that the colonial ‘poetics of dirt’ found in Twilight in Delhi and A Passage to India “does not take side with the logic of the Raj, the emerging Indian nationalism, or with the discourse of Western modernity. Instead it appears as a distinct poetical response to the Indian metropolis, its past and present” (174).

Schülting’s book is persuasive and clearly well researched. Because she does not focus solely on the socio-historical aspects of dirt in literature, but also looks at its aesthetic and narrative features, Schülting’s work is innovative and a welcome addition to existing scholarly work on Victorian dirt and sanitary reform. Moreover, her work as a whole can raise questions regarding the extent to which Victorian sanitary discourses continue to inform contemporary society and literature. Schülting’s historical and narrative research remains highly relevant in our current moment.

If Schülting’s book has a flaw it is only that the author occasionally depends too much on the reader’s presumed knowledge of the sometimes obscure texts used. Though it is likely that the majority of readers interested in Victorian sanitary discourse would be familiar with works such as Bleak House and Oliver Twist, they are less likely to be well acquainted with a text like Ali’s Twilight In Delhi. The book would have benefitted from the inclusion of a short plot summary or a clearer argument explaining her motivation for including these latter texts. This, however, is but a minor flaw in an otherwise well written and engaging book.

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