Dickens’ depiction of London exhibits an ambivalent topophilia of the sort described by Elizabeth Grierson in her writing on place-making in Urban Aesthetics (forthcoming). In considering the relations between aesthetics, subjectivity and urban space in his imaginary of place, Dickens also highlights a feature of the nineteenth-century urban landscape that has been intensified in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Ratcliff Highway, the Wapping Docks, Limehouse – London’s nineteenth-century Chinatown and the space of the other, Johnny the Chinaman’- and other districts in the docks area of London are transnational localities. The distinguishing feature of these localities is that, while they are local spaces, they are constituted by their engagement with the global. Through nodes of global connectivity such as London, the global manifests and is articulated through the everyday practices of the local. I start with this quotation to give a sense of the intensity of the urban and its significance as place in a wider global environment. Dickens’ London was a lived, globally-connected, social space teeming with possibilities, both nefarious and otherwise.
The city has long held a grip on the cultural imagination, and there is an enduring tradition of ambivalence towards cities and their effects. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson’s collection of essays on the city highlight two standard opposing views of cities: on the one hand they are exciting, vibrant places most conducive to the realization of the self and, on the other, they are places of alienation and estrangement (Bridge and Watson 2002: 3). The city may be creative or destructive and, while the juxtaposition is extreme, most responses, literary and otherwise, vacillate between these two poles. The city is, as Deyan Sudjic puts it, never entirely comfortable (1992: 31). Even though Ratcliff Highway was an unstable realm of infamy and moral turpitude – the sex and drugs described by Dickens – it nevertheless invokes a romantic response. J. Ewing Ritchie, a contemporary of Dickens, recognizes the promise the city holds out against the suffocating constraints of the Victorian social order, despite the series of brutal murders committed in Ratcliff Highway in 1811. The excitement of the city, never completely free of a certain frisson of danger, would have a salutary effect on a man:
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