Dust Piles and Damp Pavements Excrement, Repression, and the Victorian City in Photography and Literature

Dust Piles and Damp Pavements Excrement, Repression, and the Victorian City in Photography and Literature

Ellen Handy

Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS (1995)


As both liquid and solid waste accumulated at a remarkable rate in Victorian cities and posed urgent problems of disposal, anxieties about (and fascinations with) excrement took various forms of expression in both life and art. The excretory process and its products were as unmentionable in most social contexts as they were inescapable. How then could they be figured in a novel or in a series of photographs? In both its naming and visual imagery, prose adopts strategies for evading and transforming waste different from those available to photography, which possesses a directly indexical relation to the world it represents. How are photography’s and fiction’s evasions of—and preoccupations with—excreta and urban sanitation both imaged and concealed? And how do the antithetical categories of wet and dry operate in these representations? Lytton Strachey, in his memoir of the childhood home he first knew in 1884 (69 Lancaster Gate, London), described its late-Victorian sanitary facilities:

The one and only bathroom was . . . perched, with its lavatory, in an impossible location between the drawing room and the lowest bedroom floors—a kind of crow’s nest—to reach which, one had to run the gauntlet of stairs innumerable, and whose noises of rushing water were all too audible from the drawing room just below.

The eminently Victorian position of this lavatory was all too proximate to the drawing room, but unspeakable to anyone lacking the naughty desire to reject convention that actuated Strachey and his Bloomsbury cronies. This passage serves well to locate the social position of the very topic of excrement in polite society, yet a great distance lies between the bourgeois Stracheys’ lavatory and the squalid arrangements of the urban poor.

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