“Unplanned Wildernesses: Narrative the British Slum 1844-1951” was a one-day conference, held at Warwick and organised by Gabrielle Mearns, which opened up a fascinating range of perspectives on British slums from the mid-19th to mid-20th century.
Gabrielle’s opening remarks positioned the slum as a site of contestation in a range of debates over gender, class and race, and a space that challenges representation, and papers throughout the day explored the full extent of these remarks. Seth Koven’s keynote began by taking this idea of the power contest to the smallest-scale place within the slum: the body. In particular, he focused on a young woman from the slums, Nellie Dowell, and two competing accounts of her body: medical records that document her hospitalisation for chorea (rheumatic fever), and her letters to her friend Muriel. Koven began by questioning why, as a historian, reading the medical records felt a far more invasive act than the intensely personal letters, and the paper that followed offered various answers to this. In the first part he constructed a narrative of Nellie through her medical records, intensely (and invasively) detailed accounts of her bodily state; Koven positioned these within discourses of “technologies of interiority” and explored ideas around the individual body within the regimented instituition of the hospital. Nellie’s letters to Muriel provided a different narrative of her illness, one which opened up deep intimacy and forms of desire that were suggestive of something deeper than friendship; Koven raised the possibility (and difficulties) of reading unknown queer desire, but what was particularly interesting here was the way in which illness provided the means through which that desire operated, opening up the boundaries of the bodily self/ other and a language of exchange and connection. Returning to his initial question about the historian’s position to subject material, it was clear that this latter material felt less invasive because of its voluntary nature, rather than the involuntary nature of institutional documentation, and Koven drew on Spivak to leave us with questions about “(how) can the Cockney subaltern speak?”
The first panel saw a paper from Warwick’s Mick Carpenter and Alice Mah who are undertaking a project on Coventry’s slum history – an act of reclaiming an “outcast slum”, as the city’s pre-war urban history has received little attention. They charted the 19th century development of the city, which effectively skipped the normal processes of the Industrial revolution and underwent rapid urbanisation in the late-century period; as such, it is a “non-classical” slum, and their project is understanding this history through local accounts, collections and narratives. This was followed by Christopher Bischof’s paper on slum schools, looking at the role of teachers who chose to work at these schools and their relationship to the slums which they lived and worked on the edge of; this put them in an ambivalent relationship to the space of the slum, and raised questions around the borders of respectability in the slums, and urban environments more widely. Indeed a running theme of the morning was the idea of encounter between the personal and professional, the body and the institution, in urban locations.
Borders and boundaries was also a theme throughout the panel I chaired on “Slum Geographies”. Jessica Hindes’ paper looked at G.W.M. Reynolds’ Mysteries of London, beginning by raising questions around the representation of the space of the slum through different genres, particularly the Gothic – modes of representation more typically found in descriptions of European castles become transferred to the London streets. Jessica thought in particular about the spatial dynamics of above/below ground which opened up a different mode of spatial structure, and one which was appropriate to her final point that just as the Gothic taps into the deepest layers of the psyche, the slum holds the secrets of society itself. New forms of mapping the slum were also a theme of Eliza Cubitt’s paper on Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago. The slum on which this narrative is based is represented on an OS map of the city only as a blank space, unrepresentable and unmapped; Morrison’s account creates a fictional mapping of the space which, interestingly, is still bordered by the “real” streets surrounding the slum. Eliza’s paper explored the relationship between text and map, including a fascinating visual re-mapping of the text through a 3D simulation that recentred the importance of embodied experience in mapping. Nell Stevens’ paper also considered competing spatial discourses through looking at the Salvation Army’s practice of rewriting popular music-hall songs with Salvationist lyrics; this was a popular way of appealing to the urban poor, but Nell also suggested that it reflected the broader Salvation Army project of remapping London spatially, and considered the role that music played in this project.
In all of these papers I was really interested by intersecting themes of the competing modes of both spatial and textual representation taking place over the slums, the questions over the boundaries of the slum and its relationship to the surrounding urban space, suggesting perhaps that the way in which these narratives sought to spatially and textually contain the slum was underpinned by an anxiety about its potential uncontainability. As much as these discourses sought to articulate the problem of the slum it was obvious, too, that the slum made visible a whole host of problems of modernity: not just its problematic socio-economic changes, but also wider conceptual questions about the relationship between different places in a changing world-space. This is, of course, drawing more on my own research framework than that proposed by the papers themselves, but it felt like one useful way of positioning and contextualising the ideas around modernity, space and representation that the slum poses. All in all a useful and productive day, and great to hear such a range of perspectives on the British slum.