By Accident or Design: Writing the Victorian Metropolis

This review was originally written for the Institute of Historical Research’s Reviews in History. You can see the original article here, with Paul Fyfe’s response.

By Accident or Design: Writing the Victorian Metropolis is an absorbing and complex piece of work. In it, Paul Fyfe argues that accidents not only shaped Victorian cities, but also played a role in shaping written forms and literary genres, from newspaper layouts to the 19th-century novel. There is much to learn here about accidents themselves – factory fires, toppling omnibuses, railway crashes and more – but it seems to be the writing about accidents or, indeed, how writing was shaped by accident(s) that really fascinates the author. This duality gives the work conceptual depth and allows for a broadly appealing interdisciplinary approach. The book is structured around types of writing about accidents: newspaper reports; Charles Dickens’ view on traffic accidents, articulated through his ‘Boz’ sketches; writing relating to insurance and risk; street literature; and contemporary commentary on Victorian railways. These case studies are made cohesive by a comprehensive theoretical introduction. Using accidents as a lens, Fyfe illuminates wider issues in intellectual and urban history, considering knowledge and belief, for example, as well as prevailing attitudes towards probability, statistical thinking, and increasing standardisation. There is a critical self-awareness throughout; the book is engaging and methodologically alert.

Accidents are inherently linked to knowledge: they can only exist in a context where they have an opposite such as deliberate design. The impact of this is multi-faceted. Fyfe argues early on that ‘random events’ came increasingly to be considered within broader frameworks of risk and likelihood (p. 10). The book goes on to apply this argument in a range of contexts. Here, there are obvious implications for religion: discussing Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and its characters’ responses to accidents, Fyfe notes that ‘to believe is to assess risk in a new way’ (p. 126). Situating arguments about changing systems of belief in this specific literary context allows Fyfe to resist generalisation. Less obvious, perhaps, are arguments about the changing nature of insurance documents. As factories became more complex, for example, insurance companies would often only provide policies for part of the premises. This provokes questions on knowledge and understanding, and whether we see, in this period, a move towards more formalised working environments. It also highlights an important tension that runs throughout the work: in simplified terms, did accidents become more common, meaning they were written about more, or did writing about them cement them as a concept? The answer, of course, is that these should not be considered as separate questions; instead, Fyfe works to show how they operate in a dialectic.

Standardisation and, alongside it, legislation feature frequently. They stand in opposition to the accidental and the chaotic, but they also facilitate the conceptual existence of accidents. Fyfe uses the example of Victorian transport and traffic to explain this, via close readings of Dickens’ Sketches by Boz: Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People. The fictional Boz discusses his day-to-day life in London, in which nightmarish vehicular chaos seems to play a large part: on reckless cab driving, for example, he advises passengers wondering how to get out that ‘we think the best way is, to throw yourself out, and trust to chance for alighting on your feet’ (quoted p. 84). The early 19th century saw little in the way of formal legislation in this area until 1839, when the Metropolitan Police Act gave police some control over traffic. The Hackney Carriage Acts of 1843 and 1850 required cab drivers to be licensed. Before this it was sufficient for the proprietors of cabs to hold a license. This turn towards legislation where, Fyfe argues, ‘in classic Foucauldian form, the “knowledge” and disciplinary power were one, directing traffic on London’s streets’ (p. 68), was partly prompted by an increasing number of often fatal incidents. These incidents were then discussed in the press, provoking public pressure, but also – adding to the book’s broader arguments – developing the concept of the accident as an explanatory framework in the popular imagination.

There are bigger arguments to be made here about class and power, and Fyfe is careful to acknowledge them, though they are not the focus of this study. The public uproar following traffic accidents, for example, was at its loudest when, in 1832, Lady Caroline Barham was killed by a 14-year old boy who was driving his father’s cab perfectly legally (p. 67). In this respect, the inherent interdisciplinarity of By Accident or Design is a particular asset: Fyfe moves easily from discussing the class implications of specific incidents, to those of specific literary genres. He investigates how contemporaries such as Margaret Oliphant saw popular literature as chaotic and, therefore, ‘low’, echoing, she believed, the chaos-governed lives of its readers. Gaskell made a similar distinction between the rich, who could afford insurance, and the poor, who were thought to depend on chance or, in her terms, the lottery (p. 158). To return to literary genres, works with a greater emphasis on careful creation could be considered ‘high’. But, Fyfe notes, balladeers and the creators of street literature seemed ‘delighted to be chaotic and cheap and lawless’ (p. 158). These works were often at least partly accidental in form, he argues, as well as featuring accidents heavily in their content. They are therefore shaped by accident in multiple ways.

Ideas of the local and the everyday – or, in the case of incidents, deviation from normality – are present in all of the rich source material Fyfe draws on for his analysis. Indeed, he states in the introduction that the book is ‘indebted’ to Michel de Certeau’s work on the ‘textures of the metropolitan everyday, the particular routines and ruptures that do not amount to cultural totalities’ (p. 18). Yet despite an emphasis on the importance of situated experiences, the majority of the book is about London, with the exception of a trip to Manchester in the context of Gaskell’s Mary Barton. For a work on the Victorian metropolis, this is maybe inevitable, but if the local is as important to Fyfe as it seems to be, a more explicit recognition of the London-centric subject matter would enrich it. His detailed analysis of London’s particularities and, later in the book, the impact of the railway on ideas of the local, is certainly to be commended; he profitably avoids making any sweeping arguments about urban planning (design) versus organic growth (accident), showing instead how smaller-scale incidents both shaped thoughts on the urban, and in turn played a role in shaping cities themselves. This strength could perhaps be further acknowledged and emphasised.

This duality – of accidents and of their impact on writing – is at the heart of the book and holds the chapters together effectively. We learn how accident forced the insurance industry to develop ‘thick descriptive protocols’ (p. 106), and how Victorian newspapers often became distinctively reliant on accident-based content. Reasons of form play a role in this: accident news was easily shaped into columns, and as the news came to play a more significant role in everyday life, ‘newspapers needed topical structures to impose categorical familiarity and formal structures to offer visual clues…’ (p. 43). Content and form are reflected here, both shaped by accidents. In the case of Gaskell’s work, the duality is more complex. As a novel, Mary Barton is clearly deliberately designed: Fyfe acknowledges that it would be ‘nonsense’ to suggest it was written ‘by accident’. It is, however, ‘written through accident’, reflecting contemporary concerns about the reality of factory fires, for example. In terms of content and structure, Gaskell ‘risks the coherence of her own work on the order we infer from its accidents’ (p. 131). The significance of accident to the novel in question is, again, multifaceted.

Fyfe’s study is concept-driven and pleasingly comfortable dealing with the metaphorical alongside tangible historical examples. Returning to de Certeau, Fyfe draws upon his comments on transport: ‘In modern Athens, the vehicles of mass transportation are called metaphorai. To go to work or come home, one takes a “metaphor” – a bus or a train’ (quoted p. 78). This is certainly an appealing and evocative idea, and it sets the scene effectively for the arguments that follow. At times, though, concrete concerns of the urban fade somewhat behind this abstraction: Fyfe’s comment that ‘the railroad’s connections to the metropolis were geographical as well as metaphorical’ (p. 172) should probably be unnecessary. Nonetheless, there is undoubtedly much to be said for the conceptual, philosophical approach Fyfe takes throughout this book: it is thought provoking and consistently informed by reference to carefully sourced material. Bearing his ideas in mind when reading more strictly empirical studies would be illuminating.

A particular strength of the work is, as mentioned, Fyfe’s source use. This is refreshingly open and honest. Discussing the quantification of accidents, he cleverly problematizes them in the context of the book’s wider points about writing: they are difficult to measure, ‘as accidents hardly exist outside the discourses which define and account for them’ (p. 35). Likewise, his statement that ‘a countable accident has already been modernized’ (p. 37) is pertinent and shows the importance of not projecting our own ideas onto concepts but, instead, dealing with them in their own context. Using literary source material, as Fyfe amply shows in the course of this study, can be an effective way of doing so. Later in the work, he draws interesting comparisons between attitudes to new digital media and the proliferation of Victorian popular media: both ‘have their own versions of niche markets, long tails, and the characteristics of superabundance and miscellany’ (p. 165) more often thought to be solely a trait of the web’s vast quantity of information. This ‘profusion of materials’ (p. 168), both then and now, affects means and methods of access, placing an emphasis on the accidental. Here, then, Fyfe neatly draws the concept of the accident into his own methodology – this critical self-awareness is appealing, and skilfully woven into the book’s broader arguments.

Elsewhere, the reflective approach continues. Fyfe notes that the book ‘has risked its own coherence to keep faith with the interpretive dynamics and contradictions of accidents themselves’ (p. 214). By Accident or Design is perfectly coherent, once the inherent duality of its concerns, as mentioned above, is grasped, but Fyfe’s comment goes some way to explain some of the book’s initial idiosyncrasies. There is an engaging immediacy to the more straightforward case studies – a specific occasion of skating ice cracking in Regent’s Park in 1867, killing more than 30 people, and the speed of consequent press reactions, for example (p. 153) – that can sometimes be lost amongst Fyfe’s critical dissection of literary texts. The book’s final analysis is of Thomas Hardy’s poetry, at which point the in-depth critical reading feels a little incongruous amongst the overarching (and convincing) concluding statements; it would perhaps sit better earlier in the text. That said, this variety also plays a role in creating the book’s broad interdisciplinary appeal. Fyfe’s ability to bring together concerns of urban and intellectual history, literary criticism, archival theory, and more, certainly makes this a stimulating read.

In the book’s afterword, Fyfe argues that ‘it is entirely possible to consider complexity with precision and conviction. So too is it possible to consider the accidental for its particular theoretical design’ (p. 210). Through a careful consideration of a wide variety of source material, alongside a self-aware and critically informed approach, Fyfe shows this very clearly to be the case.

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