In this special guest blog post, Dr Mary Shannon writes about the remarkable London street where a number of noted Victorian journalists worked
Last week, I turned a street corner near Oxford Circus and bumped into a friend from university who I had not seen in a good while. We both exclaimed at the coincidence which had brought us both to this same spot at the same time. If one of us had chosen a different route, or been delayed by a few minutes, we would never have even been aware that we had been in such close proximity. What a chance encounter, we both exclaimed, in a city of 10 million people.
And yet, when I thought about it afterwards, the encounter was not so much of a co-incidence after all. The same factors which made us friends in the first place (age, interests, values) brought us to the same city and then made us familiar with the same areas of it: the same locations, the same streets. Our work and social lives brought us to similar places, week in, week out; it was only a matter of time before we crossed paths again. This kind of encounter is not unusual, I think, for many people who live in London. This may be a city of strangers, but it is also a collection of villages, and on a surprisingly regular basis I find myself bumping into friends on busy tube station platforms, on bridges, and at the theatre. When you share similar interests and lifestyles, London can begin to feel like a much smaller place. When you work in the same part of London, it feels localised. When you work on the same street, it feels simultaneously large and small at the same time.
So as an academic who works on nineteenth-century literature, I began to wonder about Victorian London, and whether Dickens and his associates experienced a similar kind of interconnected city. With his network of friends, colleagues and rivals at work in journalism, literature, and the theatre, Dickens operated in a shared environment of print culture and visual culture: newspapers, magazines, serial fiction, plays, playbills, prints, and illustrations. Indeed, Dickens’s biographer Forster declared that Dickens had a favourite theory as to ‘the smallness of the world’, and the many coincidences and connections in his fiction seem to attest to this idea. But could I find any more concrete evidence of the importance of networks and face-to-face connections in Dickens’s professional (which was of course tied up with his social) life? And what might this tell us about the importance of physical proximity in the city for the development of the nineteenth century periodical press and publishing industry?
Often in research you need a bit of luck, and my serendipitous moment came when I compared the office address on the back of Dickens’s magazine Household Words (1850-59) with the office address on the back of Reynolds’ Newspaper (1850-62). This newspaper was established and edited by one of Dickens’s biggest rivals G.W.M. Reynolds, who was also developing into something of Dickens’s arch-nemesis. Reynolds made his name initially through publishing imitations of Dickens’s popular fiction: Dickens published Pickwick Papers, Reynolds published Pickwick Abroad; Dickens published Master Humphrey’s Clock, Reynolds published Master Timothy’s Bookcase. By 1850, Reynolds and Dickens were conducting a war of words in their publications; by this point Dickens was objecting to Reynolds’s political radicalism and revolutionary politics as much as his literary appropriations. In March, Dickens delivered his opening appeal to the readers of Household Words in which he described Reynolds as one of the ‘Panders to the basest passions of the lowest natures – whose existence is a national reproach’. In June that year, Reynolds returned the favour in his own new publication, Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, by publishing a scornful denunciation of Household Words:
[Dickens] sees the condition of [London’s] population but dimly […] and hopes to cure all the complaints and troubles of its inhabitants by a little small talk, ‘familiar as household words’, and about as much use as lip-sympathy to a starving man.
This attack, similar to others in the Chartist press, aims to separate the politics, writings, and publications of ‘true’ radicals from those of Dickens. The implication is that if Dickens sees the true state of London ‘but dimly’, Reynolds not only observes it correctly, but transforms his observations into publications which are much better placed to help the poor. However, my comparison of their office addresses showed that this denunciation of Dickens and of Household Words was published from the same street as the very periodical which it attacked. Reynolds’s office was just across the road from Dickens.
The street they both worked on was Wellington Street (home then as now to the Lyceum Theatre), which today finishes at the Strand just above Waterloo Bridge and begins at Bow Street below Covent Garden Opera House. These two significant mid-century rivals, then, vented their diatribes in publications that were based just a few yards away from each other: Dickens was at 16 Wellington Street North from 1850, and Reynolds was across the road at number 7. When they visited their offices, they could easily have passed each other on the street. As I investigated further, it became apparent that Wellington Street was in the heart of the publishing world of London, and indeed of the burgeoning Empire. St. Paul’s Churchyard and Paternoster Row remained the key bookselling district, and Holywell Street was the place to go for cheap pornography, but printers and publishers clustered around the Strand well into the mid-19th century, so Reynolds and Dickens were surrounded by the networks, and suppliers and distributors, for their trade. But they were also surrounded by many other well-known writers and editors.
On Wellington Street, you could find the offices of some of the most well-known and influential newspapers, miscellanies, and serials of the mid-Victorian period. In the 1840s and ‘50s it was home to more than twenty newspapers or periodicals, and thirteen booksellers or publishers. The Punch office was at 13 Wellington Street South until January 1844. When Reynolds arrived at number 7 around 1846, number 14 was the office of the Athenaeum. This highly respected literary journal was published by John Francis, who helped to prop up the Daily News after Dickens had abandoned his ill-advised job as its editor. Until 1849, number 14 also contained the offices of the Railway Chronicle. This was edited by John Scott Russell, who had been railway editor for Dickens at the Daily News. A two-minute stroll away, at number 5 Wellington Street South was the office of the Examiner, edited by Dickens’s close friend and literary advisor John Forster. At 17 Upper Wellington Street lived briefly one of the most famous contributors to Household Words, G.A. Sala, while Henry Mayhew published the serial version of London Labour and the London Poor from an office in 16 Upper Wellington Street. These writers and editors wrote for multiple publications, collaborated again and again in different combinations, and helped each other through shared contacts and shared publishing ventures. Punch-ites Gilbert a Beckett and Jerrold both had plays or adaptations of their fiction performed at the Lyceum Theatre on Wellington Street; many of their circle visited the local coffee rooms, and set up informal clubs in local taverns. London’s publishing world in the Strand area in general, and in Wellington Street in particular, was made up of interconnected social and business networks.
So although the novel and the newspaper were intended for an anonymous mass reading public, the experience of Dickens and his contemporaries on Wellington Street was one of working in a remarkably interconnected community, made up of interlocking networks. This makes Dickens’s fascination with coincidences and connections in his fiction seem much less surprising, I think. This networked way of working and socialising fed into the ways in which writers such as Dickens, Reynolds, and Mayhew represented their readers. Editors and writers on Wellington Street frequently addressed these anonymous readers as friends, as if they were part of their immediate social network. Despite advances in literacy, print technology, and communications, London in the 1840s and `50s was not a place where face-to-face interactions (more commonly associated with the print trade in smaller Renaissance cities) disappeared. The modern city is not a place where you can escape connections, partly because it is made up of such interconnected villages. That this can be a threatening possibility for the urban writer, as well as an enabling one, is revealed by the work of the writers and editors of Wellington Street.
Mary L. Shannon won the 2016 Robert and Vineta Colby Scholarly Book Prize for her first book Dickens, Reynolds and Mayhew: The Print Culture of a Victorian Street, which was also shortlisted for the 2017 University English Early Career Book Prize. She is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Roehampton, London, where she teaches and publishes on nineteenth-century literature and culture.