Reviewed by: Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London Eileen Cleere (bio) Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London, by Michelle Allen; pp. x + 176. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008, $49.95. At first glance, the title of Michelle Allen's new book Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London seems familiar, even unexceptional; after all, sanitation and geography (independently and dependently) have been compelling academic topics [End Page 691] for more than a decade, and it certainly isn't unusual to find the evocative term "Victorian" yoked to either or both of them. Yet when geography is invoked by a literary critic or cultural historian, it usually signals an abstraction or an analogy that generates cultural rather than actual mappings of cities, of neighborhoods, of homes, and of bodies that are contained, divided, set into conflict, and reformed by the strong arm of the police, or, in this case, the sanitary authorities. Allen's book, by contrast, is committed to supplementing the textual and discursive study of Victorian sanitary reform with a grittier and more detailed analysis of urban space and the human experience of that space. What she calls a "critical geography" of sanitary reform "encompasses at once the textual, the social, and the spatial, allowing us to see interplay among discourse, the social order, and the built environment" (18). The spatial studies of Henri lefebvre, michel Foucault, Yi-Fu Tuan, and edward soja provide a loosely integrated methodology for Cleansing the City, allowing Allen to argue that sanitary reform produced significant and sometimes radical change in the urban environment and in the people who inhabited that environment. Over five chapters Allen addresses three specific sanitary challenges—waste disposal, river purification, and housing reform. By reading locally, she uses her critical geography to disrupt some of our more entrenched assumptions about the broader Victorian hygiene movement. Among Allen's many challenges to the current thinking about Victorian sanitation reform is the criticism that provides her thesis: despite a general academic assumption that sanitary reforms were widely popular and largely uncontested, even when they posed serious threats to cherished Victorian notions of liberalism and self-governance, many hygienic improvements were actually disparaged, ridiculed, and resisted with increasing vehemence throughout the nineteenth century. While a variety of critics have certainly noted local contradictions and conflicts within specific sanitary goals and discourses, Allen comprehensively analyzes sanitary reform as an ongoing series of controversies that grew increasingly pessimistic by the end of the century. Allen's consistent focus on the ambiguities and conflicts within Victorian sanitary reform makes Cleansing the City a useful and satisfying contribution to a growing field that might be accurately described as filth studies. The book is also an important reminder that environmental improvements are never entirely progressive; indeed, at times, the Victorian controversies Allen describes seem not unlike our current angst and paralysis over the variously ambivalent environmental impacts of paper bags, plastic water bottles, and organic food. But ambiguity and ambivalence are sometimes dull instruments for examining novels, and if Cleansing the City has a weakness it might be found in the chapters that explicitly seek narrative mappings and textual geographies. Allen's third chapter, on Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), builds on her previous chapter's fascinating analysis of the debates surrounding the construction of the Thames Embankment. The thematic and narrative importance of the river in that novel, the movement of characters upriver and down, the contradictory moral status of the Thames for characters who derive daily sustenance from dead bodies dredged from its depths, are ambiguities that have been thoroughly discussed by critics such as Catherine Gallagher (though Gallaghers important analysis of "illth" goes unmentioned here), and Allen's assertion that water in Our Mutual Friend is ambivalently symbolic of both pollution and cleanliness falls rather flat. On the other hand, when Allen belatedly [End Page 692] focuses on the paper mill that employs Lizzie Hexam after she flees London, she is able to reveal the ambiguities inherent in papermaking within a more material context: for Dickens, she argues, papermaking was a process of purification because it involved the recycling of old, dirty, brown rags into clean...

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