[I have linked several brief excerpts from Cleansing the City to this review, so readers can have examples of the author's work.]
Cleansing the City stands as a fine corrective to the often triumphalist, Whiggish, 'march of inevitable progress' approach to many public health and housing studies. It evokes, sympathetically yet objectively, the sensitivity of those who had doubts about the way planners and politicians were implementing urban reforms.This is the first work to relate the voices of concern, including the two powerful voices of Dickens and Gissing, to broader considerations of social geography. Professor Allen is to be congratulated on rescuing those who had a pessimistic view of reform, or who opposed it in principle, from obscurity or the facile dismissal of scholars. She investigates what is clearly a powerful and recurring undercurrent in Victorian thought and elevates it into the mainstream. — Anthony Wohl, author of Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain
Tony Wohl's book-jacket praise of the book under review accurately sums up some of its most important accomplishments. Coming from the author of Endangered Lives, the major pioneering study of public health in Victorian Britain, this is high praise indeed. Professor Wohl, the first person outside Brown University to contribute (in 1988 or 1989) to what later became the Victorian Web, contributed not only selections from Endangered Lives but also sets of documents ranging from race and class to Roman Catholicism and Anti-catholicism. In "Liberalism and Cultural Shock in the Victorian Age" he pointed out that "Most textbooks correctly stress that liberalism characterized the Victorian legislative mind and was central to Victorian middle-class needs and national ideals. . . . [But] each of these Acts, which contributed importantly to the progress towards a much more diverse and open society, also produced a sharp reaction . . . . Liberalism thus represented the threat of a pluralistic, relativistic, open society." Cleansing the City looks at why many Victorians resisted both so-called Sanitary Reform and slum clearance.
After an introduction, Allen proceeds to clear, strongly written chapters on the construction of a London sewage system, its pollution of the Thames, and how Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and these topics illuminate one another. Next, in a chapter entitled "No Space for the Poor," she examines the results of slum clearance, and the volume concludes by juxtaposing Gissing's The Nether World to supposed urban renewal much as she had juxtaposed Dickens's novel to sanitary reform.
Since many works of historical scholarship, as Wohl and Allen point, tend to see reform in purely positive terms, this valuable explanation of Victorian resistance to it explains much about these Victorian attitudes. True, some resisted construction of the London sewer system, which dramatically reduced the occurrence of filth diseases like typhoid, typhus, and the late-arriving cholera, just because they resisted all changes to the status quo, which they saw as destabilizing their known world. More interestingly, many Londoners resisted what reformers saw as the march of progress for a range of reasons, including the often-justifiable fears that any such city-wide system would necessarily
1. abrogate both individual responsibility and individual rights. "For some, the sewer seemed to jeopardize individual and local autonomy because it took waste removal out of the hands of householders and parishes and invested it in a newly constituted drainage authority" (23). In fact, it did.
2. lead inevitably to a centralized, highly intrusive government. In fact, it did.
3. become "disruptive and potentially dangerous because it inevitably altered the city's geography — in terms of both material environment and social structure" (23). In fact, it did.
4. contaminate the homes of the upper and middle classes by mixing the refuse — the feces, urine, and other material — of the lower classes with theirs. Whereas "the cesspool could be invoked as an image, of containment and segregatation, the sewer served as an image of connection, drawing together the individual and the-mass, the poor and the rich, the diseased and the healthy" (53). In fact, it did, but so what?
5. by concentrating the filth in sewers, expose "the home to the very dangers it was intended to combat — the [supposedly] fatal odors of decomposition" (53). No, bacteria, not odors, caused the deadly diseases that fo feared by Londoners.
6. make matters worse by concentrating the filth and then dumping it in the Thames, producing new problems. In fact, it certainly did!
7. destroy many lower-class occupations, such as the night-soil men and toshers. In fact, it did
8. It would destroy much of the city's character and picturesqueness "that made London such a vital and rich place" (32) In fact, it did, though few mourned the loss.
We now have the germ theory of disease, which mid-Victorians didn't, so we know that neither sewer gas nor mixing the fecal matter and urine of various classes could spread typhoid and cholera. On all the other points those who objected to the sewer system turn out to have been right, though the terrible effect of dumping sewage into the Thames seems not to have been widely recognized until after the fact.
The disastrous results of slum clearance have much in common those that appeared with sanitary reform: both stem from the fact that those who originated and carried out these schemes had solutions to only one half of each problem: thus Chadwick and the creators of the London sewer system managed to remove tens of thousands of disease-creating cesspools but they ended up spreading the filth along the mud flats lining the Thames. They did so because they neither realized the implications of the fact that the Thames is a tidal river, which meant that it could not carry away much of the refuse, and they had not devised water treatment plants. Sanitary reform did in fact reduce filth diseases and make an important contribution to public health — something Allen does not adequately discuss — but it destroyed the Thames environment, producing the Great Stink of June 1858, which occurred when
high temperatures coupled with a period of drought transformed the filthy river and its foul banks into a stinking pit. The "Great Stink" was the name given to the most notorious pollution crisis in the nineteenth century. Those working in and visiting the neighborhood of the Thames at this time, including dock workers, steamboat passengers, Templars, members of Parliament, and the queen herself, complained of the sickening effects of the river's stench and feared it as a source of disease. 
Slum clearance suffered from much the same lack of foresight: to rid London of both threats to pubic health and the vices associated with overcrowded slums, the housing reformers and entrepreneurs ripped down substandard housing before providing adequate replacements for the poor with the clearly forseeable result that what the twentieth century called urban renewal forced those who had lived in the destroyed buildings into even worse, sometimes far worse, crowded slums! In addition, "with the acceleration of slum clearance from the 1840s onward for the purposes of not only street improvement but also the creation of railways, docks, warehouses, and office blocks, the relation of clearance to the problem of overcrowding came into sharper focus. Demolition of housing was especially concentrated in the City of London, where throughout the century commercial interests were literally gaining more and more ground" (118). Even when the poor found their homes destroyed by reformers rather than by businesses that took over the area they had occupied, the results were no better for two reasons. First, unlike planners in modern Singapore, the reformers rarely provided replacement housing while new buildings were being erected, and second, since slum clearance usually left replacement housing to investors, who had to make a return on their funds, the new homes often ended up too costly for the poor and housed those higher up the economic scale.
One result of the failure of slum clearance to improve the lives of the poor appears in the disillusionment of late-Victorian observers with the whole idea of reform itself:
Whereas reformers in the 1840s and 1850s expressed an implicit confidence in the power of material alterations to effect social change, those in the 1880s os registered instead the sobering perception of the intransigence of poverty and the limitations of sanitary approaches to social problems. One reason for the perceptual shift was the recognized failure of housing reform policies of the 1860s and 1870s to alleviate the wretched living conditions of the London poor. We find another explanation in the changing conception of poverty, from the idea of poverty as a condition affecting the individual and subject to the immediate influence of sanitary and philanthropic intervention, to the idea of poverty as a sociobiological phenomenon bred into the population and over which reformers had little control. In this climate, sanitary reform came to seem less capable of meeting (at times even irrelevant to) the challenges of urban life. The East End Congregational minister George Sale Reaney speaks to this point in his article, titled "Outcast London," from 1886: "[T]he whole world is amazed at our magnificent sanitation, but stands aghast at the conditions of the life of our poor." Here sanitary improvement and human improvement, which once had seemed almost synonymous, are imagined to have diverged. 
In the course of explaining the complex, often highly ironic results of both sanitary reform and slum clearance, Allen, a professor of English literature, includes chapters on Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and Gissing's The Nether World. Both chapters skillfully reveal how juxtaposing novels and attempts at urban improvement illuminate each other. Allen reveals, for example, the limitations of earlier criticism that saw the dust heaps in Dickens solely as his means of equating money with fecal filth: the novelist, it turns out, also saw the collection, redistribution, and reuse of this refuse in the form of fertilizer as beneficial recycling.
As we have seen, Cleansing the City has much to offer students of social history, urban planning, environmentalism, and literature. Nonetheless, reading Cleansing the City, one might assume that Great Britain divided into two classes, rich and poor, rather than in the more than dozen economic and class groups Victorians saw, and conspicuously missing is Asa Briggs's pioneering Victorian Cities, which compares the battle to create sewer systems in a number of British cities (and one in Australia). Granted, London, as Londoners loved to point out, was and is unique in many ways, but we do need to place the topics she examines in a wider context. In her conclusion the author herself touches upon the only other reservation I have about this fine study:
It is difficult to judge the impact of expressions of this sort, those voices of ambivalence and resistance that I have been concerned to trace. Certain lands of criticism, such as the criticism of slum clearances carried out independently of a re-housing plan, did play a part in changing approaches and attitudes to reform. The London County Council, for instance, was much more sensitive to the housing needs of the working classes and the pressures put on them by improvements than the Metropolitan Board of Works had been. Other kinds of opposition to reform, however, such as that based on an appreciation of picturesque London, may have had no appreciable impact on the practice of reform or the shape of the urban environment at all. Still, these voices matter not because they changed reform but because they change the way in which we understand reform. They remind us that the sanitary modernization of the Victorian city was not a seamless, uncontested process, but an anxious and disorienting, if sometimes exhilarating, experience. They remind us of the contradictory impulses of human beings when it comes to progress, on the one hand, and the emotional pull of the familiar, on the other. They remind us that purity, in its way, can be just as challenging as filth.
However valid Allen's conclusions may be, they still remind us that a literary historian has produced this work of social history, which is to say, that, like so many literary scholars today, she has produced a kind of soft social history, one in which the historian fails to investigate, much less answer, some tough, if essential, questions. For example, she makes no attempt to indicate how many people believed each of those eight reasons for resistance to sanitary reform. She seems to believe that if a point or point of view appears interesting, one can include it without attempting to evaluate its importance related to others. If interesting or picturesque, it earns a place in her study.
What I have termed soft social history is, I suspect, an effect of the often malign influence of Michel Foucault, whose work has assumed enormous importance for students of literature. As important as Foucault's ideas of authorship and distributed power have been to my own work on hypertext and new media, I have to admit that his works prove him an untrustworthy, lazy historian whose narrow reading often amounts to intellectual dishonesty. A recent review in Times Literary Supplement of a new translation of the full text of Madness and Civilization points out that this enormously influential book first appeared in English without its original notes, and those devoted to this French intellectual and social historian believed that the complete work would answer his critics; instead they fond themselves shocked by Foucault's failure to read any of the large number book sand article sin English on insanity, insane asylums, and mental hospitals in England, and worse, some of his most famous claims, such that Christian charitable institutions generally became places to incarcerate those society defined as insane, turned out to be almost completely false: in fact, only a single example, Bedlam, which he cites, exists. In The Archeology of Knowledge Foucault played a kind of reverse bait-and-switch, proclaiming the often-fascinating materia he cited had absolutely no force as representative examples at the same time writing in such a way that readers did make that assumption — with the result that a host of direct and indirect followers have come to believe that historians can simply introduce interesting material without bothering to do the hard work of establishing its relative value and importance.
Allen, I have stated above, has written a most valuable study and its only important weakness derives from its occasional descent into soft social history. Her readings of Dickens and Gissing and her explanations of resistance to reform more than make up for any such shortcomings.
Allen, Michelle. Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographers in Victorian London. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008.
Wohl, Anthony. Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, .
Last modified 23 February 2009