Lynda Nead’s Victorian Babylon

I have been reading Lynda Nead’s Victorian Babylon after a supervisory team recommendation before Spring Break. I will be honest, I am not a huge fan (I enjoyed Seth Koven’s Slumming much better), but it has transported me back to my third year Victorian Cities module without a doubt! I chose to complete my essay on how and why the city was seen as a sexualised space (essentially Sex and the City) – all I can do is think how this book would have been a great help and I probably should have got it out the library… saying that I probably did and left it on the shelf awaiting its due date!


Nead, L. Victorian Babylon: People Streets and Images in Nineteenth Century London, (Yale University Press, 2005).


As I said I have only just started reading the book but I was really intrigued by Section 4 ‘The Rape of Glances’ in Mapping and Movement chapter. Reading the opening line, ‘On Tuesday 7th January 1862, The Times published an angry letter from Paterfamilias of the Provinces’, and I instantly recognised this from our source pack (pg. 62). In brief, the correspondent, or Paterfamilias of the Provinces, had been outraged that his daughter and female relative had been followed and provoked on the street by men during their walk around Oxford Street. The women had not been physically assaulted but had been raped with glances, glares and stares – essentially unwanted attention from men. These women were examples of middle class women who were respectable in their community.

This letter inevitably sparked correspondence from other readers and discussions commenced for several weeks. What I found most interesting was how the authors of the letters remained anonymous. I suppose this type of correspondence was a little like social media chats or ‘chatrooms’ were individuals are known only by their screen names and therefore, although ominous, can privatise identities.

The phrase used in the correspondences, ‘the rape of glances’ I do find a little troublesome. Mainly because I do not think that you could ever (or will ever) stop people looking at other people welcomed or otherwise. For middle class, respectable women I understand the glancing would have been problematic because the attention may have suggested that they were prostitutes. The term itself is quite severe but this could have been how individuals felt when they were ogled. It suggests that middle class women were concerned about how they were seen publicly which has roots with the understanding of women having to protect their purity for a good husband – good old Jane Eyre quotes and stories spring to mind! the phrase clearly shows that women did not want this attention and they did not want to be objectified through glances. Working-class women on the other hand were probably ignored altogether or made to get on with it.


Victorian Prostitutes


Responses to the letter ranged from women claiming that they has never been subjected to this treatment before – would this have angered the women or would they have welcomed attention? Was the attention validation that the woman was aesthetically and cosmetically pleasing? Was this what all women wanted? Other discussions suggested that the women might have advocated and welcomed attentions. The girls that were walking around Oxford Street were from the country (Provinces) and has only been visiting London, therefore, one correspondent said that their clothing may have been inappropriate for city life:

‘dressed in red cloaks and pork pie hates with white feathers (a dress most suitable for the country, but hardly consistent with the quiet demeanour necessary for walking in the streets of London), they cannot escape the notice of those despicable idlers… who take advantage of the weakness of women’.

In a way the author seems to blame the women for drawing attention to themselves with their clothing as it may have been seen as inappropriate to London life but okay for provincial life – jealousy?

Nead goes on to discuss the publication ‘Out Walking’ by Eliza Lynn Linton, which looked at the treatment of women out alone in London. Linton was subjected to being approached as a prostitute as well as a clergyman trying to cure and convert her. Nead states, ‘Any women that are enjoying the city, that they are participating in their visual culture and ocular freedom, can be taken as an index of their lack of modesty’ (pg. 66). She continues, ‘if women want to escape London’s web of glances, they must dress unattractively, walk as a steady pace and look straight ahead’. (pg. 66). If not they risked provocative stares and suggestive glances as well as verbal insults or communication.


Fashions for August 1870


At the end of the section Nead claims that we have to move beyond the idea of the male gaze when considering the nineteenth century and instead focus on the ‘far more open and fluid model of looking and walking in the urban space’ (pg. 73). I agree that we need to approach it differently, but it is hard to ignore the omnipotent and omniscient male gaze when looking at the nineteenth century. there has to be an  acknowledgement of the control, impact and influence of men in how they objectified women. Women were understood as weaker vessels, inferior and lack a mental capacity to be independent – to an extent we still have this today by misogynists who think they need to validate women’s physical appearance and women seeking this approval and validation as a compliment. As a result women accepted this understanding of themselves and acknowledge their inferiority.

Inevitably there are cultural links between now and them with many cases of women today being blamed for dressing provocatively and ‘asking’ for attention because they are wearing a short skirt and a low top OR both *heaven forbid*. We could say that women as a whole have been unable to progress – yes we have fought for our rights, got into university, sent people to the Moon (Hidden Figures) and revealing an ankle is not as provocative as it once was. Yet these discussions link with so much of today it is impossible to not see the links. Women continued to be judged and people have to respond to them there is still an objectification and a commodification of women that is prevalent every day.


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