Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dickens, Conan-Doyle and the Personality of Architecture

Architecture provides a potential visual and atmospheric feast for the literary artist; the buildings themselves are often representative of the broader environment in which they reside as well as the individuals who occupy them. The historical utilization of space had a direct and most particular correlation with wealth and social status:  spacious residences, with intricate masonry embellishments, surrounding terraces, and associated garden space were the provenance of the rich, whereas the impoverished had comparatively scarce and uneasy access to a much smaller terrestrial allotment.

There is a poignancy, however, in the crumbling decrepitude of a wealthy estate; Satis House in Dickens' Great Expectations serves as a superlative metaphor of the corruption, decay and fate of it's owner Miss Havisham. Upon learning of her lover's betrayal she lays waste to the estate, and upon Pip's arrival the dismal structure is comprised of "old bricks" with  "some of the windows...walled up; of those that remained, all the lower were rustily barred." The once splendid mansion is now shuttered and dull, declining, along with it's inhabitants, into the dust and ashes of silent neglect. Residential abodes reflect the dispositions of their owners in Bleak House where the rural estate of Lady Dedlock is muffled, dreary and beset by rain; like it's mistress Chesney Wold is "very brilliant in season and very dismal out of it."

It was in black dilapidated streets, however, where Dickensian prose flourished;  where "crazy houses  were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their own possession, took to letting them out in lodgings." As on the "ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so these ruined shelters  have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in..." Within the Dickensian landscape the buildings become living components in the narrative: as blackened by years of neglect and plagued by pestilential irritants as the unfortunate humans who dwell beneath their shingles. Just as individuals who aspire to economic or social prestige, Krook's rag and bottle shop  (Bleak House) had "the air of being  in a legal neighborhood, and of being, as it were, a dirty hanger-on and disowned relation of the law."

Charles Dickens harnessed architecture to his vehicle of social reform, eschewing the early eighteenth-century Metropolitan Improvements of John Nash, for the dark and narrow labyrinths of old London town. True to the Victorian expectation that literature should instruct as well as amuse, Dickens details the slums, narrow alleys and back courts, secluded nooks and crannies where "there is little stir or movement after dark" where the ominous action of resident thieves and cutthroats is prefigured in the "dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together." The "cluster of wretched hovels...with pig sties close to the broken windows...and miserable gardens before the doors growing nothing but stagnant pools." Dickens depicts the ubiquitous filth and disease of the urban poor in unsparing detail, effectively utilizing fiction to criticize economic, social and moral abuses of the Victorian era.

In nineteenth-century Paris the price of residential lots was defined by footprint, and houses as a result were narrow and high. With the quest for paying lodgers owners had every incentive to divide the available space as much as was possible. As a result these establishments were extended in every possible way, with additional floors erected in upper storeys, and carved out beneath the floor in subterranean basements. Rented rooms were created in recesses and annexes, linked by narrow staircases or ladders. Generally the social condition of the lodger deteriorated the higher they climbed, with poverty being the general rule on the top floors in attics and garrets. From The Goodwin Agenda: "By all accounts the dark-timbered lodging house that leaned precariously out over the cobblestones of Rue des Mauvais Garcons was a dismal place. The ground floor served as the store for the resident wigmaker and owner of this establishment, the sagging timbers of the second supported the single room occupied by an impoverished family of four, and the tiny streetside room on the third floor had very recently been vacated."

The Goodwin Agenda, set in post-Revolutionary Paris, utilized the decrepit mansions of guillotined aristocrats to convey the newly-found disaffection for social hierarchy, the years of embattled politics, and the perpetual warfare that drained financial ability to repair and rebuild. Napoleon's reconstruction of the Louvre, his chiseling of bees in the historic facade, was symbolic of his own determination to legitimize his reign; not a 'Corsican upstart' but another in a long line of venerable Frankish kings commensurate with the ancient lineages of the European monarchies who opposed him.

Within the fictional context architecture can provide a tantalizing precursor to dramatic action, a promise of what is to come, or function as a dramatic contrast to unanticipated action. In A Study in Scarlet Sherlock Holmes arrives at 3 Lauiston Gardens, a derelict building that wore "an ill-omened and minatory look" and "looked out with three tiers of vacant melancholy windows, which were blank and dreary, save that here and there a "To Let" card had developed like a cataract upon the bleared panes." A small garden fronted the property "sprinkled over with the scattered eruption of sickly plants." While Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle has not Dickens' focused literary intensity on urban slums as an instigator for social reform, he utilizes architecture to similar dramatic effect: evoking an associated foreboding with the dark, the dreary and the dilapidated. The corpse discovered within this dismal locale was "of malignant and terrible contortion...on his rigid face there stood an expression of horror such as I have never seen upon human features...I have seen death in many forms, but never has it appeared to me in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark, grimy apartment." As a preventative against over-simplistic literary associations however, Conan-Doyle points out, that "the lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside." Rural beauty can form an equally dramatic frame for violent literary action; the juxtaposition being one of heightened incongruity.

There is a palpable tension in the depiction of dark and gloomy narrow streets where dread and desperation seeps up from the cobblestones, wraps around dank stone, and suffuses narrow alleys; these were, after all, premises historically occupied by a motley variety of thieves, prostitutes, debtors, beggars, outlaws and revolutionaries. Crumbling edifices have a narrative all of their own which can be used to compelling suggestive effect within literature. Whether it be urban tenements or sprawling country estates, the utilization of space, the mode and method of construction and maintenance are indicative of  cultural and political values and ascribe a certain identity to the buildings themselves; a distinctiveness that portends and extends to those which dwell within.


  1. Intriguing post PJ, never really thought of architecture as having such a prominent role in the storyline....encourages me to examine every aspect of what I am writing and look for the conveyance of meaning in disparate ways. Thank you!

    1. Thank you Sarah - thrilled that my musing was of interest :)

  2. One of the reasons I really enjoyed older horror movies with stars like Vincent Price and Peter Cushing was because of the creepy old mansions or castles in which the scary action took place that added to the mystery and suspense of the story line (House of Usher, Sherlock Holmes, House of the Long Shadows, etc.) Even Abbott and Costello made a few interesting attempts at horror-comedies and turned their ordinary sets into some extraordinary settings by adding exotic, architectural symbols suggestive of the far east, and other props that implied occult worship when they introduced the mummy, Frankenstein and Dracula.

    Architecture can play a powerful role in identifying a certain social group, whether we realize it or not! When we think of Rome, do we automatically think of the largest Roman Catholic Capitol of the world, the Vatican? When we think of the Nobel Peace Prize, do we automatically think of Alfred Nobel's Foundation in Oslo, Norway, and the Nobel Museum? What about Colorado? Do we think about the beauty of our ancestors, and one of the largest architectural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon? These architectural structures are symbolic representations of the mission and values of the people. [You may say that is true for the first two, being man-made structures, but not for the Grand Canyon. However, the G.C. is a "protected" structure, and enjoys an even higher status than a man-made structure.] Consequently, they have a direct impact upon the society about the historicity conveyed within and without that culture. This is something that is of great interest to scholars and many others who appreciate genuine beauty.

    1. Yes - I utterly agree Shari - the creepy old mansions are an integral part of the genre itself, one cannot imagine the successful rendition of it without those critical elements! And you make a most excellent point insofar as the resonance of great monuments of the past and what they imply - ie: political and economic grandeur of the past, or perhaps like Shelley's poem Ozymandias, it reflects instead the inevitable demise of power, the fluctuations of political winds, or the ultimate prevalence of natural forces.... something to think about! I include Ozymandias below (being one of my favorite poems!)

      I met a traveler from an antique land
      Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
      Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
      Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
      And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
      Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
      Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
      The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
      And on the pedestal these words appear:
      “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
      Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
      Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
      Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
      The lone and level sands stretch far away.

  3. I love stories where architecture features prominently as a means to tell more about the characterization. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy was a favorite of mine growing up, and since then, I've always paid a lot of attention to these details. It's definitely had a strong influence on my own writing!

    1. Yes - me too! It is one of subtle elements that can so enrich a narrative. Thanks so much for your visit, Christine.

  4. Thanks for reminding us, PJ. I've become more sensitive to architecture since being long married to someone who make it (see Wiki article on Susana Torre). Probably because of all the observation that Susana has taught me, I dared to construct — in words — the mansion of a rich merchant in Constantinople in 1402 (in my "Sultan" novel). Not only human-made spaces, like city streets, buildings, unending highways or rooms, but any space — plains, mountains, seas — can become a character in our work. I'm thinking now of the desert in the movie "Lawrence of Arabia" (since we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the filming of the battle of Aqaba in the town where I live, and just two weeks ago we were in Wadi Rum in Jordan, setting for an earlier section of the movie).

    1. Thank you Geoffrey, for your kind visit. I have perused your wife's Wiki article - extremely impressive accomplishments and credentials indeed! I have your book 'Gift to the Sultan' on my beside table to be imminently read and greatly look forward to the opportunity to lose myself in the early fifteenth century. It is a fascinating aspect to architecture insofar as it is a deliberate manifestation of what we consider important - perhaps for the Dickensian poor it was simply a matter of absent-rent and a tendency not to be ejected. Thank you so much for your kind stop-in and your most interesting contribution to my humble musing.