Sam Matthews 2007

University of Sheffield, UK

Necropolis, metropolis: figuring the cemetery in Victorian writings about London

From Lewis Mumford’s influential model of urban civilisation terminating in ‘the final cemetery, the Necropolis’ to Iain Sinclair’s vision of contemporary London as a ‘necropolis culture’, twentieth-century commentators have repeatedly defined the modern metropolis as a city of the dead. The dominance of necropolitan discourse in London literature has had a significant impact on representations of the city’s cemeteries, ahistorically subordinating the particular local, historical, ideological and affective characteristics of individual cemeteries to a transcendent vision of cemetery as city of the dead – in the terms of James Thomson’s 1874 poem, a ‘City of Dreadful Night’. This paper argues that the relegation of the metropolitan cemetery to the realm of the figurative and symbolic has its roots in Victorian disenchantment with the cemetery as a solution to the problem of urban burial. As Victorian cemeteries grew in scale and multiplied in number, their signification shifted from pseudo-pastoral and suburban to metropolitan. No longer providing spaces of difference and psychic refuge from the expanding city, cemeteries came to duplicate, even darkly parody, London’s uncontrolled growth. As the cemetery came to be viewed as a threat to the living – as in Charles Dickens’s fantasy of London’s ‘enormous hosts of dead’ being resurrected while the living sleep, and their ‘vast armies’ leave no space for the living – the cemetery’s material and particular landscape was redefined as a symbolic space for the expression of anxieties about alienation, the loss of individuality and pressure of uniformity in the modern metropolis. This paper explores the pressure of necropolitan symbolism on representations of London cemeteries in a range of texts from the second half of the nineteenth century, including cemetery promotional material, sermons, newspaper reports, and literary texts by writers including Dickens, G. A. Sala, James Thomson, Richard Jefferies, H. G. Wells and Ford Madox Ford.


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