G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysterious London

It’s hardly surprising that cities demand technology to make sense of them: after all, they are products of technology. Even the most ancient ones (which to us would have been no more than small towns) depended on technology for their creation and maintenance. A former director of the Archaeological Institute in London, Vere Gordon Childe,  listed the technology of writing as the 6th of 10 essential ingredients in an ancient  city (you can see the whole article dating from 1950 here: http://faculty.washington.edu/plape/citiesaut11/readings/Childe-urban%20revolution%201950.pdf). Writing was necessary to record the division of labour – for in cities not everyone works in the fields or hunts to support themselves. Rather we share resources. Tasks are divided amongst us as some people are better than others at certain things. Some plan or dig irrigation canals (or Victorian sewers) and get given food by the people who grow more and better crops as a result of the irrigation (or money to buy food in Victorian times). Others again specialise in regulating this division of labour and the sharing of resources.  The scribes who wrote down who had done what, who owned what, who exchanged what for something else in what proportion (labour, cattle, wheat) are amongst these regulators of society. Does the same go for *fiction* writers?

A hard, an impossible, question perhaps. But I’m intrigued that I felt compelled to start thinking about cities and technology by going back to the past – exactly as G.W.M. Reynolds does at the opening of The Mysteries of London.

I’m never sure of how to take those opening paragraphs though. They talk about the move of “Civilisation” from the East to the West. Straight away London is put into a huge historical time frame, exactly as I’ve done above. Are we to understand that history halts in London, that “Civilisation” has come home to stay? Well, no. That’s one of the many interesting things about Reynolds’s mammoth serial – it and almost everything it describes is always on the move. No sooner do we hit “Civilisation” than we find its necessary counterpart “Vice”, then Wealth – and Poverty. These binary oppositions don’t seem to fix each other in their places though. Rather such oppositions seem to enter into a dialogue with one another. We see the virtuous, effeminate young man in Smithfield but it doesn’t require much careful reading to realise that that he is is a she. Eliza travels across gender binaries – but how easily? Gender is a major concern of the text. While the  The Mysteries are very explicit about the nature of “WOMAN”, the nature of masculinity is vexed too: already in chapter 2 we find the two brothers, the elder descending into the city below the hill, the younger remaining on its height.

What other binaries does Reynolds present us with in this text? Sometimes it seems to me that the whole text is very strictly organised on a series of binaries. But the binaries don’t  comprise fixed pairs of opposites. Rather they are in constant dialogue with one another, and keep transforming as a result of that dialogue – dialectic indeed.  However, I do wonder if there are less obvious but more fixed binaries that this text is organised upon.

I’m thinking of a binary that I set up in the first Mysteries of London blog: technology and the body. I claimed we needed tech to understand the city as a whole. The Mysteries can, of course, only exist as a result of the technologies of writing and printing, but it’s a very curious and uncomfortable – perhaps ungainly – use of  that technology. It came out as a serial in weekly parts of 8 pages, with an illustration that headed each weekly part.

You might expect each issue to follow a pattern of, first, reprise to remind readers who the characters were and what the plot was, followed by further plot developments, and then a cliff-hanger at the end. But it’s obvious from looking at where the pages end that this was not the case. It was quite normal for each weekly number to end in the middle of a sentence! The above image, the first page of a weekly part, shows very clearly, even if you can’t read the words very clearly, that the 1st sentence is a run-on of a sentence begun the previous week. The issue number is printed at the bottom of the page (the above is number 42).

What can we make of these very technologically determined methods of story telling? Are we to understand that the serial is to be understood not as a serial such as we understand it but rather as a book issues in pieces — as a kind of book paid for in instalments that will only be complete when the title page is issued?

Is London like this book – graspable only in parts, in fragments that by themselves don’t make sense – that don’t even pretend to make sense?

Technology here promises wholeness, complete understanding — but does it really deliver? Do we really understand the city by circling the air on the London Eye?

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Andrew King

Andrew King is Professor of English Literature and Literary Studies at the University of Greenwich. He has always been interested in how and why certain texts are kept for posterity and others disappear. His first degree was in classical and medieval Latin, and he has MAs in Medieval Studies and English. He completed his PhD in English at Birkbeck, supervised by Laurel Brake. He taught for many years at Universities overseas, though immediately before he came to Greenwich in May 2012, taught at Canterbury Christ Church University. His official profile can be found at http://www2.gre.ac.uk/about/schools/humanities/about/departments/cca/staff/andrew-king.

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