1As Isaac Cruikshank shows in his “Pastimes of Primrose Hill” caricature (Figure 1), people love to gaze at a cityscape. Like Cruikshank’s 18th-century characters, Londoners and tourists still make their way up Primrose Hill to enjoy the view, and surveying a city from a bird’s eye perspective remains a hugely popular urban pastime. Rooftop and top-storey bars and restaurants in cities around the world charge a premium for the privilege of drinking and eating in the urban equivalent of a crow’s nest. Property developers and hotel companies locate the most luxurious apartments on the top floors of their skyscrapers. Viewing platforms and galleries like those of the Eiffel Tower and London’s The Shard become major tourist attractions and tourism revenue generators.
Figure 1: “Pastimes of Primrose Hill”
Isaac Cruikshank, 1791
British Museum Images, © Trustees of the British Museum
2In an earlier paper (Edmondson 127–54), I looked at the meaning of buildings and specific urban locations and at how we construct a sense of place as we move through urban space, encountering what it contains at close quarters. In this paper I am concerned with the city contemplated from a distance, when we see it as a remote cityscape or an urban skyline.
3I want to suggest that what seems to be the almost universal magnetic attraction of remote urban vantage points derives from the nature of the relationship between the individual and the city, a relationship that changes significantly when the city is encountered at a distance rather than at close quarters.
4The distant city that Cruikshank’s characters have climbed up Primrose Hill to see is recognisable as London, but what these onlookers are looking at is and is not the city. In contemplating the cityscape they do not experience the city. They are not in it, walking in its streets, hearing its noises, smelling its smells, mingling with its crowds or seeing its buildings and all its animate and inanimate traffic close up and in detail. The image of London in Cruikshank’s drawing is more reminiscent of a bird’s eye map, a representation of the city, than of the urban reality.
5In this light, the remote cityscape has some affinity with Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacrum: “[…] la simulation remet en cause la différence du « vrai » et du « faux », du « réel » et de l’« imaginaire » [… simulation calls into question the difference between the “true” and the “false,” between the “real” and the “imaginary”] (12).
6Although the cityscape is a built physical reality and an original as opposed to a model, by stripping the city of everything that gives it life and characterises it, distance in effect converts it into the manifestation of an alternative reality that replaces the original. As viewed by Cruikshank’s Primrose Hill sightseers—sanitised and quieted in the safe distance—the cityscape approximates a simulation of reality, which, as with Baudrillard’s example of the simulacrum of the map (9–10), supersedes the original from which it emerges.
7A comparison of two famous nineteenth-century illustrations provides some insight into how this process works. In his frontispiece for Le Diable à Paris (Sand et al 1), Gavarni shows his devil malevolently contemplating a map of Paris as he bestrides it (Figure 2). In Laisné’s illustration for Le Père Goriot (Balzac 57), Rastignac contemplates the cityscape of Paris with a similar kind of defiance (Figure 3). The cityscape and map are interchangeable as representations of the city—Gavarni could have used the cityscape and Laisné, had the text he was illustrating permitted it, could have used the map. Both map and cityscape suggest an encapsulation of the city and re-imagine its chaotic and varied reality as something that can be taken as a whole, and manipulated and controlled. In the illustrations the characters tower over the representations of Paris. Rastignac can exclaim “A nous deux maintenant!” (58) because Paris, viewed from his remote and reductive perspective, has coalesced for him into one homogenous unit and can be anthropomorphised accordingly.
Figure 2: Gavarni’s frontispiece for Le Diable à Paris
Own copy of 1853 edition. Scanned image © John Edmondson.
Figure 3: Illustration by Laisné for Le Père Goriot in Œuvres illustrées de Balzac
Own copy of 1851 edition. Scanned image © John Edmondson
- 1 The term “Convolutes” is used to describe a key organizational component of The Arcades Project: th (...)
8In his Arcades Project Convolute1 on the panorama (527–36), another kind of remote cityscape, and literally a simulacrum, Benjamin includes a quotation that reflects this relationship between distance and imaginary control. The quotation, from Labédollière’s Le Nouveau Paris (80), describes the presentation of panoramas by the painter Prévost:
Paris, Toulon, Rome, Naples, Amsterdam, Tilsit, Wagram, Calais, Antwerp, London, Florence, Jerusalem, and Athens. All were conceived in the same manner. His spectators, situated on a platform surrounded by a balustrade, as though on the summit of a central building, commanded a view of the entire horizon. (532)
- 2 This reality-shifting process of re-imagining is reflected in a different but related context in th (...)
9So the panorama simulates the remote cityscape, locating the viewer as if at a distant and seemingly dominating vantage point. The panorama and the actual remote cityscape perform a similar function—both offer a re-imagining of the urban reality.2
10The divergence of the remote cityscape from the living reality of the city is explicitly highlighted in Barnaby Rudge as Gabriel Varden returns to London after a visit to the Maypole. Dickens traces the transition from distant contemplation to direct engagement:
And, now, he approached the great city, which lay outstretched before him like a dark shadow on the ground, reddening the sluggish air with a deep dull light, that told of labyrinths of public ways and shops, and swarms of busy people. Approaching nearer and nearer yet, this halo began to fade, and the causes which produced it slowly to develop themselves. Long lines of poorly lighted streets might be faintly traced, with here and there a lighter spot, where lamps were clustered round a square of market, or round some great building; after a time these grew more distinct, and the lamps themselves were visible; slight yellow specks, that seemed to be rapidly snuffed out, one by one, as intervening obstacles hid them from sight. Then, sounds arose—the striking of church clocks, the distant bark of dogs, the hum of traffic in the streets; then outlines might be traced—tall steeples looming in the air, and piles of unequal roofs oppressed by chimneys; then, the noise swelled into a louder sound, and forms grew more distinct and numerous still, and London—visible in the darkness by its own faint light, and not by that of Heaven—was at hand. (71)
11The account of the gradual replacement in Varden’s perception of the remote imagined city by the actual one highlights my theme—the shadowy cityscape and the light that emanates from it precipitate in the onlooker a vision of an alternative reality. This “simulacrum” of the city thus replaces the “original.” The cityscape in this sense becomes a dream of the city, and here we see Dickens tracing Varden’s gradual awakening from the dream. For the argument developed in this paper, this passage from Barnaby Rudge is especially valuable. As Varden approaches the city and contemplates it from an ever closer location, we see the chaotic and discordant reality of the “original” encroaching into and progressively replacing the alternative reality of the remotely perceived cityscape: “Approaching nearer and nearer yet, this halo began to fade, and the causes which produced it slowly to develop themselves” (71). The street lights and the streets themselves become increasingly discernible, replacing the “halo” they had created at a greater distance; then the sounds of the city become audible; the outlines of steeples, roofs and churches become distinct; and finally the reality of the city encountered at close quarters takes over completely from the re-imagined city invoked by the remote cityscape. As we shall see in the examples that follow, this alternative reality of the remote cityscape sometimes contradicts and sometimes intensifies the lived urban experience.
- 3 I am grateful to Professor Michael Slater for suggesting to me this passage from Dombey and Son.
12For the poor wanderers who pass by Harriet Carker’s window on their way to London in Dombey and Son3 “gazing fearfully at the huge town before them” but “impelled by a desperate fascination” (522–23), the cityscape evokes a nightmarish vision of their miserable future in its streets, heightening their anticipation of its harsh realities and their own powerlessness within it: “Food for the hospitals, the churchyards, the prisons, the river, fever, madness, vice, and death,—they passed on to the monster, roaring in the distance, and were lost” (523).
13In The Old Curiosity Shop (Figure 4), on the other hand, Nell and her Grandfather move in the reverse direction, gradually distancing themselves from the chaos of the city. Their journey is the opposite of that of Gabriel Varden: here the safer, alternative reality of the remote cityscape gradually replaces the threatening and bewildering reality of the city experienced at close quarters. Dickens describes in detail the slow and arduous exit of Nell and her Grandfather from the inner city to the outer city and then into the countryside beyond. It is not until they have left London completely and reached the countryside that they can feel free of the danger and confusion it contains for them. At that point the remote cityscape, devoid of the harsh reality of the city, induces a dream of freedom:
Then came a turnpike; then fields again with trees and haystacks; then a hill; and on top of that the traveller might stop, and—looking back at old Saint Paul’s looming through the smoke, its cross peeping above the cloud (if the day were clear) and glittering in the sun; and casting his eyes upon the Babel out of which it had grown until he traced it down to the furthest outposts of the invading army of bricks and mortar whose station lay for the present nearly at his feet—might feel at last that he was clear of London. (173)
Figure 4: Illustration by Phiz for The Old Curiosity Shop
Own copy of 1890 edition. Scanned image © John Edmondson
15The cityscape in Phiz’s illustration is neither dominant nor threatening—no longer wanderers in its labyrinth, the two fugitives can re-envisage it as something that can be evaded and in that sense controlled or defied. Its power over them diminishes with distance, as the alternative reality of the remote city replaces the intensely experienced urban reality from which they have emerged. The gaze of both characters in the illustration is directed towards the cityscape, Nell turning to look at it and her Grandfather contemplating it, his head resting thoughtfully on his hand. The remote cityscape confirms for them their new-found freedom, embodying their new perception of the city as a labyrinth they have navigated and from which they have escaped. It not only enables them to feel free of London and the threats it contains; it also encourages them in their hope that they can remain free of it: “‘No—never to return—never to return,’ replied the old man, waving his hand towards the city. ‘Thou and I are free of it now, Nell’” (175).
16So Nell’s Grandfather can now wave a hand dismissively at the great city in which he has been so severely troubled and bewildered. As does Laisné’s illustration of Rastignac contemplating a remote Paris for Le Père Goriot, Phiz’s depiction of Nell and her Grandfather focuses on the relationship between the foregrounded characters and the remote cityscape, using that relationship to communicate their changed perception of the city, or, in other terms, the alternative reality that the cityscape has invoked.
17In Our Mutual Friend, Lizzie Hexam and Jenny Wren, adopting another strategy for escape, find their refuge on a rooftop (Figure 5). Jenny feels like she is “dead” because she is separated from the life of the city:
“How do you feel when you are dead?” asked Fledgeby, much perplexed.
“Oh, so tranquil!” cried the little creature, smiling. “Oh, so peaceful and so thankful! And you hear the people who are alive, crying, and working, and calling to one another down in those close dark streets, and you seem to pity them so! And such a chain has fallen from you, and such a strange good sorrowful happiness comes upon you!” (279)
18Marcus Stone’s illustration includes the shadowy cityscape, stretching out into the distance—again the remote location of the onlookers enables them to perceive the city, through the cityscape, as a different reality; the city they know but with its dominance reduced and its demands less urgent.
Figure 5: Illustration by Marcus Stone for Our Mutual Friend
Own copy of 1893 edition. Scanned image © John Edmondson
20Carol Reed, in his 1949 film of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, puts this shifted reality, and the illusion of control it creates, to more sinister use. In his conversation with Holly Martins on the Vienna Ferris Wheel, high above the city, Harry Lime finds the ideal location for his cynicism and lack of empathy. “Look down there,” says Lime. “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money—or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of Income Tax” (Greene 97).
21If the remote cityscape, acting in the mode of a simulacrum to good or bad effect, can, as in the above examples, induce the dream of control and freedom in the onlooker, it can also provoke the nightmare of urban shock and confusion. While the panorama from the rooftop in Our Mutual Friend is unthreatening and at bay, there is nevertheless a hallucinatory aspect to it: “and the encompassing wilderness of dowager old chimneys twirled their cowls and fluttered their smoke, rather as if they were bridling, and fanning themselves, and looking on in a state of airy surprise” (276).
22And if the cityscape from the roof of Pubsey & Co seems foiled and frustrated by the impertinence of the rooftop garden, the view from Todgers’s in Martin Chuzzlewit is much less comfortable. At first, the onlooker is relatively in control:
For first and foremost, if the day were bright, you observed upon the house-tops, stretching far away, a long dark path: the shadow of the Monument: and turning round, the tall original was close beside you, with every hair erect upon his golden head, as if the doings of the city frightened him. Then there were steeples, towers, belfrys, shining vanes, and masts of ships: a very forest. Gables, housetops, garret-windows, wilderness upon wilderness. (133–34)
23But then the cityscape becomes a nightmare of the city:
After the first glance, there were slight features in the midst of this crowd of objects, which sprung out from the mass without any reason, as it were, and took hold of the attention whether the spectator would or no. Thus, the revolving chimney-pots on one great stack of buildings, seemed to be turning gravely to each other every now and then, and whispering the result of their separate observation of what was going on below. Others, of a crook-backed shape, appeared to be maliciously holding themselves askew, that they might shut the prospect out and baffle Todgers’s. The man who was mending a pen at an upper window over the way, became of paramount importance in the scene, and made a blank in it, ridiculously disproportionate in its extent, when he retired. The gambols of a piece of cloth upon the dyer’s pole had far more interest for the moment than all the changing motion of the crowd. Yet even while the looker-on felt angry with himself for this, and wondered how it was, the tumult swelled into a roar; the host of objects seemed to thicken and expand a hundredfold; and after gazing, round him, quite scared, he turned into Todgers’s again, much more rapidly than he came out […]. (134)
- 4 I am referring here to Chagall’s 1953 painting (oil on canvas), not to the 1954 lithograph “Les Mon (...)
24In her analysis of this passage in her famous essay “The Dickens World: A View from Todgers’s,” Dorothy Van Ghent (425–26) emphasises its hallucinatory character and compares it with Sartre’s portrayal in La Nausée and elsewhere of the breakdown of normal perceptions of reality and, in Van Ghent’s words, the “momentary vision of a world in which significance has been replaced by naked and aggressive existence” (426). The passage, however, can also be read as another version of the alternative reality of the cityscape, in which familiar and frenetic everyday activity is sucked up into a nightmarish re-imagining of the chaos of the city. It is not so much normal reality broken down as normal reality refigured and intensified. In Chagall’s vision of “Le Monstre de Notre-Dame,”4 the monster contemplating the city has also risen out of it, an organic growth from one of its central and defining landmarks. The chimney stacks and other objects in the Todgers’s passage are its Dickensian equivalent.
25While the urban nightmare induced by the view from Todgers’s appears to be the inevitable fate for anyone who ventures on to the roof, in Hard Times the view over Coketown materialises the particular psychology of the individual onlooker. As her father talks to her about Bounderby’s proposal of marriage, Louisa can see Coketown in the distance: “A window looked towards Coketown; and when she sat down near her father’s table, she saw the high chimneys and the long tracts of smoke looming in the heavy distance gloomily” (132). As their conversation progresses, the cityscape becomes for her an external representation of her own depression and repressed desire:
Removing her eyes from him, she sat so long looking silently towards the town, that he said, at length: “Are you consulting the chimneys of the Coketown works, Louisa?”
“There seems to be nothing there, but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out, father!” (135)
- 5 The last instalment of Hard Times appeared in Household Words on 12 August 1854 and the first insta (...)
- 6 I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for reminding me of this passage and pointing me to the “hen (...)
26Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, featuring another fictional northern industrial city, Milton, began serialization in Household Words in the month following the conclusion of Hard Times.5 Gaskell also uses the industrial cityscape to illuminate the psychology of her protagonist. Margaret Hale, who has lived all her life in a Hampshire village, sees Milton for the first time as she approaches it by train.6 The cityscape reflects her apprehensions of what life will be like in the city, with its “hopeless streets” (96), and yet she draws from the most striking aspect of the alien scene a familiar image from her former home in the rural south: “Quick they were whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick. Here and there a great oblong many-windowed factory stood up, like a hen among her chickens […]” (96).
27Margaret’s perceptions of the cityscape reflect her fears of the future and her nostalgia for her Hampshire village, but this translation of the newly encountered urban streets into an everyday scene from her own experience also foreshadows what the novel will show of her self-reliance and her ability to engage on her own terms with the threatening and the unfamiliar.
28In Little Dorrit, Rigaud, as he makes his way from Marseille to Chalon, imagines in the distant town he is approaching the comfort and warmth he lacks and the kinds of lives he was born to disrupt:
He trudged a little further; and looking into the distance before him, stopped again.
“I, hungry, thirsty, weary. You, imbeciles, where the lights are yonder, eating and drinking, and warming yourselves at fires! I wish I had the sacking of your town, I would repay you, my children!” (139)
29For Rigaud, this is a dream of the experienced reality of the city, with the distant townscape acting as a physical embodiment of his dream.
30Again, in these three examples, the remoteness of the onlooker and the distant perspective of the cityscape engender or make possible, in the mode of the simulacrum, a re-imagination of the city—in these cases via a projection of the specific psychology of the onlooker on to the cityscape.
31In this way, the remote cityscape can become a physical representation of hopes or fears. In Kingsley Amis’s 1954 campus novel Lucky Jim, for example, Jim Dixon’s desire to escape from the boredom and complications of his life as a junior lecturer at a provincial university finds expression in a vision of a London skyline:
- 7 “Jakes” is slang for “lavatory,” now archaic.
As he stood in the badly lit jakes,7 he was visited again, and unbearably, by the visual image that had haunted him ever since he took on this job. He seemed to be looking from a darkened room across a deserted back street to where, against a dimly-glowing evening sky, a line of chimney-pots stood out as if carved from tin. A small double cloud moved slowly from right to left. […] He was certain it was an image of London, and just as certain that it wasn’t any part of London he’d ever visited. He hadn’t spent more than a dozen evenings there in his life. Then why, he pondered, was his ordinary desire to leave the provinces for London sharpened and particularized by this half-glimpsed scene? (26)
- 8 As an aside, I am very grateful to an anonymous reviewer for bringing to my attention the mention o (...)
32Jim’s longing for a change of life is crystallized in this imagined remote cityscape. The vista of chimney-pots and the glow in the sky from the city lights constitute in effect a virtual simulacrum that precedes the as yet unexperienced reality.8
33In Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, published in 1895, we first encounter Jude Fawley as a young boy growing up in a rural village, with a love of books and a desire, out of tune with his rural environment, to study. Like Jim Dixon, Jude invests his hopes for a different life in the distant view of a city—in this case the fictional Christminster (based on Oxford), the home of a great university. On a clear day, Christminster is visible from a vantage point near Jude’s village. Like Jim’s vision of London, this remote cityscape becomes Jude’s dream of escape. In the alternative reality it invokes for him, he envisages a new life in the city, studying at the university. When he first sees it, Jude’s obscurely perceived cityscape is no less dream-like than Jim’s consciously imagined skyline:
Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere. (16)
34This slippery, partly imagined and partly perceived cityscape provides Jude with a romanticized version of an urban reality which, when ultimately encountered, replaces that enticing “simulacrum” with devastating complexity and challenge.
35And in David Copperfield, Dickens describes the impressions of the young David, sent away from home to Mr Creakle’s boarding school, as he approaches London by coach. Seeing the London skyline for the first time, and as yet undisturbed by the urban reality, for David the remote cityscape embodies fictions of the city, as he transposes on to it his boyhood fascination with tales of adventure and heroism:
What an amazing place London was to me when I saw it in the distance, and how I believed all the adventures of all my favourite heroes to be constantly enacting and re-enacting there, and how I vaguely made it out in my own mind to be fuller of wonders and wickedness than all the cities of the earth, I need not stop here to relate. (82)
36Thus Jim Dixon, Jude Fawley and David Copperfield perceive in the cityscape idealized and fictionalized versions of a reality they have not experienced. To refer back to Baudrillard, the simulacrum precedes the original and replaces it.
- 9 I am grateful to the special issue editors, Marie-Amelie Coste, Christine Huguet and Nathalie Vanfa (...)
37In all these examples, the remote cityscape, like Jasper’s drug-induced vision of Cloisterham at the beginning of Edwin Drood (37), stimulates and simulates the fears, hopes, desires and ambitions of the onlooker. In the alternative or intensified reality it evokes, it may threaten or quiet, it may be bewildering or controllable. From a distance, the cityscape becomes a dream or a nightmare of the city. And in the manner of a simulacrum, the dream of the city that the cityscape has become replaces the original reality from which it is constructed.9