Bad Property: Unclean Houses in Victorian City Writing


  • Erika Kvistad (University of Oslo)



This essay considers dirt as a source of horror in late nineteenth-century urban exploration writing, in which middle-class writers explore the homes of poor city dwellers. I argue that for these writers, dirt was the point where scientifically driven social activism and superstitious horror met. They imagined poor homes as “bad propertyâ€, both the location and the source of moral uncleanness. The by then disproved miasma theory of disease persists in these texts both as a fact and as a persuasive metaphor. It allowed urban exploration writers to articulate both the fear of the squalid dwellings where poverty, disease and moral decay arise, and the fear that this badness might spread through the wealthier parts of the city. In this way, the demolition of filthy homes functioned not only as a social project, but as a form of exorcism. But three other central works of late-Victorian city writing, Margaret Oliphant's A Beleaguered City“, W.T. Stead's ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ and R.L. Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde“, use the idea of the unclean house for new purposes, undermining the equivalence between cleaning up the city and eradicating its horror. The concept of “bad property†becomes, instead, a way of locating horror close to home, at the heart of respectable middle-class houses.