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FROM CESSPOOL TO SEWER: SANITARY REFORM AND THE RHETORIC OF RESISTANCE, 1848–1880

  • Michelle Allen (a1)
Abstract

IN 1855, THE REVEREND GIRDLESTONE zealously promoted sanitary reform in Britain, claiming that the movement was “pregnant with the most important advantages to the human race, in every point of view — social, moral, and religious” (29). Girdlestone’s claim provides a useful starting point for considering representations of reform, as this view of the redemptive powers of cleanliness has been accepted by many historians as a characteristic Victorian attitude.1 But while it is true that many Victorians believed that sweeping public health reforms could fuel the physical and moral regeneration of the urban poor, it is also true that others responded to these reforms with fear, anger, and suspicion: an active strain of resistance flourished within Victorian sanitary discourse. That scholars have privileged the Victorians’ declarations of faith in matters of cleanliness and to some degree shared in these sentiments should not surprise us. The idea of public health reform as universally advantageous accords not only with our own sense of the desirability of sanitary techniques such as flush-toilets and water-borne sewerage, which have become naturalized in the West, but also with a narrative of historical progress.2 While this essay does not dispute the fact that the sanitary idea gained wide acceptance in the period, it does seek to shift the focus away from Victorian faith to Victorian apostasy in matters of reform.

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Victorian Literature and Culture
  • ISSN: 1060-1503
  • EISSN: 1470-1553
  • URL: /core/journals/victorian-literature-and-culture
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