Oh it really is a wery pretty garden And Chingford to the eastward could be seen; Wiv a ladder and some glasses You could see to 'Ackney marshes If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between. “WHAT A PLEASANT THING IT MUST BE…to have ancestors,” muses Alma in George Gissing's The Whirlpool. This reflection is prompted by response to her location, living as she does neither in country village nor metropolitan center but in suburbia. Recognition of this brings her bleakly down to earth: “Nobody's ancestors ever lived in a semi-detached villa” (342; pt. 3, ch. 4). Genealogically speaking, of course, Alma has as many ancestors as anyone else, as Gissing knew perfectly well; his point, however, is to signal through Alma–as he does throughout the novel–the degree to which the explosion in suburban living that characterized late nineteenth-century London had disturbed and fractured identities. Alma's ancestors may have existed, but not in any spatial, social, or temporal dimension to which she, a dweller in the new semi-detached suburbia, can relate. Like all suburban dwellers of the fin de siècle, she has moved beyond the bounds of the historically known and culturally defined. Floundering between fantasies of rural idylls and illusions of metropolitan glamour, she is fatally unable to settle the new territory she now actually inhabits, a terra incognita of domesticity in redbrick villas, of streets, gardens, commuters, of atomized family units in homogenized streetscapes. She has no social or historical chart by which to navigate.
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