A Review of
The Promise of the Suburbs:
A Victorian History in Literature and Culture
Reviewed by Ashley Hales
In the 90s cult film, Grosse Pointe Blank, a hitman (John Cusack) returns to his hometown – a fictional suburb – and in what seems a throwaway scene, pulls in to park in the driveway of his parents’ suburban home, only to pull out again and properly park at the next home. The audience chuckles knowingly, “Yes, all of suburban houses look the same;” we’re led to ask, at some level, when everything is cut from the same cookie cutter, does it really matter which house is his? This short nod to the suburbs as a cultural wasteland is our shared joke between movie makers and viewers of taste. But the plot is nothing new.
Sarah Bilston’s monograph, The Promise of the Suburbs, explores stories we tell about the suburbs. The trope of suburbia as a no-place – as dull and culturally tasteless emerged early in the 1800s, according to author Sarah Bilston. While we’ve seen it trickle through the century into writing and Hollywood moviemaking, it is a rhetorical strategy that (at least in Victorian England) had more to do with social anxieties about the growing middle class than actual reality.
Her monograph takes a deep dive into suburbs surrounding London in Victorian England. Through history, garden periodicals, and popular (but now mostly forgotten) novels, she proposes that there is more to the suburbs than a life of dullness or monstrosity: the suburbs offer a promise. But this promise, in the literature she surveys, is open uniquely to women.
Gender in the Suburbs
Perhaps one of the most fascinating ideas in the book – and one that heightened conversation around the dinner table in our suburban home – was Bilston’s analysis of novel plotlines, specifically that the suburbs were emasculating to men. (We wondered as we ate our tacos, if the trope of the man who is competent at work yet clueless at home in the suburbs rings true. Has the home become a feminized space?). In Bilston’s book, the emasculated man is either a bumbling idiot or male version of an ingenue and he must find a new way in this new landscape.
Novel after novel illustrated the hapless man wandering into the suburbs, with a spider-like woman peeking behind Venetian blinds ready to capture her prey. While such plotlines weren’t always sexual, they did reinforce the connection between morality, taste, and class. For a man of virtue, the way out of the suburbs was to be discovered as a man of taste, rescued into a life of nobility through the noblesse oblige of the upper class and brought back into the city chastened and knowing one’s station.
Taste became the marker of this new suburban reality. If houses all looked the same, if someone could pretend to gentility, then the marker to differentiate oneself from others was taste. And it was the upper classes who, even as the landscape became more democratically structured, held the key to conferring taste.
Yet for women, the suburbs held out a new social landscape – not organized around birth or status, but around shared interests, shared floorplans, and “how the very problems of the suburbs gave women purpose” (138). Interestingly the connection between the women’s movement of the 1890s evolved alongside the growth in professions emerging from experience as housewives – notably in the emergence of professional interior decorating. As a mode of self-expression and for its earning potential, home décor became the training ground for women to grow a professional life. Yet this flourishing grow because of the social connectedness of the suburban neighborhood. Because of the small plots of land, shared gardens and semi-detached homes, “suburban landscape forces meetings between strangers” (19). Out of this proximity, a shared life grew.
The Suburban Home and Money
What was particularly worrisome to many of the upper-class writers of Victorian England about the space of the suburb was its conflation of the domestic with the commercial: this “complicated intertwining of the commercial with the domestic” seemed antithetical to an “architecture promised their separation, at a time when that separation was held key to national well-being” (56).
When middle-class women used the suburban home as a jumping off point to practice gardening and became adept at skills like interior design, they were able to sidestep issues of class to enter the marketplace, giving them agency, vocation, and economic stability. Suburbia then stands at the crossroads of cultural shifts towards a growing professional class, standing outside delineated gender and class categories.
When the home becomes the place of work, things get dicey. It’s the sort of thing that still happens today, albeit in a different form: take, for example, a recent Vox article highlighted “mommy blogger” Heather Armstrong and others like her who hit “blogging gold” in the early 2000s by monetizing the practices of their Mormon faith (journaling, crafting and sewing hobbies) to create extremely profitable businesses.
We’re likely still a bit wary of this wedding of the commercial and domestic. It’s why we bristle when someone leverages their relationships at church, book club, or their neighborhood to share their multi-level marketing business. It seems as if they are using what should be a safe and privatized space, or the space of authentic community, for profit – it cheapens what happens both in and outside of the home.
The home became a marker of taste for upper class residents and increasingly female – a closed-off space where, like a suburban garden, a woman could be cultivated, protected, and prized as a beautiful object.
“Throughout the book we have seen that male and female writers employed stereotypes of the tedious, vulgar, or monstrous suburbs to position themselves and their protagonists as people and taste, incisive interpreters of the modern world at a time when categories of taste and value were in flux” (176)
Like Grosse Point Blank, “speaking of suburbia as vulgar and dull was always performative” and by the end of the 1800s revealed “its own artificiality” (177) – we are all in on the joke.
Bilston argues the suburbs needed a story to help make sense of this new way of suburban life. This story Bilston tells is how the suburbs offered new networks of connection for women, providing them a new way to relate both to one another and to the marketplace. What is the story the suburbs tells us today? And can we become readers of our geography?
Ashley Hales holds a PhD in English from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She’s a writer, speaker, and hosts The Finding Holy Podcast. Ashley’s married to a church planter in the southern California suburbs and the mother to 4. Her writing has been featured in such places as The Gospel Coalition, Books & Culture, and Christianity Today. Her first book is Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much (IVP). Connect with Ashley at aahales.com or on Instagram and Twitter at @aahales.