Vulnerable London: narratives of space and affect in a twentieth-century imperial capital

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Avery, Lisa Katherine, 1968-

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This dissertation examines sensation in twentieth-century narratives of London and argues that vulnerability is a constitutive experience of the post-imperial city. Sensations of vulnerability in London arise because of the built environment of the city: its status as an imperial center and a global capital create important intersections of local, national, and global concerns which render the city itself vulnerable. I chart the trajectory of vulnerability as an affective history of London that is documented in cultural texts ranging from fiction and film to political debates and legal materials. Since the sensational experiences of the present partly arise from the materials of the past embedded in the landscape, affective histories create new ways of understanding history as a spatial experience. The narrated sensations of the city make vulnerability legible as a persistent feature of twentieth-century London life. I begin with a modernist, imperial London, in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and in Parliamentary debates from the same year (1925). Ambivalence about London's dual status as a local site and as a national and international capital is a response to London's vulnerable position at the end of the Great War. Next, I turn to World War Two London and Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day. I discuss intimacy as an important national feature in narratives of London during the crisis of this war. National narratives about intimacy constructed by Winston Churchill and heard on BBC radio respond directly to London's defensive vulnerability. My third chapter concerns Margaret Thatcher's 1980s London and the crucial role autonomy plays in constructing London as an invulnerable, international financial and civic capital. Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming-Pool Library documents Londoners' attempts to make sense of their autonomy in a postimperial capital. My final chapter examines sensations of social and political belonging in contemporary London through reading Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things alongside legal documents about immigration. I contend that reading cultural texts affectively creates counter-histories of the city that accommodate a deeper range of experiences than do traditional histories and offers to literary studies a new way of understanding the relationship between official and unofficial histories.