Ann-onimity: How Space and Time Create and Erase Identity in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

In Thomas De Quincey’s autobiographical musings, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the itinerant wandering of a young De Quincey allows him to meet the “noble-minded Ann,” a London prostitute (28). As one of the “female peripatetics who are technically called street-walkers,” Ann also falls into the category of one of the “poor, houseless wanderers” who cannot benefit from the “stream of London charity” (28-29).

Now, to our 2017 sensibilities, the term “walker” may very conjure up the image of this lovely figure:

bicycle-girl-1024x6821

 

Thanks a lot, The Walking Dead. Thanks.

And then “wanderer,” may inspire a thankfully more mundane image of:

(So much better than the first one, no?)

But, alas, in 1820s England (the era in which De Quincey was writing this piece), neither image correctly aligns with “walker” and “wanderer.” In fact, the term “wanderer” was criminalized. Wanderers were the “poor, houseless” individuals who had no steady work and suffered in slums like St. Giles. The narrow streets peppering the numerous slums of London saw the presence of some of most deplorable figures of society: prostitutes. Trapped in an echelon of society where the only movement accomplished is the wandering of streets, Ann is part of a group of Londoners who are left behind as London accelerates into a more modern, Western city. Ann, therefore, cannot benefit from the “stream of London charity” because streams naturally undertake a unidirectional flow–a flow whose linearity takes no mercy on the wanderer who is actually enmeshed in a grid of circularity. No matter what street Ann wanders up or down, she will not escape the status of being stuck. That De Quincey requests her company to walk “up and down Oxford Street” is a testament to this inability to make progress, for up and down are indeed linear, only constitute a repeated path that ensnares Ann in a back and (limited) forth trajectory (29).

dickens-map-of-london-cropped

An 1859 map of London. Note the linear stretch that is Oxford Street.

Notably, De Quincey’s realization that he either never asked Ann her surname or simply forgot it reflects the sheer anonymity that was so prevalent among the masses of London’s lowest class. We get to know her virtuous aspects through De Quincey and, therefore, we know of her existence as Ann, De Quincey’s beloved. But once they go their separate ways, she ceases to exist in the same way. She dissolves into the confusing London geography, for De Quincey is never able to locate her again, resulting in “a separation for eternity” (47). Her own timeline of past, present, and future collapses into an “eternity” of anonymity among the London space. Her timeline, moreover, is transformed into an “eternity” that is no longer defined by the “mighty labyrinths of London,” but rather a no-man’s-land of ambiguity and possibility (47).

Because she is left to reside in a spatio-temporal limbo, Ann represents a fascinating loophole of time: As a figure conjured up via memory, Ann exists only in the realm of nostalgia, thereby escaping the progressive and linear time of an accelerating London. As London urbanizes more and more, demolishing the slower, clogged streets that the lowest classes populate, Ann the memory is no longer subject to the dangers of displacement. Although anonymity for a pick-pocket and swindler like James Hardy Vaux allows him to succeed in a more obvious way at passing through social classes, anonymity for Ann could actually be a more subtle version of success as well. Unlikely that she was going to experience any social mobility and find a way out of a life of prostitution, her status as deceased in the present (in De Quincey’s mind) and lovely and untouched in memory’s past detach her from the increasingly dramatic separation between the “us” and “them” that was befalling English society (especially in the 1830s and 50s oh boy).

Even if dead, Ann ultimately still lives on in memory–in De Quincey’s, in ours, and in the chaos that is London’s.

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