Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, by Judith Flanders

My obsession with Victorian London and Dickens rears its head again, this time in the form of Judith Flanders book The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London. It is a fascinating and well written account of nineteenth century London. The book is dense, and at times academic enough that it is probably only for those who have a genuine interest. I did think the link to Dickens was rather tenuous, I doubt that she referred to him any more than she did other well-known Victorians. She does shed light on moments in his novels that I had ill-understood as I read them, so perhaps here her connection is on safer ground.

A full sense of the city’s life – both good and bad – are depicted here. The scope of what Flanders covers, as well as the detail, is impressive. Ranging from how streets were paved, and how this changed over the course of the era, to entertainment and eating houses, and even what produce would be available from street sellers at particular times of day. She vividly describes the chaos of trying to move around busy London streets, the mud, the crowds - traffic jams today have nothing on these. Of course no account would be complete without discussing the sewers, cholera, and The Great Stink, when parliament smelt so bad the rich could no longer ignore the (oh, the unsanitary!) conditions many lived in, and finally cleaned up London. A particularly gruelling chapter deals with the failure to properly dispose of the dead. Dickens memorably describes the pitiful burial of Nemo in Bleak House; I had little appreciation of how literally we should take his description of bones breaking through the soil in the graveyards. Not for the faint of heart! Also appalling was the account of life in the slums. This was such a concern to the upper classes that slum quarters were often destroyed, without provision of new housing, forcing more and more of the poor to cram into the slums that did remain.

Crime and punishment is unsurprisingly an interesting section; women in Victorian London are almost synonymous with prostitution, but Flanders makes a good case for how inaccurate this is. Figures for vast amounts of prostitutes are well known, yet the sources for these are, frankly, laughable. One problem is what we would term a prostitute has changed, Flanders quotes a paper writing about dancers who prostitute themselves ‘either for money, or more frequently for their own gratification’. Nowadays we would only class the former as prostitution! Estimates of numbers were reached by extrapolating from the number of births to unwed mothers, assuming that every mother would become a prostitute and work for five years, so 42 000 births annually meant 210 000 prostitutes at any given time. The man who came up with this estimate is known to have been aware that police estimates were just under 10 000 women. Nor was prostitution the bleak road to ruin we often assume, as many woman were known to have saved up enough money to go into respectable trade, and even make good marriages.

Flanders opens each section with well-known events from London’s history. The most fascinating of these was the Tooley Street fire in 1861, in which an enormous fire burned in the warehouses down by the Thames. It was so big that it was three weeks before it was declared fully contained. The warehouses contained cotton, sugar, tea, spices such as cayenne and pepper, saltpetre, sulphur and oil. Not only did the winds blow this noxious combination about in huge smoke clouds, but the burning oil leaked onto the Thames, setting even the river on fire. Despite this huge crowds packed the streets, pubs stayed open all night for spectators and some even hired boats to take them out onto the Thames. It is hard to see a modern crowd glorying in a sulphurous smoke! I suppose we would still watch, but from the comfort of our living rooms.

Flanders is a research fellow at the University of Buckingham, and clearly knows her subject area well. More to the point she is articulate - this book is clear and concise. It is well-indexed too. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the colour-plates; here Flanders is badly let down by the book’s editors. Frequently Flanders points out details that can be seen in the plates, such as details of clothing, and in not a single case that I found was the correct plate number given. On all occasions I managed to work out which plate Flanders was referring to, but this situation shouldn’t have arisen.

For anyone with an interest in the subject I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a fantastic reference book that is both well written and researched. Hopefully editorial quibbles will be dealt with in future print runs. It challenged many of my preconceptions of life in Victorian London. It is striking, but perhaps not surprising how little we have changed; technology is different, but we still judge women on reproductive choices, judge the poor as ‘deserving’ or not, and seek out spectacle in catastrophe. An interesting and illuminating read.

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