2 April 2014

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

This book first caught my eye in Hatchards while on a trip to London in 2012.  It was hot off the press with a gorgeous cover that roped me in for a closer look.  Full of fascinating tidbits I was dying to take it home with me but its bulky heft meant foreseeable issues with my luggage allowance.  Then as is so often the case I added it to my wishlist and moved on to obsess about other books and authors.  Last month, while browsing the discounted history books at Indigo, there it was.  I wish this was a case of patience being a virtue but it was more like sheer luck.

One of the first pages made me smile with a note on currency.  I don't know how many times I have previously read about a shilling for this or a farthing for that and been completely ignorant as to the impact of that amount on the average Victorian citizen.  A couple of years ago a colleague and I spent a shift at the library nabbing everyone over a certain age, with an English accent, for a tutorial but to no avail.  We went through lots of scrap paper and knitted some brows though.  I digress.

Within the first few pages I was transported to London and whipped back in time..

'It is 2.30 in the morning.  It is still night, but it is also 'tomorrow'.  By this hour at Covent Garden market, in the centre of London, the streets are alive.  Long lines of carts and vans and costermongers' barrows are forming in the surrounding streets.  Lights are being lit 'in the upper windows of public houses - not for the inhabitants retiring to rest, but of active proprietors preparing...for the day...The roadway is already blocked up, and the by-streets are rapidly filling.'

In a time before alarm clocks, I loved the image of an arrangement between parties (with a bit of currency changing hands) that had someone on their way home from a hard night's graft rousing their neighbour from slumber with a hard knock on the door.  This book brilliantly gets across the image of a city that is rarely quiet or ever sleeps.  One of the many occupations that took place during the night was the hot-potato seller.  A large tin heated by a charcoal burner from underneath would attract patrons spilling out of the public houses into the cool night air; August to April being the best months for sales.  If the proprietor could afford a bit of tarp to enclose an area it would attract prostitutes as a way to keep warm while upping the chance of doing some business with men full of drink from a public house.

Riding in a hired coach or taking an omnibus was risky business.  In some instances when the route included a steep incline, much as I imagine in the case of Highgate Hill, extra horses would be stationed at the bottom to be hitched up for extra 'horsepower'.  Going downhill was a different matter- young men would be employed to place pallets of wood in front of the wheels to slow down the rate of speed on the decline and rarely was it a notable experience to be thrown now and again.  Also, experiments with different types of road surfacing such as granite cut down on dust and mud but created a thunderous roar from hundreds of hooves up and down Oxford Street.  Such was the noise that shopkeepers could scarcely hear their customers when placing orders.  One passage in a Dickens' novel casually mentions a character requesting the coach driver to pull over onto a side street so he could hear his companion speak (too engrossed in the reading to make note of which novel, apologies).  Just the sort of vignette that would mean absolutely nothing to me as a reader in the twenty-first century but a tidbit of minutiae that educates me in the nuances and difficulties of Victorian travel.

Chapter fifteen sheds light on the world of prostitutes, real and perceived.  I say 'perceived' because of the ridiculous notion that if you were a woman working in certain low-paid occupations you were likely spending some time selling your body to make ends meet.  Flanders couldn't resist a comment which had me applauding...

'Milliners, for example, routinely worked fourteen-hour days, and sixteen in the season.  In view of the difficulties of life that we have seen - and finding time to collect water and so on - it is worth questioning how much time, if not energy, they had for extra-curricular prostitution as well.'

...Hear, Hear!  In coming up with a figure of how many prostitutes were circulating in London during a given year, a panel immediately began their count with the fact that there had been 42,000 births registered to unwed mothers.  Therefore, I can only assume that should a woman have the misfortune of being raped by her employer and becoming pregnant she was deemed a prostitute.  Is it any wonder young women were shortening their already minimal life-expectancy by throwing themselves off of bridges and into the Thames on a regular basis?

My experience with Dickens' work amounts to reading A Christmas Carol and Masterpiece Theatre so it was off to the library shelves for a closer look.  Finding a copy of Sketches by Boz proved to be just the thing when tackling a chunkster isn't quite in the cards.  Filled with articles, essays and short stories from his early experience as a journalist I chose The Bloomsbury Christening about a grumpy bachelor and his brutally honest observations about babies and parenting.  By the time I finished the second page I was so glad to have been educated by Flanders' book as to the ins-and-outs of cross-sweeping boys and omnibus cads.

The Victorian City is page-turning fun if you are interested in that era, have a fondness for London (I am so envious of readers from the Greater London area who will instantly visualize the streets mentioned) or have a fondness for Dickens' storytelling.


  1. I *love* Judith Flanders' work. She is scholastic and has a great (sly) sense of humour about things which I adore. Have you read her other work such as "Inside the Victorian Home" and "Consuming Passions". I think she also has one out about Victorian murder...? Anyhow, your review has reminded me how much I adore Flanders' writing so off to the bookshop I go... Thanks!

    1. Welcome, ravingreader! One of my colleagues bought a copy of 'Inside the Victorian Home' for me a few years ago for my birthday; I'm known for my love of all...well, most things English so it was a safe purchase. At the time I gave it a skim read but should probably go back and give it thorough going over, I really like her writing style! Off to see what 'Consuming Passions' is all about...

  2. I definitely have a fondness for Dickens so this book would be good for me. I have a similar type of book called "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew" which I haven't read and will now look into. Thanks for a very interesting post!

    1. I think you would really enjoy this book, Sunday. Some non-fiction books are excellent for dipping in and out of but with this one you will want to read every page...not the least bit dry anywhere!