2017-09-14 / Opinions

Book Review

The Victorian City
Reviewed by

For Charles Dickens’ contemporaries, “Dickensian” meant comic or convivial good cheer (See Pickwick Papers.) Now it refers to wretched living conditions or darkness. In the 20th century, when social conditions began to improve, the word took on its new meaning; in Dickens’ lifetime, it’s just the way things were.

Judith Flanders uses Dickens’ writings to illustrate London in the 19th century. The streets were always busy, with men, women, children, coaches, wagons, carts, and the sounds included bells from steeples, doors, and salesmen. Dickens’ characters often had to move into side streets or courts in order to talk. The main ingredient in the noise was traffic, horses’ hooves and wheels on granite paving stones or macadam.

A factor that makes this book so entertaining is the detail and the history that Flanders gives about things like the paving of London’s streets. From the problem of the street surfacing, she goes on to the arrival of the railways and the development of the rails and the stations serving them. As modes of travel improved and the population increased, areas that had been on the edges of London housed commuters.

Covent Garden was a major market for produce, covering the Piazza and doorsteps hundreds of yards around. Street sellers walked the rounds of the streets on a regular daily or weekly schedule. Sweepers and dustmen came through first, followed by milkmen and maids. Next were the watercress girls, other produce sellers, fishmongers, butchers, and baker boys. They wore clothing that denoted their trade.

Descriptions of the meat market are dreadful. (It is interesting that the main one was at Smithfield.) One visitor in London learned to avoid the area because of the “fiendish brutality of the drivers” and the animals piled into carts without room to breathe. There were Parliamentary inquiries about the horrors of Smithfield, and it was finally closed in 1852.

Perambulating merchants sold every kind of thing. Poverty was the driving force behind many of the sellers. The really indigent were reduced to selling matches. Matches were both cheap and highly valued. Tinderboxes were overtaken by phosphorus bottles and matches dipped in chlorate of potash. By the 1830’s, “strike anywhere” matches made an appearance. Most pictures of match sellers of the period show either very small children or the very elderly. (Remember “The Little Match Girl?”)

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the word “slum” was unknown. It emerged gradually, gathering pace as did the growth of slums themselves. Housing, sanitation, and food distribution could not keep up with the huge masses of residents moving in. Dickens experienced slum life himself as a child and wrote often about it. His work was instrumental in eventually improved conditions. Descriptions of workhouses and the desperate plight of poor children moved even politicians. After quoting a paragraph about starving children, Flanders says, “The visceral response that is so close to the surface is not just born of his sympathy for these people ‘thrown away,’ but derives from the knowledge that had life turned out a little differently, he might have been one of them.”

Covering also other subjects like entertainment, street violence, and “red light districts,” The Victorian City is absorbing and informative. It is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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