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The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London
on 2 October 2012
Having looked at the Victorian house, Victorian crime and Victorian leisure in previous books, the author now turns her attention to the Victorian city. In particular, London during the time of Dickens', using his journalism and novels to illustrate her own book. Judith Flanders makes an important point that today the word 'Dickensian' often refers to squalor - such as the term 'Dickensian conditions' - whereas in his own time the author was more often seen as convivial and often humorous. As anyone will know who has read any biography of the great man, what Dickens was, more than anything, was an observer of his city and his people. In this book, Flanders attempts to create a picture of London during that time and to show the differences and similarilities with now.
One of the main impressions I came away with from the book is that London was much busier then than our present time - if that is possible! When the author recreates the working day, it showed that even in the middle of the night people were trudging around, either going to work or returning from it. Another major difference is that most people walked fairly long distances to get to and from places. In her section about the city itself, she covers all elements, from the methods of transport, accidents, commuting and even what the roads were surfaced in. She presents a place of immense noise and bustle, with street hawkers, markets, music and crowds, in which many of the inhabitants complained of never having any peace from the constant roar of the streets.
Other sections of the book look at how people lived, enjoyed themselves and the city at night. I learnt that markets and public houses had to close during church services, something I had not been aware of before, and a whole host of other interesting and informative facts. London during Dickens' time was always on the move. As the population increased, slum dwellings (or rookery's) began to grow, with workhouses and prisons visible presences in the city. Poverty led to many ingenious ways to make things cheapest for the very poorest. Public houses had a 'saveall' to collect dregs from glasses to be sold cheaply, or given away, for instance. My very favourite was the fact that you could have newspapers delivered, or 'rent' them - if that was too expensive for you, you could rent the previous days paper for an even cheaper price. Still, the author looks carefully at the poverty and injustice Dickens' was famous for exposing and also looks at life expectancy, public water pumps, illness and epidemics and the links between crime and poverty.
London was not always so dark and depressing and her vivid descriptions of London at night, with public houses, theatres, street organs, parks and public spaces are fascinating. I have lived in London all my life, but was never aware of the work on Trafalgar Square, for instance, which went on for so long that hardly anybody could muster any enthusiasm when the lions were finally installed - only a handful of men witnessing they arrival in the capital. There are interesting digressions into royalty, food, street violence and fascinating accounts of public executions. For Dickens' his city was a place that encompassed all life, and leaving London and leaving life one and the same. Flanders does a wonderful job of recreating that time and of relating it always to Dickens' London and his work. If you have an interest in Victorian London or the work of Charles Dickens, this will be a must read. Lastly, I read the kindle edition of this book and it contained illustrations.