Top positive review
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Essential and entertaining reading on Victorian England
on 10 April 1999
Mayhew interviewed hundreds of people, all extremely poor, and many in destitution, to discover the conditions of poverty in London in 1852. Here, he relates their stories in their own words, with deep sympathy, but is never patronising or judgemental in the typical Victorian fashion. The interviews shed light on all aspects of Victorian society, viewed by those it treated harshest. Favourite examples: the photographer, who exploited his customer's ignorance of the technique (a widow whose picture did not come out is given one of a sailor, and told that the cap represents her hair); the crossing-sweeper, who earns pennies by drawing pictures in the mud outside the shopping arcade; the wife of the soldier sent to Canada, who finds relief in a homeless shelter, her stockings having frozen to her feet. Most stories are personal tragedies, each of a different kind, though many with flashes of humour. The extent of some people's bad fortunes is frequently distressing: because these are real people who speak to us through Mayhew's writing. The author's conclusion is that society is to blame for the poverty of its citizens, a view he reaches by recognising his interviewees' essential humanity.