Top critical review
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A black day for story-telling
on 6 April 2009
I really wanted to like this book. I really did. This sort of social history is just my cup of tea, but I found myself praying for this book to end before I'd reached half way. I was initially excited at the beginning of each chapter and what it promised: the roles of the local authorities, philanthropists, charities, the police, religion, etc. on slum life, only to be buried under a landslide of petty bureaucracy and unenlightening trivia a dozen paragraphs in. The cumulative effect of all these facts and statistics is energy-sapping and distracting. Where is the REAL story? Where are the anecdotes? When will we see what it was like to live in the Nichol in the late 1880s? I finished this book and I still don't know.
I was initially made aware of this book from an article in BBC History magazine, which cherry-picked the one interesting chapter -- "Phantoms in the Fog", concerning the police and judicial system -- and made an interesting article about it. Now I know why they picked that chapter. It would be difficult to select any other chapter to make an interesting article. But perhaps I shouldn't be too uncomplimentary. I DID learn something from this book and I WAS disabused of some common misconceptions about Victorian squalor that I might have seen sensationalised in some costume dramas on the television.
However, this is a much too sober and over-analytical study of a subject that is probably better suited to a more casual and popular approach. Having said that, Wise does treat the subject matter very humanely and sympathetically when she occasionally moves away from facts and statistics. I really wanted more anecdotes, more story-telling. The black-and-white photographs were well chosen and nicely reproduced in the body of the text rather than as plates on glossy paper. I think that was a good decision. I would recommend that this book is taken out of the library rather than bought, as I did, because it isn't exactly as described in the blurb, so the interested reader might be disappointed with his purchase.