Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Review: Dirty Old London

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was fascinated by all things Victorian London, especially all things related to Dickens and Victorian London. She amassed great quantities of books on Victorian England and her shelf of works by and about Dickens was full to overflowing. She obtained a masters degree in history, focusing on the Victorian era. I think I had forgotten all about the girl I once was until I stumbled upon two recent releases about Victorian London. This was the first of the two books I eagerly grabbed from the recent acquisitions shelf at the library.

Lee Jackson is apparently a well-known Victorianist (ah, so that is what I should call myself) and author of a book which sounds similar to a small guidebook I created for my Wheaton professor to use with his travelling students, called Walking Dickens' London. I'd be interested to locate the master copy of my old walking guide and compare it with Jackson's version. Alas, I haven't seen it in years and it might take me forever to locate it among my old papers.

Jackson has written an interesting treatise on filth in Victorian London in this book entitled Dirty Old London. I thoroughly enjoyed this little jaunt into a world I used to love to immerse myself in. The author skillfully weaves the findings of his research into a readable narrative about the problems of dirt, soot, and mud. Many passages were so appalling I had to mention them to family members. The problem of sewers, the challenges of dealing with mounting dead bodies, and the difficulties of public urination (before public facilities entered the picture) all swept me into vivid images of the London I used to think about often. I cannot imagine having the job of entering houses to remove waste in the dead of night or the horrific nightmares of young chimney sweeps. The plight of the poor captured my imagination thoroughly while reading this book. It must have sparked interest in my husband as well, because I found him perusing the book one night while I was attempting to complete my book club book.

Various chapters cover all sorts of difficulties encountered: "The Golden Dustman," "Night Soil," "Vile Bodies," "The Public Convenience," and "The Veil of Soot," to mention a few. Illustrations are offered up (many of them cartoons from Punch) in two sections of the middle. Moreover the bibliography covers a full fourteen pages.

Now, I'm off to explore Lee Jackson's website and to see if any of the libraries I use carry a copy of his Walking Dickens' London. I won't get to the second book on Victorian London  (which combines my love of London and Dickens) for a little while because I have a book or two due in the coming days without the possibility of renewal. If I do find the walking guide I wrote back in college, maybe I'll also locate the fascinating paper I wrote in graduate school highlighting several well-known Victorian murder cases. Those were some interesting days of research back in the stacks of the University of Illinois' library.

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