Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Book Review: The Victorian City

I used to be deeply in love with all things Victorian England and especially in love with Charles Dickens and his works. I wrote many a paper on these topics. Yet, it has been a good long time since I've devoted as much attention to the subject as I have in the past month or so. If you are interested in Victorian England, then this is another book you might be interested in perusing.

In The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London, Judith Flanders explores what life was like in London in the nineteenth century. I wasn't as quickly captivated with the writing as I was in Jackson's book Dirty Old London, but there were several very interesting stories and in general, the information was engaging. She covers a wide range of topics (walking, slumming, death, entertainment, food, and violence), but it seemed like there were so many more possibilities the book could have focused on. I suppose it is the nature of the beast (it being such an insurmountable topic) that the author couldn't do more than skim the surface of what life was like in that day and age.

I was fascinated by the story of a fire which raged along Tooley Street, devouring warehouses and lighting the Thames with flames as liquid fuel danced along the surface of the river. I could just picture the thousands of individuals who stood around and even boated near in order to view the spectacle. The fire smoldered for weeks before finally being completely contained and put out.

I had to read the passage about watercress girls aloud to my sons to remind them of how easy their life is. These young girls (starting around age 8) would wake at 3 a.m. and make their way to the city markets by 4 a.m., to try to select (in the dark) reasonably good watercress (sometimes fooled into purchasing yesterdays wilted remains). They would then make their way through the city selling small clusters of the leaf vegetable, stopping only to purchase a penny loaf to eat and working until ten in the evening. The book indicated that these girls generally walked about fifteen miles daily.

I was also horrified by the story of the 1867 Regent's Park skating disaster. Although park officials warned that the ice was probably unsafe, police officers informed them that they couldn't keep people off the ice because "it might have been dangerous to go on the ice, but it was not illegal." When the surface cracked, about 250 individuals were plunged into the icy waters (up to twelve feet deep), some becoming trapped beneath the ice. Some clung to pieces of ice until they could hold no longer and then dipped down beneath the water. The icemen attempted to save some, but often the ropes broke. Some 200 men and boys made it to the shore, but 45 died in the incident (all but 3 of them were boys between the ages of 9 and 29).

Those were the most interesting bits, but in many other parts I found myself skimming the information. I was also frankly surprised that there was never any mention of religion or The Salvation Army's place in Victorian London. The book ends on an unusual note, discussing the controversial statistics of prostitution and kept women, then shifting to the subject of suicide. One page after these discussions end, the book abruptly ends. I'm thinking there are probably better books on the subject (I may have even read one of them in years past). I know that I am hoping to secure a copy of Lee Jackson's book on walking in Dickens' London the next time my mother-in-law comes for a visit (her library has the book; mine does not). Judith Flanders does have another title I would be interested in exploring, called The Invention of Murder, again about Victorian England.

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