The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London Hardcover – Jul 15 2014
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Judith Flanders's erudite and vivid look at 19th-century London is a reminder that what Charles Dickens --an unflinching observer of urban wretchedness, whom Ms. Flanders rightly hails as 'the greatest recorder the London streets has ever known chronicled in his novels and journalism was merely life as most people then lived it...Ms. Flanders is a beguiling guide, drawing on Dickens's writings to create an irresistible portrait of the English capital at a time of unprecedented expansion... The Victorian City is the perfect companion to Dickens's work. (The Wall Street Journal)
Flanders uses secondary historical sources alongside Dickens's own impressions of the city to take us on a dazzling journey through an imperial city plagued by poverty and deeply divided by class... Flanders must be given credit for doing an astounding job of recreating every nook and cranny of London in this richly detailed compendium. Shying away from academic pretension, Flanders tells the epic story of this biggest and boldest Victorian city in all its complexity, with verve, color and a straightforward approach to language that still manages to give a voice to ordinary Londoners something Dickens would no doubt approve of. (NPR.org)
Judith Flanders is giving famed English novelist and historian Peter Ackroyd a run for his money in their joint delight over all things London. In this new work, Victorian expert Flanders fields just about every question the intelligent reader might have about Dickensian London. (The Buffalo News, 4 out of 4 stars review)
Weaving a tapestry as colorful as a market flower display, Flanders not only describes such things as changes in transportation but takes us right into the streets, to battle the mud and to be smothered in dust. The Victorian City is social history at its finest, a must-read for Dickens fans or anyone who loves London. It reminds us why this time period is endlessly fascinating to read about, but probably not a place we'd really want to live. (BookPage)
[Flanders'] imagery is often intense and striking... The streets of London were a constant assault on the senses with their noise and smell. This is a superb portrait of an exciting, thriving, and dangerous city. (Booklist, starred review)
A well-stuffed compendium on the transformational era in the history of London that fed both Charles Dickens' imagination and his well of outrage.... Flanders writes with bubbling enthusiasm about the old markets, Covent Garden and Smithfield, with their accompanying din and smells, and the plethora of life we only know through Dickens' eyes: the street vendors and artists, matchstick sellers, slum dwellers, prostitutes, habitués of gin palaces and prisoners. A terrific companion while reading Boz himself. (Kirkus)
Flanders (The Invention of Murder) successfully recreates the feel of London at Dickens's peak as she delves deep into the rhythms and architecture of particular neighborhoods.... Flanders's expertise shines when exposing Dickens's embellishments, particularly when his character Fagin faces execution rather than the less powerful but more realistic punishment of deportment. This well-researched sociological overview provides highly detailed context for cultural touchstones, while shattering the popular yet inauthentic image of a pristine Victorian age that never existed. (Publishers Weekly)
Outstanding. (Sunday Times (London))
The teeming, bustling, hand-to-mouth and often smelly facts of mid-19th century urban life have seldom been more vividly presented than in this book. (Literary Review)
With infectious enthusiasm Judith Flanders dives into the sights, smells, sounds and grit of what was then the largest city the world had ever known: London. (Sunday Telegraph (London))
Full of detail and colour about everyday life in Dickens's London, and leaves you with a sense not only of how hard life was then, but how strange. Even if you've read Dickens and the contemporary historians of the poor, there is still more to marvel at here. (Sebastian Faulks, Mail on Sunday Books of the Year (London))
A quite extraordinary book, which I read with much enjoyment: an intoxicating blend of London, life and literature... I think it's Judith Flanders' best book yet, which is saying something. (Andrew Taylor)
Meticulous and gripping... Flanders says that Dickens appealed to contemporaries because he gave them a voyage into the unknown: into parts of London they did not know and where they would not venture. She does something similar for us. The strangeness remains, but the voyage is unforgettable. (Independent (UK))
Flanders captures the variety and colour of 19th-century London, stirring admiration and indignation by turns. To lead us through the Victorian capital, through its hustle and sprawl, its dangers and entertainments, you couldn't hope for a better guide. (New Statesman (UK))
Recreates the textures of everyday life with an anthropologist's understanding of human behaviour alongside a storyteller's eye for character. (Daily Telegraph (UK))
About the Author
JUDITH FLANDERS is a New York Times bestselling author and one of the foremost social historians of the Victorian era. Her book Inside the Victorian Home was shortlisted for the British Book Awards History Book of the Year. Judith is a frequent contributor to the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Spectator, and the Times Literary Supplement. She lives in London.
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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.
Each chapter - almost each page - bristles with detail. This is a wonderful reference book. As a straight-through read, I found it challenging, because I was soon feeling swamped by the sheer amount of information. To fully process all of that I'll have to read it again, but only a bit at a sitting. That said, I enjoyed most her descriptions of the development of the city's infrastructure - streets, roads, lighting, sewers, the Embankment.
There's an encyclopedic knowledge on display in each chapter of this book, and much to learn. Few who visit today's London know that several rivers run through it, but have long been buried deep under its streets and buildings. I wasn't surprised to read the details of a devastating fire at the wharves, or of huge public gatherings for events ranging from said fire to the state funeral of the Duke of Wellington. It was a revelation, however, to learn of the elaborate public illuminations: public buildings, shops, and even private homes were adorned with gaslit decorations for the enjoyment of vast night time crowds, to mark special occasions. Those are just a few of the subjects Flanders examines; if I tried to touch on all of them I'd have to write an unbearably long review.
Throughout the more than 400 pages of text (there are about 100 pages of end notes), Flanders frequently ties the details of the present subject, with Dickens' life and works. This attention to her theme provides welcome relief from the feeling I sometimes had, that I was reading an encyclopedia.
Although I don't live there and can't visit often, one of my favorite things ever is to spend a day walking in London. Any book whose purpose is to explain what Dickens saw on his lifetime's worth of walks through London - night and day - has a permanent place in my bookcase. I'll be picking this one up again and again, for reference and for browsing. It's a bit much to read all at one go, though.
Each chapter has a theme for our travel adventure -- food, water-borne diseases, transportation, the generally miserable lives of children put to work when they are hardly out of their nappies, street walkers, shop keepers, and royalty. The book is an excellent resource for the casual reader and the scholar alike, as Ms Flanders has included copious notes and a bibliography. The book did not have quite as many illustrations as I had hoped for, although there were some throughout the text. I have read other books that I think did a slightly better job of involving the reader more totally in the time period, such as "The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England", by Ian Mortimer. The Mortimer book had more of a laser-like focus on one particular subject per chapter, where Flanders sometimes seemed to go off on tangents. Both methods have their merits, and sometimes it is just a matter of what style appeals to the reader at a given moment.
At over 400 pages the Flanders book is a commitment of time, but, as is often the case in books of this type, it is possible to read a chapter or two, set the book aside for a few days, and then come back to it without losing the context. I know many people, including myself, who often read large non-fiction books in this manner, and this book in particular lends itself to that method. If the subject matter interests you, do not hesitate to dive right into this exploration of Dickens' London.
Now I am a Dickens fan and have been since I was a very, very young man. I think over the years I have read all of his major work and a goodly number of his minor ones and have read several biographies; some good, some not so good, but have enjoyed them all. And of course this was one of the major reasons I was so interested in reading this work. The author has based her research of the City of London on the writings and the era of Dickens. His influence seeps though every page and I find this delightful.
The author has concentrated primarily on the street life of those times. Her other works (which by the way are excellent) have addressed other facets of Victorian life. In this case though, it was the street life that I wanted to learn about, or at least have the knowledge I already have reinforced. I was not disappointed.
The writing here is extremely smooth and very, very readable. I will warn the reader though that it is extremely detailed. The author has done her homework and the research that must have gone into this work is absolutely bind boggling. If you are a reader that does not like minute detail in their histories and biographies, then some of this book might bog you down just a bit. I personally love this sort of thing, ergo my statement that I am going to purchase my own copy because I plan to give this work several reading. Indeed, this is one of those books that really needs to be read more than once to benefit from the vast amount of knowledge presented. This is particularly true for people such as me who are getting a bit long in the tooth and whose concentration and memory are not what they were over sixty years ago when I was first introduced to writing and books such as this.
At this point I will voice my only complaint. I felt that there could have been a few more illustrations provided; illustrations which were larger and felt that the black and white drawings were of lower quality...to the point they were difficult to see and understand. This is a minor problem though and if I really wanted pictures...well, I would go out and find a pretty picture book.
This is one of several very nice books by several different authors covering this subject. Each of these books gives the reader a different view and provides different opinions...I have like them all and gained. This one though goes to the top of the list as far as an informative look at a great city at its zenith.
And of course it did not hurt that the author linked it so closely to the writings of Dickens!
In fact, that's the reason I hate it. There is SO much detail, for example page upon page of the different materials and methods used to surface the roads of the different parts of London. At times I felt like I was going to scream if I read one more paragraph of that!
And yet... I couldn't put it down. For me it was not a straight read-through; that would be too much and would have addled my poor brain. But each day I read a bit and found myself compelled to continue, lured along by the revelation of a Victorian London that had been unknown to me despite being an avid reader of books from the period.
The most marvelous thing for me was to learn about London at night. From before the first streetlamp was lit until the first rays of dawn, a whole other side of London came alive while the other side slept.
In short, I loved it and hated it for the same reason: the endless, overwhelming, minute descriptive detail!
One minor complaint: though the book is extensively footnoted, there were occasions when a quotation was not credited. Sometimes I really wanted to know the original source, and this was a little frustrating.
A suggestion: it would be a huge help if future editions included at least two maps of London: one from the time period of the book, and a modern map. I felt these would have really enhanced the book for me, as street names and neighborhoods and how they changed were integral to the book.