For the past few days I’ve occasionally been leaving my quiet, rural retreat to join the crowds thronging the streets of Victorian London. I’ve been almost deafened by the continuous roar of noise around me, half choked and blinded by the sooty, smoky air. I’ve gawped at funerals, executions, fires, runaway horses and street accidents. I’ve eaten on the hoof, buying breakfast on the way to work and if I’m lucky getting a chop and a pint of ale for dinner. I’ve had to struggle to walk through the human traffic jams, dodged the wheeled traffic, avoided the eager traders and hawkers with their familiar cries. It’s been exhausting, smelly, dirty, overwhelming; but my goodness, it’s been living, in a city that never sleeps. Charles Lamb wrote, ‘I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much Life.’
Judith Flanders says that Dickens ‘invented London’. She means that what we think of as ‘Dickens’ London’, a place full of wildly eccentric people and improbable happenings, was in fact the real thing: ‘Much of what we take today to be the marvellous imaginings of a visionary novelist turn out on inspection to be the reportage of a great observer.’ Certainly, many of the incidents she records seem stranger than fiction. ‘In Dickens’ own time, the way that people lived was not Dickensian, merely life.’ The city was transforming itself at incredible speed. ‘Migration, particularly from Ireland during the Famine years towards the middle of the century, resulted in the eighteenth-century infrastructure of London being swamped by the huge mass of its nineteenth-century residents. Transport, sanitation, food distribution, housing: none could cope with the numbers pouring into the capital every day.’ No wonder that life was lived so much on the streets.
This book was cheap for the Kindle and as I’d enjoyed other books
by Judith Flanders, I snapped it up and got stuck in. I immediately came up against the problems arising when reading non-fiction in e-book form. You want to check a footnote and can’t, you’re stumped by ‘see illustration page 22’ and you can’t flip back and forth as you might want to. At this very moment I can’t access the chapter titles, in order to highlight some of the subjects covered. I wasn’t ready for the book to end, as according to the Kindle, I was 65% of the way through. The whole of the rest of the book is taken up with notes and an extensive bibliography. This gives you some idea of the reading and research involved here: novels (Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope), contemporary diaries, Mayhew, of course, newspaper reports plus any number of specialist research papers. Although so fact based, the book reads as easily as a novel. Just one point. Writing of street cries, Flanders says, ‘The seller’s cry for strawberries was, mysteriously, ‘Hoboys!’ and was a sign summer had arrived.’ Surely ‘Hoboys’ is a corruption of Hautboy, a variety of strawberry? Mrs Elton mentions it in Emma, when the party are picking strawberries at Donwell.
I was struck by how much of ‘Dickens’ London’ lingered on. If you read the Spitalfields Life blog regularly, you find that many old London traditions continued well into the 1960s and beyond. My mother (born 1923) remembered a muffin man from her childhood. I remember the cat’s meat man, pushing a bicycle with an enormous basket on the front. Ghosts, all around us. I loved this book and it’s sending me back to Sketches by Boz. Not that I need an excuse to re-read Dickens.
image from The Victorian Web