Victorian London: The Life of a City, 1840 – 1870
© 2013 Liza Picard
As far as immersive English social histories go, I would heretofore have called Ian Mortimer the champion standing, but if Victorian London is any example, Liza Picard is serious competition. Her study of Victorian London delivers a full broadside of information about everyday life, presented in a very readable narrative that takes one back to a city that was on the verge of being the ‘capital of the world’. For those who want to learn more about London, or England in general during this age of transformation, Picard’s work is first rate.
Although Picard does not employ the literal time-tourist scheme favored by Mortimer and others, she does begin the book with what we’d notice first were we suddenly to find ourselves standing in the relatively new Trafalgar Square: the smells of a city brimming with millions of people, their animals, and their activities of life, served by a sewage-clogged river and cesspits that were often overflowing. We then begin to consider the physical lay of the land: the importance of the river itself to London’s fortunes and its people’s quality of life; the streets, buildings, and railways that gave the city its physical form, the utilities that made it work for its millions of residents, and then — the people themselves.
Picard’s work is comprehensive, addressing all levels of British society, from the penniless debtor in workhouses and prison hulks to the peers of the realm. Picard does not shy away from the underbelly of London, making the reader well aware that despite the stupendous technological progress of the age, many lived lives that even a medieval peasant would not envy. Picard offers details of life at every level, tastes of the Victorian age for any appetite: you may well on Dickens’ or Austens’ subjects at your leisure. The two often combine, as they do in the chapter on the abounding aid societies. We learn of how people dressed and ate at differing levels of society; how one did their banking (if they weren’t spending all of their cash on food, rent, and bawdy shows), where they went to be amused and how they got there, considering seemingly every facet of life (with a lingering pause at the Great Exhibition) until finally we arrive at the last chapter, death. Even within a given chapter there’s considerable variety, because the Victorian age was one of increasingly rapid change: London was being remade, with new utilities being integrated into its existing form, from plumbing to the Underground.
Picard directly quotes from her sources most of the time, revealing to the reader the staggering variety of books, letters, and official statistics she drew on to compose this narrative. I’m surprised some sources have even survived, like 1830s housewives’ guides to cleaning and the like. To canvass such an array of information and whip it into an immersive, fun narrative was no small challenge, but Picard succeeds with flying colors. I definitely be considering her work in the future.