Judith Flanders has been a favorite historian of mine for quite a while, as it was before I set up my blog that I read her Circle of Sisters, about 4 sisters in the Victorian era who had strong connections with the painting and artistic communities of pre-Raphaelites and Edward Burne-Jones, and one of them was Rudyard Kipling’s mother.
Moving away from biographies she seemed to have chosen to present Victorian life in its minutest details. Her huge Victorian house volume was a hoot if you enjoy all kinds of trivia on domestic life, or if you’re just curious, after reading Victorian novels who are often lofty on sentiments, to know how they were in real life.
It was just a matter of time before I continued with her depiction of Victorian life, this time focused on the city and streets of London. Let me tell you, it was a Magnus opus. So many pages full of details, references, images, notes, and names! I regretted not to know London any better and I would have loved her to do the same about Paris, which would have resonated with me a lot more. Nevertheless it was fascinating by all accounts. It’s like perusing an encyclopedia, except that Judith Flanders is so methodical that she walks you from dawn till night telling you exactly how it felt, smelt, sounded, looked like.
From what the streets were covered with, to how the sewers came to exist (a lot of people fighting against their creation, despite increasingly disgusting evidence that things had to be… well… taken care of if you wanted to avoid cholera epidemics), from what you could have to eat at any hour of the day or night to whether women were really prostitutes or were just walking among men in a disreputable street. I learnt quite a lot, but I’m not sure I’m going to use all this knowledge anytime soon. So let me share it with you, if I have managed to arouse your curiosity:
Did you know for example, that before people had watches and clocks in their home, they paid a guy to come and knock on their window at the time they were expected to wake up, so as to be on time at work?
Did you know that the streets were so noisy with horses hoofs, people’s shouts etc. that people had to turn to side streets if they wanted to talk? (especially as some road surfaces were made of wood!)
Did you know that it was possible to rent the previous day’s newspaper by the hour?
Did you know that working class families had no place to cook meals in their homes (rooms, rather), no stove or oven or open fire, so that cookshops were set up, a sort of communal oven where the meat and veggies were brought by the women and baked in their own dishes? and the women complained that the cookshops owners were always shaving off meat out of the baked dishes?
The basis of her investigation is Dickens’ life and novels, but you don’t need to have read every Dickensian novel to start on this journey. But you very well might decide to read some of his novels after finishing this book.