This 520 page book is huge in scope, although the last 100 pages are notes, index, and bibliography. It covers the London roads, theaters and entertainments, eating habits and places, the huge number of street sellers (and how specialized they were!), the waterways, rail (above and underground), the fire brigades, the nearly complete lack of sanitation, and more. The London of Dickens’ day was a horrible place (I knew it was bad, so that was no surprise; the surprise was the degree of badness) if you were poor. And it is mostly through the lens of poverty or near poverty that we look through to see this old London; Dickens’ stories were full of the poor. We see the prisons, the slums, the places where the poor ate, the horrible living conditions. This is not ‘Victorian London’ in general (Dickens’ life & writing started well before Victoria ascended the throne). These are the places that we now think of as ‘Dickensian’- oddly enough; when he was alive, a Dickensian story was one with humor in it. It wasn’t until the horrible conditions were alleviated that ‘Dickensian’ came to mean what it does today.
This is a very well researched volume with almost 20 pages of bibliography- the majority of it primary sources- that brings old London to vivid, unpleasant life. While Flanders writes clearly and fluidly, the amount of detail can make this book slow reading. It’s interesting enough to read it cover to cover (I did) but it’s indexed so well and goes into such depth that it would make a great research book for someone writing fiction about the era. It would also be a good companion volume for someone reading Dickens and wants more detail. While, as I said, it was a slow read, it was fascinating. I just won’t be able to think about a Dickens Fair with the same amount of cheerfulness as before!
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