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Exploring the capital with London's greatest novelist

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’s London - review.

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’s London
Judith Flanders
Atlantic Books, 544pp, £25

In the period of its most rapid expansion, London found its greatest novelist. Charles Dickens took his inspiration from the evolving city, setting nearly all of his novels there. He was fascinated by the details of London life. His novels teem with the things, people and places he would have encountered in the city. Judith Flanders’s enjoyable new book, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’s London, is sympathetic to these creative inclinations. It is wide-ranging and captures many facets of the city as it was experienced by ordinary people in Dickens’s time.

Flanders shares the novelist’s fascination with the stuff of everyday London life, with its smells and sounds, its street scenes and many voices, its endless variety and, above all, its stories. She has a flair for an illuminating anecdote and each of the book’s four sections starts with a short description of an unusual incident in the history of the city, preludes that add colour and life to the narrative.

The chapters bulge with fascinating observations, drawing on lively first-hand accounts from Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Arthur Munby, Alfred Bennett and others. The book is also refreshingly free from the theoretical over-complications that sometimes attend the topic. Flanders writes engagingly about everyday life in the city, with a kind of Mayhew-meets- Claire Tomalin documentary elan.

Dickens’s novels abound with minutiae reflecting the ordinary realities of life in London in the 19th century. Characters frequently turn into side streets to hear one another more clearly. Mr Dorrit’s coachman drives him across the river and back again en route from the City to the West End. After his arrest, Magwitch is able to buy a new suit of clothes from a nearby pub. Writing about his native city,
Dickens drew on his local knowledge. Flanders gives a historical rationale for each detail – providing the sort of information usually only found hidden in the annotations of scholarly editions of the novels.

Dickens is Flanders’s best source for arresting real-life detail but it is the city, rather than Dickens, that provides the book’s organising focus. Dickens is a fellow guide on this walking tour, though one suspects that he has claims to be one of its main attractions. Flanders does not deal primarily with Dickens’s creative preoccupation with some of the places discussed or with what makes his fictional treatment of them so remarkable. Her aim to “look at the streets of London as Dickens and his fellow Londoners saw it” doesn’t give enough weight to the peculiar intensity of the novelist’s imaginative vision; meanwhile, her interest in the “native customs” and other aspects of city life that the novelist “reproduced faithfully” is true only to one side of an imagination that was often astonishingly precise but was just as frequently extravagant and transformative, promising to reveal “the romantic side of familiar things”.

Yet as an account of ordinary life in London, during the years in which it underwent some of its most dramatic changes, Flanders’s book is fascinating. There are chapters on transport, on Victorian London’s buried rivers and its sewer-building projects, on the 19th-century city markets, on various outdoor spectacles, on pubs and clubs, on riots and public executions. The 13 chapters are organised around imaginatively connected topics and are gathered loosely into four parts: “The City Wakes”, on the working population and on travelling; “Staying Alive”, on the dangers of slums, sewers and markets; “Enjoying Life”, on street performers and other entertainments; and “Sleeping and Awake”, on the city’s night life.

Although Flanders’s narrative style is mostly unobtrusive, occasionally a partisan perspective intrudes. For example, some broad-brushed criticisms of the Victorian middle class include a reference to “the middle-class disdain for the poor”, which seems unfairly impressionistic and at odds with the charitable endeavours she goes on to discuss.

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 its entertainments, you couldn’t hope for a better guide.

Daniel Tyler is the author of “A Guide to Dickens’s London” (Hesperus Press, £12).

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis