Exploring the capital with London's greatest novelist

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

An open air performance of "Oliver Twist" in Southwark in 1928. Photograph: Getty Images

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).