In September 1777, Samuel Johnson declared to his friend James Boswell, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”
Johnson was actually referring to his hectic social calendar, but still, he did have a point. The city he was discussing was on course to become the largest metropolis the world had ever seen. In 1800, London was home to one million residents. By 1911 that number had grown to a staggering seven million: a population far greater than Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Moscow combined at that time.
London during the 19th century was, in some respects, driving the rest of the world into modernity. It was where the world’s first police force and underground railway system emerged. Meanwhile, the inexorable forces of the industrial revolution, running parallel to Britain’s massive imperial expansion, made it the most powerful global trading center on the planet.
Most of us, when we think of this period of history, probably associate it on some level with the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. It’s an association the historian Judith Flanders delves into with The Victorian City, first published in the U.K. in 2012: “Dickens would describe all of [London’s] qualities as though no one had ever seen them before,” she writes. “And [afterwards] no one would be able to see them again except through his eyes.”
Flanders uses secondary historical sources alongside Dickens’s own impressions of the city to take us on a dazzling journey through an imperial city plagued by poverty and deeply divided by class.
She arranges the book’s chapters thematically rather than chronologically; similarities can be drawn here to Peter Ackroyd’s London: a biography which also maps out the history of the city through topics such as work, theatres, prisons, murders, slums, and the harrowing working conditions of the poor.
Nor is Flanders afraid to challenge received wisdom about Victorian London. For example, she refutes the stereotype that the city was rampant with prostitutes. In 1851 an official statistic put the number of working girls in London at 210,000. But Flanders says that during that era, the term “prostitute” could be given to any woman who had sexual relations outside of marriage. Dickens, like many men of the Victorian age, was prone to bouts of hypocrisy and snobbery when speaking about sexual mores, especially when it came to the less well off in London society.
And despite his sympathy for the poor, he still used words like “wild” and “voracious” to describe workhouse children who could barely keep themselves fed and alive. But this attitude — which Flanders reminds us of with frequent quotes from both Dickens’ novels and his large body of journalism — may have arisen from the man’s constant fear of destitution. He had narrowly escaped a life of poverty: Dickens’ father was locked in a London debtors’ prison, while he lived and worked alone as a young man. And he once admitted that if circumstances were different, he might have turned into a “little robber or [vagabond]” himself.
Flanders is clearly a historian with a strong moral conscience, who repeatedly looks to address issues of social justice. And there’s something else underlying her recreation of the streets of 19th century London: the great paradox of the British Empire, where inequality grew exponentially as industry increased and profits soared.
That said, I would have enjoyed a chapter or two analyzing how and why this poverty evolved with such extremity. Nevertheless, Flanders must be given credit for doing an astounding job of recreating every nook and cranny of London in this richly detailed compendium.
Shying away from academic pretension, Flanders tells the epic story of this biggest and boldest Victorian city in all its complexity, with verve, color and a straightforward approach to language that still manages to give a voice to ordinary Londoners — something Dickens would no doubt approve of.
J.P. O’Malley is a freelance journalist based in London who writes mainly on books. Follow him on Twitter: @johnpaulomallez