Book review: Dickens’s Victorian London by Alex Werner and Tony Williams

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‘Wealth and beggary, vice and virtue, guilt and innocence, repletion and the direst hunger ... the great heart of London throbs in its Giant breast.’

So wrote Charles Dickens, the great 19th century author whose genius with words captured forever the essence of a teeming, throbbing metropolis ‘fuller of wonder and wickedness than all the cities of the earth.’

On February 7th it will be 200 years since Dickens was born and to celebrate his anniversary, the Museum of London has launched its biggest ever exhibition, running until June 10, which recreates the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound, projections, paintings, photographs, costumes and some of his rarely seen manuscripts.

And as a tie-in to the exhibition, Ebury has published a mesmerising guide to Victorian London featuring over 200 stunning archive photographs, most of which have never been published before, illustrating the city as seen through the eyes of Dickens.

The Victorians were the first of our ancestors with whom we can make a degree of contact through photographic images just as Dickens captured their world in words.

Setting Dickens against the city that was the backdrop and inspiration for his work, this magnificent book takes the reader on a memorable and haunting journey, discovering the places and people who stimulated his prodigious imagination.

There are captivating photographs of famous landmarks such as the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square and Westminster Abbey, as well as the Thames before the Embankment was built, the construction of the Metropolitan Underground Line, the riverside docklands and the many villages that make up London today.

We see the old coaching inns with their gloomy courtyards and some of the abandoned, unloved churchyards described in Nicholas Nickleby as ‘rank, unwholesome’ spots, ‘sprung from paupers’ bodies.’

And alongside these locations are the city’s notorious slums with their ‘crawlers,’ residents so poor that they were unable to work or even find the energy to beg, and ragged children playing in streets and alleys with open sewers running down their middle.

Costermongers can be seen selling fresh herrings from barrows, a Punch and Judy show attracts a crowd in Waterloo Place in 1865, the Covent Garden flower women hawk their blooms, ‘Cheap Jacks’ offer up their fancyware, shoeblacks work their ‘pitches’ and coachmen vie for room in a bustling Cheapside in 1875.

These people were a central presence in Dickens’s novels and the city with which he had a love-hate relationship was a character in its own right.

Photography was very much in its infancy when Dickens set out as a writer so it is through his detailed, pin-sharp recollections of places and characters, sounds and smells that we see a an early 19th century London that would otherwise be lost.

Indeed, one of his contemporaries, English economist and journalist Walter Bagehot, said Dickens ‘describes London like a special correspondent for posterity.’

Dickens, who died aged 58 in 1870 a year after collapsing from a mild stroke in Preston during a ‘farewell readings’ tour, lived through decades of sweeping change in the size, fabric and social structure of London.

The city which Dickens described, and which the photographs in this book capture, expanded from 1.5 million residents when he arrived as a ten-year-old in 1822 to over 3.5 million by the time of his death in 1870.

The scale of growth led him to often ponder the social problems of mass migration ... ‘London,’ he wrote in 1851, ‘is a vile place.’

His ability to depict the harsh realities of London life allowed his huge audience to identify themselves in his stories and thousands of those same people filed past his open grave in Westminster Abbey in June 1870 to leave offerings of humble wild flowers.

Packed with history and brimming with nostalgia, this beautifully illustrated book is the chance to explore London as it was in Dickens’ day.

(Ebury, hardback, £25)