Friday, January 11, 2008

1. Voices from Dickens' London

The title:
Voices from Dickens' London
The author: Michael Paterson
Publication: David & Charles, 2006
Got it from: Dad, Christmas 2006

The Victorians have always fascinated me, due in large part, I think, to the fact that they existed in a world that was so similar to our own and yet so distant. Many things that are part of our everyday world (organized sports, highways, cheap postal rates, photography, etc.) were either invented or vastly improved by the Victorians. Even so, though they existed barely a century ago, their world would be completely unrecognizable to us. As Peter Ackroyd states in the forward, Dickens' London had more in common with a third-world city like Jakarta or Columbo. The stench and filth would have been unimaginable (the Thames was used both for drinking water and sewage), the noise unbearable and the brutality and shortness of life unthinkable. Yet London was the first city to reach a million people since Rome and was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution and thus the modern world.

As this book's title might suggest, Paterson uses contemporaries of Dickens, and often Dickens himself, to describe London at this time. Two passages in particular stand out for me that illustrate the differences between our world and theirs. The first concerns the scandal caused by the introduction of the top hat, which seems extreme to say the least:

The top hat was first worn on the streets of London in 1797 by a man named John Hetherington, who was arrested as a result. It looked so unusual that he was booed by passers-by, and four different women fainted on seeing it. He was charged with breach of peace for wearing 'a tall structure having shiny lustre calculated to alarm timid people' and ordered not to repeat the offence (p.42).

Though 1797 was well outside the Victorian era, this is the sort of thing that we often associate with the Victorians: strict morality, fear of the unusual, punishment over seemingly trivial things. Never mind that before long, every man wore a top hat and to not do so was seen as positively scandalous!

The other passage is considerably darker and struck a sad note with me. It is in regards to the position of the poor and how miserable and unthinkably tragic their lives were:

...I visited the back room on the ground floor of No. 5. I found it occupied by one man, two women, and two children; and in it was the dead body of a poor girl who had died in childbirth a few days before. The body was stretched out on the bare floor, without shroud or coffin. There it lay in the midst of the living, and we may well ask how it can be otherwise that the human heart should be dead of all the gentler feelings in our nature, when such sights as these are of common occurrence (p. 200).

Readers not used to Victorian writing styles may find this book a challenge. For me, the book was dense and took a long time to work through, but the information was extremely worthwhile and I often found myself laughing out loud and sharing passages with others. Yes, it did take me over a year of picking up and putting down to finish, but it was altogether very satisfying. A.

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