Skip Navigation
NPR News
Cover image ( )

London Through The Eyes Of Dickens In 'The Victorian City'

by J.P. O'Malley
Jul 22, 2014

Share this


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

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
Police officers secure a refrigerated train loaded with bodies of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 as it arrives in a Kharkiv factory on Tuesday. (AP)

Train Carrying MH17 Victims Remains Arrives In Kharkiv

by Eyder Peralta
Jul 22, 2014

Share this


A refrigerated train carrying the remains of the people who died aboard the downed Malaysia Airlines plane arrived in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. That's a city controlled by the central government in Kiev and 17 hours away from the chaos of Hrabove, the eastern city controlled by pro-Russian separatists, where the debris and remains were scattered.

The New York Times sets the scene:

"Pushed by a diesel locomotive, five gray refrigerated wagons and a red passenger car crawled into the grounds of a decrepit Soviet-era tank factory shortly after noon, completing the first and most difficult stage of a long journey home for victims of the crash. ...

"The train was met by police forensic experts and other representatives of countries that had citizens on the doomed flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Security guards kept reporters outside the factory gates, and it was not immediately clear whether the bodies would be kept in Kharkiv for preliminary examination or swiftly transferred to a nearby airport for transport out of Ukraine."

As we reported, the transfer of most bodies happened after days of international wrangling and confusion over who was in charge of the accident scene in Ukraine.

By Monday afternoon, the Malaysian prime minister announced a deal with separatists leaders that would allow the train carrying the bodies to leave rebel territory. By the time early morning rolled around in Ukraine, separatists had also handed over flight data recorders in front of reporters.

Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, European Union foreign ministers are meeting today to discuss whether to impose more sanctions on Russia, which the U.S. says supplied the missiles used to down the plane.

The BBC reports:

"The meeting in Brussels is thought likely to discuss expanding the list of Russian officials targeted by sanctions, but the EU has so far steered clear of targeting whole sectors of the Russian economy.

"Both the EU and the US imposed sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of hostilities in eastern Ukraine.

On Monday, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for unrestricted access to scene of the accident for investigators.

The measure was approved unanimously, with even Russia jumping aboard after the text was changed to say the aircraft was downed not shot down.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
Police officers secure a refrigerated train loaded with bodies of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 as it arrives in a Kharkiv factory on Tuesday. (AP)

Sheriff Puts Inmates Back In Stripes As Orange Jumpsuits Gain Fame

Jul 22, 2014 (Morning Edition) — The Michigan sheriff worried that the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black has turned orange jumpsuits into a fashion statement. So, they're out. And black and white stripes are back in.

Hear this

This text will be replaced
Launch in player

Share this


Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
Police officers secure a refrigerated train loaded with bodies of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 as it arrives in a Kharkiv factory on Tuesday. (AP)

Woman Will Officiate Big 12 Football Game For The First Time

Jul 22, 2014 (Morning Edition) — Catherine Conti will be part of the crew when Kansas plays Southeast Missouri State. The officiating supervisor says Conti got the job because she's "darned good."

Hear this

This text will be replaced
Launch in player

Share this


Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
Police officers secure a refrigerated train loaded with bodies of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 as it arrives in a Kharkiv factory on Tuesday. (AP)

Son's Mental Illness Prompts Billionaire's Big Donation To Psychiatric Research

by Curt Nickisch
Jul 22, 2014 (Morning Edition) — Ted Stanley is giving $650 million to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to find and treat the genetic underpinnings of mental illnesses. His son has bipolar disorder.

Hear this

This text will be replaced
Launch in player

Share this


Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR

Visitor comments

on:

NCPR is supported by:

This is a Visitor-Supported website.