Monday, January 06, 2014

On the streets of the Victorian city

I recently discovered that, like many people, I had been led badly astray by my youth. But unlike most people in that situation, the discovery brought joy rather than sorrow (or decades of therapy).

Specifically, I thought I'd read all of Dickens except The Old Curiosity Shop (which I've avoided for years because of Little Nell, even as I've re-read the others)--but as I read Judith Flanders's wonderful The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens's London and kept encountering unfamiliar passages and characters from Oliver Twist, I realized that I actually had never read it. I'd instead checked it off the mental list twenty-plus years ago based on a jumbled recollection of having read an adaptation (think Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare) as a kid and then playing Oliver in Oliver! when I was thirteen. Oh, joy! My book bag for an upcoming London trip could be repacked--and Little Nell could live, insipidly, for another day!

That was far from the only joy I received from Flanders's book, however. I've long been a fan of her Inside the Victorian Home, which is exactly the sort of up-close, detail-and-anecdote-filled history I most enjoy, and this book takes that same approach to the streets of London.

At first I was worried that the conceit of the subtitle--that Dickens would be our guide--was merely a hook designed to capitalize on last year's Dickens bicentennial, and that Dickens would ultimately prove more window dressing (or even limitation) than central source. But oh, was I wrong: one of the great pleasures of Flanders's book is how much more she makes us appreciate Dickens's eye for detail, and how deftly she uses those details to help us understand the life Dickens was seeing around him. I can't count the number of times Flanders seizes on an expression or aside in one of Dickens's novels--the sort of descriptive texture that most readers would pass over, uncomprehending but untroubled, in the rush of Dickens's prose--and uses it to illustrate or explain some forgotten aspect of street life. Dickens, in Flanders's hands, is restored to his role of reporter and man on the street, never forgetting anything he sees his fellow Londoners do.

Perhaps my favorite example comes in the utterly fascinating chapter on street food, when Flanders gets to the piemen. Being a pieman, she explains, was not really profitable:
In the 1840s, the Corn Laws kept the price of flour high and, with it, the price of pies. To maintain their price at the expected penny, the piemen were forced to scrimp: their pies were made with cheap shortening, or had less filling, or poor-quality meat. Many of the legends of cats-meat, or worse, in pies spring from this period. In 1833, Sam Weller advises the horrified Mr Pickwick, "Wery good thing is weal pie, when you . . . is quite sure it ain't kittens," but in summer "fruits is in, cats is out."
Even the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1849 didn't help, as the piemen then found themselves competing with pie shops. So, Flanders explains, the piemen's customer base was reduced almost entirely to boys,
who worked in the streets, eating coffee-stall breakfasts, shellfish at lunch, hot eels or pea soup for dinner, perhaps with a potato, and a pie to fill in the gaps when they could afford it. What the boys loved about piemen was their method of charging. A pie cost a penny, but all piemen were willing to toss a coin for one: if the customer won, he got the pie free; if the pieman won, the pieman kept both pie and penny. Tossing for a pie was part of the language. Dickens used it regularly: in Pickwick Papers the stagecoach driver warns his passengers: "Take care o' the archvay, gen'lm'n. 'Heads,' as the pieman says.' In David Copperfield, little Miss Mowcher is like "a goblin pieman" as she tosses up the two half-crowns she is paid, as did Montague Tigg in Martin Chuzzlewith spinning a coin "in the air after the manner of a pieman."
See what I mean? I'm sure when I read those lines in Pickwick and the other novels, that I simply chalked them up as character-driven slang, with nary a though to the history they revealed.

The Victorian City is full of passages like that, ones that give you the feeling--brief and illusory though it might be--that you understand what it would have been like to walk down the streets of Victorian London. It's both a great book for the lover of London and a useful addition to the ever-growing Dickens bookshelf. (I should say: it's been available in the UK for more than a year, but the US edition isn't scheduled to be published until this summer.)


  1. Actually The Old Curiosity Shop is one of my favorites among the early Dickens, even with Little Nell. It's one of his wildest and most improvisatory books. I'd certainly reread that over Barnaby Rudge or Martin Chuzzlewit.

  2. Now that makes me look forward to it! (It's been almost twenty years since I read Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit, and while I'd agree with you about the latter--it's just a disjointed and often unpleasant book--I remember thinking that at least substantial parts of Barnaby Rudge were quite good. But maybe I'm just letting the memory of the intensity of the section describing the Gordon Riots overwhelm me.)

    I read Oliver Twist on the airplane last weekend, and while Dickens is always a pleasure, it's definitely a less-skilled early work--and obviously transitional: it doesn't have anything like the freewheeling quality of Pickwick, where you get the sense that he's having the world's best time making all this up as he goes along and finally having an unbounded outlet for all the voices buzzing in his brain, but at the same time he hasn't yet really learned to write a novel. It's got a plot and it all coheres, but the balance between primary and secondary plots and the relationships among all the characters whose lives create those plots still feels tenuous. (And then there's the problem of Oliver Twist himself being mostly a cipher, primarily defined by his essential goodness (the usual problem of the Dickens heroine rather than hero) with just a hint of tenacity to distinguish him.)

  3. To be fair, Little Nell is a big problem, but then children always are with Dickens, because he's always tempted to write deathbed scenes -- I remember reading some Victorian critic saying that children in Dickens "run as much risk as any of the soldiers who stormed the Redan."