At the age of 12, when his father was imprisoned for not paying his debts, Charles Dickens was sent to work in a factory. He walked to his job, to his meager lodgings, to find his dinner in a market stall and to visit Marshalsea prison, where the rest of his family was living. Dickens never lost this habit of walking. And as Judith Flanders reveals in her stunning new book, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, the sights, sounds and smells of the city that infuse his novels were not simply the work of a brilliant imagination but “the reportage of a great observer.”

No mean observer herself, Flanders packs her narrative with intriguing details that bring the Victorian streets alive. She begins, as working people did, in early morning, when long lines of carts and costermongers converged on Covent Garden. Weaving a tapestry as colorful as a market flower display, Flanders not only describes such things as changes in transportation but takes us right into the streets, to battle the mud and to be smothered in dust.

The Victorian City is social history at its finest, a must-read for Dickens fans or anyone who loves London. It reminds us why this time period is endlessly fascinating to read about, but probably not a place we’d really want to live.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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