Picard, Liza. Victorian London: The Tale of a City, 1840-1870.

NY: St. Martin, 2005.

There are a lot of “Everyday Life in [pick your time and place]” books out there and some of them are excellent for supplying the reader with an overview of the social history of some past era. This is one of the best of the genre that I have seen in some time.

Picard has already done similar volumes for London under Elizabeth I, the later Stewarts, and the mid-18th century, so she knows what she wants to accomplish and how to go about it. The 19th century in Britain was a time of tremendous change — several cycles of major change, in fact — just like the 20th century in the U.S., hence her decision to limit herself to a single generation at the beginning of Victoria’s reign. She also limits herself to life in one of the world’s great capitals; the rural poor appear not at all, but their lives were mostly dull and repetitive in any case. She tackles the broader subject through twenty-three topical chapters, from “Smells,” “Streets,” and “Food,” to “Women,” “Death,” and (that centerpiece of the century) “The Great Exhibition.” This approach also makes it easy to pick the book up, read a chapter or two, and put it down again — and you should think about what you’ve read and compare it to life here and now. Each chapter draws from the writings of a very large number of witnesses, including journalists, academics, diarists, and foreign visitors. (The bibliographic notes run to almost forty pages and provide an excellent checklist for further reading.) Picard treats the Victorians as people much like ourselves. That is, they aren’t foolish or ignorant or quaint; they did the best they could (usually) with what they knew and understood about the world. One hopes writers two centuries from now will take an equally tolerant view of the primitive life of the early 21st century. Her style doesn’t lack humor, however, especially when quoting some contemporary critic of English society. A highly recommended book.

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Published in: on 3 December 2011 at 6:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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