The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens's London, By Judith Flanders

From wooden streets to late-night watercress, the writer's well-known world is still remote

Charles Dickens was a walkoholic. Physically restless and rarely able to sleep, he would cover five to 30 miles a day in and around London, sometimes walking all night, and keeping up (he reckoned) a steady fast pace of four-and-a-half miles an hour. His speed didn't stop him observing things: he compared his mind to a photographic plate. Give Dickens the name of almost any London street, wrote a contemporary, and he would be able to tell you "all that is in it, what each shop was, what the grocer's name was, [and] how many scraps of orange-peel there were on the pavement".

His constant watching and eavesdropping fed his novels, and he paced out a London which eventually took on his name – although, as Judith Flanders points out, in his own time "the way that people lived was not Dickensian, merely life." The Victorian City investigates that life in every particularity. It complements the author's The Victorian House, which dealt with the domestic realm. Now Flanders takes us into the streets, and walks us through them from dawn to night pointing out people and objects of interest. You get the feeling that she, too, would miss no scrap of orange peel, but she would also tell you why that piece of peel was there and what it reveals about attitudes to fruit or litter. The effect is at once meticulous and gripping. Early on, she directs our attention to the composition of the streets. I'd vaguely thought they were cobbled, but some were made of asphalt, cast iron or even wood, which was quiet under the horses' hooves, reducing the omnipresent racket – but the wood rotted and the experiment failed. Others were of tar macadam, rolled out with heavy cylinders; this made it convenient to move road gutters to the edges rather than having them in the middle, and so helped to create the pedestrian pavement.

Londoners walked a lot; Dickens was not alone. If you worked a 12-hour day, you might also walk for an hour or more to get to work. On the way, you could grab a coffee and a bun from street stalls. Food was on sale everywhere: you could buy whelks, periwinkles, crab-claws, sheeps' trotters, or cooked potatoes from heavy, steamy vats. Other vendors sold tea-leaves for cleaning carpets, or novelty toys.

Offices could be as nasty as the blacking factory where Dickens worked as a boy, filled with mould and rats, and the worst houses could be as terrifying as the shanties dangling over the river on Jacob's Island, where Bill Sikes meets his end in Oliver Twist. Others were more elegant, and there was a thriving nightlife with singalong inns and theatres, where you could pick up popular catch-phrases like "How are you off for soap?" or "What a shocking bad hat!" Speaking of hats, almost everyone had one, including children. They indicated your status; only the most desperate would find themselves without.

As darkness fell, the lamplighter passed, carrying an oil barrel and balancing the lamp covers on his head. Then came the prostitutes, who might cross the bridges to the West End while the watercress-sellers walked the other way to get home. These ubiquitous greenery vendors worked the longest days of all, collecting produce at 4am and rarely finishing before ten. They exemplify the sheer strangeness of the past – its unassimilability. Few of us even eat the stuff any more, let alone buy it on the street in late evening. Perhaps to understand the popularity of watercress sellers would be to understand a whole world.

Flanders says that Dickens appealed to contemporaries because he gave them a voyage into the unknown: into parts of London they did not know and where they would not venture. She does something similar for us. The strangeness remains, but the voyage is unforgettable.

Sarah Bakewell's life of Montaigne, 'How to Live', is published by Vintage

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens's London By Judith Flanders Atlantic, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk