Victorian Bloomsbury, By Rosemary Ashton The Victorian City: Everday Life in Dickens' London, By Judith Flanders

Dickens, the Bloomsbury group and two tales of a city

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The Independent Culture

"But if one lived here in Bloomsbury ... one might grow up as one liked," says a young woman in a Virginia Woolf short story. The sense she has of Bloomsbury as a haven for freedom-loving bohemians first developed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries; before that, its radicalism was not connected with artists so much as with the political reformers, educators and progressive doctors who laid the groundwork for the intellectuals whom we now associate with the neighbourhood; without them, Woolf's young woman would have had nowhere to go.

Rosemary Ashton's raising of the historical paving stones uncovers a strong and perhaps surprising Scottish presence in the reforming enterprise that saw the first London university built. The Duke of Bedford owned the site but Henry Brougham takes the credit for being the major founder of University College London, and he brought with him many practices and attitudes from Edinburgh University.

With Ashton's characteristic attention to detail much in evidence here, it is a little disappointing to see David Booth, a writer for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, one of the many reforming groups associated with the new Bloomsbury, mistakenly described as an "uneducated Scot". He was an autodidact certainly, but uneducated, no.

Autodidacticism reigned during the 19th century, and Bloomsbury gave a special home to it. A school teaching new subjects and the extension of higher education to women helped confirm the area's radical status. All this was at a time of much new building, as Judith Flanders points out in The Victorian City. London was expanding rapidly and much of it resembled a gigantic building site. It makes one wonder whether "Dickens' London" ever really existed – as soon as he portrayed an element of it, that element changed.

As with James Joyce and Dublin, Dickens is forever associated with a city that it was best to traverse on foot ("walking was the norm"), and Flanders includes some lovely details of his city, such as the morning sweepers who would sweep a specific part of the road for an office worker to cross, so that they could arrive clean for work. Buses were popular – bus-conductors would "hold down the women's hoops" of their crinoline dresses when they tried to get off – but it was a brave soul who risked a ride in a hackney cab.

Naturally, perhaps, it was London's poor who most caught Dickens's eye. As the city grew, rich and poor were increasingly segregated and slums proliferated. It was never a terribly egalitarian city, except perhaps in terms of health – even an upper-middle-class professional man could only expect to live to 44 in 1830.

In both Ashton's and Flanders's books, there is a strong sense of purpose and struggle, though – of people striving to make things better. Or if not better, then bigger at least. They are fascinating accounts of the growth of a remarkable city.