Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London - Judith Flanders

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' LondonI've read Flanders' other book, The Invention of Murder, and liked it but didn't love it.  I was glad that I checked it out from the library instead of buying it, because it wasn't the sort of book I'd go back to.  Still, the Victorian and Regency periods are my favorite historical fiction settings--specifically, my favorite settings for historical romances and the inspiration for historical fantasies.  So when I saw Victorian City on the library shelf, I checked it out.  I paid little attention to the part about Dickens' London, figuring it was just a way to characterize the time period for people rather than an actual focus of the book.  In that, I was partially right, but because of the partially wrong part... Well, let me put it this way.  I hate Dickens.  I date it to the horrible experience of reading A Tale of Two Cities in the tenth grade, when my teacher tried to merge an obsession with Star Wars into an obsession with Dickens to the detriment of us all.  It's one of those things that you can't quite get over, and shapes your reading tastes forever more.

That said, I did find this book informative.  The thing is, it's supposed to be about "everyday life," but it's not really.  It focuses mostly on the lower-middle class, with brief asides about the utterly poor and the upper-middle class.  Flanders doesn't cover any class thoroughly across all the topics she touches on, including transportation, food, and entertainment.  Really, those are the only areas she touches on.  She doesn't really deal with work or family, which seem to me pretty big areas of everyday life.  To my relief, Dickens' works are used more to illustrate Flanders' points than to create them or build an overarching narrative.  That said, this book might have been better with an overarching narrative.  The closest Flanders comes to using a consistent source is Sophia Beale, an eight-year-old who apparently kept a diary of her doings, but even she isn't a common appearance in the pages.  Using a handful of repeating "characters" to tie together the different points of life might have led to something a little more interesting.

Some of the chapters in this book are also very repetitive.  For example, the first three chapters focus entirely on transportation, whether it be on foot, by boat, by train, by carriage...all matter of transportation.  But of course, people often use more than one, so there's some overlap there, and it was something I felt could be reduced to one chapter rather than three.  Also, transportation probably isn't the most thrilling place to start the book.  Entertainment, violence, or food all probably would have been better places to start than transport, which isn't exactly a thrilling apsect of life.

There were some really interesting aspects of this book, which I didn't know about before--like how most parks were private, how "illuminations" were a big source of entertainment, and the many eating options available to the middle classes--but overall I didn't feel particularly enlightened by this.  At least The Invention of Murder was about something dark and twisted.  But Victorian City is just about life, and it seems like just as good a picture could have been had by reading books (like, unfortunately, Dickens') set in the period.

2.5 to 3 stars out of 5.

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