Why did you decide to write a book about Victorian London?
I did a book about ten years ago called The Victorian House, which was a look at what people did all day: how they cleaned their floors, how they boiled water for tea, how they cleaned a stove, what kind of clothes they wore. It just seemed logical that after you do indoors you do outdoors. I thought it was important to look at the streets; we tend to think of the streets as somewhere to go through – as a place to get from point A to point B. But the Victorian streets were used quite differently – they were a place to be; they were a place of entertainment but they were also a place of commerce.
I think we have this idea that, because we see Victorian architecture all around us, we use the city the same way that Victorians would have used it. And, just as I discovered when I wrote The Victorian House that we don’t use our houses in remotely the same way – despite the fact that they’re the same houses – we don’t use the streets the same way. They’re not the same streets. So much of what we see in London is very late Victorian – or indeed, even the stuff we think is Victorian is really twentieth century – so it seemed a very useful and interesting thing to do, to say what would they have seen and how would they have used it.
Did you draw any parallels between the Victorian house and the Victorian streets?
So much of what we think has very little to do with the actuality. We have this idea from programmes like Upstairs Downstairs, which suggest that’s the way everyone lived – whereas actually 98 per cent of the population did not have a huge vast staff of servants and enormous houses. Equally we have this idea that women never went anywhere alone. This is just not true. I think that an awful lot of what Victorian history consists of is looking at what we know and saying: ‘is it true?’ because usually the answer is no.
So women did go around alone?
Women have always been part of the workforce: women from the beginning of the industrial revolution were factory workers, or whether you’re talking about servants, who were 90 per cent women, have always been part of the workforce.
This twenty-first century idea that women were in this sheltered little cloistered environment was simply not true. Gradually towards the end of the century they took over clerical roles; they had always worked in shops and inns; they had always worked in taverns; the wives and daughters of most tradesmen were involved in their trade, and indeed we know one of the biggest coaching inns in London was run for decades by the widow of the owner. No-one thought it was that strange; it’s only retrospectively that we’ve imposed this idea that women didn’t exist.
Do you think there was a greater sense of community in Victorian London? Of loving thy neighbour?
I have lived in London for more than 30 years. The idea that we don’t live in communities or we don’t know our neighbours today is as much a sweeping generalisation that’s that as likely to be untrue as the reverse. For instance, no-one except a Victorian historian would argue with you if you said everyone in the Victorian period went to church. There was a cencus in 1853 of who went to church – less than 50 per cent of the population went to church. I think that one of the things that I do and one of the ways that I try and create an image is precisely to stay away from generalisations.
I think saying people lived in communities or didn’t live in communities isn’t useful. It’s not my kind of history. I think it’s much more useful to look at what individuals live; if you’re lucky you’ll build a pattern of how people lived. I’d rather find diaries that say Mrs Bloggs’s next door husband has beat her again and we know because we heard through the wall. I want to have the real stuff. I find the theory stuff, it’s just less fun. It’s much more fun to know about the fact that it cost ninepence to ride up and down London Bridge all night to watch a [Great Tooley Street] fire.
What do you think Dickens would be most surprised about if he saw London now?
The fact that we’re half naked. We’re not wearing any clothes by comparison. I don’t think it would be television; I don’t think it would be airplanes; I think it would be the fact that we’re running around naked. It wouldn’t be the big stuff, or what we think of as the big stuff. I think it would be the little stuff.
What surprised you in researching the book?
A lot shocked me. I’m very shockable. I did quite a lot on street walkers and prostitution, which was not a subject I’d looked at before, and I found three little books – which as far as I can see there are five surviving copies in the world. They’re guides to brothels, but the thing that was completely fascinating to me was first of all there was very little distinction in the author’s mind between places for entertainment and brothels. If the women were [in entertainment] they were prostitutes.
But what was really interesting was that in a period where we know that theatre-going became very much a family thing to do, one of these little guides told men which were the good theatres, in the sense that if you rented a box the doors locked on the inside, and how to approach an actress if you wanted to sleep with her – the assumption being all actresses were prostitutes. And the answer was you didn’t say you wanted to sleep with her – you said you wanted to ‘stage some amateur theatricals’, and give her a little gift. But what’s very interesting to me is that Dickens – who of course left his wife for an actress – first met her when he staged some amateur theatricals. So even if she was – as biographers do suggest, and I believe it – a perfectly respectable woman, the perception at the time, simply by the way he met her, had to have been that she was a prostitute. So that was very interesting; I thought that was not so much a new light on Dickens and his relationship but how his friends would perceive it.
Do you think there will ever be another Dickens?
I think that it might be that what stops that happening is the theory [in writing] rather than the detail, and Dickens was a greatly detailed person. I think in our own time we’re impressed by theory rather than doing the minutiae. One of the things that spurred this book was when I recognised that so much of what he wrote that I had taken for conviction was actually literal description. And so much of what he described that his contemporaries would have recognised, we don’t even understand anymore.
There was one scene in Our Mutual Friend when he talks about two characters meeting in a city churchyard to have some discussion, [and the graveyard was] ‘healthfully raised above the level of the ground’. He was referring to a scandal that was going on at the time – the city graveyards were full. The graveyards in the various churches had been burying people for the best part of three hundred years and they weren’t very big to start with. By the time Dickens was writing so many dead bodies had been buried on top of each other they had reached the first floor windows of the neighbouring houses. So when Dickens wrote that he knew that people would know that he was talking about – they’re basically walking on the dead.
Somebody said that Dickens’ relationship with London was certainly the longest and probably the most profoundly relationship in his life. London was really the woman in dickens’s life. He loved London. And this obsession with it, and this obsession with the detail we have lost, because we simply don’t know the details anymore. He was just the most amazing describer, so when you talk about Dickens today I think 1) we’re more interested in theory now and 2) perhaps novelists feel they have to describe less because television and films. We don’t have to go to Venice to look what Venice looks like. Dickens’ readers needed Dickens to go through the slums.
The Victorian City is out now, published by Atlantic.