Victorian London As You've Never Seen It

Christopher Fowler
51Wr3yYRiiL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ I get quite hot under the collar when writers who set their books in the past make fundamental mistakes. Two that spring to mind are a terrible novel about Victorian London by an American mid-Western author who apparently hadn't noticed that the nation's currency once consisted of pounds, shillings and pence (she had her hero tipping a hansom cab driver with modern money) and someone who extended updated Victorian language to include 'Screw you, asshole!' Oh, how we laughed. Research about this closest of pasts is the easiest part.
George Sala's 'Twice Round The Clock; Twenty Four Hours of the Day and Night in London' is probably my favourite. It's a remarkable work, a peregrination around London hour by hour, with observations, and is not particularly well written, yet it is peppered with the kind of detail that can prove so useful to the writer. GrammarofOrnament1 London suddenly becomes a very different place to the one we are used to seeing. Bright colours abound, from the scarlet tunics of postmen to dashing young chaps on the Strand dressed in pea-green and orange with rose-pink gloves, crimson braces and shirts embroidered with deaths' heads and sunflowers. Tiles and wallpapers had few shades of subtlety. They dazzled and shone with complex motifs. It's hard not to notice that the classes interacted far more than they do now, because everyone had more contact with each other. It was the only way to get anything done. There's more detail about Victorian life in the book than you'd ever need, simply described firsthand by the author as he heads from law courts to restaurants, and the denizens feel much more energetic and alive than the way in which Londoners are usually portrayed. There are so many misconceptions about the Victorians that it's sometimes hard to get to the truth. 783238f1b3d490ebc3fcc50f5bdc032b--victorian-photography-victorian-cottage   The truth, I suppose, was that they were as rich in variety as the people of any other era, the difference being that we in the present day now suffer a greater divide in equality than they did. The Victorians did not cover 'suggestive' piano legs - that comment was intended as a joke - and they were not a static society.
The Victorian era saw the rise of organised labour, where workers fought for better deals, and the start of the clamour for votes for women. It was artistically rich and diffuse, a time when people thought greatly about their place in the world, and thought outwards, instead of the inward-looking society we find ourselves in now. For writers it's important to get a sense of atmosphere, which is why I avoid academic papers republished as books. One history of Soho I read recently was an astoundingly detailed breakdown, almost house by house, of London's once-notorious area, but it failed to capture a sense of what the place was actually like. There was no direct observation of the sights, sounds and smells of that chaotic, contained maze of streets. That's what you need, and what the tumultuous 'Twenty Four Hours' provides. It was a huge hit for the author, and is still republished today.  


Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 16/11/2017 - 23:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I certainly agree, Chris, but that cold detailed analysis could be useful as well. Get the feel elsewhere but locate it according to this detail.
My grandmother was born near Ottawa in 1888 and I knew her well because I boarded with her when I was going to university and had visited her in the summer through my teens. I listened to what she said, not for her knowledge but to figure out how she had been raised because there were conflicting opinions about her in the family. She was slightly prudish, aware of proprieties ("I don't know those people yet so they are not going to call me by my first name), and so on. I have a whole set of vignettes in my memory but they would only apply to someone raised as she was.
Those designs above also look like banding designs for marquetry.

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 16/11/2017 - 23:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oh, and put bright red hair and transparent skin on the lady above and that is my grandmother.

Vivienne (not verified) Fri, 17/11/2017 - 00:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I am quite over-awed by our Victorian ancestors. Given that they had to get themselves up and dressed in so many layers and so on, it's a wonder they did so much. (Judith Flanders' The Victorian House is excellent on day to day life). Have just been walking round Hampstead. Most of it is Victorian. The whole of London had to be a huge, continuous building site. My own great grandmother produced 18 children: they all survived and she lived into her 90s.

snowy (not verified) Fri, 17/11/2017 - 02:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

There are a lot of myths about the Victorian period that refuse to go away. Most are a result of poor/no research by writers and even by those who would portray themselves as Historians.

"The Victorians covered the legs of furniture because they thought them unseemly"

There is one well-known photo of the Royal family that shows furniture with covered legs.

The legs are not 'covered' they are padded, perhaps understandable given that one of the children was a hemophilliac.

It may have been imitated by others given the celebrity status of the Royal Family* **, but it had nothing to do with 'indecency'.

[* This got 'well out of hand' with the Alexandra limp.]

[** History has failed to record the effect of Prince Albert on the sales of male embelishments.]

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 17/11/2017 - 17:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have always found it hard to believe in Victorian prudery, seeing what huge families some of them had. The phrase 'Conjugal unpleasantness' was used on 'The Fast Show', and sums up the everlasting myth of the Victorians not enjoying sex. The men must have, because of the number of prostitutes and bawds in the capital. The women? Well, it was possibly where the 'Lie back and think of England' mentality came from. I also read somewhere, that Lesbianism was not a criminal offence, because Queen Victoria couldn't see what two women could do together. Apocryphal? Maybe, but she was weird enough for it to be true. To that end, might I steer you to the very rude, but funny Mitchell and Webb skit simply entitled 'Come'. It's on youtube. And makes me laugh every time I see it.

Vivienne (not verified) Fri, 17/11/2017 - 23:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Is it not possible that the Victorians thought of nothing but sex? I find it quite likely, under those circumstances, that the sight of uncovered furniture legs would be a turn-on. They were big on self-denial too, which meant they must have had a lot to try to restrain themselves from. Plus all the cold showers and terrors inflicted on children about masturbation. If they were so puritanical, they would have been blissfully aware of such goings on.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sat, 18/11/2017 - 08:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Vivienne - I think that you are probably correct. I was always amused by the famous story of John Ruskin on his wedding night, being so disturbed by the sight of his new wife, Effie Gray, naked, and seeing she had pubic hair, that their marriage was never consummated. He did write words to the effect that the sight of her disgusted him - as she was a great beauty, he must have been very easily disgusted - but never specifies the source of that disgust, with reasons given that he was only acquainted with female genitalia through the medium of the classical statue, which I find difficult to believe, myself. I had heard his story when I was at school, back in the 1970's, and it amused me greatly. I got into a lot of trouble by writing a little skit in the back of a book, where Mr Ruskin is increasingly annoyed by occurrences that make him think that people know 'The Reason Why'. These include: A tradesman from Bushey; A man looking for his dog, shouting it's name, which happens to be 'Fanny'; and one that I was (and am) rather proud of, and only makes sense if you know how some very long surnames are pronounced in England. It's an:

AUTOGRAPH HUNTER: (gushing) Such an honour, sir! I have all your books - could I trouble you to sign the flyleaf of this one, sir, please? (Hands over a well-thumbed tome)
RUSKIN: (uncertain, but secretly pleased) Well, my lad, I don't normally, but this time, as you asked so politely (inks pen) To whom shall I dedicate it?
AUTOGRAPH HUNTER: To me, sir, please. It's Bob... and my surname is a bit odd. It's pronounced 'Larne'....
RUSKIN: Spelled L-A-R-N-E?
AUTOGRAPH HUNTER: You would think so, wouldn't you?
RUSKIN: (intrigued, his pen hovers over the paper) And how, pray, is it spelled?
RUSKIN: (furious, throws the book, pen, and inkpot at the AUTOGRAPH HUNTER) Get out! You impertinent son of a Tosher! Get out! (slams front door).
AUTOGRAPH HUNTER: (to nobody in particular) What just occurred?

Ian Luck (not verified) Sun, 19/11/2017 - 19:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A popular destination for Victorian travellers in Italy, were the then recently rediscovered sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. For an extra fee, the more unshockable traveller could visit a storehouse of items removed from the sites that were deemed not suitable for general viewing. Racy bath-house frescoes, for example, with figures intertwined in every sexual position - this was similar to those found in brothels, and other places of assignation. It was a bit similar to ordering a Chinese takeaway by quoting the number of your required dish, inasmuch as one would select a partner, and then point out to the brothel keeper what you fancied doing to that partner. You would be charged accordingly. Pompeii was full of phalluses, too. They advertised brothels, and indeed, people wore little lead phalluses with wings, as a good luck charm. All of these, of course, were removed, and hidden away, as were statuettes of Priapus, the God of the garden, and fertility, depicted as a small hunched figure with comically huge genitals. The late Brian Sewell mentioned, with ill-concealed glee how this figure still lurks in suburban gardens to this day - The figure was often depicted wearing the headgear known as a Phrygian cap, as worn by the secretive cult god Mithras. This was often painted red on these figures, and it is strongly suggested that Victorian tourists liked the statuettes of the little old man with his red cap, but were not so keen on his huge cock and balls. If these were removed, and replaced, with, say, a fishing rod, or wheelbarrow, then it might make a nice souvenir of the trip, and something to put in the garden... If you weren't aware, there is an area in the British Museum stores full of rogue genitalia, removed from statuary for decency's sake. When? Have a good guess.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sun, 19/11/2017 - 20:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

P.S. - The Victorian for 'Screw You, Asshole', would be along the lines of: "Whitworth thread your personage, fundament!" Viz Comic's 'Raffles, The Gentleman Thug' had a Victorian version of the great rap group NWA's 'F**k Tha Police'. It's simply: 'Ignore The Constabulary'.

Helen Martin (not verified) Sat, 25/11/2017 - 04:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ian, surely that soubriquet was Raffles the Gentleman Cracksman". Or are you referring to a takeoff of the original?

Ian Luck (not verified) Sat, 25/11/2017 - 23:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Helen Martin - There is a very rude comic that has been published in the UK since the early 1980's, called 'Viz', after the old printer's mark, from the Latin, 'Videlect', meaning 'Namely'. The comic originates in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, and, when it came out, was like nothing else. It's a mixture of rude, often violent, comic strips, deliberately bad puns, ridiculous news articles, and mock advertisements. It doesn't sound much, but the clincher here is this: it's an outwardly stupid magazine, written by very, very intelligent people, which is why it is still going, and it's purely dumb competitors fell by the wayside. An example of this intelligence is a mock advert for a 'Cuneiform Dating Agency' which lists several obscure Cuneiform texts, and which made my geeky heart soar. 'Raffles The Gentleman Thug' is a cartoon about a well-heeled Victorian yobbo, who makes threats and shouts insults, but in a Victorian manner, hence instead of the charming 'F**k Da Police', you get 'Ignore (or disregard) The Constabulary'.