Revisiting Dickens’ London

One thing everyone knows about Dickens – whether they’ve read him or not – is that he is London’s literary patron saint.  Whole generations have grown up seeing Victorian London through his eyes, from  the grime on the streets to the phoney glitter of the Veneering house in Our Mutual Friend, where everything is ‘in a state of high varnish and polish’; from the Marshalsea prison in Little Dorrit, to Fagin’s Saffron Hill lair; from Quilp’s rat-infested dreary yard by the Thames, to Lincoln’s Inn Hall in that astonishing opening of Bleak House, where the Lord High Chancellor sits in his High Court of Chancery, ‘at the very heart of the fog’.

The slum of Tom-All-Alone;s in Bleak House

I’m not the first to say that London is a character in its own right, and as I  started work on a murder mystery of my own inspired by Bleak House, one of the most challenging questions I faced was how to bring that character to  life in my own story – and my own words.

So how did I do it? Lots of  research, of course, that goes without saying, but there was one source of  information that I used more than any other. In fact it became almost as  important in the structure of my story as Bleak House itself. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is to Victorian non-fiction  what Bleak House is to fiction – Neil Gaiman has said it’s ‘like a big  mad Dickens novel that just keeps going’. It’s certainly an immense and seething panorama of the noisy, filthy, crowded streets – coster barrows, coffee-stalls,  street performers, animal dealers, ‘toasting-fork makers, pin-makers, engravers, tobacco-stopper makers, stocking-weavers, cabbage-net makers, night-cap knitters, doll-dress-knitters, leather brace and garter makers, and  glass-blowers’.

Mayhew conducted thousands of interviews with the London  poor and gives many of these conversations virtually verbatim, making his book  the closest thing we have to a documentary account of how people really lived in the middle of the 19th century. if you haven’t read it, I really recommend it – his is a cast of unforgettable real characters, talking in their own words. Reading Mayhew is like walking with him side by side, listening to what he hears, and seeing what he sees – and in fact I have my young detective, Charles Maddox, do exactly that in one episode in The Man in Black when I send him into a pub on the City Road to witness the same rat-killing Mayhew himself describes, on what – with a little artistic license – I imagine to be the very night Mayhew was there.

The other marvellous thing about Mayhew is that he tells us things Dickens only hints at. Dickens may describe urchins scavenging in the mud, but it’s Mayhew who tells us exactly what it is these ‘pure-finders’ are collecting (dog excrement, for use in tanning, if you’re interested). And Dickens may talk, somewhat disingenuously, about the mud in the streets, ‘which is made of nobody knows what and collects about us nobody knows whence or how’, but it’s Mayhew who makes it clear that what ‘the sewers in many parts of our metropolis … remove at low water they regularly bring back at high water to the very doors of the houses whence they carried it.’ The contents of one’s lavatory, in other words, were regularly to be found collecting about one’s doorstep too. Indeed as late as 1829 a mother and baby died when they fell through their rotten privy floor and drowned beneath it in their own cesspool.

One of the greatest delights in writing The Man in Black was that it allowed me not just to revisit Dickens’ city, but to discover Mayhew’s as well. And I found, in doing so, that Victorian London had not just one ‘genius of the place’, but two.


This post was originally written in 2012 for the Literascribe blog, updated 2022

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