I have had much more success with my non-fiction lockdown reading than my fiction. Immersing myself in history, whether it’s for research or just pleasure, I’ve relished being able to temporarily escape these dark times, though of course, one thing you can’t help but see is that history does have a habit of repeating itself. And we never learn, do we?
I am old enough to remember the Eighties and Margaret Thatcher’s Government espousing Victorian values, and young though I was, and relatively ignorant history-wise back then, I knew they were talking utter crap. Britain sank into a slump. We had a bit of a socialist come-back. And now we are back at the beginning of the cycle, with influential elements of our society and government who want to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Sarah Wise’s book, The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum, takes us back to the root of this idea, a case study of the notorious Old Nichol, a rookery in Bethnal Green, and by the mid-Victorian period, a notorious ghetto. Wise paints an extraordinary picture of what it was like to live there and the people who actually did. This is social history at its best, with a solid basis of fact and politics, brought to life with real people and their stories, coloured with some memorable individuals, and tempered with a healthy dose of myth dispelling.
She begins with a fascinating account of the political environment which brought the Nichol into being, with its cheap housing, narrow streets and lack of sanitation, all of which led inevitably and quickly into the creation of hovels. The system of sub-letting meant that it was impossible to track down landlords to enforce repairs, and the fact that the controlling governmental bodies were run by a number of those landlords made it almost impossible for the Nichol and its residents to make any sort of improvements. So the very poor lived there, but it wasn’t only the very poor – there were small businesses, there were large businesses, and there was a good sprinkling of criminals. The Nichol became notorious. Victorian society tried to legislate and failed. Victorian philanthropists and various churches moved in. And life in the Nichol carried on, with high mortality rates, high crime rates and appalling living conditions. All of this is evoked colourfully, but Sarah Wise’s research shines through. She backs every anecdote up with facts and figures, she gives us the myth and then debunks it – or in some cases, she doesn’t. She gives us some memorable characters. And she writes so beautifully – her facts and figures are never dry, her humour is always wry.
As public opinions changed and Victorian attitudes to the ‘deserving’ and un-deserving’ poor developed, the Nichol is used as a brilliant case study in the development of town planning and the thinking behind it. The Nichol is finally destroyed, but despite having first offer, the inhabitants refuse to return to the new ‘improved’ housing. In the end, Sarah Wise demonstrates the utter failure of the well-meaning thinkers and town planners to understand basic needs and wants. I am in awe of the research behind this book and even more in awe of the author’s ability to turn it into a highly readable account that is both entertaining, instructive and extremely thought-provoking. If only some of those in power now would have a read and learn from it!
James Dabney McCabe’s Light and Shadows of New York Life focuses on another city at the same time, but while this book covers the notorious Five Points slum, it is much wider in scope than Wise’s case study and a very different kind of book altogether. What you get is a contemporary guide book, a snapshot of a city that was changing and evolving on a daily basis, full of wide-ranging, multi-faceted and multi-coloured descriptions of the city. I must say up front that I did not read this cover to cover – it’s 700 pages – but I think I’ve read at least three quarters of it. This is a researcher’s delight, an 1872 view of New York (or what we’d call Manhattan today, the other boroughs aren’t included), peering into all the nooks and crannies. It covers everything, from transport, hotels, established sights, people, their habits, shopping, and all the other stuff – corruption, poverty, slums – that balances the glamorous with the harsh reality of a city that seemed to be constantly evolving. There are case studies of areas and people. There are in-depth histories of key sites such as Central Park, and there’s lots of nerdy, arcane facts and figures. All told in the author’s quirky, irreverent style too. Not the type of book you pick up and read from beginning to end, but one you dip into, and if you want to know all about the Big Apple in the 1870s then go for it.
Continuing on my all-things Victorian theme, I read Lucinda Hawksley’s Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel. Lizzie Siddal is probably the most well-known ‘face’ of the pre-Raphaelite paintings, with her long red hair, alabaster white skin and somewhat distant, haughty expression. When this ‘Stunner’ was first discovered by Walter Deverell, one of the lesser-known of the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, she was a respectable milliner’s assistant. The man who became her lover/husband/tutor, Dante Rosetti, quickly claimed her for his own however, and it is through his paintings that we know her (though perhaps her most famous depiction is of Ophelia by Millais). Lizzie Siddal’s relationship with Rosetti is difficult to read. Hawksley tries her best to present both sides, of a woman who was overly-clingy, insecure and addicted to opium, and a philandering, tempestuous star-in-the-making who always wanted what he couldn’t have. The couple clearly loved each other in the early days, and there were times when their love was resurrected in their rather tragic romance, but for most of the decade or so they were together, they seemed to be a thorn in each other’s side. A thorn neither could do without, but one which was often an agony to bear.
There is scant evidence of Lizzie’s life. We rarely hear her voice, and Hawksley has had to build up her story from what others – often very biased in their views – say of her. There’s her few surviving paintings too, and her extremely morbid poetry, but did her art truly reflect her life? Ultimately, I was disappointed to discover that so many questions about her simply couldn’t be answered. She’s not easy to like, but then Rosetti is very hard to like too (IMHO, that is). Why did she put up with him! I asked myself that question so many times, reading this, and I didn’t really ever get an answer. It’s not the author’s fault, but unless some new source comes to light, it will remain very easy to interpret the face of tragic suffering in the paintings of Lizzie as a window into her reality.
The latest and by far the best of my forays into all things Victorian was Halle Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper.
‘The victims of Jack the Ripper were never “just prostitutes”, they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers.’
The Ripper has been commercialised and glorified, made iconic and continues to be re-branded and re-sold as one of the great unsolved crimes of the Victorian era. The legend relies on the fact that his victims were all prostitutes, and until now, no-one has been interested in proving otherwise. This book debunks the myth, restores the women to their rightful place in history, and calls into question the entire Ripper investigation and the many, many variations of it that have been published over the years. The Ripper himself is entirely sidelined. There are no gory details of his crimes, there’s no speculation about whodunnit, this is all about the female victims, and I loved it.
This is revisionist history at its best, as far as I am concerned. Solid research put into a highly readable form, an excellent and heart-wrenching tale (or five tales) told in a well-drawn historical context. There’s no sensationalism, there’s no blood and guts, there’s no wild speculation nor any attempt to moralise. Here is Victorian London, a vile, filthy place where the poor are forced to live vile filthy lives. Here is why it’s much worse to be a woman than a man. Here are the codes and rules that you have to follow to survive, and here’s what happens if you don’t follow them. Most of all, Rubenhold shows us, and most heart-breakingly, here is how hard some women struggle against these codes and rules – and here’s what happens to them when they fail in that struggle. Drink provides oblivion. Informal sexual arrangements provide solace and safety for these women, though they are also the means by which they are condemned. They are unconventional, but they are not unusual – though that is how the press portrayed them, as exceptions, as aberrations, and therefore as ‘legitimate’ victims. Rubenhold doesn’t try to cover up the sordid details of their lives, but she does present them as necessary evils to be borne, rather than any sort of choice. No woman in her right mind would live as these women did. They had not fallen from grace, but fallen through all of the pitifully few safety nets which might have prolonged their lives, or made them a bit more bearable. Then again, they might not.
This is a book that makes you angry and it makes you cry. It is moving and insightful and gripping and beautifully written. The one thing it doesn’t do is make you want to go and read more of the Ripper! It is an excellent book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
And finally for now, a very different book. Reading Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants at a time when you are very much aware of the body’s frailties and nature’s unfortunate ability to evolve and mutate, was not easy. I am a huge admirer of Bryson, a good old-fashioned polymath with a wry turn of phrase who can make almost any subject readable. He succeeds once again with this impressive ‘guide’ to the body, how it works and how it doesn’t. What astounds me is just how amazing it is that it does keep going for so long and with so little failings. The combination of biology and chemistry, of physics and engineering that makes us human, that makes even the most basic of functions work seamlessly is just mind-boggling. And don’t even get me started on the more complex stuff like thinking and dreaming and even sleeping! I will admit that a great deal of the detail, the names and more complex functions, I instantly forgot. But the explanations of some of our basic processes – sneezing, swallowing, balancing for example – allowed me to bore several people at length. Sleep and dreaming, two topics which fascinate me, being a long-term insomniac and a vivid dreamer – I would happily have read another couple of chapters on. Some of the gory bits, I would happily have done without. But this is a guide to the whole body, and Bryson is very thorough. He is a master of the side-swipe, and of the demolition of myth. Americans spend more per head than any other country on health care, allowing certain politicians to claim that their system is second to none. Until you look at what you get for your money, and see that you pay ten, twenty, a hundred times the price for a basic procedure such as ECT or for childbirth, than you do almost anywhere else. He is also excellent at giving people their due – all those unnamed research assistants whose bosses stole their glory, or the ones whose research was published just a little bit too late to claim the discovery – Bryson does his best to finally given them their credit.
I started reading this just as the Covid pandemic took off. There was more than enough matters medical and of the body for some months on the tv and social media for me to want to read more, so I put it aside for a while. Reading the latter part of the book, which is about what happens when things go wrong was distressing simply because of the context in which I was reading, of a world going very seriously awry. In a chilling chapter on diseases, written (I think) in 2017, here is what a leading specialist has to say when asked what disease caused the greatest risk to us here and now:
‘Flu. Flu is far more dangerous than people think. It kills a lot of people already…But it also evolves very rapidly, and that’s what makes it especially dangerous…We are really no better prepared for a bad outbreak today than we were when Spanish flu killed tens of millions of people a hundred years ago. The reason we haven’t had another experience like that isn’t because we have been especially vigilant. It’s because we have been lucky.’
I guess our luck ran out in 2020.
Have you read any of these books? Do you have any similar recommendations? As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.