Apr 27, 2010

Victorian London by Liza Picard

Victorian London by Liza Picard

Ana, you’re probably thinking, have you not had enough of the Victorians by now? Well, no, but I expect you probably have had enough of hearing me go on about them. So instead I’m going to gush a bit about Liza Picard for a change, and try to explain why she’s one of my favourite social history authors. Her books are colourful, well-written, and incredibly engaging. I first discovered her because one of my professors used excerpts of several of her books on London in her class - Picard is not an academic, but her books are well-researched enough to make this an option, plus they’re humorous and a hundred times more exciting than your average history textbook.

What makes Picard so great is the fact that she has an incredibly eye for detail: she includes information that might not be particularly relevant if you consider the Big Picture, but is interesting enough to capture the interest of any reader. And anyway, it’s often the case that the details, rather than the big picture, are what make the past come to life. When I finished Victorian London I felt as close as I’ll probably ever feel to having taken a trip to the past.

Flower Sellers, 1877
(Flower sellers, 1877)

I think nothing will convey what I’m trying to say as well as a list of some of the things I learned about Victorian London while reading this book:
  • More than I ever wanted to know about the Great Stink of 1858;

  • Why lady’s magazines were dead set against gentlemen’s clubs;

  • The role of dog turds in the treatment of animal hides (I kid you not);

  • How uncomfortable those top hats men always wore really were, especially in the summer;

  • That bakers would often knead bread with their feet;

  • That an 83-year-old fisherwoman from Penzance walked all the way to London to see the Great Exhibition;

  • All about the scandal surrounding the exhibition of male nudes at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham;

  • The tragic consequences of belief that it was miasma (bad air), and not water, that caused cholera, and just how an old lady set in her ways proved differently and saved many lives;

  • About the difficulties of climbing onto a hansom cab while wearing a crinoline;

  • That the fashion for colourful petticoats came from the fact that ladies knew theirs were going to be spotted anyhow, and decided they might as well make them worth looking at - how unVictorian does that sound?
Regent Circus, 1888
(Regent Circus, 1888)

…and I could go on. Liza Picard does something that I tend to dislike: she does not always make an effort to hide her own voice. She comments on the material she’s conveying; she makes jokes; she doesn’t always hide her modern sensibility. But the thing is, it absolutely works. Her jokes never feel forced; she absolutely respect the habits and values of time period she’s writing about; and her comments very often echo my own thoughts. This conversational tone adds to the storytelling quality of her histories – she makes me feel like I’m sitting around a cosy fire listening to an impossibly old grandmother telling me all about the past.

As you can probably tell by now, I highly recommend this book, as well as Dr Johnson’s London, which is the only other one of her histories I have read in its entirety. I must get my hands on Elizabeth’s London and Restoration London before too long.

Chelsea Fair, 1890
(Chelsea Fair, 1890. I love this photo so much. Could it be any more perfectly Victorian?)

Interesting bits:
Or you might prefer the more direct application of heat to the bath itself, such as Defries’s Magic Heater, which for the expenditure of 2d-worth of gas would produce a hot bath in six minutes – and, one would imagine, a pool of molten metal and a violent explosion soon afterwards. Then there were those terrifying contraptions aptly called geysers since they were as unpredictable and uncontrollable as anything in nature, often resulting in blowing off your eyebrows. They assumed (1) a room free of draughts which would, and usually did, blow out the vital match which you held at the pilot light nuzzle; (2) presence of mind, at that point, to turn off the gas supply; (3) strong nerves; (4) an unquenchable desire for a hot bath, then, there, and not later or elsewhere; all to be co-ordinated while appropriately dressed for the bath you hoped to take.

The Victorian postal service can only strike us with awe, when nowadays we are lucky to get one delivery, on weekdays, at unpredictable times. There were ten collections a day from local sorting offices and pillow boxes, beginning at 9a.m. Delivery within the inner London area was promised within one and a half hours, and within a 12-mile radius of Charing Cross within three hours. Mid-Victorian Londoners could expect twelve deliveries, one every hour during the day.
(This is actually something I thought about while reading Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning’s letters: sometimes they exchanged two or three in a single day. Victorian postmen really were underappreciated heroes.)
There was only one place where top hats, no matter how respectable, were agreed to be impossible: the opera. Here, men were a gibus, a hat with the same shape of a top hat but made of unblocked black cloth, with springs inside it, collapsible into a flat cowpat-shaped circle, which could be tucked under one arm. When the right moment came, a smart blow of the brim against the back of the stall activated the springs with a loud bang and hey presto! A top hat, almost.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll add your link here.)


  1. I love the bit of information of the petticoats. I wouldn't mind reading a book by someone who isn't an academic on history for a change. This sounds like a lovely read and I'll definitely add it to the list.

  2. I love reading about Victorian London, and this sounds like a great book. I'll keep my eye out for it. :)

  3. I picked this title up last year when my Victorian mania began. I can't wait to get to it!

  4. You add too many books to my TBR list. I'm shaking my fist at you!! Feel my wrath!

  5. Nymeth, the Victorian era is my new favourite! I am trying to read more books set in that time... starting with Sarah Waters :). Thanks for this review!

  6. They really were dedicated postmen! Sounds like a book stuffed full of interestingness.

  7. So interesting. I didn't know about the connection between bread and feet and I always wondered about how one got into a hansom with such puffy skirts. Have you ever read The Victorians by A.N. Wilson? I have it on my shelf but it's still untouched.

  8. I have this on my wish list already. Now, after you review, I want to read it even more:)

  9. OMG, I have always wondered about all that mail! This sounds like a fantastic book.

  10. I for one could never tire of your posts about Victorian England. I love this literary time period, but am woefully ignorant of its history. I have added several books to my TBR list, thanks to you.

  11. You HAVE been reading a lot about the Victorians lately, haven't you? :D

    Well, while I probably won't pick up this book, simply because I am not much into nonfiction or history, I did like reading the list of facts you put up! That's more then way I like to learn about history: in small, clear doses. :D

  12. Ana, I absolutely adore your Victorian posts. I may never look at bread in the same way again, but I love all the bits of information. I am intrigued by the big stink too!

  13. Oh this sounds so wonderful. I feel a Victorian splurge coming on, and this MUST be on my list!!

  14. what a interseting book ,always love tv programms about victorians there is something about being on the cusp of the modern age that was amazing and scary at same time ,all best stu

  15. I do love reading about the Victorians, so this sounds perfect! Can't wait to read it!

  16. I don't think I've ever read much about the Victorians but those tidbits you share are fascinating- and some of them very funny!

  17. I love tidbits of knowledge like you posted and have a feeling I'd love this book.

  18. I love your description of this as a social history novel. I'm not sure I've ever heard that before, and it is perfect! I, too, love books that teach about their era - thanks for another great review.

  19. Nope. We could never get enough. At least I can't! :) I am going out right now to pick this one up! Thanks for the great review and awesome photograph. BTW, I think it's interesting what this time period did in Hawaii. I know that's random, but my mom lives there and I spend a lot of time, including my summers over there. Over Christmas we went to the state museum, and as with many island that either became part of the empire or were influenced by the culture of the time, I was shocked to see the way the women were dressed (or forced to dress). They have pictures of women sitting down by the cruise docks, looking JUST LIKE this picture you included. Here are these Polynesian women dressed from head to toe in dark colored, heavy dresses, that looked like they stepped from the streets of London. Honestly, I can't imagine. I'm sure there are books out there about the affects of colonization on the islanders (in fact, I'm sure there are), which I should try to run down. It's just interesting to me how far-reaching this era and its ideals were.

    Thanks for pointing out this book!

  20. All of those facts are so interesting! I am especially impressed with the postal service. Can we please have that back!?

  21. I'll never tire of hearing about Victorian London. I think because of you, I have an even better appreciation for it. I LOVE those pictures!

  22. I greatly enjoyed the bits of this book I read, but I had to return it to the library unfinished. I hope to check it out again, though, as well as her other books, because I enjoyed all the fascinating facts, and like you, I enjoyed her voice.

  23. I have Picard's Dr. Johnson's London but haven't read it yet. I think I may be like you in that if I see non-fiction books set in a certain place during a certain period (for me- 18th and 19th century England), then I grab them and keep them because I love the period so much. It may take me FOREVER to actually get around to reading them, but I like to know they're there. I have a LOT of non-fiction on Georgian England...

  24. I love these bulleted facts that you give us :p And you now make it impossible for me not to get this book! Off I go...

  25. Nope, not tired of Victorian posts at all... keep them coming!!

  26. Ha, ha, ha, I would never ask anybody if they had had enough of the Victorians by now. Is it even possible to have had enough of the Victorians? :P

    You are so right about the London post in Victorian times! I had that same reaction to Elizabeth & Robert's correspondence - they seemed perfectly confident of their letters being delivered on the same day. With a post system like that, who needs phones? (I hate phones.)

    This author sounds amazing, by the way. I'd heard her name before, but I didn't realize she did a series, a series! of social histories of London. I love London! I must read her social histories at once!

  27. This sounds like my kind of history! :D I went through a phase when I was fascinated w/ the antebellum US, so I know the hazards of getting into coaches while wearing crinolines. heehee

  28. Oh, I just love books like this! It's history, but with the small touches that really get you engrossed in the time period. I am putting this at the top of my list and hope to add it to my collection soon! Wonderfully interesting review, Nymeth!

  29. I love reading about the Victorian Period. Alot of people have an incorrect view of it. We owe those women so much with their work with the suffrage, temperance, and child labor movements.

  30. Okay, that whole dog turd thing has me more than a little curious!

  31. Sounds like the post worked much better back then ;)
    Your blog is a terror for my tbr list, which mostly consists of loose post-its so my desk is a mess as well! There´s supposed to be a big compliment in that sentence somewhere ;D

    I´m glad her style is so lively because sometimes I wonder how historians etc are able to write so boringly about what are supposedly very important and fascinating topics to them.

    Though the great stink is perhaps better written in a boring style, I´m worried what a great writer might do to the reader (I never recovered from reading Perfume) ;)

  32. You know, I'm not really a history person, but I'm so willing to make an exception for this book! I love how Picard makes it sound like a story rather than just boring facts. Excellent!

  33. Wow, can you just imagine all that mail?! I think I'd probably even order more things on Amazon just to get packages throughout the day! haha...

    I love reading novels set in Victorian times and it's been so long since I've read a good one. Although this is non-fiction it just reminded me that I really want to "visit" Victorian London soon :)

  34. "have you not had enough of the Victorians by now?" - I get this a lot too :) and the answer is always no.

  35. The Great Stink of 1858, huh? My knowledge of the Victorian era, outside of Dickens and Carroll, is fairly limited. I only took a handful of classes centered around the time period (for some reason I took more 18th century classes--how many women died by catching on fire because of their clothing and hairdos!), but I would have much appreciated this book while in college. Thanks to this review I've passed the title along to a college friend of mine who specializes in Victorian lit.

  36. This sounds so very interesting. I am happy I. Thanks so much saw this post

  37. I can't say that I've ever had burning interest about the Victorian era, but your review does has me interested in this book. I especially like the little bulleted point about the old woman who walked from Penzance to London to see the Great Exhibition. Are there even people like that anymore?

  38. Iris: I think you'd enjoy this! While she doesn't sound like an academic, she's absolutely serious and rigorous about her source material. But her voice makes it so accessible and pleasant to read :)

    Dominique, I hope you enjoy it!

    Amanda: I can't wait to hear what you think :)

    Bibliolatrist: *cowers in fear* :P

    Elise: Sarah Waters is a fine, fine place to start :D

    Fence: It was! And they absolutely were! Poor things; they probably worked 18 hours a day :\

    Sakura: I haven't, but I have it on my wishlist. You should read it soon and tell me if it's worth it :P

    Andreea: I'm pretty sure you're going to enjoy it :)

    Fredegonde: It is!

    Molly: It was my interest in the literature that inspired me to pick up all these history books. And so far, they have been marvellous! There's so much to learn.

    Amanda: I'm glad you enjoyed the list :D I wonder if someone ought to try a whole book in bullet points... might be a hit ;)

    Vivienne: I honestly hope that bakers don't do that anymore :P

    Rebecca: This would be perfect for any Victorian splurge :D

    Stu: Yes, exactly!

    Claire, I hope you find it as interesting as I did :)

    Jeane: lol, aren't they? Picard has a wonderful sense of humour, and a perfect eye for memorable and strange little facts.

    Kathy: If you loved the list, you'd probably enjoy the rest of the book, yes :)

  39. Elisabeth: I'm crazy enough about the Victorians to enjoy even books that are on the dry side, but this one is just so readable.

    Becky: I'm relieved to hear it :D And wow, those poor women...I can't imagine having to wear those dressed in the heat - on top of all the cultural implications, of course. The period's ideology really was far-reaching.

    Amy: It would come in handy when we're eagerly awaiting a particular book's arrival, wouldn't it? ;)

    Sandy: I'm glad to hear you aren't tired after all :D And I never tire of looking at these old pictures. Part of me finds it so strange that there WAS photography back then. I mean, I know there was, but the mixture of something we identify as modern and that remote world is difficult to process at times :P

    Priscilla: Her voice works perfectly, doesn't it? I hope you enjoy the rest of the book when you have the chance to read it!

    Aarti: I like knowing they're there, too. I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets obsessed with certain time periods :P

    Chris: You'll thank me, you'll see :P

    JoAnn: Good :D

    Jenny: *I* certainly don't think it's possible :P And ugh, I HATE phones too. Text messages are okay, I guess, sort of like little telegrams. But I only actually call someone if I absolutely HAVE to. And yes, a series of social histories of London! How awesome is that?

    Eva: It's one more of many reasons to be grateful we were born when we were!

    Zibilee: Yes, exactly - it's the little touches that make all the difference :)

    Jaimie: Yes, I absolutely agree. It's not nearly as stiff as we tend to believe.

    Kathleen: It's....a very interesting process, if nothing else :P

    Bina: lol :D Well, thank you :P And yep, the description of the Big Stink was almost a little *too* vivid.

    Emidy: It was anything but boring :)

    Iliana: lol, I thought the same. Wouldn't multiple book packages a day be fun?

    Gricel: hehehe :D

    Trish: (SQUEE a Trish comment!) I think Dickens allow probably gives you a fairly accurate picture. I need to read more of his stuff.

    Diane, you're welcome :)

    Chrirsty: I wonder! She was not only fit but extremely determined :P

  40. Oh, The Victorians. I'm always looking out for readable history, so this sounds great! Unlike you, I usually don't mind or even like a narrator who is present in the work for historical research- but I totally understand how it can get annoying.


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