Victorian London by Liza Picard

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Victorian London was smelly, and that is where Ms Picard begins her nonfiction summation of the city from 1840-1870 (Victorian London by Liza Picard, published 2005). From her detailed descriptions of the polluted Thames to the horrors of being a “maid of all work” to the entertainments of the great capital, the city of London in Victorian times becomes both delightfully and (more frequently) disgustingly palpable.

Ms Picard determined to rely solely on nonfiction sources for her descriptions, and there are plenty of first-hand accounts of the grime of the city to make the telling engaging and interesting. Her book, which is just about 300 pages, is nonetheless comprehensive in surveying a general way of life (both the necessaries and the wants) for the rich as well as the poor in those interesting years in the city. It convinced me, for one, that had I lived in 1840 in London, I’d have done all I could to get out of there (the English countryside or even America in 1840 seems, from my perspective, to have been much more pleasant, or at least a lot less malodorous).

If Victorian London has a fault, it is that it is written for those familiar with London of today, as Ms Picard is obviously affectionately close it. As an American reader of Victorian literature and someone who has never been to London or England at all, I found myself lost in references to landmarks, neighborhoods, and even money and wished for a general map of the city (not a historic one of the sewers, as was included), with the key neighborhoods she mentioned indicated, as well as an explanation of how pence, shillings, pounds, and guineas all add up. I cannot, however, fault Ms Picard for my ignorance, and this book, for what is was, was quite excellent.

Reviewed on September 9, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • This sounds fascinating! I’m familiar with London but have little knowledge of old coinage, so I guess that’d provide extra research. Thanks for such a detailed review!

  • Victorian London is one of my favourite fictional settings but I don’t think I’ve ever read a nonfiction book on the subject. This sounds like something I would really enjoy.

  • My misspent Anglophile youth gave me lots of time to contemplate old British currency. If I recall correctly, it was twelve pence to a shilling, twenty shillings to a pound, and twenty-one shillings to a guinea. A crown is five shillings, so half-a-crown is two and a half shillings.

    I want to read this–I have heard wonderful things about Picard’s histories. 🙂

    • Jenny, see something saying that in this book would have been incredibly helpful since I had to go look it up somewhere and kept forgetting how many pence and shillings and pounds all were. I thought it was a 16 base, like pounds and ounces. So confusing!

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