My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Regular readers will be aware that I value non-fiction for its research merits, but not every factual book is made equal. The ones I hold in particularly high esteem are those which provide unique insights and, preferably, entertain while imparting their information (I’m a storyteller at heart and I find facts easier to digest if they are presented in an engaging form!)
Curiosities of London Life is a treasure in this category. Charles Manby Smith presents a series of glimpses into the social life of the great metropolis in the mid 19th century, and these glimpses range from the humourous to the surprising, from the endearing to the uplifting, and from the saddening to the downright depressing. The author is a member of that race of Victorian social observers who have made the literature of that period so enduring. Standing (in my view) alongside Dickens and Thackeray in his powers of observation and sympathy, the author brings to life a varied cast of misfits, criminals, hopefuls, and enterprising men and women. Their tales include plenty of sorrow and misery (not to mention death), but the overall theme is that of seeking out “an honest penny” and working for your livelihood, however degrading and brutal the work may be for scarce coppers. Not everyone depicted here is honest; there are quite a few who operate beyond the law as well, but despite the harsh realities of working class London life in the early 1850s, this book presents a generally positive and hopeful picture. Alongside these portraits of long-dead individuals, the reader is treated to chapters on a myriad of other subjects, including the ubiquitous advertising of the period (“puffing”) and how Christmas 1851 was just as commercialised as anything we are likely to experience in the 2010s.
Charles Manby Smith exhibits powers of observation and characterisation worthy of Dickens, but presents his treasures in a factual format that provides genuinely valuable data in an engaging way. The result is an absolutely charming book that should be read by anyone who holds an interest in the 19th century.