Victorian City

Victorian City

In The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London,* social historian Judith Flanders (The Invention of Murder) reminds us Charles Dickens was a journalist before he was a novelist. The London that stands at the hearts of his novels--so vibrant that it's almost a character in its own right--is not only a work of the imagination but the reportage of a great observer. From his first works to his last, Dickens recorded and reinvented the people of London's streets and the world they inhabited. His earliest readers recognized the jokes behind his often-sly accuracy; today, the lines between imagination and observation are less clear.

Using both Dickens's novels and a wide range of other contemporary accounts, Flanders attempts to look at the streets of London as they existed from 1812 to 1870, a period of tremendous transformation and growth. (The title The Victorian City is a conscious misnomer. As Flanders points out, the great recorder of Victorian London spent almost half his life under the rule of Victoria's uncles.) Beginning with workers making their way through the city in the early morning and ending with the seedy side of Victorian nightlife, Flanders provides a detailed picture of both familiar and unfamiliar aspects of life in 19th-century London: markets, prisons, gin palaces, brothels, slums (known as "rookeries"), the mail stage and hackney cabs, and the health problems caused by overflowing cemeteries and overflowing cesspools. The Victorian City, filled with squalor, social injustice, larger-than-life characters and expansive prose, is Dickensian in every sense of the word.

The Victorian City is an engaging exploration of the city and social conditions that inspired Dickens's novels.

* Not to be confused with Asa Brigg's classic Victorian Cities. also well worth a read.

Most of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

In Which I Stop Reading And Start Writing

V0040734 A woman is sitting at a desk in a library, writing a letter.

Yesterday I reached that undefinable moment in my current project when it is time to stop reading and start writing.

For smaller projects, the moment when I'm ready to make the leap is obvious. Sometimes I reach the point where I'm not learning anything new about my subject. Other times I reach the less satisfactory* point where I've read everything I can find to read and hope I can spackle over the holes in my knowledge as I go. Either way, it's time to plunge in.

With larger projects, the line between research and writing is fuzzier. I've never found a way to measure "enough". I certainly never reach the point where I've read everything there is to read. In fact, I regularly suffer from heart-pounding moments of panic when I realize that my source lists have spiraled out of control--again.**

And yet, that magic moment comes when I know it is time to make the leap. I can see the shape of the book. I've identified dramatic scenes or engaging details with which to catch a reader's imagination. The pile of books as yet unread suddenly feels burdensome rather than exciting. I am restless, fidgety, eager to start. ***

I definitely don't know enough yet to write the book. I probably don't know everything I need to write the book proposal. I don't even know what I don't know. I will find holes, write past them until there is more hole than narrative, pause to search for answers, and write again.

Today I start.

When do you know it's time to put down the book and pick up the pen start typing?

*i.e, absolutely terrifying.
**The seductive voice of the research demon can a terrible thing. I once identified 24 academic books as sources for a 250 word article before I caught myself.
***Okay, I'll admit it. I'm always fidgety.

Image courtesy of The Wellcome Library

Jezebel or Joan of Arc?

Rani_of_Jhansi In June, 1857, Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, belatedly committed herself and her kingdom to the revolt variously known as the Indian Mutiny, the Sepoy Rebellion, or the First Indian War of Independence.

A Break in Tradition

The rani had long-standing grievances against the British. She was the widow of Gangadhar Rao Niwalkar, ruler of the kingdom of Jhansi. Several months before his death, the childless raja adopted a distant cousin named Damodar Rao as his son and made a will naming the five year old boy as his heir.

Adopted heirs were an accepted practice in Indian kingdoms--both Gangadhar Rao and his predecessor were adopted heirs. Unfortunately for Lakshmi Bai and her son, under the rule of Lord Dalhousie the British began an aggressive policy of annexing Indian states on what now seem flimsy excuses, most notably the Doctrine of Lapse. The British already exercised the right to recognize the succession in Indian states with which they had client relationships. Dalhousie now claimed that if the adoption of an heir to the throne was not ratified by the government, the state would pass "by lapse" to the British. Not surprisingly, few adopted heirs were so ratified.

When Gangadhar Rao died in 1853, Dalhousie refused to acknowledge Damodar Rao as the raja's legal heir to the throne and seized control of Jhansi. Laksmi Bai, with the support of the British political agent at Jhansi and the advice of British counsel, immediately contested the decision. She continued to submit petitions arguing her case until early 1856. All her appeals were rejected.

Growing Discontent

Meanwhile, discontent had been building among the sepoys in the British East India Company's army, thanks to a number of British decisions that appeared to be designed to undermine the faith of both Muslim and Hindu sepoys and make it easier to convert them to Christianity. The final straw was the rumor that cartridges for newly issued Enfield rifles were greased with a combination of beef and pork fat. Since the cartridges had to be bitten open, such grease would make them an abomination for both Hindu and Muslim sepoys. British officers were slow to respond to the rumors. By the time they assured their men that the cartridges were greased with beeswax and vegetable oils, the damage was done. On May 8, 1857, discontent turned to rebellion at the army garrison of Meerut. Eighty-five sepoys who refused to use the Enfield rifle were tried and put in irons. The next day, three regiments stationed at Meerut stormed the jail, killed the British officers and their families, and marched toward Delhi, where the last Mogul emperor ruled in name only.

Thousands of Indians outside the army had grievances of their own against the British. Soon Indian leaders whose power had been threatened by British reforms rose up, transforming what had begun as a mutiny into an organized resistance movement across northern India.

On June 6, troops in the East India Company army in Jhansi mutinied. Two days later, they massacred the British population and soon left for Delhi. Given Lakshmi Bai's long-standing grievances against their government, the British were quick to blame her for the rising in Jhansi, though evidence for her initial involvement is thin. In fact, she wrote to the nearest British authority, Major Walter Erskine, on June 12 giving her account of the mutiny and asking for instructions. Erskine authorized the rani to manage the district until he could send soldiers to restore order.

With the region in chaos, Lakshmi Bai soon found herself under attack by two neighboring principalities and a distant claimant to the throne of Jhansi. Finding it necessary to defend her kingdom, she recruited an army, strengthened the city's defenses and formed and alliance with the rebel rajas of Banpu and Shargarh. As late as February she told her advisors she would return the district to the British when they arrived.

On March 25, Major General Sir Hugh Rose and his forces arrived at Jhansi and besieged the city. Threatened with execution if captured, Lakshmi Bai resisted. In spite of a vigorous defense, on April 3, the British broke into the city, took the palace and stormed the fort.

"The Bravest and Best"

The night before the final assault, Lakshmi Bai lashed her ten-year-old adopted son to her back and escaped from the fortress, accompanied by four companions. After riding 90 some miles in 24 hours, the rani and her small retinue reached the fortress of Kalpi, where she joined three Indian leaders who had become infamous in British eyes: Nana Sahib, Rao Sahib and Tatia Tope. Defeated again and again through May and into early June, the rebel forces retreated before the British toward Gwalior.

On June 16, Rose's forces closed in on the rebels. At the request of the other leaders, the rani led what remained of her Jhansi contingent into battle against the British. On the second day of fighting she was shot from her horse and killed. Gwalior fell soon after and organized resistance collapsed.

British newspapers named Lakshmi Bai the "Jezebel of India", but Rose compared his fallen adversary to Joan of Arc. Reporting her death to William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, he said: "Although she was a lady, she was the bravest and best military leader of the rebels. A man among the mutineers."

In modern India, Lakshmi Bai is a national heroine. Her story has been told in ballads, novels, movies and comic books. Rose's praise is echoed in the most popular of the folk songs about her: "How well like a man fought the Rani of Jhansi! How valiantly and well!"