Snakes and Leeches

Rosemary Hill

  • One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858 by Rosemary Ashton
    Yale, 352 pp, £25.00, July 2017, ISBN 978 0 300 22726 0

The last day of June 1858 was a warm day, though not the hottest of that summer. Two weeks earlier the temperature in London had reached 90 degrees, the highest ever recorded. Even so the atmosphere in the Palace of Westminster was close when the parliamentary committee inquiring into the working of the Bank Acts met. Gladstone was present, as was Disraeli, then chancellor of the exchequer, and business opened as usual despite the appalling stench coming from the Thames, until suddenly Disraeli could stand it no longer and rushed out, briefing papers in one hand, a handkerchief in the other over his nose. He was followed by the rest, retching and choking. The nation rejoiced. Complaints about the state of the river, which was virtually an open sewer, had been made repeatedly for a decade and ‘committee after committee, commission after commission’ had sat, as the Times pointed out, to no avail. Vested interests and administrative inertia prevailed. Now, with the politicians themselves running gagging down the corridors of power, the obstacles rapidly disappeared. The Thames Purification Bill was introduced on 15 July and swiftly passed into law on 2 August, the last day of the session.

William Dyce’s ‘Pegwell Bay’ (1858)
William Dyce’s ‘Pegwell Bay’ (1858)

Thus 1858 was fated to be famous in British history principally for the Great Stink, as it was known. Not otherwise a particularly significant year, it is the perfect subject for a microhistory. Great events cast shadows over details which in an undramatic year, or season, can be more clearly seen. Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month, published in 1965, was one of the earliest and best examples of what has become a popular genre. Set in another heatwave, in June 1846, Hayter’s account weaves together the lives of the famous, the obscure and the forgotten. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning plan their elopement. Samuel Rogers entertains the Gräfin Hahn-Hahn, a romantic novelist who has come to meet her English public and disappoints them by turning out to have false teeth and a glass eye. The painter Benjamin Haydon approaches a crisis in his unhappy career. Browning annoys Jane Carlyle by putting a hot kettle down on her new carpet. Haydon takes his own life. So, from day to day and street to street, the sublime and the ridiculous appear in the proximity they occupy in life.

This is surely one reason for the rise of microhistory, that it brings the texture of the past closer. It illustrates the ‘human position’, the way the momentous occurs ‘while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’. Its other attraction for readers is that a book that covers just one year, one month or, as in Caroline Shenton’s exemplary The Day Parliament Burned Down of 2012, 24 hours is more approachable than the hefty study of a century. When it is done well, microhistory opens out from its immediate subject matter and the result is like looking through a keyhole and seeing a whole landscape. From the writer’s point of view, however, it is a more demanding form than it might look. In a miniature every detail has to count and has to be precise. Shenton, who was until recently clerk of the records at the Parliamentary Archives, distilled years of research into her moment by moment account of the events of 16-17 October 1834. Also, like Hayter, she worked within a tight geographical space, which makes events easier to visualise, and so more dramatic. Ashton takes on a broader canvas, with mixed results.

Hers is a crowded scene, more like Frith’s The Derby Day, the sensational success of 1858’s Royal Academy exhibition, so popular that a policeman had to be deployed to hold back the crowds. Frith had worked on it for 15 months and he used a photographer, Robert Howlett, to take photographs from the roof of a cab of ‘as many queer groups of figures as he could’ for Frith to work from. Photography was not new in 1858, but it was being put to new uses. Donati’s comet, which passed overhead that year, had been captured by the camera and Frith was not alone among artists in aspiring to photographic accuracy or, as it seemed to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, literalism; he complained to William Bell Scott that most of the Academy pictures that year were ‘done in prose’. But this was what the general art-viewing public of the mid-Victorian years liked, a picture with a story they could follow and explain to one another. Not that it had to be a nice story. The panorama of The Derby Day is less wholesome than Ashton suggests, its Hogarthian scenes of fraud and theft framed by a pair of prostitutes. An elegant courtesan in her carriage on the right is countered on the left by one of the women in close-fitting riding habits who generally plied their trade in Hyde Park.

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[*] Oxford, 304 pp., £25, September 2016, 978 0 19 870719 6.