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.

As Ashton makes clear, the cliché of the Victorians as sexually ignorant and repressed is misguided. They may have thought differently about sex from their grandchildren but they didn’t think about it less, and in 1858, after the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act came into effect on 1 January, they thought and talked about it a great deal. Divorce in England had previously required the consent of an ecclesiastical court and an Act of Parliament, a process cumbersome for anyone and possible only for the rich. The new law established a secular Divorce Court and also offered women more protection in any settlement. In May, in Tomkins v. Tomkins, when the court found in favour of the wife of a potato salesman of Farringdon who had applied for an order of separation, there was applause in the public gallery at this intended progressive effect of the new law. There were also unintended consequences, however. The grounds for divorce were unchanged, which meant that while a husband could apply on grounds of adultery, or ‘criminal conversation’ as it was euphemistically described, a wife had to prove adultery and some more serious complaint such as incest, sodomy or desertion. The result was a series of sensational cases which gripped the press and kept the specialist scandal sheets in business.

One of the most entertaining was Robinson v. Robinson and Lane. Henry Robinson had read his wife Isabella’s diary and found that not only did she dislike him intensely but she had recorded in considerable detail a passionate affair with Edward Lane, the doctor at whose cure house, Moor Park in Surrey, she had been receiving treatment. The case hinged on whether or not she had made up the affair. A keen reader of novels, she had indeed invented a romance in the vein of Madame Bovary, which had been published the year before, and included the consummation of the affair in a hackney carriage. Her defence suggested that she was mad or, as he put it, ‘under the influence of a disease peculiar to women’, which was unspecified but was such as ‘almost to amount to insanity’. This meant that she was not guilty of adultery and there were no grounds for divorce. It was not the only case in which the new Divorce Act and the 1845 Lunacy Act came to be used in tandem.

‘The Derby Day’ (1858) by William Powell Frith
‘The Derby Day’ (1858) by William Powell Frith

The novelist and MP Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton and his wife, Rosina, also a novelist, had been quarrelling in public for decades. Never a happy couple, or a faithful one, they had separated in 1836 under the old legal provisions by which Rosina lost custody of her children. She had campaigned for a change in the law and in the meantime got her own side of the story out in her books. The last, Very Successful!, caricatured her husband as Sir Janus Allpuff with ‘moustaches, like a distaff gone mad’ in company with his intimate friend Mr Jericho Jabber, a thinly disguised Disraeli, who has black ringlets ‘that look as if they were made out of snakes and leeches’. Both men had had homosexual relationships and when, in February 1858, the Times reported that Bulwer-Lytton was in line for a cabinet post, Rosina wrote to the prime minister, Lord Derby, denouncing the pair as ‘one King of Sodom and the other King of Gomorrah’.

Terrified of what might emerge in a divorce hearing, Bulwer-Lytton consulted six doctors, all of whom agreed that Rosina was insane. He did nothing until June, when he was campaigning in a by-election with his son Robert. From the hustings Robert noticed a ‘prodigiously large woman, dressed entirely in white, with a white parasol’, who was engaging members of the crowd in animated conversation. ‘Then,’ as Jane Carlyle recalled, ‘at the last the idea struck him “like a pistol shot” “it is my Mother!”’ Rosina proceeded to give the crowd a full – not to say, lurid – account of her husband’s failings. Later that month, when Bulwer-Lytton invited her to visit him, supposedly to discuss a financial settlement, the horrified Jane Carlyle wrote: he ‘handed her over to a mad doctor – instead of a Solicitor!’ and she was forcibly removed to an asylum in Brentford.

The result, as Bulwer-Lytton’s friends had tried to warn him it would be, was a storm of sensational coverage. A public meeting in Taunton, where Rosina had been living, a pamphlet depicting her in the full horror of Bedlam and a campaign in the Telegraph to release her. On 17 July Bulwer-Lytton arranged for her to leave the asylum and she retreated, temporarily, to France. Meanwhile, as Bulwer-Lytton tried to prove that his wife was mad and Robinson insisted that his was sane, Dickens caused consternation by publicly announcing his separation from his wife. In August a letter Dickens had written to his friend and manager Arthur Smith, with permission to show it to anyone he chose, appeared in the New York Daily Tribune, making reference to the ‘mental disorder’ under which Catherine Dickens sometimes laboured. Not surprisingly, the legacies of 1858 included Wilkie Collins’s novel The Woman in White, about a woman whose husband plots to put her in an asylum. It was first published in Dickens’s Household Words the following year, its title perhaps a nod to Rosina Bulwer-Lytton.

The Divorce Court sat in Westminster Hall, where the courts had been since medieval times, and so was uncomfortably close to the stink. Beside it, like an elaborate lotus rising from the dunghill of the Thames, was A.W.N. Pugin and Charles Barry’s New Palace of Westminster, about which Ashton says almost nothing. Covering eight acres of unstable gravel beds, it required, as Caroline Shenton writes in her most recent book, Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834, ‘feats of engineering and building technology never seen before’.[*] It was also a contributory factor to the appalling stench which came in from every window along the river frontage. The Commons chamber, now inelegantly festooned with lime-dipped sheets to keep the smell out, had been in use since 1851 but elsewhere work still went on. The bell for the clock, known as Big Ben in tongue-in-cheek tribute to Benjamin Hall MP, first commissioner of works, had been installed in 1856, eliciting great public interest followed by corresponding public dismay when 11 months later it cracked. The replacement arrived in May 1858 and was winched sideways in a wooden cradle two hundred feet up the narrow clocktower by men working in shifts over a day and a night.

Meanwhile artists battled on with the decoration of the interior. This, like The Derby Day, was intended as a clearly legible narrative. The painters had to contend with the difficulties of fresco, which was aesthetically suitable for a Gothic building, but not technically suitable for the soot, gaslight and frequent fogs of England. Then there was the well-meaning interference of Prince Albert and of course the terrible smell. In the Commons the other most notable legislation of that year was the Government of India Act, which passed on the same day as the Thames Purification Act and saw the state take over the role of the East India Company. So the empire spread, wider still and wider, out from its stinking hub. Disraeli, who had charmed the queen out of her initial and reasonable distrust of him, was now able to offer her the subcontinent as ‘the ante-chamber of an imperial Palace’ in which she would later assume the title of empress of India.

Away from the divorce courts and the palace Ashton’s picture tends to break up. Too many details are missing or wrong. Another, more serious problem she has made for herself is the choice of three protagonists who have not only been the subjects of dozens of biographical studies but who had little significant connection with each other. In the case of Darwin it is only his friendship with Edward Lane, Isabella Robinson’s co-respondent, that provides a tenuous link to the other events. The sections dealing with him and the debate on evolution are the weakest; for one thing, they fail to take enough account of the intellectual and moral suspense which, apart from the stink, was the most striking character of 1858. For Darwin, as Ashton explains, in the year before he published On the Origin of Species, there was the agonising discovery that Alfred Russel Wallace’s research had led him to the same conclusions and the fear that Wallace would publish first and ‘all my originality … will be smashed.’ A profoundly honourable man, he worried about doing Wallace justice as well as himself and he worried about the distress Origin of Species might cause his devoutly Christian wife. Yet it was by no means clear to Darwin or anyone else that publication would deal a fatal blow to religious belief.

The theory of evolution was not new in 1858. Its most sensational exposition had been the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which appeared in 1844 and was the work of the Scottish journalist and publisher Robert Chambers. It outsold Dickens, was parodied by Disraeli in Tancred, and Prince Albert read it aloud every afternoon to Queen Victoria. The implications for the Victorians’ worldview were profound but subtle, and in 1858 much still hung in the balance. Hardly anyone then took the account of creation in Genesis literally, and the vision of deep time opened up by Darwin’s friend and mentor Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology of 1830-33 had, as Darwin put it, ‘altered the whole tone’ of the 19th-century mind. Yet even if the unfolding of creation was infinitely slow, it might still be the working out of a divine plan. For an age that excelled at narrative this might be the greatest narrative of all. At the same time many people were becoming aware of a need to reframe the human condition in the light of the new discoveries and were moving gradually towards different conclusions.

This was the year in which the judicial committee of the Privy Council overturned a judgment against George Denison, archdeacon of Taunton, who had been deprived of his living for publishing sermons that seemed, by endorsing belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the sacraments, to contravene two of the 39 Articles of the Church of England. Today it is an obscure case concerning a largely forgotten figure, but the judgment was the subject of intense public debate at the time and illustrated the delicate calibrations by which the Church and high Victorian culture were adjusting to the implications of evolution. Increasingly the idea of a slow unfolding from the incarnation as a moment in history was giving way to what Michael Hall in his 2014 study of the architect G.F. Bodley called a belief in its ‘eternal nature’ outside time. It was a shift of understanding that found expression in art and in architecture, but Ashton doesn’t discuss it. Beyond a few references to anti-Catholicism she scarcely mentions religion, which was inseparable from both public and private life in 1858. As Frances Yates says in The Art of Memory, ‘the rational reader, if he is interested in the history of ideas, must be willing to hear about all ideas which in their time have been potent to move men’ and historians have to take influential ideas seriously, even if they cannot take them literally. Not to do so is to waste the potential of microhistory to turn up the magnification on the past until opaque details become clear and telling.

*

If The Derby Day embodied the bustle and confidence of the 1850s it had its counterweight in William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay: A Recollection of October 5th, 1858. Also in Tate Britain, it is one of the most haunting images of the 19th century. In its evocation of a moment of intellectual suspense it is perhaps the most eloquent expression of the mood of 1858 and it is a pity Ashton does not mention it. Dyce, who was also one of the artists battling with the wall paintings at Westminster, depicts his family beachcombing, gathering shells and driftwood on the Kent coast, close to the spot where St Augustine landed, bringing Christianity to England. Behind the small figures the chalk cliffs rise in testament to the fossil record, the ‘millions upon millions’ of years of geological time. Overhead Donati’s comet passes. The smallness of humanity in the vastness of space and time is powerfully set out, but the implications are still open. Dyce remained a deeply religious man. Pegwell Bay is not Dover Beach.

Dyce’s other commission that year was a mural on the east end of the Ecclesiologists’ show church, All Saints, Margaret Street. The church, like the picture, was an expression of the high Victorian moment that, for a while, held faith and science in dialogue. The design, by William Butterfield, was based on Ruskin’s recommendation in The Stones of Venice of 1851 that different stones and marbles should be used in bands. This ‘structural polychromy’ where stone was laid like geological strata was valuable, he wrote, for its suggestion of ‘the natural courses of rocks and beds of the earth itself’. And, in a church, it spoke of the gradual development of creation, indeed ‘development’ – the idea of a progressive understanding of an unchanging truth – had been a theory in theology before it became one in science. Such complex links between art and architecture, science and faith were evident enough in 1858 for Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s friend and defender, to pave the way for the Origin of Species with an article in the Builder. In it he argued that while ‘no honest man can, for one moment, reconcile the plain teachings of geology with the statements contained in the book of Genesis,’ yet it would be a mistake to treat the Bible with ‘foolish ridicule’ since it sets out ‘the noblest and clearest exposition of human rights and human duties extant’. Religion might not be the same as science; that did not make it irrelevant but made it a matter of morality, not of historical truth.

So the metaphor of the rocks could not hold. Its force faded gradually after 1858 until the publication of The Descent of Man largely destroyed it. The great biblical narrative cycles that decorated the walls and stained-glass windows of churches like All Saints gave way to an aesthetic of refinement and abstraction that moved faith beyond the reach of history. Meanwhile, in the Palace of Westminster, history marched on, reinforced by mythology. Dyce was working doggedly in the Royal Robing Room on the series of Arthurian subjects illustrating the chivalric virtues of courtesy, mercy, religion, generosity and hospitality that were deemed suitable to surround the sovereign in the last moments of privacy before the grand procession to the House of Lords for the opening of Parliament. His flat pre-Renaissance style, close to that of the German artists known as the Nazarenes, had won him the admiration of the Prince Consort, who liked to watch him work, which, as Dyce later remarked, was off-putting. He also said that had he known then what he later learned about fresco technique he would have preferred a subject involving less chain mail.

Dyce is perhaps the most obviously missing figure in Ashton’s panorama, while the minor characters might have been brought out more clearly with fuller quotation. Isabella Robinson, Mary Anne Disraeli and Catherine Dickens have all been the subject of recent studies and the delicate unfolding of the Darwinian debate has also been analysed. It would also have been good to be told more about the undoubted hero of the year, Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Bazalgette had been trying to put a drainage system in place for two years in the face of objections about cost and divisions of responsibility, many of them from ‘Big Ben’ Hall. Now, as a result of the stink, the London sewer system, described by the Observer as ‘the most extensive and wonderful work of modern times’, was built along with the Thames embankments, Victoria, Albert and Chelsea. It was so successful that it withstood more than another century of neglect and failures of maintenance, and its great pumping stations, vividly coloured offspring of the Crystal Palace, still stand resplendent at Crossness and Abbey Mills, having become popular attractions in their own right.

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