Any book about life in Victorian London, especially among the poor, is something I like to read. The squalor, the terrible conditions, the illness, death….I cannot say why I enjoy learning about this, except perhaps it helps remind me of how lucky we are in our modern age with sewage treatment and a social welfare net for all.
Sweet Thames is set in the 1849 during a Cholera outbreak. At this point in time the volume of sewage in London was at the tipping point. Enter Joshua Jeavons, who is an ambitious engineer with his personal dream of solving the sewage problems by entering a contest for the best idea. In the meantime Joshua’s wife has mysteriously disappeared and he goes on a mad quest to find her. Within a week a letter from Isabella makes it clear she has left her home of her own free will and Joshua is not to pursue her. His continued obstinate attempts to locate her was something I did not like about Joshua. To say the least his judgement was terrible, and his loyalty misplaced.
I adored the author’s rendition of the language of the street people. Here is a quote, spoken by Jem, a street urchin who has made good by running a pickpocket ring:
"What a friggin’ lark meeting you here, eh?" His manner of speech, too, had altered. he had adopted an important way of uttering phrases in one quick-fire delivery. “Ow’s ya drains then – still runnin’ round them sewers with the baldy bloke, is ya – what you doin’ ‘ere anyways?”
"At least I’ve not resorted to thieving."
Jem was not in the slightest put out. “Per’aps you’ve bin missing out – come up an’ see me rooms, why don’t ya – just round here I lives now – grand place as you’ve never seen with two fireplaces an’ a real chandelier on the ceiling – got me own gal too as is called Sal – almost fifteen she is, that’s a yer older than me an’ she’s got tits like you’d never believe – come up an’ see why don’t ya – ‘ave som’it to eat – look like you need it – what you bin doin’ with yourself – bin livin’ in them sewers of yours or som’it?”
Sanitary conditions were truly terrible in London during this time, due to continued growth of the population and a sewage disposal system which could not keep up. We learn of the complete lack of sewage treatment; it is literally flowing in the streets. We learn of the quackery cures suggested to cure Cholera. At that time the theory was that cholera is caused by a miasma permeating London's atmosphere rather than by polluted drinking water.
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, and set one year later in 1850 was a better book if you want to read the details of how the mystery of cholera was finally solved and beaten. It is a semi-biography of John Snow, who definitely proved that Cholera was caused by contaminated water. Sadly, it was many more years before the Establishment adopted this theory and made changes.