Gillian Tindall

Rolling Back The Smog

City of Cities: The Birth of Modern London

By

Macmillan 538pp £25 order from our bookshop

What is this book and what is it not? It is, firstly, a wonderfully comprehensive reference volume, which will be invaluable to keep on hand for anyone needing to check up on the multifaceted phenomenon of London in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth – roughly the period during which all four of my grandparents grew from infancy into middle life: this was the townscape that formed them, and whose assumptions they tried to pass on to the next generation. Stephen Inwood supplies a highly competent overview of the time when London was not only the world’s largest city and its banking centre but also the hub of a vast empire. His impressive range of facts is reliable, and his approach admirably sensible: he is quite right that, from today’s perspective, the popular view of ‘Victorian London’ is a shrunken and compressed one, as if Dickens’s undrained, ill-lit city of the 1840s, full of beggars and child sweeps, had remained much the same until the end of the century. The central thesis of his study is that London grew and changed enormously, both physically and in terms of social evolution, during the last quarter of Victoria’s reign and that the infrastructure was then already being laid down for the capital that was there by the 1920s.

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