Victorian London: The Tale of a City, 1840-1870, By Liza Picard, St. Martins Press, 368 pp, $29.95
Liza Picard's ''Victorian London" is no idealized picture of the city. Certainly England was rich and powerful in the 19th century, and its capital boasted many glories. The city underground opened, the cathedral-like train stations were built, and many of the great public structures arose, including the Palace of Westminster, the British Museum, the Albert Hall, and the Thames Embankment. The crowning achievement was the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, held in Hyde Park in 1851.
Though Picard, the author of ''Elizabeth's London," provides lively accounts of these milestones, her book begins on an altogether different note, setting the tone. The subject of Chapter 1 is smells. Picard's goal is not simply to tour the familiar landmarks of Victorian London but to ''summon the past." And she leaves us with no doubt that were we to travel back in time, we would be struck above all by London's foul, inescapable odor.
Picard explains just why the city smelled so bad, discussing the problems of human waste disposal, animal dung in the streets, and coal gas. Picard's conversational style, humor, and generous excerpting from firsthand accounts bring an immediacy to her narrative. By the time she describes the creation of a new sewage system by the visionary engineer Joseph Bazalgette, such mundane matters as tunnel construction and pumping stations seem unexpectedly compelling.
How did Londoners work, eat, dress, travel, decorate their homes? Picard has an anthropologist's eye for the details of these subjects and many others. Her gift and her delight lie in teasing out the humbler aspects of everyday life, drawing on newspapers, diaries, guidebooks, visitors' accounts, Mrs. Beeton's ''Book of Household Management," and Henry Mayhew's ''London Labour and the London Poor."
Picard is inclusive in spirit. We see and hear from the famous and obscure, the rich and poor. Florence Nightingale bemoans the idleness of upper-class women; Hannah Culwick, a servant, records her daily cleaning rounds in a diary; Jane Carlyle, wife of essayist Thomas Carlyle, writes in her diary about riding the omnibus, attending balls, and getting rid of bedbugs. We even get a glimpse of Queen Victoria enjoying herself at the theater and revealing, as Picard observes, that she could in fact be amused. And while paying due respect to the great innovations of the era, Picard also heeds the modest ones, from the mail slot on front doors to devices for foiling pickpockets.
Picard does not advance a thesis, though she does draw attention to the opulent lives of the wealthy and the miseries of the poor. Many of her topics, including the ubiquitous advice manuals and the range of reform societies that arose, suggest the unease and tensions underlying the public splendor of the era. Other bits of information seem like minutiae. More than a reference book and less than an interpretive history, ''Victorian London" displays the city in all its variety as it grappled with the gains and ills of progress.