was always a fan of 20th-century guidebooks, the vast Baedeker series among my favorites. This love began in my father’s study where he kept a large collection of them, one for every country he’d visited, or wanted to, and since he sold electrical products internationally the books were numerous. I remember the very first one I ever opened, about Burma. It was filled with images of temples and monks and suggested not another nation but another planet. My father had fought in Burma in World War II so he said little on the subject, but the book (which I stole away to my room) was a source of month-long wonder.
I kept going back for more and eventually developed a collector’s taste, trawling obscure London bookshops to quench my thirst. After my father’s death in 1980 I received all his books, an almost too-large bounty.
Visiting his country home one day I was knee-deep in books on London (he had it all arranged by city) when I stumbled across a book called “The Other Victorians,” by an American academic. Normally, such a book wouldn’t interest me, but its subject was the underside of Victorian and Industrial Revolution life, in effect the basement of the modern-looking late 19th-century, a time when cars, planes, and miracle medicine loomed on the horizon.
But the author was not interested in these subjects. He focused instead on pornography and sexuality, the anti-virtue the Victorian time did its best to pretend did not exist in “modern” London.
Though not a travel book, this piece of writing behaved like a pre-web time machine, and the world it illustrated was as perfectly squalid as a Burmese temple is beautiful.
This was an era in which running water in urban homes remained a fiction, same with electricity, and hygiene an afterthought not even the wealthy necessarily considered part of daily decorum.
In this brave new modern world in which children worked and died, most people smelled rancid and many were afflicted by diseases, many of which did not have a name. They died of infections and flus, often in a matter of days. The sick were expelled from work to die at home, where they often infected others.
This wicked wheel spun for decades.
Upscale men had no trouble finding prostitutes, since the openly dominated London streets, particularly near factories and sometimes walked at night by the dozens, in rat-pack style. No plush hotels or modest motels hid these encounters, and both sides in these sexual exchanges were often unbathed, filthy, plenty afflicted with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases that, at the time, ran rampant through the population. Sexually active men infected their wives, who thought they’d contracted some “exotic” malady.
Concepts of infection were limited to a medical community still in its infancy, with few hospitals operational, and many early ones still themselves hives of further infection.
Sailors and seamen in from coastal ports brought malaria. Smallpox and tuberculosis were a constant, with no available cure except a stint in the hills — if you could afford one, and few could.
A quarter of the female population employed in booming industrial factories doubled as sex workers to supplement their income, all this as Queen Victoria’s reign was advertised globally as strict and upright, with an aim toward ennobling the already large British Empire.
The author of the book focused on pornographic texts, usually written anonymously with titles such as “My Secret Life,” most laying bare exploits among prostitutes both male and female, some of the “men” mere boys. The depth of literal filth seemed limitless, and also normal. Informal brothels usually contained only a bucket for organic remains, and the women in them saw dozens of men in sequence without baths or wash-downs of any kind.
Unaffiliated prostitutes (those not belonging to a brothel) were on their own, on the streets, and there became attractions for predators, including Jack the Ripper. Police intervened rarely, outnumbered by the vast numbers of the poor (who would not be missed, their deaths not chronicled).
The author, who wrote in the mid-1970s, long before porn became an internet industry, did not write this book to shock or produce a voyeuristic response, instead to chasten those who read Charles Dickens’ work only superficially, without factoring in the real lives of some of his characters.
Reading “The Other Victorians” brought to mind the recent HBO series “Game of Thrones,” in which brothels play a prominent role. Thought they’re set in some fictional medieval time, the shots in which they’re featured are almost cruelly misleading. The women are neat in appearance, their bodies well-proportioned, their “bedrooms” all but opulent. Body hair is sheared. The men of course are similarly dashing and no hint exists (aside from the understood make-believe of TV) that the 98 percent squalor factor has been brushed under the rug that covers all things inconvenient. In London, some men, made mad by the brain atrophy caused by syphilis, would nonetheless continue to frequent prostitutes and brothels, many of them aware the customer was sick but in need of money to eat and survive.
In part, shortcomings in the study of history have made the planet especially vulnerable to the virus now making the rounds. Today’s citizenry expects protection. It assumes modern medicine has removed it entirely from this 150-year-old vision of London. At the same time, many do not know just how hard life was in that very same London until well past World War I. They imagine themselves as residents of that beautiful Burmese temple I once marveled at and wanted to live in, a place of beauty and of peace where (in my mind’s eye) I could take a hot bath at will before venturing into lovely gardens.
It is safe to say that if you showed a London factory worker of 1880 the world in which we live today, virus included, they would have hopped on a time machine in a nanosecond, hoping to escape all-encompassing misery.
But there was no time machine. Instead, a local corpse hunter would prowl the streets of London in the early morning to harvest “interest” cadavers to take to local sciences. Did these hunters wear masks? They did not. Nor did the doctors who took in the bodies.
For three decades, I have written only about exotic guidebooks. But there comes a time when you need to understand and respect your place in history, and privilege that place affords. This to me is one of those times.