As a resident of the central London district of Somers Town, which I often describe as the “last poor area community left in central London”, when I heard that there was a new novel, The Streets, by Anthony Quinn, set in the Victorian district, based on voluminous research, well I couldn’t resist.
Of course when I say “poor” today, I mean an area that’s been resistant to the gentrification of Bloomsbury to the south and Camden Town to the north, largely as a result of the fact that it’s nearly all council flats, built from the Twenties and Thirties onwards, replacing many of the dwellings in which the characters of Quinn’s novel reside. Extreme poverty of the Victorian kind is not the common way of things today, for all that there’s increasing desperation and struggle.
That Victorian reality is something that Quinn brings vividly to life, in a manner that suggests extensive research. One minor story in the tale is of a desperate widowed mother, clinging to a home that’s been condemned for demolition. Her fate is likely to stick with you, and has the ring of truth that suggests extensive browsing through historic newspapers.
That’s really the strength of this novel. Quinn has taken a fictional character, a young man from the provinces trying to make his way in big London town, of comfortable but fairly modest background, and by giving him a rich godfather, and a job as a poverty researcher, allowed him to roam widely, sometimes into the wealthy west, but mostly around the poor of Somers Town, who at first seem to him like another race altogether.
The story of his researches, based on a composite of Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth, both familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with Victorian London, provides a comfortable frame for the novel.
So top marks for the textures, the tastes, the stories of Somers Town life, and for interesting, involving characters. I’ll admit I particularly took to Roma, the sister of the coster, Jo, who provides David Wildeblood’s entre into the community, a fine singer with a sad but unsurprisingly Victorian back story that gradually unfolds.
The plot, where it departs from history, however, is a bit on the clunky side. Everything is neat, fits into the accepted romance frame, and left this reader a little cold. Tragedy tick, romance tick, I just felt I could see the author tugging at the strings.
Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed reading the novel, and you don’t have to live in Somers Town to appreciate the setting and detail. If you’ve any interest in Victorian London, you’ll enjoy The Streets.