GEORGE GISSING WAS a late Victorian writer who had an alcoholic wife, did a month’s hard labour in prison, and contracted emphysema. His fine London novel The Nether World easily tops any Christmas Day edition of Eastenders for gloom. Nearly everyone in it comes to a bad end.
But it’s full of naturalistic detail, and the London of the late 1880s is much more recognisable than the dirty, chaotic city of Dickens and Phiz. Starting with something pleasant:
Nowadays, central London becomes busy with traffic from around 6am onwards during weekdays. Sunday mornings were pretty quiet well into the 1980s, and some early morning photographs from the 1938 Lilliput Annual show Piccadilly Circus to be completely deserted except for a lone, dishevelled figure wearing a top hat – “For one man, the night is just ending.”
But with a clandestine meeting at Waterloo station, Gissing depicts London as a noisy and degrading prison for its working-class inhabitants:
This theme is revisited when one of the book’s central characters goes to live in ‘Farringdon Road Buildings’, which probably refers to the large Peabody estate that still stands there:
The most extensive and vivid sound descriptions in The Nether World are reserved for an August bank holiday spent at the Crystal Palace:
Thus early in the day, the grounds were of course preferred to the interior of the glass house. [. . .] Here already was gathered much goodly company; above their heads hung a thick white wavering cloud of dust. Swing-boats and merry-go-rounds are from of old the chief features of these rural festivities; they soared and dipped and circled to the joyous music of organs which played the same tune automatically for any number of hours, whilst raucous voices invited all and sundry to take their turn.
[. . .]
As the dusk descends there is a general setting of the throng towards the open air; all the pathways swarm with groups which have a tendency to disintegrate into couples; universal is the protecting arm. [ . . .] On the terraces dancing has commenced; the players of violins, concertinas, and penny-whistles do a brisk trade among the groups eager for a rough-and-tumble valse; so do the pickpockets. Vigorous and varied is the jollity that occupies the external galleries, filling now in expectation of the fireworks; indescribable the mingled tumult that roars heavenwards. Girls linked by the half-dozen arm-in-arm leap along with shrieks like grotesque maenads; a rougher horseplay finds favour among the youths, occasionally leading to fisticuffs. Thick voices bellow in fragmentary chorus; from every side comes the yell, the cat-call, the ear-rending whistle; and as the bass, the never-ceasing accompaniment, sounds myriad-footed tramp, tramp along the wooden flooring. A fight, a scene of bestial drunkenness, a tender whispering between two lovers, proceed concurrently in a space of five square yards.—Above them glimmers the dawn of starlight.
Even an all-you-can-eat tearoom at the Crystal Palace only produces a deafening ‘uproar of voices’ and ‘shrieks of female laughter’, while at the start of a fireworks show:
Gissing must have known that any crowd of people goes ‘Oh’ when they see fireworks, but he has a prison to run in book form, and no-one is allowed out.