One Hot Summer Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858 Rosemary Ashton

Publication date:
11 Jul 2017
Yale University Press
352 pages: 235 x 156mm
28 b-w illus.

A unique, in-depth view of Victorian London during the record-breaking summer of 1858, when residents both famous and now-forgotten endured “The Great Stink” together

While 1858 in London may have been noteworthy for its broiling summer months and the related stench of the sewage-filled Thames River, the year is otherwise little remembered. And yet, historian Rosemary Ashton reveals in this compelling microhistory, 1858 was marked by significant, if unrecognized, turning points. For ordinary people, and also for the rich, famous, and powerful, the months from May to August turned out to be a summer of consequence.
Ashton mines Victorian letters and gossip, diaries, court records, newspapers, and other contemporary sources to uncover historically crucial moments in the lives of three protagonists—Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, and Benjamin Disraeli. She also introduces others who gained renown in the headlines of the day, among them George Eliot, Karl Marx, William Thackeray, and Edward Bulwer Lytton. Ashton reveals invisible threads of connection among Londoners at every social level in 1858, bringing the celebrated city and its citizens vibrantly to life.

Rosemary Ashton is Emeritus Quain Professor of English Language and Literature, University College London. She is author of ten previous books and a fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature. She lives in London.

“Ashton is an authoritative and painstaking guide. The result is not just another book about the Victorians, but one that could just as easily have been written by them. Turning its pages is like opening a window on to their world, and being grateful that we no longer have to hold our noses to do so.”—Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Guardian

“Superbly researched . . . argues that the year was a crucial one in the lives of the three great Victorians: Dickens, Disreali and Darwin.”—Paula Byrne, Times

“Finding space for clubland quarrels alongside state affairs and scientific advances, her lively study is elegantly executed, informative and entertaining.”—Anne Somerset, Literary Review

“The book’s real strength is its description of London quivering between modernity and the dark ages. . . There is plenty to enjoy in this panorama of Victorians in their heyday.”—The Economist

“Rosemary Ashton’s new book charts four boiling hot months in 1858 when the sewage of London went awry and . . . can often feel much closer to how people actually lived and breathed than grander, more panoramic narratives.”—Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

 “A wondrous, illuminating and evocative saga . . . Ashton has delved with comprehensive skill into the now-digitised copies of the newspapers of the day to discover the far from fake facts”—Gerald Isaaman, Islington Tribune