The best Victorian books that describe the lives of the poor in London in the nineteenth century

Who am I?

I didn’t know anything about Victorian history before I started writing the Arrowood books. The idea for the character of William Arrowood came as I was reading a Sherlock Holmes story. It occurred to me that if I was a private detective working in London at the same time, I’d probably be jealous, resentful, and perhaps a little bitter about his success and fame. That was the basis of Arrowood. I started to write a few pages and then realized I needed to learn a lot about the history. Since then, I’ve read hundreds of books on the topic, pored over newspapers in the British Library, and visited countless museums.


I wrote...

Arrowood and the Thames Corpses

By Mick Finlay,

Book cover of Arrowood and the Thames Corpses

What is my book about?

South London, 1896. Sherlock Holmes has once again hit the headlines, solving mysteries for the cream of London society. But among the workhouses and pudding shops of the city, private detective William Arrowood is presented with grittier, more violent, and considerably less well-paid cases. And Arrowood cannot abide Sherlock Holmes.

Captain Moon, the owner of a pleasure steamer moored on the Thames, comes to Arrowood for help because someone has been damaging his boat, putting his business in jeopardy. Arrowood and his trusty sidekick Barnett suspect professional jealousy, but when a shocking discovery is pulled from the river, it seems like even fouler play is afoot. It’s up to Arrowood and Barnett to solve the case, before any more corpses end up in the watery depths.

The books I picked & why

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The People of the Abyss

By Jack London,

Book cover of The People of the Abyss

Why this book?

Published in 1903, this classic piece of investigative journalism describes novelist/journalist Jack London’s visit to London in 1902, during which he tried to understand how the poor live by living himself as a pauper. Full of vivid descriptions of the people he met as he stayed in doss-houses, walked across the city to find work, and scraped for food, this experience made a profound impression on him. He later said "No other book of mine took so much of my young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor." The characters you meet in this book, and their stories, just burst off the page.

The People of the Abyss

By Jack London,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The People of the Abyss as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The People of the Abyss (1903) is a work of nonfiction by American writer Jack London. Written after the author spent three months living in London's poverty-stricken East End, The People of the Abyss bears witness to the difficulties faced by hundreds and thousands of people every day in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Inspired by Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives, London hoped to expose the indignities faced by those left behind by industrialization. In 1902, Jack London traveled to England to live in…

Tales of Mean Streets

By Arthur Morrison,

Book cover of Tales of Mean Streets

Why this book?

This is another book written by a journalist. The stories in it are about the working class and destitute life in London at the end of the nineteenth century. Not only do they portray intimate relationships, prostitution, crime, and alcohol abuse, but they also give a sense of the life stories of the people who lived in these communities.

Tales of Mean Streets

By Arthur Morrison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tales of Mean Streets as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


East London: Sketches of Christian Work and Workers

By Henry Walker,

Book cover of East London: Sketches of Christian Work and Workers

Why this book?

This is a little book I bought second-hand. Published in 1896 by the Religious Tract Society, each chapter is based on the author’s visit to different Christian churches and missions in East London. It’s full of lovely illustrations as well as incredible detail about the different communities and ways of life in this part of London. 

East London: Sketches of Christian Work and Workers

By Henry Walker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked East London as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


The Nether World

By George Gissing,

Book cover of The Nether World

Why this book?

This is a novel about life in the London slums in the 1880s. You really get a sense of just how hard it was to make ends meet in these communities. I loved it for the details about what people ate, where they lived, and the language. I trawled books like this for authentic words and expressions that I could put in the mouths of my characters in my own books.

The Nether World

By George Gissing,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Nether World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An exploration of the class struggle in nineteenth century London where a potential inheritance turns family and friends into desperate foes eager to escape their circumstance. A compelling story about greed, deception and the innate need to survive. Michael Snowdon lives like a pauper despite inheriting a massive fortune. He plans to leave his money to Jane, his neglected granddaughter, in hopes that she will spend it on charitable causes. Yet, Michael's estranged son Jonathan wants to acquire the funds for himself. He tries to create a wedge between his father and Jane, making it easier for him to make…


Fingersmith

By Sarah Waters,

Book cover of Fingersmith

Why this book?

Ok, I know this book wasn’t written in the Victorian period, but I realized my Victorian book picks were all written by men. I’ve relied on a lot of women writers when writing my books, but they seem to all be from the present day, Kate Summerscale, Sarah Waters, and Judith Flanders, just to name a few. This novel by Sarah Waters is a richly-described story about baby farmers. As well as terrific historical detail, the writing and plot are absolute joys. It gave me a sense of what could be done.

Fingersmith

By Sarah Waters,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Fingersmith as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


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