London. 1888. The center of the largest empire the world had ever saw. Reports of the murders of Jack the Ripper fill the newspapers. Set against a backdrop of deep disparity between the classes and hypocritical morality London at the time was a place of great wonders and dark evil. It’s this city of contrasts that Lucha finds herself unwillingly thrust into.
Dirty Old Town
London was filthy. The streets, the water, the air. It was so dirty that parliament was forced to pass legislation to clean the city up. The streets were caked in “mud” (a euphemism for horse manure), the River Thames was choked with human and horse excrement, the air was a thick pea soup of coal smoke mixed with fog. While the massive rebuilding of the ancient sewer system, predicated by the Great Stink of 1858, had been completed by 1888, there were still cesspools and untreated sewage in the Thames.
The air quality was particularly bad. Soot from coal smoke, issuing from homes and industry, covered everything. The middle class and above would wash their hands and faces several times a day, as thin layer of soot would cling to them. Respiratory issues plagued many Londoners. The issue was not addressed until 1952 when the great London smog killed 4000 people.
The Chasm Between the Rich and Poor
The new middle class, upper class, and royalty enjoyed the best that 19th century technology had to offer, but the poor barely survived from day to day. For many well off Victorians poverty was seen as almost a sin, that they were poor due to laziness and the vice-loving nature of the lower classes.
East London with White Chapel, where the Ripper murders occured, at the center housed the majority of the poor. There were other slums throughout the city, filled with cramped tenement housing (often entire families living in one room), starvation, no sanitation, limited water access, illness, and abject depression.
Meanwhile in the more affluent areas people were well-fed, homes were lit with the new gas lighting, servants tended to their every need, many homes had indoor plumbing attached to the new sewage system.
Queen Victoria set the ideal of the role middle class women were to play. Devoted to her husband and family, diligent in her chores, and maintaining a well-ordered household.
Women and men inhabited “separate spheres”, women and men used to work side by side in their family businesses, men were now commuting to work while women stayed at home. This arrangement was seen as “natural” as men were physically stronger and women were morally superior.
Upper class women were deemed to be physically weaker than the lower class women. Their duties were to oversee the servants in the household, accept visitors, arrange dinner parties, all of which were designed to showcase her skills at maintaining her home and her displaying her good taste.
Working class women had fewer education opportunities than the upper class. Those that worked outside the home were mainly employed as domestic servants. Other’s found works as barmaids, washerwomen, and waitresses. Those with children paid other women to watch her over them.
Marriage and Sexuality
Marriage was extremely important to the Victorians, and had strict rules of courtship leading up to it. Potential mates found each predominantly at balls or dances, or at church functions. If they were both amicable then the relationship would move onto the courting stage. During which the man could not touch the woman, except for offering hi hand if the road or walkway was uneven. They were never to be left alone. It was assumed if a couple ar courting they will most likely be engaged.
Engagement offered some more liberties. The couple could hold hands, be unchaperoned for most of the time, even be alone together in a closed room. No sexual activity was allowed, naturally. The worst embarrassment a woman could experience would be if the man broke off the marriage.
The Victorians are well known for their prudery, but sexuality was more complex during the late nineteenth century. They believed that men craved sex but women abhorred it. Women were held to an ideal of being sexless but perpetually pregnant, an interesting feat. Sex, in general, was seen as a necessary evil for procreation, which may explain the thousands of prostitutes working the London streets.
Homosexuality was illegal, the famous trial of Oscar Wilde’s resulted in a conviction and sentence of two years hard labor. However lesbianism was legal, yet everyone pretended it didn’t exist. Women could live together as “old maids” and no one cared.
Entertainment and Leisure
While life may have seemed austere Victorians enjoyed a wide variety of entertainment and leisure time. Hundreds of theatres populated the city for varying levels of society. Music halls were extremely popular with the working class (well into the 1950’s), and there were pubs and ale houses. In their leisure time they would have dinner parties, go to balls and dances, socialize. Books, newspapers (both conservative and sensational), and magazines were popular. They weren’t bored.
Read Lucha and the Wolf at Stela and find out how she adapts to life in a new kind of jungle.