For Londoners, the summer of 1858 was a scorcher: the mercury on Wednesday, June 16 reached 102 degrees Fahrenheit down at Greenwich—the hottest ever measured. But that was the least of it. The heat was compounded by the almighty stink emanating from “the once sweet and silver Thames,” the result of a decision made in the previous decade to stop relying on the city’s two hundred cesspools, and instead have the sewage from the city’s new water closets flow directly into the river. If the old system was bad, the new system was worse: originally designed only to transport rainwater, London’s sewers now contained the raw sewage from its 2.5 million citizens.

The effect was overpowering. Two days earlier, the Lord Mayor delivered a speech to an audience at Mansion House following a steam boat passage from London Bridge to Westminster. The Weekly Chronicle reported: “Certainly, no stench that ever he had encountered was comparable with that which assailed the passengers on that occasion. He would not try the experiment again.” The river was routinely compared to the Ganges, if not the Lethe and the Styx. Those who made their living from letting out boats found no customers.

The heat was compounded by the almighty stink emanating from “the once sweet and silver Thames.”

After inspecting Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s revolutionary steamship Great Eastern being fitted out at Deptford, Queen Victoria noted, “We were half poisoned by the dreadful smell of the Thames—which is such that I feel quite sick when I came home, and people cannot live in their houses.”

To top it off, The Times reported on the premature breakup of a Commons’ committee meeting on July 3 with Benjamin Disraeli, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, leading the exodus: “A sudden rush from the room took place, foremost among them being the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, with a mass of papers in one hand and with his pocket handkerchief clutched in the other, and applied closely to his nose, with body half bent, hastened in dismay from the pestilential odour, followed closely by Sir James Graham, who seemed to be attacked by a sudden fit of expectoration; Mr. Gladstone also paid particular attention to his nose.”

Not only was the stink unbearable, it represented an acute health risk to Londoners. John Snow, a perceptive doctor, had pinpointed the cause of 1854’s outbreak of cholera as stemming from a pump in Broad Street, only to have his findings widely ignored. But though the general belief persisted for another quarter century that the illness was airborne, caused by miasma—a foulness of the air—it was clear to all that something had to be done about it. A Punch cartoon has Father Thames introducing his offspring: diphtheria, scrofula, and cholera.

Accordingly, on July 15, Disraeli took up the cause in Parliament presenting a bill for cleaning up the Thames. With the Houses of Parliament situated right next to the river, the Chancellor saw the heat as his ally, as it forced the minds of its members to concentrate on the matter at hand, the long-ignored plans for an elaborate sewage system devised by the civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette. It was time to act.

As can be gathered from the above, the miasma  of the Thames hangs heavy over Rosemary Ashton’s strongly evocative One Hot Summer. Though 1858 is not considered an overly significant historical year, Ashton demonstrates its importance in the lives of three men in particular: Dickens, Darwin, and Disraeli. By focusing on just one year of her protagonists’ lives, her aim is to evoke “a feel for the fabric and structure of daily life” and thus “provide insights a full biography is unable to, given the requirement to cover whole lives.” In support of her method, she quotes Virginia Woolf’s advice to the novelist in her essay “Modern Fiction” to “record the atoms as they fall.” Her book also brings to mind William Powell Frith’s teeming canvas Derby Day, which was shown at the Royal Academy exhibition that year, “the first since David Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners of 1822 to require a railing for protection.”

Regarding Dickens, the year was one of emotional turmoil. Sales were down, his writing had hit a dry spell, and so he had started giving public readings from his books. He was in the middle of a separation from Catherine, the mother of his nine children, and he feared that this and rumors of his affair with the nineteen-year-old actress Ellen Ternan would turn his readership against him. Ashton shows him thrashing about in a frantic public relations effort to limit the damage which only served to whet the public’s curiosity. For a man whose rendition of the death of little Paul Dombey had tugged at the heartstrings of his audience, he could be remarkably hard-hearted in his private life.

Meanwhile, Darwin, living a short train ride from London, was reduced to a state of shock when, with no warning, he received a letter and a scientific paper from Malaysia from the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace outlining much the same theory that he had worked on for twenty years and expressed in much the same terms. Darwin was now under acute pressure to publish his findings or be overtaken, and, as he admits, coming first meant more to him than he had imagined. It did not help that he was plagued by chronic stomach problems, involving extreme flatulence, vomiting, and diarrhea, for which he sought remedy in bouts of hydropathy, or water treatment, offering only temporary relief.

In the case of Disraeli, the political stakes could not have been higher.

In the case of Disraeli, the political stakes could not have been higher. As a young man, he had favored exotic get-ups such as “purple trousers with a scarlet waistcoat and white gloves with several rings worn on the outside.” He had since moderated his style somewhat, notes Ashton, but still wore his hair, which his wife dyed black, in ringlets. Worse, he had engaged in homosexual affairs with young aristocrats, found himself in constant debt, and had contributed to the fall of the Peel government when not offered a position. Thus, “the year was crucial for him in that it provided him with a chance to prove that he was a man of real substance,” she writes, and not just the “flashy, reckless, and disloyal” show-off Queen Victoria and his own colleagues had him down as.

Add to this a colorful supporting cast, who—as in a Dickens novel—sometimes steal the picture, notably Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, an ally of Disraeli and friend of Dickens, and by Disraeli’s own admission “the vainest man that perhaps ever existed.” In his choice of make-up, he was a rouger, whose shoes according to Tennyson had three-inch cork elevators and “pink chamois tips to them,” and whose harridan wife Rosina hurled the epithet “sodomite” at him at every possible chance.

Ashton nicely blends in the news of the day: We read how, for a brief moment, President Buchanan and Victoria exchanged messages through the new transatlantic cable before the signal broke down. We see Big Ben moved by ten horses from a Whitechapel foundry and installed in its bell tower. We get clubland gossip from the Garrick, sports events, art exhibitions, plays and pantomimes, and fashion such as the craze for crinoline petticoats under skirts, which had caused the rebuilt Covent Garden Theatre to widen its seats and staircases.

We see Big Ben moved by ten horses from a Whitechapel foundry and installed in its bell tower.

And, let’s not forget the personal minutiae—when Disraeli’s feet are slowly melting away in his patent leather pumps, he asks his wife to send him a pair of boots, while Carlyle frets that his horse Fritz—named after Frederick the Great, the subject of his six-volume biography—is “ ‘not quite himself . . . owing to his hot stable.’ ”

Of the three main characters, Dickens scraped through the year “just barely,” supported by the tremendous success of his public readings. He was soon back on track with A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend, in which the river plays a major role.

Wallace’s letter shook Darwin out of his slow work habits. The following year, he published On the Origin of Species. With a first print run of 1,250 copies and a second of 3,000, the book caused plenty of outrage, but Darwin had influential colleagues coming to his defense. Though it was originally planned as a much longer work, “an element in the success of the book was its moderate size,” Darwin noted, which meant that more people read it.

And Disraeli proved himself to be a resourceful legislator in Lord Derby’s short-lived Conservative government: he rammed through the Thames Bill in eighteen days, and had similar success with the India Bill, which transferred the administration of India from the East India Company to the British government: “He gained both power and respect during the early summer of 1858, his first real chance to flourish as a minister and to show the qualities which would eventually see him become a successful prime minister in 1868, aged sixty-three.”

Thankfully, there were no cholera outbreaks that year, notes Ashton, presumably because Londoners could not bring themselves to drink anything coming out of the Thames. Joseph Bazalgette set about embanking the river and constructing his sewer system that would end well east of the city, so the filth would not return with the tide. Disraeli had calculated a five-and-a-half year time frame and an outlay of three million. It took ten years and cost four million, but was worth every penny.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 2, on page 73
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