(p. C6) During London’s long summer of 1858, the sweltering temperatures spawned squalor. With a population of more than 2 million, London had outgrown its medieval waste-removal systems, turning Spenser’s “sweet Thames” into an open sewer. Epidemics such as cholera and diphtheria ravaged the poor and rich alike. The stench, as we now know, was a symptom of a bacterial problem. But at the time it was believed to be, in itself, the cause of disease. The dominant medical notion of miasmas held that “noxious and morbific” contagion was carried through the air.
The heat of 1858 made the problem of London’s effluvia unignorable. At the end of May, Rosemary Ashton notes in “One Hot Summer,” the temperature was 84 degrees in the shade; there followed three months of hot days, with record highs in the 90s for the shade and well over 110 degrees in the sun.
. . .
The Great Stink, as the noisome ordeal came to be called, is a terrific subject for Ms. Ashton, the noted scholar of George Eliot, George Henry Lewes and literary London. She excels at unearthing and explaining the daily distractions of the nose-holding populace over the course of the summer: horse races, art shows, murder and divorce trials, even the breezes that, as Darwin noted, wafted thistle seeds across the English Channel from France. Ms. Ashton also convincingly uses the Great Stink as a backdrop to crisis points in the lives of three great figures of the day whose biographies rarely overlap: Darwin, Disraeli and Charles Dickens.
For the full review, see:
Alexandra Mullen. “The Stink That Sank London; As highs climbed toward 100 degrees, raw sewage roasting on the Thames created the ‘Great Stink’.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Aug. 20, 2017): C6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 11, 2017.)
The book under review, is:
Ashton, Rosemary. One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.