In 1882, twenty-one-year-old David Wildeblood comes to London to begin his new job working as a reporter for Henry Marchmont’s weekly newspaper, The Labouring Classes of London. The idea of the paper is to highlight the suffering of some of the city’s poorest people and David’s task is to visit some of London’s worst slum areas, such as the notorious Somers Town, to speak to the inhabitants and report on their living conditions.
Having grown up in rural Norfolk, David is instantly an ‘outsider’, inexperienced in London ways and unfamiliar with the slang. This makes his job very difficult, but things improve when he is befriended by Jo, a young costermonger who can introduce him to people and places he would never have been able to access on his own.
As David continues his investigations into living standards at Somers Town, he is shocked by the state of the housing and the poverty of the people who live and work there. Soon he uncovers something even worse – a network of corruption and exploitation by unscrupulous landlords – and finds that he has gained some very powerful enemies.
The story also has a romantic element and there are two main female characters whom David gets to know throughout the novel. One is Kitty, the daughter of David’s godfather, and the other is Roma, the sister of his new friend, Jo: two very different women. Kitty, with her valuable jewels and pet monkey, comes from a rich, privileged background and while she does take an interest in the welfare of those who are less fortunate than herself, she seems to view them as a project or a problem to be solved. Roma, on the other hand, has endured hardships and made sacrifices from an early age to support herself and her brother: she and Jo are the type of people Kitty considers to be in need of help. David himself doesn’t quite fit in with either of these social groups and it was interesting to see his relationships with both Kitty and Roma develop.
Looking at other reviews of this book I see the word ‘Dickensian’ being used a lot, and while there’s nothing in the writing style or atmosphere that reminds me of Dickens, it is certainly a novel that draws attention to some of the same issues that were obviously very important to Dickens. I could appreciate the huge amount of research Anthony Quinn must have carried out while writing this novel (in the acknowledgments he mentions two 19th century sources: London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew and Life and Labour of the People in London by Charles Booth) and I found it fascinating from a social history perspective. Fascinating, but disturbing too; the plans of the wealthy for social engineering, segregation of the lower classes and the creation of rural labour camps were uncomfortable to read about.
As a work of fiction, though, I didn’t enjoy The Streets very much at all; the pace was slow and the plot, despite sounding so promising, was not very entertaining. I didn’t feel I was fully engaging with David or any of the other characters (apart from Roma on occasions) and the ‘back slang’ used throughout the book, which I know must have been intended to add some authenticity to the story, really irritated me. What made it even more disappointing is that this book really did sound like something I should have loved: a Victorian setting, a mystery to be solved, and references to Dickens and Eliot on the cover. I didn’t regret persevering to the end, but I was still quite pleased when I reached the final page and could move on to something else.