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One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858

by Rosemary Ashton Yale University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 352 pages
AU$29.99 NZ$30.43
Product Status: In Stock Now
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A unique, in-depth view of Victorian London during the record-breaking summer of 1858, when residents both famous and now-forgotten endured “The Great Stink” together


While 1858 in London may have been noteworthy for its broiling summer months and the related stench of the sewage-filled Thames River, the year is otherwise little remembered. And yet, historian Rosemary Ashton reveals in this compelling microhistory, 1858 was marked by significant, if unrecognized, turning points. For ordinary people, and also for the rich, famous, and powerful, the months from May to August turned out to be a summer of consequence.


Ashton mines Victorian letters and gossip, diaries, court records, newspapers, and other contemporary sources to uncover historically crucial moments in the lives of three protagonists—Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, and Benjamin Disraeli. She also introduces others who gained renown in the headlines of the day, among them George Eliot, Karl Marx, William Thackeray, and Edward Bulwer Lytton. Ashton reveals invisible threads of connection among Londoners at every social level in 1858, bringing the celebrated city and its citizens vibrantly to life.
“Superbly researched . . . argues that the year was a crucial one in the lives of the three great Victorians: Dickens, Disreali and Darwin.”—Paula Byrne, Times


“Rosemary Ashton’s new book charts four boiling hot months in 1858 when the sewage of London went awry and . . . can often feel much closer to how people actually lived and breathed than grander, more panoramic narratives.”—Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday


“England was changing in that smelliest of summers, and Ashton gives us a finely scented snapshot of it all.”—Simon Heffer, Daily Telegraph


“[The Great Stink] is a terrific subject for Ms. Ashton . . . 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 . . . Her detailed atomic record produces thought-provoking coincidences and reminds us of figures who deserve to be better known . . . In short: This book does not stink. Far from it.”—Alexandra Mullen, Wall Street Journal


“A wide-ranging narrative, written with [Ashton’s] customary flair.”—John Bugg, TLS


“Not just another book about the Victorians, but one that could just as easily have been written by them. Turning its pages is like opening a window on to their world.”—Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Guardian


“The book’s real strength is its description of London quivering between modernity and the dark ages . . . There is plenty to enjoy in this panorama of Victorians in their heyday.”—The Economist



“Finding space for clubland quarrels alongside state affairs and scientific advances, her lively study is elegantly executed, informative and entertaining.”—Anne Somerset, Literary Review


 “A wondrous, illuminating and evocative saga . . . Ashton has delved with comprehensive skill into the now-digitised copies of the newspapers of the day to discover the far from fake facts.”—Gerald Isaaman, Islington Tribune



“[Ashton] is the best at navigating the hidden rapids of life, politics, art and popular culture.”

—Judith Flanders, "Best History Books 2017", History Today



"The new celebrity cult developed by the popular press collided with the revolting state of the Thames, in that hot summer. Rosemary Ashton's brilliant description of the result is a 'must-read', whatever this summer brings."—Liza Picard, author of Victorian London


"Rosemary Ashton's evocative and intriguing portrait of public, private and political tensions in the long hot summer of 1858 delivers fascinating insights into the interconnected lives of her subjects."—Lee Jackson, author of Dirty Old London


"History-writing too often confines itself to great events set in motion by great people. In One Hot Summer Rosemary Ashton has produced history-writing of the most important kind, as she explores what happens in between those great events, and great people, and connects previously unconnected subjects and ideas. It reads as easily as fiction, as excitingly as a thriller. It is history as it should be written, but so rarely is."—Judith Flanders, author of The Victorian City
Rosemary Ashton is Emeritus Quain Professor of English Language and Literature, University College London. She is the author of ten previous books and a fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature. She lives in London.