cover image Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth-Century London

Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth-Century London

Oskar Jensen. The Experiment, $18.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-891-01142-9

British novelist and historian Jensen (The Ballad-Singer in Georgian and Victorian London) delivers a buoyant account of 19th-century London street life. Delving into court and charitable organization records, memoirs, published interviews, and news stories among other sources, he aims to portray “vagabond” lives from their own perspectives, without the upper-class condescension he asserts has long characterized such studies. Organizing his account by life stages, Jensen moves from descriptions of infancy and childhood on the streets (babies were often “borrowed” for a few hours of begging, to elicit more sympathy) to the adult life paths that might lead to a down-and-out existence—among them immigration from abroad, migration from rural areas, old age, and outrunning the law—and the common professions of people living on the streets, including musician, beggar, thief, and hawker. One fascinating chapter describes how some women prospered as prostitutes, a profession Jensen shows was accepted rather than stigmatized. These women formed communities to advise, assist, and support one another, and, in some cases, underwent rigorous regimens of self-improvement and training to become courtesans for wealthy men. Once they’d saved enough money, they were usually able to quit the profession and get married. Jensen’s vivid and crisp recreations of scenes plucked from his archival research reveal his subjects’ canniness and solidarity. Readers will love this. (Feb.)