London Lies Beneath by Stella Duffy review – slumming it with schmaltz

Flat-footed ideology mars an expansive tale of family life in London’s Victorian slums

1950s. Small boy with mother in the doorway of run-down Victorian terraced house, in this historical picture by J Allan Cash.
Strivers not skivers … working-class life in London’s slums forms the setting in Stella Duffy’s new book. Photograph: Allan Cash Picture Library / Ala/Alamy

London Lies Beneath is set in the London slum of Walworth in 1912, and revolves around three families whose 12-year-old sons are friends. The bones of the story are factual: the disaster at the centre of the plot occurred at the time given and some of the characters share names and dates with those in the historical record. But it’s a neo-Victorian novel in that the narrative style is modern and the political concerns closer to our moment than to the 19th century.

At first it’s hard to keep track of the characters: everyone lives in extended families and the narrative voice flits from the childhood memories of grandparents (invariably recollections of social injustice) to the small-scale domestic resentments of cohabiting sisters-in-law. The narrative mimics the overcrowding of slum housing, voices interweaving so that it takes most of the first half of the book to establish who is talking about whom. There is the Jewish family who “lived in Russia, before the Cossacks came”, now negotiating assimilation in ways that tend to part the generations, although young Itzhak enjoys a good relationship with his garrulous grandfather. There is Ida, the local wise woman and seller of folk medicines to those who can’t afford a doctor. Ida, mother of Tom and three unnamed and underfed girls, has some kind of second sight and is married to overworked costermonger Bill. Ida and Bill are neighbours of Rose and pearly king Charlie, whose son is Jimmy. Rose spends what time she can spare from work and housework looking after her dying mother Emily, which involves a lot of pus and stories of bygone days.

All the working-class characters are virtuous and hard-working, all the women unbowed by the relentless drudgery that is their lot and all the men adoring husbands and fathers behind closed doors, however rough they may appear on the streets: strivers not skivers. All three boys show special promise and energy, and all three families note their sons’ strengths with cautious hope for a better future.

The reader guesses from the mothers’ premonitions that the boys’ involvement in the Scout movement is not going to end well and disaster comes daringly early in the book, leaving a lot of aftermath and not much resolution. Novels of aftermath depend heavily on the reader’s investment in characters, so the size of the cast here may challenge the attention of all but the closest readers.

There are interpolations from beyond Walworth. Edward Lovett, a Victorian collector whose hoard is now kept by the Wellcome Collection, stalks the streets buying charms and amulets from slum dwellers reduced to selling their most precious possessions to buy food. Lovett, in Duffy’s account, is entirely without feeling, a man who spends his days in a bank counting other people’s money and his evenings avoiding the sons he dislikes to hunt for poor people’s last treasures. The charms are passed down through families, bringing luck or protection and carrying stories of hardship until they are consumed by the capitalist collector. In case we should imagine the contrast between the loving poor and the soulless rich is coincidental, the point is hammered home. Middle-class visitors to Walworth are “poking and prying”, “shaking their heads as if they couldn’t quite believe it”.

One of the sources acknowledged is Round About a Pound a Week, written in 1913 by the trade unionist, Fabian and feminist Maud Pember Reeves precisely to undermine rhetoric about the deserving and undeserving poor. Duffy’s relentless insistence that the proletariat is all good and the bourgeoisie all bad is a simplification of history; it was the work of middle-class liberals – including Marx – that brought about most of the social reforms of Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries. Gavin McCrea’s recent novel Mrs Engels, addressing exactly this issue, offers a much more subtle and linguistically lively exploration of class in the Victorian city. In London Lies Beneath, flat-footed ideology combines with persistent grammatical weakness to mar an otherwise interesting novel.

Sarah Moss’s most recent novel is The Tidal Zone (Granta). London Lies Beneath is published by Virago. To order a copy for £13.93 (RRP £16.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.