Health and Sanitation in Victorian London

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Health and Sanitation in Victorian LondonDiet, Health, and Sanitation in Victorian England are so interrelated that it is difficult to examine one without being led to another. A.S. Wohl sums it up when he states: “It is rather commonplace of modern medical opinion that nutrition plays a crucial role in the body’s ability to resist disease and the experience of the World Health Organization indicates that where sanitary conditions are rudimentary and disease is endemic (that is, where nineteenth-century conditions prevail, so to speak) diet may be the crucial factor in infection” (Wohl 56). However, there was often a vicious cycle at work in these trying times and it is difficult to point to the root causes of some of the contagion that infected people. Also there were various philosophies, some not as instructive as others, being practiced in the early part of the nineteenth century that tried to explain sanitation problems and poverty. When can see how pervasive this problem was as it made its way into much of the literature at the time. Its representation was rather grim. Works such as Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton represent the harsh reality of these conditions.

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While much of the investigation into the sanitary conditions of the times focused on the working classes, disease and poor sanitation also found their way into the higher classes of society. However, there often remained the prevailing stigma that a dirty body and poor sanitation was the result of some sort of moral failing. Graham Benton puts his finger on this view rather succinctly in his piece which recently appeared in the Dickens Quarterly: “‘And Dying Thus Around Us Every Day’: Pathology, Ontology and the Discourse of the Diseased Body. A Study of Illness and Contagion In Bleak House.” Benton suggests that: “although contagious disease refuses to recognize boundaries of class, it has become aligned with the disenfranchised and disavowed segments of society, and, more significantly, disease became emblematic of other unrelated but equally horrific social ills” (69). Whatever the motivations to end the plight of contagion and unsanitary conditions might have been at the time; it is fair to say that when the spread of disease crossed the invisible boundaries of class that people were spurred into action, albeit not as quickly as they should have.

While poor drainage and waste disposal procedures can be seen as a direct result of fever and epidemic; it is important first to look at the dietary practices of the working classes which would greatly contribute to their squalid living conditions.


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