London, 1899

In 1899, London was the centre of the British Empire and thrived at the heart of Queen Victoria's realm.  City dwellers saw bandstands spring up in parks, enjoyed theatre, music and art, parties and shops.  Yet the wealth of some areas of the city hid squalid miles of slums, poverty and filth.  The streets were filled with horse drawn carriages and cabs, with street sweepers attempting to keep walkways clear of manure; chimneys spouted black smoke, raw sewage was emptied into the Thames and the back streets thronged with pickpockets, prostitutes and thieves.  

The map on the right shows the detail of the area close to the Alhambra, where the novel opens.  A detailed pocket map and further information on Victorian London can be found at

The Alhambra, where the novel opens, was an important music hall which dominated London's Leicester Square.  It was demolished in 1936, and the Odeon Cinema now stands on its former site.  Leicester Square itself was in the more affluent areas of London, although it lay close to the more dubious Soho.  

Whitechapel, the site of Ma Nelson's brothel, was in a more dubious area of London and one famed for prostitution.  The worst slums, however,  lay mainly south of the river, and around Spitalfields and Cheapside.  Charles Booth mapped the relative affluence of London's districts between 1898 and 1899, which was part of a growing social awareness among the educated classes, some of whom began taking action to improve the living conditions of their poorer neighbours.  Charles Dickens' novels, written earlier in the 19th century, played an important role in raising awareness of the city's poor among the literary classes.  In 1870 laws were passed providing compulsory education for children aged 5-12; until this work began to take effect around one in five children born in the poorest areas died before its first birthday.

Industrial as well as social change was afoot as the 19th century drew to a close.  Gas street lamps across London were gradually being replaced with electric light; a rail network crossed the city and allowed all classes to enjoy trips to the country and seaside on their newly created bank holidays.  Engineering thrived, new sewers, water and gas pipes were laid, and sanitation improved public health and mortality.




A film crew recreates a Victorian smog
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeA film crew recreates a Victorian smog - Credit: Andrew Dunn
A surviving Victorian shopfront
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeA surviving Victorian shopfront - Credit: Stephen McKay




Petersburg, 1899

The 'Silver Age' of St Petersburg's history began in 1894 with the accession of Tsar Nicholas II.  However, his official coronation in May 1896 foreshadowed the problems which lay ahead, as 1,389 people were trampled to death in a mass panic on Khodynka Field.  The early 20th century saw attempted revolution, a new Parliament and the eventual horrors of WWI.  However, before these troubles began the city enjoyed a cultural revival and was home to many great artists, musicians, composers, writers and poets.  The Mariinsky Theatre - formerly the Imperial Circus - showed famous ballet and opera performers, whilst the cheaper People's House made theatre more accessible to the wider population.

Russia had changed dramatically in the preceding years with the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the comparative decline of the landed aristocracy and the growth of industry.  Whilst the nation had great prospects, it lagged behind Germany, France and England in the development of roads and railways and was considered poor and underdeveloped.  This was the Russia of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), both of whom wrote their most important works between 1861 and the failed revolution in 1904. 

Petersburg is one of the major cities of Russia and for many years was the capital of the Russian Empire.  It lies in the North West of the country close to the border with Finland, and boasts both river and sea ports.  Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, its name was changed for political reasons in the 1914 to Petrograd, to Leningrad in 1924 and back to St Petersburg in 1991.  By 1899, the city's architecture was a mixture of neoclassical and romantic, with notable buildings including the Winter Palace, the Peter and Paul Cathedral and the Hermitage museum.  The River Neva divides the city and the Nevsky Prospect, situated on its left bank, has been immortalised in images and literature of the city.

Following the emancipation of the serfs, many peasants remained dissatisfied with their prospects, as they were taxed highly on poor quality land which they were still unable to purchase as individuals.  With 80% of Russia's population falling into this class, former agricultural workers flocked to the cities seeking an alternative way of life, or continued an old tradition of escaping to Siberia, where serfdom had never existed.  Poor boroughs sprang up on the edges of Petersburg and its population surpassed that of Moscow with 1,260,000 inhabitants in 1900.    Many of those in the poor districts, among which Clown Alley lies, experienced poor diets and living conditions which allowed diseases such as cholera to spread rapidly.   The Tsar retained total control of the country, but poor communications and widespread illiteracy made it difficult for his words to reach the struggling peasants. The rising anger of these underclasses led to a wide spectrum of political reformers of more and less radical shades, attempted revolution in 1904 and dramatic changes to Russian politics throughout the 20th century.

In contrast, the Hotel l'Europe where Fevvers resides lies right on the Nevsky Prospect, and has been considered one of the finest hotels in the city since its opening in 1875.  At the turn of the century, it boasted luxurious bedrooms, private entrances and reading rooms where staff blocked out offending articles in a wide range of international newspapers.  It continues to thrive today.


Siberia, 1899-1900

Siberia is a vast region covering almost all of Northern Asia.  It was conquered by the Russian Empire in the 16th century and remains part of the Russian Federation.  It makes up about 77% of Russian territory (246,640 square miles) but its climate and harsh conditions mean that it is sparsely populated and home to only 28% of the Russian population.

The low population means that Siberia remains mostly wilderness.  Its key international role in the 19th century was as a repository for exiled prisoners who were sent to forced labour camps from Russia and its adjoining countries.  Around 1.2 million prisoners spent time in Siberia in the 1800s.  Some groups, most famously the Decembrists who had tried to overthrow the Tsar, remained there and became the centre of cultural life.

vegetation map of Siberia - dark green is taiga
Creative Commons Attribution Share Alikevegetation map of Siberia - dark green is taiga - Credit: Ville Koistinen

In 1891, the Trans-Siberian Railway brought the greatest historical change of all time to the region.  The railway brought more people to Siberia, enjoying the improved links to Moscow and the far east, and industrial towns sprang up to exploit the region's natural resources including metals, minerals, oil and gas.  However, the railway was not complete until 1916 and so in 1899, when the circus passed through, this industrialisation was only beginning.  Even today, vast swathes of Siberian wilderness remain uninhabited, or are home only to semi-nomadic tribes; an 1897 census set its total population at just over 12m people with the largest town, Tomsk, housing 52,430 of these.  In total, only 8% of the population lived in towns. 

The taiga is an extensive, coniferous forest covering most of the Siberian region - 17,000 square miles in 1900.  In the most populated areas along the line of the railway, average temperatures range from -15 to 19 celsius in January and July respectively.  Further north, recorded temperatures have dropped to -71 degrees celsius and winters are long, dark and frozen.

The tribes of Siberia have dropped greatly in number since the influx of Russian speakers at the turn of the century. However, around 4 million speakers of other languages remain in the region, often as nomadic groups or dwelling in fixed yurts.  Their language, appearance and lifestyle are influenced by the range of cultures around them, notably Mongolia, and it is thought that shamanism originated among these peoples.  There are many discrete traditions of local gods, although polytheism is popular and some of these religions have merged and shared themes.

Read the Guide to the Great Siberian Railway, published 1900, online.