The young and upwardly mobile engineer, Joshua Jeavons, is obsessed with finding a solution to the water problems of 19th-century London. He spends almost every spare moment drawing and re-drawing maps of his precious drainage plans destined to save the city from the stench of effluent, which everyone believes is the source of cholera. His boss, Augustus Moynahan, is unimpressed with Joshua's plans, but allows him to continue analyzing sewers and drains. They work in conjunction with a master plan of coercive bureaucrats, led by Edwin Sleak Cunningham and manipulated by private interest.

Joshua has married the boss's daughter, Isobella, who had seemed more than eager to have him over her father's objections; however, she rebuffs all his physical attentions and the marriage is unconsummated. Brimming with sexual need and self-pity, Joshua continues a sporadic liaison with a friendly prostitute, all the while resenting what he decides must be his wife's infidelity.

When Isobella vanishes on the night of a disastrous dinner party, Joshua's fortunes plummet. He is reduced to poverty and shame, as he replaces his first obsession with the quest for his lost spouse--to reclaim her or kill her, he knows not. But his contact with urchins and beggars brings him to discover the real causes of pollution and disease--both environmental and moral.


A lively narrative dedicated to the journalist, Henry Mayhew. It is a discursive recreation of the filth and inequalities of mid-nineteenth century London, in a style that successfully emulates Mayhew and with a plot worthy of Dickens. Edwin Sleak Cunningham resembles Edwin Chadwick, the single-minded reformer of real-life public-heath history. The greedy industrialists are jocular but clever; their cavalier attitude to their employees and surroundings is just as poisonous as the city's sewage.

The "hero," Joshua, is not without his failings--pride, jealousy, lust, selfishness, and blindness--but a self-deprecating honesty and sense of humor redeem him. The mystery of his wife's frigidity and her disappearance are eventually explained when it suddenly dawns on him that she had been abused by her father. Her utter inability to talk about these feelings is entirely in keeping with the demands of nineteenth-century social norms, adding plausibility to the compelling drama of this historical tale. It bears many similarities to Keith Oatley's A Natural History: A Novel and Sheri Holman's The Dress Lodger (see this database), not the least of which is a painless, vivid introduction to an important moment in medicine's past.


Sweet Thames won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.



Place Published

Harmondsworth, UK



Page Count