How can anyone sum up London in the Age of Steam? The powerful aristocrat or the sheltered lady know a completely different London than the street urchin or the maid-of-all-work. Adventurers’ backgrounds are as varied as any other Londoner’s. Wizards and nationalists hobnob in the elite quarters while rogues and patterers work the streets of the poorer districts.
A few generalizations can be made. As a rule, London is filthy. Even in the parts of town that are upwind from the factories, the air is thick with sometimes-overpowering stench. Horse-drawn carriages and newfangled steam-powered vehicles both provide their own special brand of pollution. Coal-burning fireplaces and stoves in every house spew soot into the air. Minions of Mother Stench creep up through the drains into respectable houses. Sewers run into the Thames. At the end of the day, every Londoner is covered in little black specks. Have you ever noticed that in all the Sherlock Holmes stories, that master of perception never once derives a single clue from his sense of smell? That is because if the human olfactory sense were not built to become deadened with overuse, the city would be abandoned before the week was out.
But this London is also marvelous in its own way. Public streetlights illuminate the city at night, gas in some parts of town, magic in others. Modern wonders such as Big Ben, Marble Arch, and the Crystal Palace give the city a sense of grandeur and prominence in the world. Carriages, hansom cabs, velocipedes, bicycles, and horseless buggies jostle for position on the busy streets, while autogyros and dirigibles circle overhead and underground trains rumble beneath the cobblestones.
Some would say that the best gift London has to offer is anonymity. With such a huge influx of country-dwellers flooding into the city over the course of the century, nobody knows for certain anymore who is who. People have a chance to reinvent themselves, move up the social ladder if their means allow, and even to experiment with ideas that would have appalled their parents. Many people imagine Victorians as being obsessed with propriety, but they would never have fought so hard to maintain propriety if it had not been so easy for the first time in history to get away with breaking a few rules.