Book Review: A Great and Monstrous Thing
by Jerry White
Harvard University Press, 2013
Although London, the “great and monstrous thing” that forms the subject of Jerry White’s enormously learned and entertaining new history, had been a center of amassed human occupation for well over two thousand years, it was a largely new city during the period of White’s concentration, 1700-1800. In September of 1666, the Great Fire swept through the city, destroying 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, and virtually all the public buildings. Three-fifths of the city proper was razed, and what was eventually built in its place bore little resemblance to the dark and twisting rat’s nest that had squatted on the Thames from the days of Edward the Confessor to the execution of Charles I. The new city was cleaner and broader, with a higher waterfront and safer buildings.
Same old humanity, however, and with the gigantic expansion of the city and its suburbs, that humanity came flocking to the new city as never before. Although White organizes his history around the lives of a handful of famous 18th Century Londoners such as John Wilkes, Henry Fielding (and his blind brother John), Elza Haywood, William Beckford, and of course Samuel Johnson, the surge of furry humanity is his real subject, especially as it was drawn to the big city:
London never loomed larger in the life of the nation – and that is saying much – than it did in the eighteenth century. Its appetite for labor of all kinds, but most of all for the ablest in every calling, was unquenchable. Throughout the century it was a truism, engraved into the national consciousness, that London was the true object of talent: ‘in most families of England, if there be any son or daughter that excels the rest in beauty or wit, or perhaps courage, or industry, or any other rare quality; London is their north-star, and they are never at rest till they point directly thither.’
That ‘never loomed larger in the life of the nation’ line is patently fraudulent – London in the 21st century has a bigger population and economy than most of the actual nations on the planet, and London in the 19th century was the capital of one of the largest empires in the history of the world, and both these things easily count for out-looming – but it’s certainly true that 18th century London had a raw and gaudy exuberance that even the city in Shakespeare’s age couldn’t match. White may be an indefatigable researcher (his End Notes for this volume need to be seen to be believed), but he’s also wonderfully attuned to that street-side mania, consisting as it did of:
Giants, dwarfs, wild animals, monsters, puppet shows, mechanical exhibits, waxworks, theatrical performances with farces or ‘drolls’ based on London life, food stalls and drinking booths, music and dancing, swingboats and roundabouts, jugglers and rope dancers, boxers and wrestlers, quack doctors and tooth drawers, card sharpers, dice-rollers …
His device for managing this profusion – selecting roughly a dozen individuals to stand as approximate avatars for a dozen facets of city life – works well in grounding deadly sociology in always-fascinating humanity. We get the great and the mighty, architects and anarchists, Jewish moneylenders and Old Bailey workhorses, foppish aristocrats and beggar-parents who blind their own children to increase their chances at pity-alms. We’re toured through wonders and depravities so energetic it’s almost as though the whole era could somehow feel the Victorian corset of modernity waiting to tighten everything up into the rough shape of the world we know today.
The high priest of that pre-modern wilderness, the brightest star in that ‘galaxy of genius,’ gets the best chapter in White’s book: Samuel Johnson, immigrant from rural Lichfield, who possessed “a lifelong slovenliness in dress … ravening table manners, and a disregard for personal cleanliness” (famously, he had no ‘passion’ for ‘clean linen’). It was Johnson who dubbed the time “the Age of Authors,” and he himself was their prince, the chief negotiator of their precarious lifestyle, which had few rewards and ample dangers:
The pitfalls, though, were legion, and for one simple reason. Just like the riverside with its snuffle-hunters, or Spitafields and its weavers, this polite refuge of the literate middling sort was hopelessly overstocked. It could never give work to all who flocked there pen in hand. This, rather than the reluctance of rich patrons to support genius, as many writers lamented at the time, was the primary cause of discontent in the writing trade. The travails of the hackney writer (low earnings, exhausting hours, irritating working conditions) never ceased to rouse the pity of … the hackney writer.
It’s largely through the torrential scribblings of those hackney writers that we have such a vivid portrait of 18th century London, and it’s by through consulting such an ungodly amount of those scribblings that White is able to give his readers such a lively and detailed account. The size and scholarly apparatus of this book might serve to intimidate the casual common reader, but those readers should trust to their deeper instincts, fork over their forty dollars, and prepare to be instructed, amazed, and most of all amused. This is popular history done on a lavish, irresistible scale – a fit companion to Christopher Hibbert’s London: The Biography of a City and Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, only focused on one extravagant century. History buffs shouldn’t miss it – and 21st century Londoners will find themselves eerily at home.