A bawdy Babylon is tamed

London in the Nineteenth Century - City of Laughter
June 1, 2007

Matt Houlbrook strolls through a long-ago London of unabashedly public farting, fornicating, drunkenness and ribaldry

How can we capture the essence of a city? How, in particular, can we begin to comprehend a metropolis as large, vibrant and complex as London in the 18th and 19th centuries - a period of unprecedented growth and change? In the late 18th century you could walk across London - a city of just under one million people - in an hour. Try doing that in 1900: the "greatest city the world had ever seen" was now 17 miles across with a population of 6.5 million.

Faced with this amorphous mass of all sorts and conditions, many could not help being awed: London was a "modern Babylon", a "mighty wilderness" or a "human awful wonder of God". It was also the embodiment of modernity.

Writing in 1937, the sociologist Robert Sinclair could observe that "London is a sun among cities in an age when life is almost wholly urban, and by examining London we examine a ringleader, for good and evil." Sinclair neatly encapsulated the impulse to know the city that animated countless writers, artists and journalists. Still, he steered clear of trying to provide a blueprint for how the examination of the metropolis should proceed.

Both books set out to examine and understand London society, culture and politics between 1770 and 1900. They approach that task very differently. Jerry White's magisterial London in the Nineteenth Century is, in effect, a prequel to his previous book on the 20th century. His gaze on the cityscape is audaciously panoramic: he explores the making of modern London over the whole of the 19th century.

The book's thematic structure barely hints at its astonishing scope. "City" maps the changing fabric of metropolitan life and the geography of streets, squares, sewers, suburbs and railways (above and below ground). "People" introduces us to London's dynamic and cosmopolitan population - the Cockney's emergence as a cultural archetype and the migrations from France, Ireland, Russia, the Empire and elsewhere that both enriched metropolitan life and created recurrent racial tensions. "Work" describes London's economy. Here we enter a dizzying admixture of docks, professions, backbreaking labours and commercial enterprises that made some people rich but kept countless more poor. Finally, we are introduced to London's pleasures ("Culture") and its politics and administration ("Law and order"). This is a wide-ranging survey, and the results are spectacular.

All of urban life is here, from the gentleman's clubs of St James to the rookeries of St Giles. London, White argues, "was a city of paradox. This metropolis of wealth and grandeur, culture and sophistication was also a hell of starving, degrading and heart-rending poverty". He forces the reader to recognise these tensions through a richly detailed narrative that prioritises the stories of ordinary and extraordinary Londoners. White's gaze is cast far and wide, but he never loses sight of the importance of the individual.

If White adopts a panoramic perspective, Vic Gatrell's gaze alights on a very specific aspect of London life: laughter. Historians, Gatrell observes, have tended to avoid the subject, preferring "to write histories of misery, pain and woe". Gatrell must have had his fill of pain and woe from his previous work on public executions. City of Laughter , by contrast, is "about the stories, jokes and satirical exposures that later Georgian people found funny". The starting point is simple: laughter has a history; how people laughed and what they laughed at has a great deal to tell us about them, their views of the world and the culture of which they were part. In reconstructing this history, Gatrell draws on an astonishing range of diaries, letters and novels. Most notably, he teases out the significance of the satirical engravings by men such as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson - astute and mischievous commentators on their age - 300 of which are reproduced here.

City of Laughter is not just a great book to look at. It is original in conception and in the raw materials on which it draws. It is deeply researched and smart as hell. It is a bold, often breathtaking work of historical scholarship that challenges and enriches our understanding of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We are used to thinking of the 18th century as an era of politeness and gentility. Not so, says Gatrell. He contrasts Joshua Reynolds' formal portrait of Dorothy, Lady Worsley with Gillray's salacious engraving of Richard Worsley helping a fellow army officer spy on his naked wife bathing in order to show an earthier, more complex reality. In London's taverns and clubs, "high" and "low" cultures intermingled. "High-born" men "drank, gambled, swore and fornicated as frankly as their underlings did". Satirical engravings and contemporary written accounts show how the humour within this milieu was "bawdy, knowing and ironic" and laughter prompted by the sights and smells of bodies that fucked, farted, pissed and shat. Prescriptions of "politeness" tell us a lot about how commentators thought men should behave, a bit less about how men did behave.

Today, most of us would not laugh at the sexual and scatological humour that so delighted our ancestors - or, if we did, it would be an awkward, embarrassed laugh. Gatrell moves to locate the origins of our discomfort and chart the "fall of a great tradition of ridicule". "The bawdy carnivalesque of the old laughter was replaced by a humour that was domesticated and tamer" in the first decades of the 19th century. The 1820s represented a "watershed in the history of manners" - something that is easy to observe but far harder to explain. Gatrell's explanation is sophisticated and convincing. Short-term politics: the Prince Regent became George IV in 1820 and the "short burst of radical action and satire (that characterised the 1810s) virtually evaporated" in a new mood of respect for monarchy. Respect came at a price, however: George paid artists such as Cruickshank to stop satirising his bloated body and sordid affairs. But changes in how Londoners laughed also reflected transformations within British society and culture. "Deepened fastidiousness about (the) sights and functions of the lower bodily parts" was rooted in the growing prosperity and confidence of the middle classes and their "increasing inclination to identify themselves with respectability, virtue and improvement". It was less permissible to talk about - let alone laugh at - the sexual or scatological. As Gatrell observes, "what we respectable moderns are able to tolerate has been conditioned by the selfsame cultural shift".

In 1932, the journalist and author Thomas Burke - a man who made his living writing about the metropolis - noted that "London is as unknowable as a King or as the man on the bus". White echoes this in a comment on "the capital's indecipherable past". Well, White and Gatrell come about as close as is possible to deciphering the past and making London knowable. This is urban history writing at its best. But each book adopts a different perspective and, as such, has different strengths. In turning a searchlight across the cityscape White illuminates countless forgotten moments while always retaining a sense of the city in its totality. Only a very capable historian could tease these fragments into a coherent argument about London's development over the longue durée . That is what White does, tracing the development of London's newfound modernity. London, he argues, was ordered, "tamed" and improved over the course of the 19th century.

White's panoramic view tells us much about London - but less, perhaps, about the social and cultural changes within which modern urban life took shape. He has comparatively little to say, for example, about changing understandings of gender or respectability. This is where Gatrell's spotlight comes into its own. City of Laughter may be narrower in focus, but in a way it is a more ambitious book. In Gatrell's hands, laughter - and London itself - becomes a prism through which he can explore a broader cultural terrain. In so doing, he considerably enriches our understanding of some of the central motifs in 18th and 19th century British history. There is a great deal of absorbing detail about London in this provocative and stimulating book - but far more about the complex and conflicted process through which manners, morals and values changed and Victorian notions of respectability came into being.

From differences to similarities: White and Gatrell share an enviable capacity to empathise with their subjects. It is difficult to escape the palpable sense that both men really do inhabit the London they explore. White matches passion with sensitivity in, for example, describing the vibrant spectacle of the New Cut street market on a Saturday night or brutal tragedies such as that of -year-old Ellen Munro - found starved to death in a doorway in Wentworth Street in 1875 - "her bones appeared to be protruding through her skin". Gatrell, too, gets involved with the "clubs and taverns where laughter flowed most freely" with considerable relish. He revels in that bohemian milieu in which high and low culture mixed and shows an ironic disdain for the excesses of 18th-century politeness and the stirrings of Victorian prudery. Empathy and enthusiasm mean both books simultaneously challenge, move and entertain any reader.

Burke thought there was only one way to even begin to understand London: "Guide books and maps are useless. Throw them away and wander." He was not encouraging his readers to become detached observers walking the streets, coolly analysing an urban spectacle they remained alienated from; he was too enamoured of the accidental pleasures and perils London could provide. For Burke, wandering allowed individuals to immerse themselves in the city and, in so doing, to begin to comprehend it. The depth of White and Gatrell's scholarship and energy of their writing carries the reader along to the point where we too are immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of a city both vaguely familiar and disconcertingly strange. London of the 18th and 19th century comes to life; urban history becomes a genuinely sensory experience. Whatever our starting point, if we truly want to capture the essence of this "sun among cities", this is how we should begin - as wanderers.

Matt Houlbrook is senior lecturer in British cultural history, Liverpool University.

London in the Nineteenth Century: 'A Human Awful Wonder of God'

Author - Jerry White
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Pages - 480
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 97802240625

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments