March 2013

Josh Zajdman


A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century by Jerry White

Great urban historians can make the streets a sensory playground. In the best works, like Jerry White's A Great and Monstrous Thing, the sounds clamor and peal, the smells overwhelm and sicken, the sights tantalize and repulse in equal measure. To read this book is to literally live the mucky, yucky, fascinating, wonderful kaleidoscopic life of eighteenth century London. White's work isn't just great and monstrous, but engagingly organized as well. He takes one of London's most volatile and complex periods, one of the high points of its cultural development, and terrifically frames it. Like the city itself, the book is divided into subsections of city, people, work, culture, and power. Names like Johnson, Haywood, and Fielding abound, yes, but it's so much more. It wasn't just the high and mighty or the downtrodden that would be so faithfully recorded by Dickens a century later. White saw the city honestly, and recorded a narrative, which honored, if not outright enjoyed, its complexities.

For this was a city (and an Age) of starving poverty as well as shining polish, a city of civility and a city of truculence, a city of decorum and a city of lewdness, a city of joy and a city of despair, a city of sentiment and a city of cruelty. We might truthfully summarise it as a city of extremes.

To cover such a vital city in such a crucial time, one could risk treating the reader like a goose destined for pâté. It's a relief that White doesn't force-feed but perfectly time his courses so a hungry and interested reader can remain so as she nibbles each of the fascinating bits and bobs of urban history being presented. His pacing is excellent and never flags. As with any authors or professors (he teaches at the University of London) who love their subjects, the passion and excitement is contagious.

White begins the journey into the "filthy, magnificent, immense and bewildering world of London" with James Gibbs's arrival in "the autumn of 1708." White sees Gibbs's contribution to the city pretty simply: "James Gibbs had more influence than any other architect on the new London that began to emerge in the first half of the eighteenth century." Like Gibbs working in the New London, White works to build a foundation for his novel by dedicating the first section to its erection and continual expansion. He covers Gibbs and his time in London from 1708 to his death, at 71, in 1754.

An architectural torch was dutifully passed to Robert Adam, whose style was " light, delicate, feminine, elaborate, flowing, full of movement and colour, sometime full to bursting." Where Gibbs focused on buildings, Adam seemed more dedicated to their interiors. For him, it was "not just walls and ceilings, fireplaces and architraves, but carpets, cabinets, sofas and soft furnishings, lamps and door furniture, vases and pots and wine coolers." This was a man who knew what type of life London's elite was looking for. White highlights London's exteriors and interiors, and then segues into its mechanisms with the subchapter "'We Have Done Great Things': Improving London, 1754-99." To close out the section, White offers "'The Mad Spirit of Building': London Growing, 1754-99" and "'An Epitome of a Great Nation': London, 1799." By this point, the reader has a much firmer understanding of the congested city at the end of the nineteenth century from a satellite perspective. With his deft hand, White takes us to street-level where he introduces a couple Londoners, one of whom was a Dr. Johnson. Yet, it isn't the treatment you'd expect. Yes, a brief portrait, but more on Scots and the presence of "provincial Londoners." Building on themes of economic, educational, racial, and sexual diversity, White offers up a fascinating panorama of the plethora of people that composed London. Chapter four – "'Ignatius Sancho's London': Citizens of the World" -- is especially illuminating. One gets a look at Africans, Jews, Irish, and other suffering minorities living in London during the second half of the eighteenth century. For them, just "mak[ing] a living in London was the greatest challenge of all."

The amazing part of White's organization, as mentioned above, is the way the subjects build on each other. Section one's "city" is filled by section two's "people" who do section three's "work" to afford to live in section one's "city" and enjoy section four's "culture," but with little hope of gaining section five's "power." That's London though. For as many divisions, and as great as they were, there was a kind of unshakeable interconnectivity. It was a city of tiers and hierarchies, wild wealth and pitiful poverty. Yet, it's where everyone wanted to be. That alone made living there, in the eighteenth century, the great and equally monstrous experience White details with such relish. This was the most recent in his consideration of London's past 300 years. The book begins with the story of a brutal murder and ends with a note of hope. "Any balance sheet, then, of the resolution of London's multilayered divisions must necessarily contain many entries on the debit side. There would be much work still to do." One hopes White's books on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are as thrilling. One hopes that in the age of Adele, Zadie Smith, One Direction, and Kate Middleton, he is hard at work on the the twenty-first century. A smaller book surely, but who knows what will come when so much has happened already?

A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century by Jerry White
Harvard University Press
ISBN: 978-0674073173
704 pages