In 1700 London was already the biggest city in Europe; by 1800 it had become the largest in the world. It was home to both the most magnificent and the most squalid lives. In his new book, Jerry White does justice to both extremes – though his main focus is on the violence, disharmony and divisions of city life, from the routine abuse of women by their husbands to the Gordon Riots of 1780, which in a week destroyed 10 times more property than was damaged in Paris during the entire course of the French revolution.
He has produced a vast and impressive synthesis. Given the quantity of modern scholarship on 18th-century subjects, the wonder is not that White sometimes slips or misses things, but that he has managed to produce such a readable and well-judged overview of so many different themes. The book's five sections survey the capital's buildings, types of inhabitant, range of occupations, kinds of culture, and types of "power" – from the law to religion.
Its main achievement lies in the kaleidoscope of personal experiences – high and low, male and female – that it brings before our eyes. White excels at juxtaposing famous lives with those of obscure Londoners. Side by side with Robert Adam, Henry Fielding, and Eliza Haywood, we encounter countless men and women whose stories, unknown even to specialists, he has industriously truffled out from printed and manuscript sources.
To illustrate relations between servants and their employers, for example, we meet the successful fencing master Domenico Angelo, having returned to London unexpectedly one evening in 1763, indignantly writing to his wife about the shambles he has found at home (White preserves his gloriously Italianate spellings, which I have simplified): "I find my poor Little Sophie in Mr Vernon's room sitting on a chair, Paris and Mr Vernon fast asleep upon the bed. My dear Girl as soon as she saw me she screamed aloud 'my dear Papa', waked the two pigs, and the sweet soul was pleased to come into my arms." Elsewhere, we are transported inside the head of the Cambridge student George Cumberland in 1774, reluctantly embarking in the stagecoach for London: "I mounted the ladder of the Coach as slowly as a Criminal does the Ladder at Tyburn, with this difference – he because his Journey is so short, I because my Journey was so long, dreading fat Arses & Sick Stomachs …"
Relations between the sexes are a central theme – not least the promiscuity of men in every class, and the often startling ways in which it was condoned and facilitated by women. "Mr Thrale told me he had an ailment," recorded the brewer's wife and bluestocking Hester Thrale in 1776, "& shewed me a Testicle swelled to an immense size": he'd caught the pox from one of his endless affairs. So what did she do? "I am preparing Pultices", she wrote, "and fomenting the elegant Ailment every Night & Morning for an hour together on my Knees". That is not a picture often sketched of the indefatigable hostess and benefactor of Dr Johnson.
The same unflinching treatment is in evidence throughout: if you've ever wondered what it was like to die in the pillory, to suffer from advanced syphilis, to be robbed by a highwayman or to make your living from pick-pocketing, then this is the book for you.
White is especially good on the sheer filth and discomfort of city life. In the summer of 1708 the plague of flies was so dense that dead insects fell like snow in the streets, deep enough to leave footprints in. Bed bugs were such a ubiquitous nuisance that even the king had his own "Bug-Doctor", a Mr Bridges of Hatton Garden. Most of the raw sewage produced by the capital's million inhabitants went into the Thames – which also provided much of the population's drinking water. Small wonder that life expectancy in London was much lower than anywhere else in the country. A shockingly high proportion of children died young: in most years, infants made up between 40% and 50% of all London burials.
Sometimes the book's exhaustiveness can be overwhelming. The first two chapters will be heavy going for readers who don't necessarily want a street-by-street, square-by-square survey of the expansion of every part of the metropolis in this period. Roy Porter's London: A Social History covers many of the same themes at a snappier pace and also gives a better sense of where the 18th century fits in London's overall history, from the Romans to the present.
White is the author of two previous volumes, on the history of London in the 20th and the 19th centuries. His evident love for the city lifts the prose, but it also limits his vision (as does his having approached the subject backwards, chronologically speaking). So overwhelmed is he by the desire to describe every facet of 18th-century London in detail that he rarely pauses to consider what was new or different about it all, or how it compared to life elsewhere. That can be misleading. The mockery of boorish citizens, for example, was a feature of London's drama long before 1700. The 18th-century explosion of social clubs and freemasonry was a much more general English (and indeed European) phenomenon than is implied here. The extraordinary sexual freedom that he chronicles was new and unprecedented. And though the Scottish enlightenment is mentioned in passing, there is no index entry for the English variety, or any explicit discussion of London's central role in it.
All the same, one of my favourite facts in the book is a comparative one. There were, he tells us, far more wooden-legged men in 18th-century London than in any other city in Europe. It's the kind of telling detail that sticks in the mind, that conjures up an entire lost world, and that Jerry White uses time and again to animate his wonderful panorama.