The fashionable streets of Mayfair are fairly easy to picture. We have lovely paintings of these, for one thing.
The wide, clean, quiet streets with expensive houses. The squares, with maybe a garden in the middle. Yes. I can see these.
I have some feeling of what the rookeries might have looked like too. The grainy, mid-Victorian photos of the London slums give us an idea. Hogarth illustrates the underbelly of London on one side of the era. Gustaf Dore on the other.
There be those who say that things and places have souls, and there be those who say they have not; I dare not say, myself. H.P Lovecraft
But, what about the middling streets? Not the privileged haunts of the nobility. Not the stews. The everyday streets and passageways of London and Paris. My characters spend most of their time in this ordinary sort of place. What did it look like?
And we can guess a lot about what the city looked and felt like from elements common to cities now.
Brick and stone and stucco work is still brick and stone and stucco. The cobbles of then looked a lot like the cobbles of now. They're still slippery to walk on. I should imagine the horses hated them. Streets still needed to drain. In 1800 they were more apt to set the drain in the middle of the street with a central swale running down centrally. See over there to the left and the first picture on top. Sometimes the middle of the street was humped up a bit and water — lots of other stuff too doubtless — drained down both sides.
Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason. Jerry Seinfeld
Curbs and raised sidewalks or pavements are not so much universally in evidence as you can see by the various pictures. But lookit here at Bond Street in Gilray's satirical print of the Bond Street beaux forcing the young ladies off into the muck of the road. There's your curb and your raised pavement right there.
The London and Paris in contemporary paintings is a city of narrower streets, more intimate spaces, darker corners, low passageways and alleys leading to random dead ends. The crowds and bustle, that hasn't changed much . . . but everywhere there would have been horses and wagons, pushcarts and pack animals to add to the confusion. And, somewhat off the beaten track, the occasional pig.
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. L.P. Hartley
Most of the physical city of London and Paris of 1800 is gone, fallen victim to . . . improvements. You got your Victorian building like there on the left. A good bit of what escaped the Victorians fell prey to the Twentieth Century. On the right we got . . . Hmmm. I think I do not properly appreciate modern either.
In the end, the character of a civilization is encased in its structures. Frank Gehry
Paris, especially, has changed from the city my characters walked around in. Great swathes were cleared out in two decades, between 1853 to 1870, by Baron Haussmann. He gave us the splendid vistas, wide streets, and huge squares that are so typically 'Paris'. He did it by plowing through the pre-existing buildings, destroying everything in his path, displacing 350,000 people. Think Mothra and Godzilla on a particularly rambunctious day. One of the advantages of working for a totalitarian government is never having to say you're sorry.
When Haussmann was done, Paris was no longer a Medieval muddle of streets where disaffected citizens could throw up barriers and lob cobblestones at the militia. Now it was an efficient highway for the deployment of government troops. The armed uprising of Parisians against the central government in 1789, 1830, and 1848 had doubtless come to somebody's attention.
All this said, in quiet corners of London and Paris, there are still places we can follow our characters and walk the ordinary streets of 1800.
O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you, you express me better than I can express myself. Walt Whitman
Some lucky commenter will win a copy of Black Hawk and get to read about some of those Paris streets.