Hi, Jo here, sharing some of a fascinating book about London. That picture, BTW, is me about a month ago preparing to venture into hown in the perishing cold. The weather's much better now, and I'm beginning to be able to get annuals into the garden.
But back to London.
When doing a bit of spot research I came across a book called A Stranger in England by Christian Augustus Gottlieb Goede, written in 1809. (You can find it on Google Books.) That's almost a decade before the time of my book, 1817, but I have no reason to think the situation would have changed that much.
He loves London, but it's a "warts and all" devotion.
He refers to other writers who have described the city as presenting "a dark gloomy aspect; the houses being very smoky, the streets contracted, and the whole rendered impervious to the sun by low-passing clouds." This is a common complaint. It was very polluted.
To counter that, he writes that they must have visited in autumn and winter."At these seasons of the year indeed a thick humid fog envelopes the whole for the greatest part of the day; and the smoke from coal-fires, being pressed down by the humidity of the atmosphere, floats through the streets in murky clouds: but in the spring and summer months, London is quite as cheerful in its appearance as any other large city whatever."
The true meaning of that does depend on the state of other large cities, doesn't it?
"It is true, the houses, which are mostly built of brick, and not whitewashed, suffer materially from this smoke, and gradually assume a greyish colour, which would give them a very gloomy appearance were they not enlivened by other means. But the width of the principal streets, the cleanness of the pavement, the splendour of the plate-glass windows, the indescribable magnificence of the shops, the continual throng of well-dressed people, and, above all, the lawns and gardens which enliven the grand squares, produce a chain of agreeable impressions unknown on the Continent, and leave us scarcely sensible of the absence of ornamental architecture."
He likes it, but it is a rather hurly-burly place, isn't it, not the quiet elegance I sometimes envision. He describes the routines of the day for the great and small, and the ladies of the ton (though he doesn't use that word) crowding into Bond Street in the afternoon so that it becomes almost impassable.
Again, I often read about traffic jams, and with so many unpredictable horses accidents were common, and it wasn't only the carriages that were hurt. The picture is of a London street.
It's easy to forget that even then London was a huge city of about a million inhabitants, and as Goede points out, subject to daily comings and goings. He mentions that the receipts of the London turnpikes show that ten thousand people a day pay tolls to pass through the toll gates around the city.
In that case, I have to wonder whether the hero chasing after the eloping couple and enquiring at the toll gates after them would get much help!
Goede praises London's illuminations. I often come across references to these, which were used to celebrate a variety of events. He contrasts London's with those in Paris, where they were displayed by the city authorities, not individuals.
"In London, an illumination is a token of public rejoicing, voluntarily evinced by the people themselves. It is general, because every individual is interested, and every individual cordially contributes to its splendour. The public buildings on this occasion cannot make much parade; as they do not, with the exception of the Bank, present any considerable facade for the purpose, and are otherwise disadvantagcously situated: but the private houses are superbly and fancifully decorated with lamps; so that in a long handsome street, the brilliancy is uninterrupted, and inexpressibly grand. Each byestreet claims its share in the public rejoicing, and we wander about the town till we are lost in the contemplation of an object that appears without end.
The inequality of the buildings, and the circumstance of every occupier following his own fancy, prevent any regular plan of illumination; but this perpetual variety serves only to improve the
scene. The eye might otherwise be fatigued with sameness; but now fancy and caprice create fresh objects of admiration at every step we take. The devices at the west end, are usually crowns, stars, crescents, foiaged pillars, festoons, garlands, &c. but those in the city have
little of either ingenuity or taste; at least, this was the case at the proclamation of the peace in 1802.
The latter decorations, on this occasion, were for the most part transparencies emblematical of naval conquests and national glory, portraits of the King, scrolls complimentary to commerce, busts of favourite admirals, or a whole-length figure of Britannia with an olive-branch. There were however some of more merit. I remember the difficulty I had to pass at Charing-cross, where the whole town seemed to be collected in admiring a device displayed by a tasteful and ingenious watchmaker. It represented a vessel floating on illuminated waves, the motion of which was produced by clock-work; the whole surrounded by a garland of lamps, with the motto "Britain's glory."
The squares were illuminated with considerable taste and effect. The houses, by means of temporary contrivances, were transformed into splendid temples; and beautiful allegories were represented by transparent paintings. Oxford street, from its length, breadth, and nearly straight direction, afforded an enchanting perspective. As I advanced, squares, apparently on fire, burst on the view from either side with sudden and surprising effect. But the most extraordinary circumstance is, that whatever part of the town I visited, the crowd was so great that I might well have supposed every other spot deserted."
This cartoon is of a royal "drawing room." It seems crowds were taken for granted even there!
So we have pollution, crowds, gardens, shops, and illuminations. Not quiet elegance, but a hell of a city!
Do you agree?
Does any of this surprise you?
Do you think that in Regency romance we've fallen into an image of London that isn't quite true to the times?
Did it perhaps come from Georgette Heyer? I don't know if the London in the period after the First World War would have been more genteel, in the better parts, at least. Quite possibly. The general progress seems to have been toward order over the centuries.