A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century
(Harvard University Press)
US: Feb 2013
In his history of 18th century London, Professor Jerry White writes, “It has often been summarized as the Age of Politeness… but a proper balance needs to be struck. 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 sentiment and a city of cruelty.” He goes on to characterize London as a “city of extremes”, and paints such a portrait of its filth, noise, violence, culture, wealth, and burgeoning democracy as to leave us in no doubt that it was.
The most immediately striking aspect of A Great and Monstrous Thing is the sheer amount of information White manages to compile. To help the reader manage this onslaught of detail, the book is divided into five sections: City, People, Work, Culture, and Power. Each of these in turn starts with the story of a personage whom White deploys as a prism to illuminate related aspects of London life. This device works well, as these introductory stories are often interesting in themselves and serve as microcosms of the societal sector to be described.
Ignatius Sancho, a black man who rose from slavery to servitude to literate, middle-class independence, is used to illustrate the ways in which ethnically and religiously diverse populations were and were not integrated into London society. Like many of the personalities used to open the chapters, Sancho is well-chosen because of his vibrancy and charisma, which create a character the reader can interest herself in. From there, White goes on to describe the place of Europeans, Indians, Jews, Catholics, Scots, and Irishmen in the workings of London society, a society which could be violently bigoted at the same time that it was dispassionately pragmatic: no matter one’s descent, a person could keep himself in London and even attain a degree of status if he could make himself useful in one way or another.
This kind of “truculent egalitarianism”, as White terms it, in many ways characterized London across class lines as well as ethnic ones. This is not to mitigate the profound division between rich and poor in terms of quality of life, but to say that White describes a city in which the very rich and very poor, because of their physical proximity, were compelled to intermingle more than one might expect. On the crowded and often filthy London streets, walking was a competitive sporting event for every pedestrian. The theaters were a cultural event available to all but the very poorest, with seats in the upper galleries costing a mere shilling.
This level of detail does more than simply give the reader factual information: we get a real sense of how the city felt, which is likely to stay with the reader long after specifics have dimmed from memory. This quality is of especial importance to the casual intellectual, who may read A Great and Monstrous Thing purely for information and not research.
Adding to its appeal is the humor inherent to many of White’s anecdotes. White’s love of his chosen city shines through in his evident amusement by such stories as John Wilkes’. Wilkes was a rake and a social opportunist who rallied the spirits of a disenfranchised lower class through anti-government writings. His good friend, Lord Sandwich, betrayed him by exposing him as the author of a libel against a member of the House of Lords, and read the bawdy poetry piece in front of the House: “Amid great disorder there were cries that Sandwich should stop, others that he go on. He went on.”
It’s clear that Wilkes takes great delight in imagining a room full of English Lords in uproar over dirty poems while simultaneously yelling for more. Eighteenth century Londoners! They’re just like us.
In addition to its appeal to the average interested reader, White’s book’s will prove to be invaluable resource to future academics. This work is as close to pure history as a book can be: its facts are not the fabric of any deeper interpretation than London was a place of rampant growth and seeming contradiction. Though its lack of implication limits it in some respects, it also releases the book from any obligation to substantiate its objectivity.
In his acknowledgements, White says he spent six years writing the book, but no book of this magnitude is anything less than a point of culmination in many more than six years of scholarship. Indeed, it is the third in a series of histories of London by White. A Great and Monstrous Thing will likely serve its audience for generations to come.