DR. JOHNSON’S LONDON by Liza Picard
Kirkus Star

DR. JOHNSON’S LONDON

Coffee-Houses and Climbing Boys, Medicine, Toothpaste and Gin, Poverty and Press-Gangs, Freakshows and Female Education
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KIRKUS REVIEW

An inventory of daily life in London circa 1755, when Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language.

Amateur historian Picard (Restoration London, 1998) has compiled an enormous collection of factoids about 18th-century London, an era depicted in William Hogarth’s prints “Gin Lane” and “Beer Street.” The author writes page-long briefs on subjects ranging from hats to poorhouses to the king’s budget. The cumulative effect of these briefs is powerful. In a chapter devoted to amusements, we first read that in London the poor drank 11,326,070 gallons of gin in one year. The next brief describes how the same people baited animals, setting dogs on bulls or pitting roosters against one another for fun and profit. Celebrities other than Johnson and Hogarth appear often. James Boswell, despite his repeated use of prophylactics, contracted gonorrhea several times, for example. His cure cost five guineas. Crucial to Picard’s research into the mundane were parish records, pamphlets, and such Fleet Street publications as The Gentleman’s Magazine. Joseph Massie’s analysis of family incomes also gave her a vivid picture of daily life: with Massie’s statistics she reconstructs the most private of experiences—finances. Whether or not a person begged for supper at a church, purchased it from a baker on the street, or dined at home said much about where that same person would be buried years later—in a mass grave or in a Chippendale casket. Perhaps the most extraordinary subject here is that of the water pipes under London’s streets. The miles of wooden pipes burst constantly, delivered water to houses sometimes only once or twice a week, and served as habitation for eels and fish. Readers may feel inclined to create their own narratives out of Picard’s strands: Imagine a broken water main drenching a sailor walking home from a cockfight where he won a few shillings, money he’ll use to pay for a loaf of bread.

A delightful hodge-podge of social history.

Pub Date: July 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-312-27665-6
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2001




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