Londoner Waller offers a journey to another age and another London.
The year 1700 was not a particularly special one in history, but in 1700, London was the greatest metropolis of its day, teeming with more than half-a-million busy urbanites. Wren redefined the city skyline after the great fire, but he is scarcely mentioned. William and Mary reigned, but they matter not all in this story: this is a social history, in which we meet merchants and apothecaries, fops, footpads, highwaymen, pickpockets, prostitutes and wig snatchers—in a time when London had no central police force, houses had no numbers, and no one had knickers to show off on stage. Regular entertainment was largely in the form of public executions and other blood sports. There were cock fights, bear-baiting, and general fisticuffs, Bedlam was considered a fun place to visit, and coffeehouses and taverns were busy. But leisure was scarce for the majority and life was short for most. Few children survived to adulthood. Disease was treated by dubious means and by benighted practitioners. Decent sanitation was unknown (which, incidentally, caused the practice of ladies leaving dinner tables to the men). Waller investigates life and death and the travails of childbirth, as well as comestibles and drink, the regulation of the home, and the dictates of fashion (including the price of worsteds and silks) in 1700. Also considered are rampant crime and fierce punishment, as well as the everyday lives of the poor, the rich, and the `middling people.` To tell the story she draws copiously from contemporary bills of mortality, diaries, wills, letters, news reports and guidebooks—with the added delight of original eccentric orthography. Clearly speaking to posterity, Swift, Pepys, and Defoe appear frequently. Ultimately, despite different values and habits, these Londoners of three centuries ago, on the cusp of modern times, are no strangers to us.
Here's material for many a budding picaresque romance. It's an expedition in time, educational and entertaining, and more edifying, surely, than a visit to Bedlam.