I’d like to do something a little different this month—review a non-fiction text that wasn’t written by anyone on this blog, or their colleagues. But this book is so good, so useful to the student of the era that it’s almost a necessity.
Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian. He was responsible for the wonderful TV series, “Around the World in 80 Treasures,” and several BBC series on the history of architecture. He’s a scholar with a very sound and solid background in the world of academe, but he wears his academic credits lightly. Most of all, he’s a brilliant communicator. On his TV series, he draws the viewer in with his combination of deep knowledge and breathless enthusiasm.
His approach is that of the “Marxist” history style, in which the people who actually built the structures and the specific and particular are as important as the people of power, who caused the buildings to be made. Since 1999, he’s been working on his epic “Secret Life of Georgian England,” and the book contains a fascinating mix of the particular and the general that makes for a wonderful read.
Author Sarah Mallory reminded me of this book recently. I’d been meaning to buy it for some time, but it was on my Amazon wishlist for a while before I found it on offer at ASDA and took the plunge. I started reading it as soon as it arrived, and now at the end, I know it won’t be the last time I read it.
His basic premise is to show how the sex industry helped to build London in this era of massive rebuilding and development. London, already a large city in comparison to the other known cities on the globe, gained in size massively in the Georgian period (1727-1830). Great mansions were torn down and the space used to build the elegant Georgian terraces. The West End was developed inot the squares and streets still seen today. But this was an example of mass building projects and Cruickshank claims it was only because of the demand for reasonably priced terraces and the fact that attractive properties sold better. It’s a compelling argument.
The centre of the sex industry in Georgian England was Covent Garden. The Garden, originally laid out and imagined for the upper classes never caught on as such, but being near the theatres and other places of entertainment provided a good base for the brothels, bagnios and coffeehouses of the period.
Cruickshank starts his journey with Hogarth’s “Rake’s Progress,” a great series of paintings, long lost in a fire but known from the many engravings Hogarth bought and sold. Ostensibly a morality tale, they showed the wages of sin in detail, and one of the most well-known paintings in the series shows a scene in the Rose Tavern, a well-known Covent Garden brothel. Hogarth shows the scene in great detail, even depicting some of the characters of the time. The companion series, “The Harlot’s Progress” shows similar scenes, but not an orgy.
At about the same time, the most famous erotic novel of the time was released. “Fanny Hill” by John Cleland shows the progress of a harlot, but unlike the unhappy heroine of Hogarth’s series, Fanny has a happy ending as did many of the women of ill repute of the times.
The sex life of London encompassed many women, many careers. At its worst it led to the kind of sordid, disease-ridden life that ended in Bridewell or an anonymous death in the gutter. At its best, it led to leadership of a certain kind of London society, even in some cases respectability, although that was limited and very rare. It led to the growth of some of London’s suburbs, for example Hampstead Heath. Some of the demi mondaine patronised artists, giving them much-needed commissions.
The poorhouses and orphanages were partly populated by the offspring of a society where birth control was little understood and haphazard. Thomas Coram’s charitable institution at Great Ormond Street, recently opened to the public as a museum, contains tokens that the unfortunate women left with their children, pathetic reminders of a life spent when just to exist was a privilege.
Cruickshank brings all this to live and more, illuminating previously dark corners of London life, exploring and describing with a meticulous attention to detail and yet never losing sight of the overall picture.
For researchers and historians, this is an essential addition to the bookshelf. For the general reader, it’s a fascinating and brilliantly readable account of a little-explored part of London’s history.