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Book Report: This, not your PBS version of London

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"I wander thro' each charter'd street

Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe/

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In every cry of every Man

In every Infant's cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forged manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry

Every black'ning Church appalls;

And the hapless Soldier's sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlot's curse

Blasts the new-born Infant's tear,

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse."

--"London," by William Blake.

Blake's portrait of London at the end of the 18th century isn't a pleasant one. Nor is Birkbeck University professor Jerry White's in his new book, "A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century," (Harvard University Press, n.p.).

It's a worthwhile portrait, a fine antidote to romance novels like "Forever Amber" and the popular TV fairy tale, "Downton Abbey," or it's more serious predecessor, "Upstairs, Downstairs."

White points out in this big doorstopper of a survey that London wasn't all carriage rides, reveling at Vauxhall and gambling your estate away at the whist table.

No doubt the rich folks did such stuff, but White makes it clear that when London was rebuilt after the great fire in 1666, it became a variegated stew of poverty and riches, mingling the fortunate and less fortunate:

"...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 decorum and a city of lewdness, a city of joy and a city of despair, a city of sentiment and a city of cruelty. We might truthfully summarize it as a city of extremes. In Daniel Defoe's epigram of the early 1720s, London really was 'this great and monstrous thing.'"

With that theme in mind, White spends almost 700 pages cataloging 18th century London's commerce, architecture, populace, industry, culture, crime, municipal administration and religion, nailing down his remarks with illustrations by artists of the time.

I always thought Hogarth was the principal illustrator of the time, with his "Rake's Progress" and "Beer Alley and Gin Lane" etchings. Turns out he's the tip of the iceberg, because White includes artists like Rowlandson whose illustrations are downright frightening.

Especially interesting is the chapters on foreign immigration, how black servants were treated, what Jewish merchants had to put up with, how the Irish came to England and showed them that a grindingly poor populace could still have fun. The French Huguenots came in droves after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and caused no little concern among the English weavers who weren't as fancy pants as their French colleagues.

There's no way to summarize the enormity of the detail in this book.

So I'll end with the chapter about my dissertation topic, Henry Fielding, author of "Tom Jones" and 35 plays.

In all my research I never discovered what a self-serving scoundrel he was once he put down his pen. White criticizes modern scholarship for not bringing to the fore his activities as an important magistrate, who worked at the behest of the government to demonize the poor and disenfranchised.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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