29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Epic tale of 18th century London - 4½ stars,
This review is from: The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital (Hardcover)I enjoyed reading this over the holidays. It is a real tour de force of the seamier side of life in Georgian London. It is full of vignettes and side trips into the lives of the famous and infamous as well as the lowly non-persons who populated London. We learn about high flying madams and successful prostitutes (Emma Harte - Lady Hamilton), Fanny Murray, etc, but also about the bullies and low life who helped establish them. I particularly enjoyed the very well researched and presented scenes from London courtrooms as Cruickshank tells of famous murders and examines the development and difficulties of 18th century British justice. We learnt about lots of very strange and weird folk like Dr James Graham of the Celestial Bed and his fascination with electricity learnt from Benjamin Franklin.
Initially I had the impression that the author wanted a tie-in with architecture and the social history of the underbelly of London. In this aspect I don't see that he made much of a strong case although we did learn about various charitable institutions catering for the children of harlots, the care of diseased streetwalkers and so forth. As someone involved in fundraising in my personal life, I found it fascinating to see how the Foundling Hospital and other great Georgian institutions were founded, funded and run. Not a great deal has changed!
I was glad that Cruickshank kept his focus on the lower orders here and did not try for a wider social history. By concetrating on such a tiny number of people, he made their impact seem large and important and caused me to re-think some of my perceptions of life in Georgian London.
I have some criticism, which to others may seem petty, but stopped this being a 5 star effort for me:
1. I could have done with a modern map of London to compare with the early ones
2. I would have appreciated the birth/death dates of the dramatis personae in the appendix if not the text
3. I felt there was a lack of summing up, of a conclusion, if you will, that drew all of the narrative and discussion together. Therefore the book seemed a review and not an essay for I am not sure what the author wanted us to come away with other than minute knowledge of London's seamier side of life.
4. The author refers to "the sex industry". Personally, I don't care for that terminology either then or now as it seems to somehow legitimise and almost romaticise a very sorry way of life. I certainly understand why women may have become involved in prostitution but I can't see it as an "industry".
5. I can see how the wages of sin shaped many aspects of life in Georgian London but I think it is stretching the argument that it physically shaped London. There were simply too few examples except for the aforementioned public buildings which, in the overall scheme, were very, very few.
I have copied the bibliography and already ordered a couple of books from it. A real tour de force but somehow not quite 5 stars for me.