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The truth about 18th century London finally revealed.
on 22 October 2009
Dan Cruickshank really gets under the skin of the true eighteenth-century in this wonderful volume which follows similar approaches to the other key book on eighteenth-century Britain: Derek Jarrett's England in the Age of Hogarth. As I read his wonderfully shaped text, I couldn't stop thinking about the monologue speech delivered by the character Sarah Millwood - the impressive angry feminist heroine of George Lillo's hit play The London Merchant (1731) - on stages across Westminster and England throughout the eighteenth century.
It's about time, frankly, that a historian as esteemed as Cruickshank has(since Jarrett) finally tried to view
London in the 18th century through the same eyes of William Hogarth. Unfortunately, the tendency of conservative English historians to regard this period through the eyes of the monarchy and their abusive aristocrat friends wearing ridiculous wigs, frilly lace handkerchiefs and carrying snuff boxes still persists. London at this time really was not the way it is too often presented by bad BBC period dramas.
Thankfully Cruickshank takes a drastically different approach. As we read we feel like he might be writing about aspects of our own lives. Words like "sentimentality" (which normally dominate books about this period) barely appear here. The shocking and tough working lives of those most poverty stricken citizens of London including its prostitutes confront us with vigour, together with the shameful abuses of their masters. The women who worked as prostitutes and who gave up so much for the benefit of our city today have in this volume now found a monument they deserve as some of our most poverty stricken heroines.
I would have preferred it if Cruickshank had used the term "the Long Eighteenth-Century" instead of "Georgian London". This loathsome habit of historians naming whole periods of British history after the redundant names of useless, lazy and (as in the case of George III) completely mad monarchs is embarrassing for the majority of British citizens and does little to market excellent books like this one to the Americans. (It also leads to the omission of monarchs who contributed a great deal to England's development of democracy, like Queen Anne.) Mark Howell