London in the eighteenth century was a new city, risen from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1666 that had destroyed half its homes and great public buildings. The century that followed was an era of vigorous expansion and large-scale projects, of rapidly changing culture and commerce, as huge numbers of people arrived in the shining city, drawn by its immense wealth and power and its many diversions. Borrowing a phrase from Daniel Defoe, Jerry White calls London “this great and monstrous thing,” the grandeur of its new buildings and the glitter of its high life shadowed by poverty and squalor.
A Great and Monstrous Thing offers a street-level view of the city: its public gardens and prisons, its banks and brothels, its workshops and warehouses—and its bustling, jostling crowds. White introduces us to shopkeepers and prostitutes, men and women of fashion and genius, street-robbers and thief-takers, as they play out the astonishing drama of life in eighteenth-century London. What emerges is a picture of a society fractured by geography, politics, religion, history—and especially by class, for the divide between rich and poor in London was never greater or more destructive in the modern era than in these years.
Despite this gulf, Jerry White shows us Londoners going about their business as bankers or beggars, reveling in an enlarging world of public pleasures, indulging in crimes both great and small—amidst the tightening sinews of power and regulation, and the hesitant beginnings of London democracy.
[A] magisterial history of London… The book hums with vitality…a gripping story.
[A] brilliant account of the bursting, overflowing city, with its glittering wealth and harrowing poverty.
Together with Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, White is one of our great chroniclers of London and this beautifully written, impeccably researched and incredibly generous book is a necessity for those of us who are not yet tired of life.
If you want a rounded and immensely detailed picture of the ‘Hogarthian’ world, this is the place to go… Scholars will make A Great and Monstrous Thing their first port of call, and anyone with the faintest interest in bygone London will be able to access an immense trove of thick description here.
Great urban historians can make the streets a sensory playground. In the best works, like Jerry White’s A Great and Monstrous Thing, the sounds clamor and peal, the smells overwhelm and sicken, the sights tantalize and repulse in equal measure. To read this book is to literally live the mucky, yucky, fascinating, wonderful kaleidoscopic life of eighteenth century London. White’s work isn’t just great and monstrous, but engagingly organized as well. He takes one of London’s most volatile and complex periods, one of the high points of its cultural development, and terrifically frames it. Like the city itself, the book is divided into subsections of city, people, work, culture, and power. Names like Johnson, Haywood, and Fielding abound, yes, but it’s so much more. It wasn’t just the high and mighty or the downtrodden that would be so faithfully recorded by Dickens a century later. White saw the city honestly, and recorded a narrative, which honored, if not outright enjoyed, its complexities.
Enormously learned and entertaining… We get the great and the mighty, architects and anarchists, Jewish moneylenders and Old Bailey workhorses, foppish aristocrats and beggar-parents who blind their own children to increase their chances at pity-alms. We’re toured through wonders and depravities so energetic it’s almost as though the whole era could somehow feel the Victorian corset of modernity waiting to tighten everything up into the rough shape of the world we know today… It’s largely through the torrential scribblings of those hackney writers that we have such a vivid portrait of 18th century London, and it’s by through consulting such an ungodly amount of those scribblings that White is able to give his readers such a lively and detailed account… Prepare to be instructed, amazed, and most of all amused. This is popular history done on a lavish, irresistible scale… History buffs shouldn’t miss it—and 21st century Londoners will find themselves eerily at home.
In addition to its appeal to the average interested reader, White’s book will prove to be an invaluable resource to future academics. This work is as close to pure history as a book can be… A Great and Monstrous Thing will likely serve its audience for generations to come.
With this volume, White completes an extraordinary trilogy begun with London in the Nineteenth Century (2007) and London in the Twentieth Century (2001). As in the earlier books, he addresses five broad topics: city, people, work, culture, and power. Differently here, he uses brief biographies of 14 representative figures—such as architect James Woods, impresario Teresa Cornelys, philanthropist Jonas Hanway, and radical John Wilkes—to begin thematic essays involving scores of Londoners. The variety is striking: from the desperate poor in alley and workhouse to the rich and often well-born patrons of Exchange, gaming table, and brothel; from the many victims of Tyburn to the ‘hanging classes’ of magistrate’s bench and beyond; from Wilkite pressure for political justice to sectarian madness in the Gordon Riots… The narrative is superb and richly informed, incisively and sympathetically evoking the city Defoe had thought a ‘great and monstrous thing.’
The titular superlative, courtesy of Daniel Defoe, aptly fits this engrossing history of the city that by 1700 had surpassed Paris to become the largest in Europe… White’s encyclopedic knowledge may, like bustling London, overwhelm some, but this is still a richly satisfying compendium of history, biography, anecdote, and statistics on the great city’s daily life, vibrant culture, and byzantine politics.
- Harvard University Press
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