Walking the streets of Ye Olde London Towne: When a big book satisfies

My current streaming devotion is Netflix’s “The Frankenstein Chronicles” (2 seasons, 2015-17), a mystery and horror drama set in early 19th century London. The series features Sean Bean as Inspector John Marlott, lead investigator of a string of violent crimes possibly associated with a scientist who is intent on bringing the dead back to life. It’s a clever build on Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

“The Frankenstein Chronicles” depicts the London of the poor and downtrodden, drawing upon real-life historical figures to make for an entertaining mix of fact and fiction. This grim and gritty side of 19th century London has long held a fascination for me.

In fact, this current binge view caused me to reach for one of my favorite books of popular history, Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography (2001).  Here’s a snippet from the Publisher’s Weekly starred review of the book:

Novelist and biographer Ackroyd (The Plato Papers; T.S. Eliot; etc.) offers a huge, enthralling “biography” of the city of London. . . . Ackroyd examines London from its pre-history through today, artfully selecting, organizing and pacing stories, and rendering the past in witty and imaginative ways. . . . Anglophiles and others will rejoice.

London: The Biography is less a chronological history and more a thematic narrative, drawing generously on contemporary accounts from Londoners known and not-so-well known. Its greatest success is an array of especially vivid depictions of everyday life during the Elizabethan through Victorian eras.

Reading this book, you can practically smell the cooked food from street carts and cheap eateries, and the stinking slop of unsanitary streets. You can picture yourself walking into smoky coffee houses and seeing Londoners of all types conducting their business over “dishes” of the hearty brew. You can imagine the awful living conditions of the working poor and the destitute.  And you quickly grasp that stealing a bit of food or an item of clothing, even out of pure desperation, may lead to harsh and humiliating punishments meted out by an unforgiving justice system.

This is a big book — some 800 pages — but fortunately it can be read selectively and completely out of order, dipping and choosing based on one’s specific curiosities. If you decide to take a look at it, do remember that you’re not reading about a city celebrated for its beauty, such as Paris or Venice. Rather, as Patrick McGrath put it in a review titled “A City Much Like Hell” for the New York Times, this is:

…a loving portrait of a rambunctious monster, warts and all. Of the modern city Ackroyd says it ”can hold, or encompass, anything; in that sense it must remain fundamentally unknowable.” His own great accomplishment in this hugely entertaining volume is to make unknowable London to a large extent knowable — by the inspired selection and deft organization of extraordinary materials, and his spirited prose. He succeeds in animating on the page the lived life of one of the oldest and greatest — if dampest and grayest — cities in the world.

 

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