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Richard B. Schwartz, Daily Life in Johnson’s London, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984; 196 pp. + xix; $25.00 cloth, $9.95 paper.
Sooner or later every reader must yearn to grasp one of Richard B. Schwartz’s sentences at each end and wring it dry, like a wet towel. For twenty-five of the first thirty verbs in chapter one of Daily Life in Johnson’s London he chooses either the passive voice or a form of “to be”: “Traffic upon the Thames was slow . . . The smell of sewage was apparent . . . The city’s streets were covered. . . .” And throughout the book his verbs continue to lie motionless in this way, on their backs and silent, their legs wriggling feebly in the air. Such passivity of style dejects us all the more because Schwartz employs it upon a subject matter that has become almost proverbial for its vitality: the great thrashing, bustling, unceasingly noisy London that Johnson made synonymous with life itself.
Schwartz has intended his book as an introduction “to certain aspects’ of eighteenth-century social history” begin page 111 | ↑ back to top and also as a companion for students struggling to understand the details of daily life that lie behind the major works of eighteenth-century English literature, particularly behind Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Accordingly, he organizes his chapters around topics such as “Work and Money,” “Pastimes and Pleasures,” “Health and Hygiene”—a familiar and serviceable scheme also used in books like Dorothy Marshall’s Dr. Johnson’s London and Roy Porter’s English Society in the Eighteenth Century (neither listed in Schwartz’s bibliography). To focus his discussions more sharply, Schwartz takes the figure of Samuel Johnson as a recurrent point of reference, not only because we so closely identify Johnson with the city he loved, but also because, as Schwartz rightly observes, Johnson’s moral thought takes so seriously what he called in Idler 84 “the general surface of life.”
For the second of his goals, the development of a “background” to major texts, this approach works very well. From time to time in the book we do seem to peer over Johnson’s shoulder and to register, as he must have done, the presence of “pools of urine and stagnant water” on London streets, the stench of sewage and nightsoil permeating every street and house, the universal coal smoke, from domestic fires and factories, settling like a cloud over the city all year long. Schwartz has an excellent eye for such details, shrinks from no subject (e.g., his account of chamberpots in the sideboards of elegant dining rooms), and clearly revels, like most students of the period, in its vicarious and bracing lowlife. Hence, he covers thoroughly such questions as false bosoms made of wirework—and the false buttocks made of cork—that ornamented fashionable Englishwomen for a time. He explains the “growing dominance of the Norwegian, or brown, rat over the English black rat.” He lists the prevalent venereal diseases of the period, the locations and specialties of prostitutes (a floating brothel, called the Folly, lay anchored opposite Somerset House), and goes enthusiastically into the distinction between ordinary and “deep” gaming. And no one, perhaps, in all the vast literature about eighteenth-century London, has crammed more information on domestic manners and routines into shorter space, from the usual ingredients and dressings used in salads to the fact that dogs were sometimes harnessed to butter churns. “It must be remembered,” Schwartz aptly quotes Johnson as saying, “that life consists not of a series of illustrious actions, or elegant enjoyments; the greater part of our time passes in compliance with necessities, in the performance of daily duties, in the removal of small inconveniences, in the procurement of petty pleasures. . . . The true state of every nation is the state of common life.”
But as an introduction to aspects of eighteenth-century social history, Daily Life in Johnson’s London suffers from its remarkable, nearly complete absorption in such detail: no idea interrupts the unending flow of information. For generalizations Schwartz never rises much above “The period was one of great hoaxes.” And for analysis he never reaches past the simple categories of his chapter titles. Thus the information he so generously sets down usually remains shapeless, following no particular order, leading to no particular conclusion. He gives us, for example, nothing comparable to Dorothy George’s moving account of the ravages of gin-drinking in the opening chapter of London Life in the Eighteenth Century, where she controls and justifies her narrative by asserting in the very first sentence that “The key to the social history of London is to be found in its changes in population—its growth, and the ratio between births and deaths.” Nor can he sum up and transfer his information to a new context, as George brilliantly does, connecting the “uncertainties of life and trade” to that “sense of instability, of liability to sudden ruin, which runs through so much eighteenth-century literature.” Likewise, Schwartz conveys little sense of the dynamics of class that figures prominently in most contemporary social history, as for instance in Roy Porter’s discussions of the simultaneous resiliance and porousness of the English social hierarchy. In part these failings derive from the brevity of Schwartz’s book—he simply gives himself too little space in which to develop ideas—and in part they derive from the essentially static picture he paints of social institutions: he has nothing like George’s thesis of gradual humanitarian progress in the Hanoverian years or Porter’s continual awareness that Johnson’s London stands at the threshold of the Industrial Revolution. Students who come to Schwartz’s book expecting to learn what it is that social historians do—and why it is so exciting—will return unenlightened, ill equipped to apply historical techniques to literary issues. Students who expect to see how social history illuminates literature—how, to take one instance, the enormous size and consequent anonymity of life in London lead to new themes of alienation, masquerade, and self-consciousness—will find that the concept of literature at work here rarely goes beyond the anecdotal. His book, in other words, interesting though it is, belongs to the honorable but quite limited genre of antiquarianism.
I should add that the bibliography includes many items having nothing directly to do with London—Johnson’s Poems in the Yale edition—and omits a great many items (e.g., James Sutherland’s Background for Queen Anne) that most students of the period would want to know; readers will do better to consult the still useful bibliography at the end of George Rudé’s Hanoverian London. The University of Wisconsin Press has printed an unusually handsome volume; both they and Schwartz deserve credit for the beautifully reproduced and exceedingly well-selected illustrations.