Updated: Nov 5, 2020
by Maureen Waller
Maureen Waller’s non-fiction history of the people of London at the turn of the Eighteenth Century is marvellous. She combines a rollickingly good prose style with a staggering depth of research.
The book is separated into sixteen chapters, each covering a salient area of life; Food, Drink, Religion, Disease, etc.. I don’t think upon finishing the book that I was left thinking of any immediate area of life or interest that had not been discussed or touched upon. Yet, each chapter remains fresh and there is a real sense of weaving a story – Waller has immense skill in achieving this in a non-fictional historical narrative.
Through all the chapters, emphasis is placed on the brutality of life in the 1700s and yet Waller retains a wry tone of amusement throughout. This does not detract from the seriousness of living conditions but draws you ever more along and nicely counter-balances some of the horrors reported.
The late 17th century is my favourite period of history and I am also fascinated by the history of London, especially the City, so I have read an awful lot on both subjects and it took me a while to pick this book up as feared it would be fairly repetitive for me. But, no, I learned so many new facts and I love the way that she included small little points of etymology such as the origin of ‘daylight robbery,’ and other figures of speech still used extensively today. She also takes time to set the chapters in the various areas of London and provides a fascinating history into some of the old street and place names and areas; many of which remain today. I thought I was well-versed in not only the names but also the geography of 17th and 18th century London but again, I learned some interesting new details.
A few chapters relied a little too heavily on primary source material – mainly because Waller’s style is so readable and flowing, it distracted a little at times to keep having 17th century dialogue every other paragraph or so. But that is a small gripe and as a non-fiction book of history, Waller is correct to illustrate her findings with primary source material. Also, the inclusion of black and white pictures was incredibly helpful and well-chosen.
Obviously, if Early Modern English history is not your thing, then don’t read, but if it is and you also enjoy reading about London – I cannot recommend highly enough. Excellent.