The Relationship Between the Past and the Present in 18th-19th Century London Writing Essay
Updated: Jul 14th, 2021
London is considered Great Britain’s quintessential city. It has been the capital of Great Britain since the 12th century. In almost any country, the capital plays a role as the center of cultural and scientific life.
Nowadays, it is a monumental city that displays the jewels of its historical heritage, such as London Bridge and the other bridges over the Thames, Big Ben, Trafalgar square, and others. Many writers have lived or visited London in order to be closer to the information hub the city represented throughout the centuries. Its libraries, palaces, and clubs have become places for the brightest minds in England to communicate and exchange ideas. However, the relationship between the writing world and London is very complex, as the city has changed its image multiple times.
The first major change to London happened during the 14th-15th centuries when the population of the city grew. The second change occurred in the 17th century when London was struck by the bubonic plague. Finally, the city began taking a more modern form in the 18th century during the industrial revolution. The nature of city life in comparison to life in the less urbanized past, as well as the ongoing comparison between the city and the rest of the country, have become a centerpiece of London writing. The overall trend has focused on the romance of the country compared to the dark, dreary, or routine realities of the city.
However, that representation could not be farther from the truth. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the relationship between the past and the present in 18th-19th century London writing using The Country and the City by Robert Williams, as well as “Modernist Space and the Transformation of Underground London” by David Pike in the book Imagined Londons, as central texts.
Before delving into English writers’ perceptions of London, the countryside, the people, and life in general, it is important to understand the historical context in which they lived. Stories, tales, and poems written by English writers paint a picture from a specific person’s perspective, which is inherently biased and distorted by the prism of personal observations, beliefs, and political views. These cannot be considered absolute in terms of historical evidence.
London is an ancient city that traces back to the late Roman Empire and the conquest of Britain. It has since been burned and rebuilt several times. It increased in geographic size as the population grew. Historically, the buildings were placed very close together in order to save space. Since the city was protected by a wall, any increase in the city’s area would require additional walls to be constructed for their protection. This is the reason why many writers, such as Arthur Conan Doyle in his tales about Sherlock Holmes, describe London as a conglomerate of two to three story buildings and narrow alleyways.
Any city has its richer and poorer quarters. Typically, the widest streets are around the central square, where the city’s governing facilities and the King’s palace are often found, and the areas where the rich and powerful lived. These parts of the city are aesthetically beautiful and allow for a wide range of motion, as the rich, the nobility, and the ruler all used horses and carriages, which require space. In addition, the large central streets and squares were frequently used for various celebrations, parades, and public events.
The slums of the city, on the other hand, where the poor people lived, were typically the areas farthest from the center. As horses required high maintenance, they were unlikely to be found in possession of the poor citizens of London. In addition, the wide spaces used in the central and rich parts of the city were only possible due to the narrowing down and cramping of the city’s slums. Statistically, more of London’s citizens lived in its poorest parts than anywhere else. This explains the narrow, angular alleyways often described in mystery and adventure novels, as they were the result of saving space and a lack of utilities for horse riding.
Lastly, there is the Thames River. Historically, almost all major cities were built next to a large body of water. In London’s case, this was done for several reasons. First, the river was a large source of water, which was used for cooking, fishing, and other amenities. Second, it provided a natural obstacle against invasion. Third, the river provided a convenient way to dispose of refuse and human waste by washing them down the river.
Historically, the houses closest to the river were also considered some of the most undesirable places to live. Finally, the Thames acted as the main trade route for London, allowing transport and merchant ships in and out of the harbor. It was always a very busy place full of people loading and unloading cargo, transporting goods, and trying to sell dubious wares to travelers and sailors alike.
The Industrial Revolution
The industrial revolution in England changed the appearance of London as well as many other cities. It facilitated the growth of the urban environment and the decline of the rural countryside, as fields and villages were remodeled and unified to form larger pastures that could be used for raising sheep and conducting mechanized agriculture, which used fewer laborers than the conventional horse and plow techniques. This period saw mass migration of people from villages into the cities, where they became laborers. This period is renowned for its economic growth and the mass production of goods and equipment that became available to the rich and the middle-class.
However, it is also known for the sprawling growth of slum areas, where the majority of the workers lived, as well as detrimental effects on the local ecology, as the wastes from increasing numbers of households and factories flowed freely into the Thames. The operation of coal-powered engines, electric plants, and other industrial facilities added to the gloomy atmosphere of London, already augmented by the fog.
Finally, the increase in city size and population, along with the percentage of poor individuals and migrants from other countries, created various issues in public safety. Poverty generates crime associated with illegal trade, robberies, kidnappings, human trafficking, and many other varieties of antisocial behavior. Child begging is amply described in Doyle’s “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” where the detective purchases the services of vagabond children to serve as his eyes and ears around the city.
The Past and Present of London in English Literature
As is evident in the historical context described above, the past and present of London are interconnected by generations of building the city as well as its subsequent growth due to natural increase and heightened migration. Due to the number of problems appearing because of migration, many writers and poets describe the bad parts of the city very vividly. Raymond Williams explores the comparisons between the past and the present in his book, entitled The Country and the City.
According to Williams, the past in poetry and literature is frequently described in an idyllic way. Many works present the village as a place of rest and relaxation, with nature being preserved in a relatively pristine state. The communities are depicted as friendly and heartwarming, having maintained the cohesion and traditions held dear by English culture. This creates the illusion of time standing still and represents the everlasting virtues that often become the centerpiece of many existential works of literature. Because of these qualities, the village plays the role of the nostalgic past, where everything was “slower, simpler, and more beautiful and attuned to nature,” as often depicted by the authors.
London, as the biggest and busiest city in England and marked by progress and innovation along with its various shortcomings, on the other hand, is depicted as an antagonist to the still beauty of the past. One of the most prominent features in big cities is the atomization of society and the destruction of communities as they are known in the countryside. Virginia Woolf describes London as “the city of strangers,” where individuals do not know one another well and where the circles of friends and acquaintances are much smaller.
This can be seen in almost every urban story that is set in London. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is described as having only two or three friends, such as Doctor Watson, his housemaid Martha, and some of his colleagues from Scotland Yard.
The theme of loneliness in a crowd of people is also accentuated by the weather, which is commonly described in dark, mysterious, and pessimistic tones. The weather in Great Britain has always been wet and soggy, which is further accentuated by clouds, fogs, and smog from the factories, along with a damp cold that forces people to wear cloaks, hoods, and hats. The “Present” is often painted in cold and unforgiving colors, where individuality and warmth are dissolved in a dull and boring routine. The historical factors mentioned in the previous section play a great part in this. Charles Jenner, an 18th-century poet, describes London using the following words:
Alas for me! What prospect can I find
To raise poetic ardor in my mind?
Wherever around I cast my wandering eyes,
Long burning rows of fetid bricks arise,
And nauseous dunghills swell in moldering heaps. (Jenner, 1772)
In this short verse, it is possible to see all of the typical descriptions of London during the transformational period, where late medieval London was becoming industrial London. “Long burning rows of fetid bricks” refers to the three-story apartments placed very close together, while the “nauseous dunghills” reflect an evident lack of hygiene due to how sprawling London had become.
Based on these descriptions, it could be said that the majority of romantic writers of the 18th and 19th centuries viewed London as a bleak place to live, and they highlighted the feelings of loneliness, misery, and melancholy that were accentuated by the city’s architecture, weather, and social norms. Crime is a popular motif in many of the stories, either as a primary subject or something mentioned in the background. The writers present London as the epitome of the dark side of progress. Therefore, they create an interesting dichotomy of the “bright past” versus the “dark future.”
However, there is a case to be made against this notion. Raymond Williams explores the contrast between the country and the city in his book of the same name. As he indicates, a good portion of British literature suffers from the problem of perspective. The majority of English writers came from relatively privileged backgrounds, which afforded them not only education, exposure to literature, and good manners, but also travels outside the city to their country residences.
These residences are not villages in the strictest sense, but rather places to rest, relax and enjoy nature and fresh air. This created a nostalgic and distorted vision of country life based around leisure experiences rather than actual community life as practiced by peasants and shepherds in the countryside.
According to Williams, the “beautiful and nostalgic past,” as he calls it, is nothing but an illusion that does not represent the enmities, hardships, and social conflicts existing in rural England prior to the great movement from villages into the big cities. Life in a medieval village had its own share of miseries. The writers prior to the industrial revolution write much about the hardships of everyday peasant lives. Large families had to survive on the produce of their little patches of land, which was redistributed as the families multiplied, becoming smaller and smaller as a result. Backbreaking labor from early morning until the evening was a common occurrence, as small patches of land did not allow for owning or using any mechanized agricultural equipment.
Only a small number of wealthy farmers owned horses, and the shortage of useful land was a common problem. In addition, the production of goods was heavily taxed by the local landowners, which further exacerbated poverty. Disease and hunger were a common occurrence in pre-industrial villages. This was due to a lack of the sanitation, clean water, electricity, and combustible fuels more readily available in the city. Of course, these issues were often overlooked by romantic writers, whose experience was based on living in country residences that they visited during the summer to enjoy the good weather.
At the same time, London was more than the dark mirror of exploitative capitalism that many writers of the contemporary era, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Jenner, Charles Dickens, and Sam Sevron seemed to have depicted. Williams highlights the fact that although the majority of the writers “hated” London, most of them lived in it for long periods of time. One of the biggest reasons for this was that London was the center of scientific and intellectual activity. Many writers, both British and foreign, often visited one another in order to find inspiration or engage in debate.
Progress, on the other hand, takes time. In addition, there were some improvements made to the lives of average citizens as well. The article by David Pike, entitled “Modernist Space and the Transformation of Underground London,” talks about the construction of the underground portion of the new London, which was designed to accommodate current and future uses of the sewer system for the London population. It is considered a work of modernist art due to its architectural as well as structural design. However, Pike also states that the new methods of construction and city-building suggested by Harry Beck were met with suspicion and mistrust, like all innovative practices.
This highlights another issue with how literature and writers viewed London. As it was a hub of innovation not only in writing and science but also in politics and architecture, it was met with mistrust and concern, which only added to its already mysterious and dubious reputation promoted in works of literature. Nevertheless, the transition from the past to the future for London has not been seamless, but it has managed to purge many of the injustices and impurities of the old city life and pave the way for London as it is known nowadays.
Much of British 18th-19th century literature favors the past over the future by presenting an idealized and utopian version of country life and using London as a dark mirror of the “present” capitalism-driven society. Some of the realities of life in London are portrayed accurately, namely the poverty, misery, and pollution that the poor had to live in during these times. However, this does not exonerate the writers for portraying life in the country as an idyllic and peaceful place that was in harmony with nature.
However, as shown by Williams and Pike, writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Jenner, Charles Dickens, Sam Selvon, and many others may have been suffering from nostalgia about the past and a desire to reconnect with nature, which resulted in their idealistic portrayals of the past. However, the present of London also had numerous wonderful things to make up for it. The mysterious atmosphere coupled with the grandiose architectural monuments of the Victorian era are just as much part of London as is the river Thames and the ever-present noir surrounding it.
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