DR. JOHNSON'S LONDON: Coffee-Houses and Climbing Boys, Medicine, Toothpaste and Gin, Poverty and Press-Gangs, Freakshows and Female Education
Release date: 07/01/2001
In a follow-up to her Restoration London, Picard delivers an encyclopedic distillation of mid-18th-century daily life in Europe's largest, most dynamic city—i.e., she conveys what it was like to be Sam Johnson's neighbor. Her zoom lens focuses on living and working conditions of both rich and poor, health and welfare systems (such as they were), crime and punishment, pleasures, cuisine, fads and fashions, manners and customs. She also features the gray fogs, rank smells, black filth, grinding poverty, nearly nonexistent hygiene (among all classes) and rampant disease. Her sources include travelers' accounts, local diarists, the Gentleman's Magazine, the Ladies Dispensary, or Every Woman Her Own Physician and Boswell's frank journals. Readers will not look again at historical portraits of Londoners without shuddering at what most history books conceal. Much of Picard's jocularity succeeds, as when she considers prices: "enough gin to get drunk on" cost a penny, "enough gin to get dead drunk on" cost tuppence; two-and-a-half shillings—slightly more than a journeyman tailor's daily pay—could get a tooth extracted or buy a chicken; a shilling and a pint of cheap wine afforded one a prostitute. This pleasingly plotless book offers fascinating snapshots of the appealing and the repellant in a particular time and place. 32 pages of color and b&w photos not seen by PW. (July)
Forecast:The audience for this may be less specialized than it would seem, as film-goers and readers of period novels will find this chatty book an intriguing contrast to romantic depictions. It may also get a boost from a minor Johnson/Boswell revival, including the publication late last year of Peter Martin's A Life of James Boswell and Adam Sisman's forthcoming Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson.