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London Perceived
V. S. Pritchett
London, Penguin, 1962/2003.
£12.99, 214 pages, ISBN 0-141-01419-9.

Alain Lauzanne
Université de Rouen

V. S. Pritchett wrote this introduction to London, which he affectionately calls a "splodge," forty-two years ago, before McDonald's arrived and when the first skyscrapers were just being built. Like most nineteenth- or twentieth-century writers on the British capital, he emphasises the colossal size of "the most powerful and richest capital in the world for several centuries" [p. 11], a city that "has grown not by planning, but by swallowing up the countryside village by village" [p. 16]. The city he describes is, in many respects, different from the one we know. In those days sheep could safely graze in Regent's Park, and many areas were still scarred by the Blitz, whose horror the author could not forget:

The sky shook London like a rug; the floor boards, the furniture, the pictures, the glasses and plates, the curtains, the favourite vases, ferns, clocks, and photographs, the pens on the desks, the ink in the pots danced in their places throughout the night in evil monotony hard to endure. The sky was extravagant; the earth would occasionally come to life in scattered carrotty fires, and on bad nights, when the docks, the East End, and the City were burned out, the tide being too low to give the firemen water, London turned crimson. [p. 47]

London Perceived, however, is not only a reflection on the London of the early 1960s; it is also a presentation of the capital through the centuries. Pritchett is convinced that although the Elizabethan age is imaginable, a contemporary Londoner would be bewildered in it:

The crowds in Smithfield, the worshippers in one of London's oldest, loveliest of churches, St Bartholomew the Great, the fantastic crowd of tumblers, mountebanks, quacks, thieves, whores, and traders at Bartholomew Fair, the theatre-going, bear-baiting crowd in Bankside, the poets of the Mermaid are as foreign to us as the crowds of an Asiatic bazaar. [p. 109]

According to him, recognition starts in the middle of the seventeenth century, when London "puts on an appearance in brick and stucco that was to be its habit well into the nineteenth century, and that still gives the centre of the city its style" [p. 146]. The century of Cromwell, Pepys and Defoe was a "century of war, disasters, and wonders," [p. 112] since it witnessed the Civil War, the Plague—"the year of 'Throw Out Your Dead!' when 10,000 died" [p. 113]—, the Great Fire and an amazing frost. Some years after the Fire,

the mild Thames froze up for weeks, an event unheard of for centuries, a thing fantastic and phenomenal. Londoners moved out onto the ice, opened shops and roasting booths, theatres, bull-baiting shows, brothels, and organized horse-coach races, even set up a printing press. Evelyn walked across the ice from Westminster to Lambeth and dined with the Archbishop; in miniature, London put its life on ice. [p. 113]

After the Great Fire, the City had to be rebuilt, and reconstruction was designed by new men. One of them, Christopher Wren, whom Pritchett calls “London's miraculous youth,” stands out. "He was fitted by a superb, delightful brain and great vitality to great tasks. He worked day and night, as the saying goes, until he was ninety, and all his work was experiment and invention" [p. 114]. Of course, he liked his work, which "has the lightness and intelligence of art. At Greenwich, where he followed Inigo Jones, at Chelsea, at Hampton Court, he gave London its finest things. His spires give the City its notes of elegance, that Caroline grace and body which are sensuous, intelligible, and serene" [p. 117].

The seventeenth century is also the age of Puritanism, the effects of which Pritchett analyses: "Whatever is said for Puritanism or against it, one effect seems to be constant, and perhaps it is the most important: it gave the individual a dramatic inner life and an acute consciousness of the self" [p. 124]. Two of the best representatives of seventeenth-century Puritanism are, undoubtedly, Pepys and Defoe, both of whom the author admires. According to Pritchett, it could well be his puritan upbringing that made Pepys one of the most interesting witnesses of the age: "The effect of a Puritan upbringing upon a man of Pepys's temperament was to awaken his curiosity about himself and the times he lived in. He saw life minutely as something novel" [p. 124]. Pritchett also gives a detailed biography of Defoe, a complex man who was not only a writer, but also a merchant, a businessman, a speculator, a journalist and a pamphleteer. He too was a Puritan, but he was "the rebel fighting on his own," whereas Pepys was "acquiescent" [p. 126].

If the best witnesses of seventeenth-century London are writers, Pritchett thinks that, in the eighteenth century, the best of all is a painter, Hogarth, "who does for London in picture, in camera work, what Defoe reports in print" [p. 139]. It seems obvious to the author that one can read a print by Hogarth as one reads descriptions by Pepys or Defoe because, like them, "he is intensely interested in every detail of the external world, in every detail of the dress and habits of innumerable Londoners" [p. 139]. His analysis of Hogarth's London is well worth quoting: "In Hogarth's paint and drawing, one sees a terrifying London. It is the London he saw when he wandered into the Covent Garden of his time, the centre of brothels, the crime, the rough pleasures of the city. The place is hearty, roaring, and violent in the gin-drinking days" [p. 139]. As the author points out, one should not forget that Picadilly was thronged by rogues, and that Londoners could be attacked by highwaymen.

What London was like in the first part of Queen's Victoria's reign "is perfectly established by Dickens, not in documentary realism, as is sometimes suggested, but as an extraordinary brew of hard fact and imagination" [p. 158]. Pritchett emphasises the fact that Dickens does not give "hard facts" because he was not a Gradgrind. "It has been shown that he is an unreliable historian, for he commonly married events from his childhood with those of later years" [p. 158]. Dickens, Pritchett remarks, was a man of his age, "a dandy and actor" who admired Beau Brummell's successor, the Count d'Orsay, and wore waistcoats that were as gorgeous as Disraeli's. "A climber, he can accurately describe the successful Veneerings; mutilated by success, he can describe what the Dombeys have done to themselves" [p. 159].

As far as architecture is concerned, the Victorian period was marked by the Gothic revival, which has its origins in "Walpole's Gothic novel and the Gothicizing of his house at Strawberry Hill, the translation of Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, and the novels of Scott had made their mark" [p. 167]. But he adds that, although numerous monuments were built in the Gothic style during Queen Victoria's reign, other types of architecture were drawn upon, such as the Italian Renaissance, so much so that

when we say London looks Victorian we mean that the look is heavily historicized, frantically mixed, and the expression of an ebullient individualism. The variety of styles, the humours of decoration, the fantasy expressed in knobs, spheres, gazebos, balconies, turrets, small domes, strange windows, extraordinary roofs, and peculiar chimneys, in any one street is extraordinary and finally, hilarious. The iron work in the squares, the street railings, the lamps and the balconies is wonderfully varied and distinguishes London from any other city. [p. 169]

Unlike the books written by historians like Peter Ackroyd, Christopher Hibbert or Roy Porter, Pritchett's work is not a biography or a history of London, but a love letter to that city. He takes his readers on a journey through London in both time and space in the company of Marlowe, Evelyn, Milton, Conrad, T. S. Eliot and Henry James among others. Pritchett's text is accompanied by handsome black and white photographs by Evelyn Hofer, whose lens stared at the Londoners one could meet in the early 1960s, as well as at some of the most beautiful monuments of the capital.



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