London in the year 1700 was a teeming, sprawling, stinking, bustling, noisy, you-name-it place, and under the evocative pen of historian Maureen Waller, readers are dropped smack into the middle of it. Rarely has a nonfiction work come alive as this one did. Authors of historical fiction, take note: this book belongs on your research shelf.
1700: Scenes from London Life is organized into chapters based on themes. Here are the staples of everyday life, such as Marriage, Death, The Home, Fashion, and Food and Drink. But readers will also find intriguing sections on Amusements, The Working Poor, Prostitution and Vice, and the cleverly-named Huguenots and Other Strangers. There is enough material here to keep the bedtime reader happy for months.
Above all, what makes 1700 so absorbing is the author’s natural style, which verges on storytelling in its accessibility. Waller doesn’t just present her carefully-researched history; she wraps it around the reader in such a way that one is right there at the birthing, or sitting in the alehouse, or burying the dead. Readers’ emotions will run the gamut from surprise to revulsion. London, for all it was the major city of Europe, was not a pretty place. Streets were open sewers, murders were grisly and common, and child abuse as we know it was a common element of life. Anyone below the level of merchant simply struggled for survival.
Yet London was not without its beauty. The great cathedral of St. Paul’s rose above the city, and newer housing had replaced that burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1666. People were flocking to London in droves, driving the population to over half a million. London was flourishing.
So was crime, prostitution, illegal marriages, con artists, quack physicians, thugs, cockfighting, disease, and medical practices that will make the modern reader shudder just reading about them. Waller doesn’t shirk her descriptions of these elements of London life, and the book is the richer for it. The book is illustrated with contemporary engravings and caricatures that may take some scrutiny; however, a wealth of written primary source material gives examples as well.
1700: Scenes from London Life is a must-read for anyone with an interest in European history of that time. We’d be raising a generation of future historians if more authors emulated Waller’s style in bringing her wealth of knowledge and in-depth research to life.