I’m missing 18th century London.
The Easter holidays are over and my historical novel, The Posture Girl, is with my agent, preparing to sail off into the arms of publishers. And I’m left at home with an empty nest, putting off the inevitable next project with all the verve of a student cleaning the oven rather than writing an essay. In a few days, I’ll dust myself down and try on one of the many characters and historic periods that have been vying for my attention, the glimpses of stories but, right now, I’m mourning the loss of this most ebullient of centuries, when church attendance plummeted and imperial interests came to the fore; where all forms of sexual adventure were openly catered for (only homosexuality was punished) and syphilis rampaged through the capitals of Europe.
I miss the eccentric hair styles of the 1770s and 1780s, where women would bulk out their hair and drape it over high frames, stuff it with fruit or birds and sleep rigid with their heads on blocks of wood. I miss the freaks of nature who were put on display along with elephants and lions. I miss the etiquette of snuff – the gold boxes, secret recipes and the stylistic snort. I miss the wildly popular Drury Lane Theatre – expanding and then burning down – where Lords and harlots and everyone in between were stuffed together in a hot, stinking pit for a full night’s entertainment, ogling at the beautiful and catching up with friends. I miss the heated rows in coffee shops over news sheets; the role of the East India Company and the loss of the American colonies. I miss the crowds bunched around the latest Gillray or Rowlandson caricatures posted in the windows of printers, with their fierce wit and critical eye. I miss the shell and mineral grottos, built at the end of gardens, where artists and their acolytes would await divine inspiration. I miss the hot, sugared milk, laced with cinnamon and a hefty dash of gin, bought from a stall in Covent Garden on a cold night. I miss the shops on Oxford Street hung with fresh white linen and the piles of oily, second-hand clothes on Monmouth Street.
I even miss the stench of shit from the Rookery, the slum in St Giles that Dickens campaigned to destroy a few decades later, where sewage ran down the streets and the authorities feared to enter. I miss the candle light and the hiss of tallow. I miss Josiah Wedgwood’s Jasperware tea pots, a revolutionary style that emulated the craftsmanship of ancient Rome. I miss the bawdy, humorous slang – the bulkmongers, the bilks and pimps. I miss the white hair powder that dusted the wigs of gentlemen and the pomatum that kept the hair stiff with scented animal fat. I miss the paintings of the Grand Canal in Venice that adorned the walls of the wealthy, illustrating their expansive cultural tastes – still seen in Country Estates run by the National Trust. I miss the long white clay pipes of tobacco and stinking undergarments. And I miss the high-class brothels, or nunneries, in St James’s where a mother superior would preside over a clutch of beautiful young girls offering any and every form of pleasure.
I miss the everyday objects and the precious collections from the later 18th century, carried in a hanging pocket between petticoats or sewn into a hem for safe keeping; displayed in a cabinet at home or folded carefully in a trunk. My days spent at the Foundling Museum, the V&A, the Royal Maritime Museum, the Wallace Collection and the Museum of London, amongst others, have been a joy. From the common hair pin that was left as a token at the Foundling Hospital to the solid silver tea canister at the V&A that was used by the woman of the house for special occasions, the key hanging around her white neck. The giardinetti – little garden – ring of rubies and emeralds set in gold that was all the fashion and the straw hat with blue flowers sewn into the rim that would be pinned on at an angle. The cheap gin jar made of heavy green glass that narrowly avoided being smashed on the pavement with the others and the ceramic pot for rouge with a pretty design of red flowers and green leaves around the outside. The delicate, inlaid writing table; the eight inch leather dildo, discovered by archaeologists in an ancient latrine in Poland, and the silk stockings that were bought for a coming out ball in the Upper Rooms in Bath. The fan with a picture of Hector’s farewell to Andromache from 1750 and the Worcester dessert plate from the 1770s with an oriental design of herons etched in gold and red.
I presume that this listless feeling of severance from 18th century London is quite natural for those who immerse themselves in a particular period. Or perhaps the period is particularly beguiling, for all its callous horror, supreme confidence and theatrical beauty. I’m sure that I’ve read of other novelists that feel the same when a book is finished – particularly over the characters that fill their days, sit beside them as they work and then disappear in a puff of smoke. Even though grieving for someone that you yourself have made up might be considered to be out of the ordinary.
So. Just two last objects for my cabinet of curiosities before I go back to the drawing board: the haunting picture of a young girl selling strawberries by Joshua Reynolds at the Wallace Collection and some stays made with applied ribbon, chamois and whalebone.