When John Dryden envisioned London rising
from the Great Fire of 1666 to its destiny
as one of the great cities of the world (NAEL
8, 1.2085), he foresaw what would actually happen.
During the following century, the population
doubled, from 400,000 to 800,000. But still
more, the cultural and commercial life of Britain
and its empire increasingly centered on London.
Though a vast majority of English people continued
to work at farming, it was the city that set
the tone for business, pleasure, and an emerging
consumer society. "When a man is tired
of London, he is tired of life," according
to Samuel Johnson; "for there is in London
all that life can afford."
so much to see and do, a day in eighteenth-century
London can be viewed as a microcosm of that
world. Pope's Rape of the Lock (NAEL
8, 1.2514) uses the events of one day in high
society, from dawn to dusk, as the comic equivalent
of a full epic action. The low society of London
also bombarded the senses. A Description
of the Morning, by Jonathan Swift, itemizes
some typical sights and sounds as the city
wakes. All sorts of noise filled the streets;
the famous "Cries of London," as
vendors hawked their wares, were celebrated
in popular prints and songs.
During the day, London was a vast hub of finance,
trade, and manufacturing; ships jammed the
Thames with traffic from all over the world.
But Londoners also found ways to mix business
with pleasure. At midday it became the fashion
to drop into clublike coffeehouses, to meet
friends and cronies and catch up with the news.
Another favorite gathering place was "the
nave or centre of the town," the Royal
Exchange, rebuilt after the fire as a vast
mall for shopping and trade. With growing prosperity,
London turned into a city where everything
was for sale. Its elegant shops dazzled tourists,
supplying not only heaps of goods but also
a perpetual source of amusement.
the evening, under the glow of much-improved
oil-burning street lights, London came alive
with places to go, to see and be seen. Glittering
pleasure gardens, especially Vauxhall and Ranelagh,
provided luxurious grounds to view works of
art, to dance or listen to music, to stroll
and mingle and flirt. Varieties of spectacles
and shows drew larger and larger crowds, and
theaters expanded to meet the competition.
At the London playhouses, the audience itself
was often part of the entertainment. Nor did
the quest for pleasure cease at the witching
hour. According to John Gay's Trivia,
thieves and mischief-makers took over the streets
at midnight, ready for a night ramble: "Now
is the Time that Rakes their Revells keep;
/ Kindlers of Riot, Enemies of Sleep." As
part of the city woke at dawn, another part
was just going to bed.