Imagining Eighteenth-Century London

Rachel Ramsey
Assumption College

The tradition of observing, recording, imagining, and, more generally, writing about London has been in existence as long as the City itself from John Stow’s 1590 Survey of London to Peter Ackroyd’s millennial publication of London: The Biography. Almost every inch of the city’s rich and varied past has enjoyed its moment in the spotlight and library shelves groan under the weight of detailed historical studies such as Norman G. Brett-James’s The Growth of Stuart London (1935), T. F. Reddaway’s The Rebuilding of London after the Great Fire (1940), Cynthia Wall’s The Literary and Cultural Spaces of Restoration London (1998), and Miles Ogborn’s Spaces of Modernity: London’s Geographies, 1680–1780 (1998).[1] It is no small task, then, to undertake a study of the city along the Thames. In Reading London: Urban Speculation and Imaginative Government in Eighteenth-Century Literature (Ohio State, 2007), Erik Bond builds upon the classical and contemporary scholarship of London’s historical development to demonstrate how eighteenth-century writers imagined a series of never-realized alternatives for governing the city’s rapidly changing landscape.

Bond begins his study by citing the importance of the 1688 collapse of James II’s monarchy, the defeat of “absolute sovereignty,” and the subsequent rise of “liberal governmentality,” defined here in the Foucauldian sense of informal power networks of taste, fashion, and reforming movements. The monarchical dissolution created a void that was particularly felt in the marginal areas between the more traditionally governed City and Court, known as the Town. Because its occupants were less steeped in tradition and not as closely aligned with any one governmental agency, the Town’s potential urban roles in relation to its more powerful neighbors became a favored subject for the many writers, publishers and booksellers living and working there. Bond demonstrates how these writers seized the opportunity to imagine how they might “govern” this part of London, deploying the twin metaphors of conduct and imagination to convince readers of their authority to govern and of their particular vision of the Town’s future urban networks and possible governmental structures.

In the opening section, entitled “Governing Others,” Bond focuses on John Gay’s Trivia, or, The Art of the Walking the Streets of London (1716), promising to describe how Gay “design[s] a vision of London by fashioning the conduct of its inhabitants through a printed text” (53). To do this, the poem borrows the formal conventions of the guidebook (street names, an index, glosses) to bolster the poet’s claims of providing detailed knowledge of London. However, these devices are quickly subsumed by the poem’s larger goal of teaching it readers to recognize, what Bond labels London’s “archives of conduct.” To access these conducts, a reader must become properly sensitized so as to interpret the signs of the city itself. Gay achieves this by training his reader to navigate a series of generic switchbacks and abrupt changes in tone. In his depictions of walking, for example, Gay’s walker-poet relies little on place names and makes most areas recognizable only by the conduct of walkers and poet-walker’s tone of voice. Those who master the poetic challenges and read closely are prepared to interpret London’s walkers, and, in turn, eventually master the art of walking itself. By selectively entering and exiting areas of the city seemingly at will, Bond suggests that the poem also defies conventional mapping techniques and contributes to the impression of a larger, more unified concept of greater London. By claiming authority for knowing and shaping the city, Gay opens the door for other writers to imagine what London, specifically the area known as the Town, might look and act like and how writers may position themselves as possible managers of these new spaces.

Bond next compares the relationship between the narrator and readers of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) to that between the judicial voice and readers of his civil prose, including A Charge Delivered to the Grand Jury (1749), A True State of the Case of Bosavern Penlez (1749), and An Enquiry into the Late Increase of Robbers (1751). As novelist and magistrate, Fielding was responsible for governing his readers and the newly formed jurisdiction of Bow Street, an area sandwiched between the City and Westminster, in the very heart of the Town. Both of these occupations required Fielding to find textual methods to establish his authority. Bond points to various stylistic changes in voice and tone in Fielding’s fictional work that help posit the narrator and, by extension, Fielding the novelist, as the one exerting control over the novel’s many open-ended narratives. Fielding applies this same tactic in his administrative writings, Bond argues, in order to establish his credibility both administratively and morally for imagining and delivering solutions for the difficult problems facing a riot-prone and crime-ridden area of London. The connections Bond makes between Fielding’s dual professions, especially the similarity between the form of his fictional and civil writings help make this chapter one of the strongest in terms of illustrating how literary works not obviously about London participated in imagining possible futures for governing it.

This section concludes with an examination of Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Burlington, and, at first, it appears to provide yet another example of the cross-fertilization between fictional and civil events; lines from the poem serve as an epigraph to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s 1736 proposal for a new bridge at Westminster. However, Bond defers a more explicit discussion of the Westminster Bridge controversy to explore how Pope’s poem was calculated to resolve City and Court tensions by forging a particular type of British imagination. He argues that Pope’s poetic representations of urban development and his redefinition of key terms such as “use” and “taste” signal his desire to alleviate the Town’s fears about the trade-based economy and the growing influence of wealth. He pacified the public by granting them the power to imagine, if not to enact, changes to the built environment. As Bond notes, Hawksmoor’s use of Pope’s poem did not result in his securing the contract to build the bridge but both textual works “did contribute to shaping the terms in which these urban projects were imagined, designed, and made possible” (124). On the way to making this point, Bond provides a detailed overview of eighteenth-century debates about the function and definition of the imagination and offers a prolonged discussion about the differences between projects and essays. However, these detours often distract from Bond’s more inventive claims and weaken the overall cohesiveness of his argument. We wade through too many digressions and qualifications when the heart of the chapter seems to be the significance of Hawksmoor’s decision to adopt Pope’s lines, and all the meaning they have accumulated, for his proposal.

The second half of Bond’s study, “Governing the Self,” documents how the generation of writers succeeding Gay, Fielding, and Pope responded to the many alternate visions of London. With the proliferation of texts and authors promising to exert control over London and Londoners, James Boswell and Frances Burney turned inward and asked how they might “discipline themselves” and locate an “authentic self” amongst the competing visions of urban life (137). In his chapter on Boswell’s London Journal (1762), Bond demonstrates how Boswell experimented with a variety of personae, many harvested from his readings of London literature, and subjected each to rigorous scrutiny. For example, Boswell uses his familiarity with dramatic conventions to establish a framework to revisit and reevaluate his own behavior, seeing himself as a character in his own life. Rather than using drama to give free reign to his imagination, Bond shows how the dramatic metaphors allow Boswell to control his flights of fancy, as he consistently strives to find the most accurate dialogue and the most specific description of his past behaviors. The generic strategies he develops to facilitate such introspection were engineered, Bond suggests, to help him develop a more stable sense of self.

As he turns from Boswell to Burney, Bond suggests that Burney abandons Evelina’sepistolary form (1778) when writing Cecilia (1782) so as to develop a novelistic form that allows for a more active female engagement with London’s geography. Cecilia effectively rewrites Evelina, according to Bond, by replacing its confessional format and its dependence on an outside reader/judge to assess the heroine’s conduct with an “inward monitor” that makes the heroine more responsible for interpreting and regulating her own conduct. In short, Bond declares that Cecilia’s generic evolutions represent an “experiment in imaginative self-government” (89). Like Boswell, Cecilia must examine her conduct closely, interpret her behavior, and deliver judgment. Bond concludes, “Cecilia questions Evelina’s claim that ‘the change is in the place, not in me’” and offers to rephrase it as ‘the change is in me, not in the place’” (209).

Bond emphasizes that his study of London is about the ways in which eighteenth-century writers imagined the city, especially the alternate visions they had for London’s geographic and political landscape. In doing so, he contrasts his work with those who approach early modern literature as means for finding evidence of the city London has become. It matters little, he argues, that the alternate visions of London he uncovers share the same fate as Hawksmoor’s plan for the Westminster Bridge. While the authority urban writers claimed or the images they promoted may never have come to fruition, Bond insists that such writings nonetheless made important contributions to urban planning. In this sense, Bond’s study offers a refreshing take on reading eighteenth-century writings about London, in part because he shows how many literary works address issues of governing in ways not always immediately apparent; the connections are in the literary form more so than in the content. Additionally, he draws necessary attention to the Town’s unique position between City and Court, convincingly illustrating how and why it attracted the attention of writers interested in imaging different modes of governing Londoners. His insistence on rooting this argument in “dissolution of monarchy” in 1688, though, weakens what is otherwise a worthwhile and intriguing study. The idea that “the events of 1688 loosened the notion of urban authority from the Court’s sole domain” is never convincingly demonstrated with specific examples or any sustained discussion. What of the City of London’s long history of independence from Court directives and even, at times, its outright defiance? What about the crushing blow dealt to absolutism in 1642? What specific aspects of urban authority were left unattended? Bond’s argument could have been made without making 1688 a watershed moment in the collapse of urban authority. Emphasizing this event without adequately justifying it renders his later arguments less convincing. Overall, though, the study offers key insights into the imaginative act of governing undertaken by eighteenth-century writers and he usefully identifies the generic innovations in literary form created to sustain such an ambitious project.


[1]   Norman G. Brett-James, The Growth of Stuart London (London, 1935); T. F. Reddaway, The Rebuilding of London after the Great Fire (London, 1940); Cynthia Wall, The Literary and Cultural Spaces of Restoration London (Cambridge, 1998); Miles Ogborn, Spaces of Modernity: London’s Geographies, 1680–1780 (New York, 1998).