Book Review – List Book – 1700: Scenes from London Life by Maureen Waller

My Rating -  *****

I loved this book! It discusses in depth how Londoners managed to live (or sometimes not) in and around the year 1700.  The author covers many topics from marriage and childbirth to work and poverty to vice, crime, and punishment.

Suicide seemed to be unusually prevalent in the years around 1700. It is unclear whether there were actually more suicides than there had been earlier or whether the large population and the newspaper coverage given to suicides at the time just made it seem that way.  A frequent cause of suicide was to escape destitution.  The way the poor were treated, it almost seems as if the rest of the population hoped or expected that they would take their own lives.

In 1700 the laws and customs relating to marriage were so chaotic and contradictory that thousands of Londoners had no idea whether they were legally married, nor even what might constitute a legal marriage.

Waller, Maureen, 1700: Scenes from London Life, p. 12

Some things in London in 1700 were quite primitive. For example, there was almost no clean running water.  On the other hand, sewerage was almost everywhere.  Disposing of dead bodies was difficult because there were so many of them and so little space to put them.  Public executions were practically a form of popular entertainment, and, far from pondering their own mortality and resolving not to break the laws and suffer the same fate, the majority of the populace who attended public hangings often seemed to sympathize with the criminals.

On the other hand, there were many aspects of society that seemed to be relatively modern. Clubs and coffeehouses were beginning to be major social institutions, joining the already ubiquitous alehouses and taverns.  This was the time when early primitive hospitals first became established, including the later infamous ‘Bedlam’ for the insane.  There were also numerous private asylums, some of which were used as much to put away unwanted wives as to house the truly insane.

In the booksellers’ defense, The London Tradesman admitted that ‘the press is loaded with so much trash of late years, that unless the work bears the name of some very eminent hand, they have very little chance to save themselves; and I believe most of them will agree with me, that of all the books now printed, taking them in the gross, where one sells to advantage, there are three that do not clear the paper and print’.

Waller, Maureen, 1700: Scenes from London Life, p. 250

The book is excellently written, not boring in the least, references numerous sources directly from the period, and contains several illustrations depicting the fashions of the times and the new buildings that were going up at that time.

Cover image from Goodreads.

Title:                     1700: Scenes from London Life

Author:                Maureen Waller     

Publisher:            Four Walls Eight Windows                            

Copyright:           2000     

Format:                Hardcover

Genre:                  Non-fiction/History        

ISBN:                    1-56858-164-5  

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