- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001

By Liza Picard
St. Martin's, $29.95, 362 pages, illus.

If history is a form of politics, ought we take it seriously? Ought we, and more importantly in this case, do we enjoy it? There are parts of Liza Picard's "Dr. Johnson's London" that shout a yelping, "Yes." But for the most part, her book convinces us that if history is to be taken seriously, it should not be done in her pages. While she does provide some bite-sized historical morsels, on the whole, she could do without the tiresome moralizing.
Reading about James Boswell's inability to stay clean of venereal disease ("He was philosophical about it, although he resented the surgeon's bill for 5 guineas a time") is good clean fun. It is always interesting, though hardly surprising, when extraordinary men have a weakness for common women. That being said, there could be more of these voyeuristic snippets. Yet most of the material is either uninteresting or unorganized. While there is always the chance of stumbling across an anecdotal oasis, the desert stretching between is simply too vast. I suspect that the author's discard file was rather small. And I am afraid that she labored under the impression that she would be paid by the footnote.
What we have in this work is a stab at what it was like to exist — to survive — in the germ-infested cruel environs of London, circa 1750. The book is divided into four parts: a quick walking tour of Londinium followed by sections on what life was like for the "Poor," the "Middling Sort," and the "Rich." That the section dedicated to the poor is nearly 100 pages and the pages on the rich take only 16 tips the author's political hand. She is, to be sure, concerned about the lives of the less fortunate and less sanitized. She manages to convey both fascination and pity in her discussions of the poor's plumbing, health, clothing and entertainment.
This book should demonstrate once and for all that history is a form of politics. It's not that the author's politics are particularly odious, it's just that they're rather obvious. As the Cambridge philosopher/historian R.G. Collingwood argued, history invariably reveals more about the historian than about the past. On the other side of the debate are those partisans who maintain that history is — and ought to be — a scientific enterprise, a social science that can be verified like a mathematical proof.
The practice of history, despite what most historians tell us, is not a very honest profession. Historians lie and they steal. To anyone who witnessed the actual event, the historian can never get it right. The content is, by definition, stolen; its writer profits by retelling the acts and intentions of some hapless actor in yesteryear's playbill. Like her cousin the journalist (once removed), the historian is not to be trusted. Her trade can only be filed under the heading of "politics." Suggesting otherwise is like arguing that Dan Rather is an unbiased news source. Or that Tom Brokaw is an historian.
Even the well known quotations relating to history tell us more about the quoter than anything else. Consider the German philosopher G.W. Hegel's bromide that "what experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history." What then, is to be done? Listen to the philosophers of course. Preferably a German one. Oscar Wilde's bon mot that "the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it" tells us nothing about history and everything about Wilde — that he was a clever chap who said clever things that Americans like to quote. Or to rely on Wilde yet again, "anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it."
Debates about the purpose of history are nearly as old as the profession itself. Fortunately for the printers' union, the matter is not about to be settled anytime soon. Even if there is a new edition of E.H. Carr's "What is History," there is still no agreement as to the answer. If anything, the question itself is in doubt. The contextualists are lobbing their usual charges against the textualists, and the textualists themselves are embroiled in a sort of civil war—purging their own and denouncing traitors to the cause.
The problem with these debates is they're so obscure that unless you're downwind from the faculty lounge's pipe smoke, you won't take notice. In this sense, Liza Picard's book is welcome because it is decidedly not spiked with academic jargon. On the downside, the author's contribution to the dusty shelves of history will never be accused of being overly sophisticated. But unlike some of her contemporary pop-historians, and despite the political commentary laced throughout, her history lacks any sense of urgency: There is no verve and there is no narrative. She merely clucks through her original sources (journals, maps, medical registries, etc.) and pecks at the occasional quote by Dr. Johnson.
The author is a disciple of social history. She is concerned with how her subjects lived, what they ate, and how they died. This form of history stands in opposition to the more serious stuff: What in various circles is known as the "great man" theory of history or the "great idea" explanations. Given the considerable debate about what history should be, we cannot fault the subject of the book's focus, though. Any tour of London's dark streets of history will make its scatological stops. One may assume that the historian, in sifting through spools of raw data, runs across all varieties of ripe facts about sewage, sanitation and smells.
There is no doubt that this writer has spent quite a bit of time looking at William Hogarth's prints and researching their symbols. While Dr. Johnson's observations are salted at random throughout the text, a dozen pages rarely go by without a mention of Hogarth. The author seems to have appropriated the lithographer's vision as her own and, having done so, she selects a few statistics and conjures up some anecdote to bolster her Hogarthian outlook.
Coincidently, it is the discussion of Hogarth's most famous print, "Gin Lane," a moral depiction of London's gin epidemic, where the book's most lively writing and shocking figures comes to the surface. The numbers are staggering, "in 1730 the poor drank 6,658,788 gallons of 'official' gin, let alone what they brought from wheelbarrows." Also revived are these lost colloquialisms: "If you had been hicksius-doxius (drunk) you might well feel womblety cropt (hungover) the day after."
Nevertheless the seriousness and impartiality of these drinking pages are only soured when she the author later editorializes, "Gin drinking by the poor was deplored by the rich because it produced sickly children, or prevented their birth altogether, hence limiting the supply of cannon-fodder." These editorial excursions tell us more about the writer's contemporary politics than about differing class attitudes towards gin consumption.
While the discussion on the spectacle of public hangings gives an excellent indication about what Londoners thought was good wholesome entertainment, nasal moralizing pervades the entire section. Can the author really quantify her statement that "the trouble, or one of the troubles, with capital punishment is that it does not deter?" Altogether, her chatty tone (even when not childishly leftist) tends to irritate. For example, in a chapter on dentistry, under the subhead of "Decay," we get, "Any exposed nerve was cauterized with a red-hot wire, before the cavity was filled with lead (imagine the taste), pitch (ditto), beeswax (pointless) or gold (expensive)." In another section one comes across, "I must say I don't find it [a joke by Dr. Johnson] particularly funny, but then I would not have approved of Johnson's manners anyway, and I deplore Boswell's style." The same could be said of the writing in the book.
So perhaps "Dr. Johnson's London" does give some accurate rendition of London's ambiance after all: poor company and foggy politics across the ages.

Hans Nichols is a reporter for Insight magazine.

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