FEW HISTORIES OF London can resist retelling the city’s most enduring rags-to-riches story. Dick Whittington, an orphaned boy from the country, seeks his fortune in London, where, he has heard, “the streets are paved with gold.” Finding instead a pot-washing job in the domain of a bullying cook, he decides eventually to run away. But as he is leaving the city, he is stopped by the sound of church bells, which ring out: “Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London.” He turns around, and when he arrives again in the city, he finds that he has come into a vast sum of money. A king, whose palace is infested with rodents, has bought his cat, a ruthless mouse-catcher. Power follows riches, and the story ends with the fulfillment of the bells’ prophecy.
The story dates from the early 1600s and has been adapted for every popular medium since then. In 1668, Samuel Pepys watched a “puppet-show of Whittington” at Southwark Fair; the great clown Joseph Grimaldi acted the part of the female cook in the first pantomime version in 1814; Joseph Jacobs included it in his first collection of fairy tales. The more recent the telling, the more ingenious Whittington’s cat becomes and the more instrumental in his master’s fortunes.
Two new books on the city’s history, London: A Social and Cultural History, 1550-1750 and Johnson’s Life of London—by the city’s current mayor, Boris Johnson—dutifully point out that the story is based on the less-than-admirable life of Sir Richard Whittington, a fifteenth-century merchant. This Whittington did not own a cat and was never a scullery boy, though he was elected mayor three times, in 1397, 1406, and 1419. If you are looking for a story about opportunity in London, Johnson suggests, look no further than Sir Richard’s inglorious biography. Not only was he a money-lender, but he sat as a judge in usury trials in the 1420s. For Johnson, Whittington’s fairytale afterlife is “a powerful lesson in how a top financier can sanitize his reputation and win the undying affection of the public,” even if he has to enlist a feline sidekick.
Robert O. Bucholz and Joseph P. Ward also wring a moral from the tale of Dick Whittington in their social and cultural history of London. For them, what matters is neither the fable of a poor boy making good, nor the reality of the rich man making good. It is that Londoners used the story to tell their children that “there was endless opportunity in London if only they worked hard and persisted.” And in this, the authors claim, Londoners were different from the rest of their countrymen.
Much of the book is consumed by a quest to pin down the characteristics of a “Londoner.” This impossible task is almost forced on Bucholz and Ward by the type of history they decided to write. The book is not a history of the towering figures who shaped the city, as Johnson’s is. Whereas Johnson gives us chapters on Joseph Bazalgette and his sewers, W. T. Stead’s tabloid journalism, and Dick Whittington’s reputation-management, Bucholz and Ward prefer “The Socioeconomic Base,” “The Public Sphere and Popular Culture,” and “Royal and Civic London.” They are concerned with the changing structure of society, and its “implications for [the] mental and social outlook [of people who lived in the city], or what historians call mentalité.” The terminology (mentalité, anomie, nexus) and approach are typical of an academic study, although the authors often take a chatty tone, apparently intended to beckon a wider audience. They mention the influential figures of the period only in relation to new laws, changes in government, or the rise of institutions such as the Royal Society or the British Museum. Without these historical figures, they take the “Londoner” for their hero.
In their account, London had always offered its inhabitants greater opportunities than other places, because the class system in the city was less rigid. As in the countryside, there were aristocrats, gentry, and laborers, whose rank was determined by birth. But there were also livery companies, powerful associations of tradesmen (the Lord Mayor was almost always a Liveryman) whose members had to be skilled. The ascendancy of this group, and later of the stock-traders or “moneyed men,” the authors argue, helps to explain “how the sleepy port and court town of a second-rate power on the fringes of Europe became an imperial capital” by 1750, despite the ravages of the Great Fire of 1666 and the worst ever outbreak of plague the previous year. The city was built and then rebuilt on a culture of enterprise.
What they go on to argue is more contentious: that as the city’s inhabitants adapted to the change around them, there sprang up a new kind of person, with distinctive habits of mind, character traits. “That combination of proud humility, recalcitrant loyalty, and spirited resilience known to all the world as a Londoner.”
Certainly the experience of living in London between 1550 and 1750 would have been unlike living anywhere else in England. With a population of 120,000 in 1550, London was ten times the size of Bristol, Norwich, or York—the next largest cities—while most people lived in villages of between 50 and 500 inhabitants. Although they were not necessarily wealthier, in London people had access to luxuries and safeguards that did not exist elsewhere: they could visit theatres, bowling alleys, and pleasure gardens; after the time of the Great Fire, they could buy insurance policies; with the rise of newspapers, they could write anonymously to advice columns or answer an ad promising to cure sexually transmitted disease without “telling their Case to anyone.” Daniel Defoe overlooked some of the city’s glaring disadvantages (“People fill the cellars,” reported the French Ambassador) when he declared that “the poorest citizens live like the rich, the rich like the gentry, the gentry like the nobility, and the nobility strive to outshine one another.”
One of the problems with trying to find a typical “Londoner” is that this could not have been a particularly stable identity, when people from outside the capital were moving there in vast numbers, bringing diverse customs and manners with them. In the sixteenth century, there were 40 deaths for every 35 births in the capital, yet its population continued to grow, reaching 675,000 by 1750. And the ranks of Londoners swelled as the city itself expanded. While the official boundaries of the City of London—the square mile in the center of London, dominated today by the financial services industry—did not change, it was now joined with newly developed, outer-lying areas such as Holborn, Charing Cross, the Strand, and Mayfair. “London is got a great way from the stream/ I think she means to go to Islington,” was the accurate prediction of Thomas Freeman in 1614 in his poem London’s Progress.
Bucholz and Ward have a frustrating habit of glossing over sources that raise these problems. Writing in the Spectator, Joseph Addison called London “an Aggregate of various Nations distinguished from each other by their respective Customs, Manners, and Interests.” People from St James’s, Cheapside, the Temple, and Smithfield, he thought, differed “by several Climates and Degrees in their way of thinking and conversing together.” James Boswell “often amused [himself] thinking how different a place London [was] to different people”:
A politician thinks of it merely as the seat of government in its different departments; a grazier, as a vast market for cattle; a mercantile man, as a place where a prodigious deal of business is done […]; a man of pleasure, as an assemblage of taverns, and the great emporium for ladies of easy virtue.
Bucholz and Ward quote both of these writers, only to decide blithely that they must have suffered from an analytic blind spot. “People in early Modern England might have had trouble defining the place, but they knew London when they saw it.”
Yet their evidence of a more united city—or, in their unwieldy turn of phrase, the “popular cultural formations that often crossed class and gender lines”—is remarkably flawed. In their chapter on “the Public Sphere and Popular Culture,” Bucholz and Ward claim that newspapers, taverns, clubs, coffeehouses, and pleasure gardens all created communities that gave Londoners a sense of belonging. But in each case, the caveats are so great that descriptions of these places ultimately seem more like the fragmented society described by Addison and Boswell. They praise the Spectator for creating “the atmosphere of a club” among its readers, only to criticize its exclusivity in the next sentence: “Note who is omitted from the club: there are no craftsmen, laborers, or servants.” Similarly, coaching inns, although they helped newcomers feel welcome, “did not tend to make London more integrated”—the note of disappointment is striking.
A sentimental attachment to the idea of “the Londoner” gets the better of these historians. The city’s innovations are not celebrated for their own sake but because they serve the alleged Londoner identity. We are told: “the art that both celebrated and criticized London assisted men and women in becoming Londoners.” “Poems like this must have fostered a knowing solidarity among readers … yet another way in which Londoners learned how to be Londoners.” Freedom of the press helped to “ameliorate the worst aspects of the modern urban experience and turn men and women into Londoners.” This idealizing bent produces the book’s most ludicrous sentence, which describes people “living, dying and all the while ever becoming Londoners”—posthumously, we have to imagine.
There is even an element of indulgent role-playing in the way the book is written. The first and last chapters are fictional, first-person accounts of the authors’ journey through the city. They tell us how they have to cross the Thames on a humble boat because they are “poor scholars,” and how they hold onto their purses in Fleet Street, where (as they would be warned today) pickpockets operate. These episodes seem devised to supply a sense of atmosphere that is lacking in the more conventional middle section. Instead, I found myself wondering which was the more fanciful: the time-traveling tourists they impersonate or the faceless, general “Londoner” they describe. It’s a very close contest.
Laura Marsh is on the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books. Follow: @lmlauramarsh.