London's golden age of sex and violence

<i>1700: scenes from London life</i> by Maureen Waller (Hodder &amp; Stoughton, &pound;20) | <i>Con Men and Cutpurses: scenes from the Hogarthian underworld</i> by Lucy Moore (Allen Lane, &pound;18.99)
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The Independent Culture

You can't blame Londoners for wanting to move out of the 17th century, with its civil wars, plagues and fires, and begin again, refreshed and stable. However, the title of Maureen Waller's book is somewhat disingenuous: this book isn't about London "at a unique moment in its history" so much as a social study from 1660 to 1740. Clearly, the date is the midpoint rather than a focus.

You can't blame Londoners for wanting to move out of the 17th century, with its civil wars, plagues and fires, and begin again, refreshed and stable. However, the title of Maureen Waller's book is somewhat disingenuous: this book isn't about London "at a unique moment in its history" so much as a social study from 1660 to 1740. Clearly, the date is the midpoint rather than a focus.

That aside, Waller floods her 400 pages with a treasury of detail. Midwives, whose moral fibre was more important than any medical skills in obtaining a licence, could not use surgical instruments as they did not belong to a professional body; we learn the derivation of "gossips" (women who oversee a birth), and of efforts to promote the virtues of vegetables and "sallets". Coffee was suspected of causing impotence - men would return from coffee houses "with nothing stiff but their joints", according to one source. A foreigner found football to be "very troublesome and insolent". And apprentices were "forbidden to fornicate or marry" for fear that they would steal from their masters in order to finance mistresses or families.

Unfortunately the detail struggles to merge into an overall narrative. Quotes from the likes of Daniel Defoe, Hannah Woolley and Aphra Behn lie as uneasy foundations for generalisations. We're told, for example, that the sexual drive of the poor was lower than that of the affluent classes. Newly married couples would, apparently, "almost certainly" have a copy of Aristotle's Masterpiece - the Joy of Sex of its day - although most people couldn't read, let alone afford, books. However, although the style splutters at times when it should be on full throttle, there are enough nuggets in this ambitious first work to recommend it - you just need a pan and patience.

Lucy Moore, on the other hand, dumps the gold straight into our laps. Con Men and Cutpurses is a sure-fire study of the 18th-century criminal underworld, replete with stories of those who stole, maimed or killed their way to "their triangular home" at Tyburn. Moore, deftly picking a pocket or two herself, introduces each first-hand account concisely.

We are introduced to the brutal Dr Fabricius, who beat his servant Grace Shaw to death (servant-beatings were frighteningly common), and William Duell who, after being hanged for murder, miraculously came back to life some hours later while awaiting dissection on a surgeon's table. His sentence was subsequently commuted to transportation.

Jenny Diver, the most accomplished pickpocket of her generation, employed fake arms to carry out her trade. The acquittal of William Robins for the rape of seven-year-old Mary Tabor illustrates just how ineffectual the courts were when it came to protecting children. Contrast this with the full force of the law that was applied to consenting homosexuals, those "monsters of human nature".

Even as the broadsides of historical fact sink myths, the adventure survives. Richard Turpin, for example, took a few months longer than the fabled overnight ride to get to York. As with so many others, his death hardly deterred crime but rather glamorised it. Sobbing women would line the route to the gallows where the highwayman had to stamp his leg to quell the trembling. Losing face was worse than losing life.

A similar book on politicians of the time would hardly set the heart stirring. Bad boys and girls always seem more exciting. Those who flaunted their ill-gotten wealth were destined to make one final purchase: death would buy them glory. Did I enjoy this book? Guilty as charged.

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