Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dickens' London and Mr. Darcy's, Too

“Hell is a city much like London — A Populous and smoky city” Percy Bysshe Shelley*

The excerpt below is taken from the opening paragraphs of Chapter I of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. It is a brilliant description of what London was like in 1852-53 when Bleak House was serialized. However, it is not that far off from a description of London in the time of Fitzwilliam Darcy. By 1812, there were a million souls living in London, and most of them heated their homes and cooked their meals with coal. When combined with soot pouring out of industrial chimneys and the mists and fogs of the Thames Valley, the result was London's famous pea-soup fog, a thick and often yellowish, greenish, or blackish smog caused by air pollution containing soot particulates and the poisonous gas sulfur dioxide. With the arrival of the railroads in the Victorian Era, an already serious problem got considerably worse.

Nelson's Column - Trafalgar Square
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds…
Double-decker Bus

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

It would be 100 years later, after the Great Smog of 1953, when an estimated 4,000 people died prematurely, and 100,000 more were made ill because of the smog's effects on the human respiratory tract, that laws were passed to clean up England’s polluted cities.

*The asthmatic William III bought Kensington Palace, the former Nottingham House, outside of London, in 1689 in order to get away from "sooty London."