“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. With the arrival of the railroads in the Victorian Era, an already serious problem got considerably worse.
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…London. 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… 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.
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. When I was young (in the 1950s and 1960s), comedians were still telling jokes at London’s expense.
Even with all its problems, London was a fascinating city, the financial capital of the world, with every type of entertainment venue available to all. Darcy had the best of both worlds: a townhouse in London and a country home in Derbyshire. And, let’s face it, Sherlock Holmes needed the fog as much as his pipe and deerslayer cap.
I think Darcy and Elizabeth finding each other in London’s fog would make for an interesting vignette. What do you think?
*The asthmatic William III bought Kensington Palace, the former Nottingham House, outside of London, in 1689 in order to get away from “sooty London.”