On The Famous Voyage: Finding London’s Lost River

the fleet by samuel scott

The Fleet River. Samuel Scott, 1750.

London’s major river is, of course, the Thames but, as the capital’s antiquarians will tell you, there are more than a dozen ancient tributaries hidden beneath the surface of the modern metropolis. The largest of these smaller rivers is the River Fleet, which flows from the largest stretch of common green in London, at Hampstead Heath, to Blackfriars Bridge, where it enters the Thames. This is a journey, not just from North London to the River, but also through the history of the City from Ancient to Modern times, marking some colourful characters and encompassing some bewildering changes along the way.

Cities are typically built along rivers to provide drinking water, transport, defense, and sewage removal. The Fleet has served all of these functions over London’s long history. As place-names along its banks (Brideswell, Clerkenwell) suggest, many wells were built along the Fleet in Roman and Saxon times, although, as we shall see, the purity of its waters were not set to be a defining feature as London grew.

The Fleet (‘tidal inlet’ in Anglo-Saxon) initially provided a waterway which served London from the North and, in a later incarnation as the New Canal, was part of the network which brought coal from the North of England to fuel the rapidly industrializing London of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even after the canals were superseded by road and rail and entirely covered over in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the valley carved by the Fleet continued to form the basis for some of London’s modern arteries, such as Farringdon Road and the Metropolitan Railway line (although it resisted having an underground railway line–that which would become the Jubilee Line–lain beneath it by repeatedly flooding tunnels).

Defensively, the Fleet has a rather inglorious history. It is unclear how the Fleet was utilized by the Romans and it seems rarely to have been called upon subsequently. A second century boat carrying ragstone (possibly intended for building the city wall) was discovered in 1962, sunk at the mouth of the river.

Much later, the Fleet’s banks were built up into earthworks during the Civil War, when London was very much a Parliamentarian (‘Roundhead’) stronghold. The Royalist armies, however, never threatened the capital, with Charles II’s return to the City being by invitation rather than by conquest. During one of the great crises of the restored king’s reign in 1666, desperate Londoners were hopeful that the Fleet would provide an effective break against the Great Fire as it reached its third day. Here the Fleet proved as ineffective as the civic defenses and the Fire jumped the Fleet ditch, ultimately allowing it to claim St Paul’s Cathedral.

Of course, the most serious modern military threat to London came from the air in the form of the Luftwaffe. The old river beneath Fleet Street could offer no protection when Serjeant’s Inn, one of the oldest legal precincts in England, was destroyed during the Blitz.

It is with the removal of sewage and other waste, or at least with its failure to do so effectively, with which the Fleet is most famously associated. As London grew, the Fleet increasingly became a repository for whatever the city’s inhabitants wanted to get rid of. The medieval meat markets which grew up to feed the expanding population soon became problematic and in 1290 the Carmelite monks complained that the offal deposited in the river by butchers at a nearby market (the delightfully-named Shambles, at Newgate) was constantly blocking what was, at this point, a stream.

Copperplate_map_Fleet

The southern end of the Fleet, 1550s.

Although all manner of industries poured waste into the Fleet, it was the offal and dead animals in various forms which seemed to catch the imagination of early modern satirists of the capital. Ben Jonson’s (c. 1612) mock-epic poem which lends its title to this article was a litany of classical references intertwined with toilet humour and social satire and described the diverse pollutants of the river with considerable gusto:

Your Fleet Lane Furies; and hot cooks do dwell,
That, with still-scalding steams, make the place hell.
The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs,
The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of dogs:
For, to say truth, what scullion is so nasty,
To put the skins, and offal in a pasty?
Cats there lay divers had been flayed and roasted,
And, after mouldy grown, again were toasted,
Then, selling not, a dish was ta’en to mince them,
But still, it seemed, the rankness did convince them.
For, here they were thrown in with the melted pewter,
Yet drowned they not. They had five lives in future.

Jonson’s influence and the continued assault of the Fleet upon the senses continued into the eighteenth century: Jonathan Swift’s “Drown’d Puppies” and “Dead Cats” of 1710’s A Description of a City Shower, floating amongst the offal and turnip-tops, were echoed by Alexander Pope’s “large tribute of dead dogs to the Thames” in 1728’s Dunciad.

The enthusiasm of these men for describing the sewage, of which the Fleet’s waters seemed largely comprised, was hardly less. Jonson’s ‘voyage’ was taken down a river where “Arses were heard to croak, instead of frogs”. His Fleet contained the contents of every ‘night-tub’ from an overcrowded metropolis, where “each privy’s seat/ Is filled with buttock” and the very “walls do sweat Urine”. This state of affairs is compounded by the diet of a city where “every clerk eats artichokes, and peason, Laxative lettuce, and such windy meat”. In 1700, Thomas Brown has his narrator, an ‘Indian’ revealing the strange “Manners, Customs, and Religions” practiced by the various “Nations” of London to his readers, shove an impudent rag-seller into the kennel [1] in the centre of the street with the words:

Tho’ I want nothing out of your Shops, methinks you all want good Manners and Civility, that are ready to tear a New Sute (suit) from my Back, under pretence of selling me an Olde one; Avant Vermin, your Cloaths smell as rankly of Newgate and Tyburn, as the bedding to be sold at the Ditch-side near Fleet-Bridge, smells of Bawdy-House and Brandy.

Brown’s tone is lighthearted and playful, but some of the associations he makes are telling. The visceral nature of these accounts certainly reflected a literal reality but they also had a metaphorical dimension in which it was the excesses and vices of London itself which were clogging up its abused waterways. The writers were playing, not just on the Fleet’s role in waste disposal, but also on the reputation of those who occupied its banks. In Jonathan Swift’s A Description of a City Shower, in particular, a storm washing through London links the different areas and strata of the city together through its flow.

The Fleet flowed past Bridewell and the Fleet prisons and through areas such as Clerkenwell, notorious for sheltering heretics, thieves, and prostitutes from the arms of the law. Here the bodies floating downstream alongside the unfortunate cats and dogs might be human. The industries around the river were messy and disease was known to cling to its slums. The Dunciad plays on the Fleet’s use as an open sewer by having the hack-writers, who are one of the principal subjects of Pope’s ire, swim in it. The implication was as clear as Pope’s Fleet was ‘muddy’. Much later, Charles Dickens’ child-warping pick-pocket, Fagin, would have his den alongside the Fleet.

From the early attempts by the Carmelites to keep the river unblocked to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century attempt to make it serve as a canal, the smell and the constant need for dredging could not be overcome. So impossible was it to contain the flood of effluent that, even after the river was paved over during the later part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, the build-up of trapped gas exploded near Blackfriars in 1846, taking out three posthouses and a steamboat in the process. It must have seemed as though the truth would not be hidden beneath the streets. Eventually, however, the Great Stink of 1858 preceded a concerted effort to enclose the city’s sewers and a London more familiar to us today emerged.

Dr. J.V.P. Jenkins is a historian and freelance editor from London. He earned his BA, Master’s, and Doctorate at Swansea University. He is the new co-editor of Dirty, Sexy History and sometimes tweets @JVPolsomJenkins.

Sources

Brown, Thomas. Amusements serious and comical, calculated for the meridian of London (1700)
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist (1839)
Jonson, Ben. On The Famous Voyage (c.1612)
Pope, Alexander. Dunciad (1728)
Swift, Jonathan. A Description of a City Shower (1710)
Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography (Anchor; New York, 2003)
Brown, Laura. Fables of Modernity: Literature and Culture in the English Eighteenth Century (Cornell U.P., 2003)
Gray, Robert. A History of London (Taplinger; New York, 1979)

[1] An open gutter, running down the middle of the street. The 1671 Sewage and Paving Act had prescribed moving the kennel from the center of the street to an open side drain set off by a raised pavement. The main thoroughfares were also to be cambered (built up in middle for drainage and paved) but these measures were not instantly applied to all streets.

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English Horrors Through the Eyes of a French Romantic

Not long ago a fellow Historical Novel Society member was lamenting the fact that the Stuart dynasty does not get enough exposure. I see the tide turning. More and more English history novels are set during the English Civil War and the Cromwellian era. Let’s not forget some of the 19th century classics who drew inspiration from that time period. Everyone knows Blackmore’s Lorna Doone. However, not as many readers are familiar with Victor Hugo’s L’homme qui rit.

The Man Who Laughs is Victor Hugo’s last exile novel written over the course of fifteen months. This novel did not receive nearly as much fame as Notre-Dame de Paris or Les Misérables did. “Serious” critics condemn The Man Who Laughs for its brutalities and absurdities. Ordinary readers often brand this novel as a Two-Beauties-and-the-Beast story.

The protagonist, Gwynplaine, is a disfigured sideshow performer whose face had been carved into a perpetual grin by an amoral surgeon who made a fortune creating monsters. Gwynplaine is coveted by two beauties, one of which is Dea, a blind actress and a childhood friend who only perceives his noble soul while remaining oblivious to his outward deformity, and the other Josiana, a spoiled duchess who yearns to escape the stagnant routine of the royal court by taking a hideous mountebank for a lover.
hugo-gwynplaine

This bizarre love triangle is what most readers remember from the novel. There is a lengthy and graphic seduction scene that many readers revisit time after time. Although disturbing, this scene is a stunning segment of extremely articulate and sensual prose. However, there are equally articulate, if less arousing, passages that deal with English history and politics.

Unfortunately, many readers skip over those passages. The political component in the novel is just as significant as the romantic one. Hugo did not include politics and history to divert the story line. Politics and romance were not intended to rival but to complement each other.

The protagonist’s pseudo-Celtic name, presumably derived from the Welsh word “gwyn” for “white,” connotes innocence and purity. The Celtic origin of the name also suggests estrangement from the English culture.

Very few readers remember the reason why the protagonist was disfigured in the first place. Gwynplaine’s natural father remained a supporter of the Republic even after the Restoration. The hapless child and his father are both depicted as victims of monarchy. First Charles II exiles the father, and later James II sanctions the kidnapping and the disfigurement of the child.

In the novel, Cromwell himself never makes a personal appearance. We learn about him by examining the lives of those who had outlived him. The action takes place well after Cromwell’s death, from 1690 to 1705.

Hugo devotes an entire chapter to the protagonist’s natural father, a fictitious rebel lord by the name of Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie, Baron Clancharlie and Hunkerville, one of the few lords who remained loyal to the Republic even after the fall of Cromwell. Refusing to accept the return of Stuarts to the throne, Lord Clancharlie flees to Switzerland and marries Anne Bradshaw, a fictitious daughter of John Bradshaw, one of the key regicides.

Gwynplaine, whose real name is Fermain, is the fruit of this marriage and the only legitimate heir to his father’s estates. Back in England Lord Clancharlie also has an illegitimate son David with Lady Dirry-Moir, a Scottish noblewoman who refused to follow him to Switzerland and chose to give herself to Charles II.

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Lord Chancharlie in the 1928 film adaptation

Hugo goes to great lengths describing the plight of Lord Clancharlie and the utter lack of sympathy from his former friends who pledged allegiance to the Stuart dynasty after the Restoration.

Linnaeus Baron Clancharlie, a contemporary of Cromwell, was one of the peers of England — few in number, be it said — who accepted the republic. It was a matter of course that Lord Clancharlie should adhere to the republic, as long as the republic had the upper hand; but after the close of the revolution and the fall of the parliamentary government, Lord Clancharlie had persisted in his fidelity to it.

Hugo describes the euphoria that engulfed England after the Restoration:

England was happy; a restoration is as the reconciliation of husband and wife, prince and nation return to each other, no state can be more graceful or more pleasant. Great Britain beamed with joy; to have a king at all was a good deal — but furthermore, the king was a charming one. Charles II was amiable — a man of pleasure, yet able to govern; and great, if not after the fashion of Louis XIV. He was essentially a gentleman.

Lord Clancharlie, who refuses to partake in this jubilation, is regarded as a madman by his contemporaries.

Plainly a dupe and traitor in one. Let a man be as great a fool as he likes, so that he does not set a bad example. Fools need only be civil, and in consideration thereof they may aim at being the basis of monarchies. The narrowness of Clancharlie’s mind was incomprehensible. His eyes were still dazzled by the phantasmagoria of the revolution. He had allowed himself to be taken in by the republic — yes; and cast out. He was an affront to his country.

Hugo mentions George Monk, 1st Duke of Albemarle (1608-1669), the “prodigal son” of English monarchy, who originally supported Richard Cromwell but then was instrumental in restoring the Stuarts to the throne. Linnaeus Clancharlie’s “madness” and treachery are juxtaposed to Monk’s “wisdom”:

Take Monk’s case. He commands the republican army. Charles II, having been informed of his honesty, writes to him. Monk, who combines virtue with tact, dissimulates at first, then suddenly at the head of his troops dissolves the rebel parliament, and re-establishes the king on the throne. Monk is created Duke of Albemarle, has the honour of having saved society, becomes very rich, sheds a glory over his own time, is created Knight of the Garter, and has the prospect of being buried in Westminster Abbey. Such glory is the reward of British fidelity!

mjneary

Ursus, illustration from 1870 edition

It is important to stress that it is the post-Restoration society that views Linnaeus Clancharlie as a madman. Hugo himself views his hero as a martyr. Hugo’s loyalties invariably lie on the side of the outcast. He had always sympathized with those who were ridiculed by the masses. Because Hugo himself was living in exile while writing The Man Who Laughs, it is obvious that Lord Clancharlie’s fate parallels his own. Hugo presents Linnaeus Clancharlie as a man of principle, someone who chose exile and ridicule over communion with those whose political views he did not share.

Ursus, the foster-father of the protagonist, claims to be as a supporter of monarchy throughout the novel, but does so for unique reasons. Being a self-proclaimed misanthrope, he cannot possibly be a patriot. He accepts monarchy and overall social hierarchy as status quo, as a natural state of things. Inside his caravan, Ursus keeps a roster with the names of English aristocrats and detailed description of their respective estates. Next to Lord Clancharlie’s name he has a handwritten note: “Rebel; in exile; houses, lands, and chattels sequestrated. It is well.”

man-who-laughs-baclanova

Josiana in Paul Leni’s 1928 adaptation

When Gwynplaine makes a comment about the image of Queen Anne on a coin representing oppression, Ursus scolds him for insolence. “Watch over your abominable jaws. There is a rule for the great — to do nothing; and a rule for the small — to say nothing. The poor man has but one friend, silence.” It is apparent from this passage that it is not patriotism that compels Ursus to defend the Queen. The old man promotes silence and humility merely for the sake of one’s safety.

Later, when Lady Josiana attends a performance of Chaos Vanquished, an amateur play in which Gwynplaine plays the leading role, Ursus exclaims: “She is more than a goddess. She is a duchess.” This statement implies that, in Ursus’ understanding, secular hierarchy overrides divine laws. This very statement awakens suspicion and insecurity in Dea, whose name incidentally means “goddess” in Latin. The blind girl becomes aware of her inferiority to the brilliant socialite.

gwynplaine-at-the-chamber-of-lords-illustration-from-l-homme-qui-rit-19th-century

Gwynplaine’s speech at the House of Lords. 19th century illustration

When Gwynplaine learns about his aristocratic origin and enters the House of Lords, he expresses his indignation with monarchy before his peers. In his speech addressed to the lords, Gwynplaine speaks rather unfavorably of the two kings who came after Cromwell. He also condemns, quite brazenly, Lady Dirry-Moir, his father’s former mistress who chose to take the side of Charles II:

How I execrate kings! And how shameless are the women! I have been told a sad story. How I hate Charles II! A woman whom my father loved gave herself to that king whilst my father was dying in exile. The prostitute! Charles II, James II! After a scamp, a scoundrel. What is there in a king? A man, feeble and contemptible, subject to wants and infirmities. Of what good is a king? You cultivate that parasite royalty; you make a serpent of that worm, a dragon of that insect.

Furthermore, Gwynplaine expresses nostalgia for the era he had not lived through himself but one that his father had witnessed. He brings up the Republic as a form of earthly paradise:

There will come an hour when convulsion shall break down your oppression; when an angry roar will reply to your jeers. Nay, that hour did come! Thou wert of it, O my father! That hour of God did come, and was called the Republic! It was destroyed, but it will return. Meanwhile, remember that the line of kings armed with the sword was broken by Cromwell, armed with the axe. Tremble!

Gwynplaine’s reference to Cromwell amuses the lords, because in 1705 monarchy was not in danger. Revolution was not a realistic menace. Cromwell was but a distant memory. A significant component of Gwynplaine tragedy is that he is fighting for a hopeless cause. The lords whom he addresses with such passion and indignation realize the security of their situation. Like his natural father, Lord Clancharlie, Gwynplaine is just a madman in the eyes of the English aristocracy.

The novel ends tragically. After being ridiculed and insulted by the lords, Gwynplaine flees the Parliament in hopes to return to his old life as an entertainer. For a brief moment he reunites with his old family, Ursus and Dea, only to find that the girl is deadly ill. When Dea dies in his arms, Gwynplaine throws themanwholaughsposterhimself in the Thames and drowns.

There have been several theatrical and cinematic adaptations of The Man Who Laughs of varying success and quality. Not all of them highlight the political nuances of the original novel. Two screen adaptations particularly stand out: the 1928 silent film by Paul Leni and the 1971 French miniseries by Jean Kerchbron.

The 1928 version opens with a scene of Lord Clancharlie’s execution that is not described in the novel, but the rest of the film focuses primarily on the love story and the concept of universal justice. The English monarchy is ridiculed rather than criticized. To please the audience, the director chooses a happy ending. The young lovers, their aging foster-father and the pet wolf all reunite and sail off to France.

The 1971 version is a less known but more thorough and faithful adaptation. There are several graphic torture scenes that are taken directly from the novel.

Gwynplaine’s speech in the Parliament is also taken from the original text almost word for word. All historical references to Cromwell and the Republic were included. Kerchbron believed it important to preserve the political context, without which much of Hugo’s message would be lost. Taking republican politics out of The Man Who Laughs is like taking Gothic architecture out of Notre-Dame de Paris. Kerchbron’s faithfulness to the original text is commendable.

M. J. Neary 

16958_321447571977_6886780_nAn only child of classical musicians, M.J. Neary is an award-winning, internationally acclaimed expert on military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl. Notable achievements include a trilogy revolving the Anglo-Irish conflict, including Never Be at Peace, a novel of Irish rebels. She continues to explore the topic of ethnic tension in her autobiographical satire Saved by the Bang: a Nuclear Comedy.

Her latest release is a cyber mystery Trench Coat Pal set in Westport, CT at the dawn of the internet era. Colored with the same dark misanthropic humor as the rest of Neary’s works, Trench Coat Pal features a cast of delusional and forlorn New Englanders who become pawns in an impromptu revenge scheme devised by a self-proclaimed Robin Hood. A revised edition of Wynfield’s Kingdom, her debut Neo-Victorian thriller, was recently released through Crossroad Press. Wynfield’s War is the sequel following the volatile protagonist to the Crimea. Set in 1910 Ireland, Big Hero of a Small Country is a tragic and violent tale of a family ravaged by an ideological conflict. You can visit her blog here.

GIVEAWAY: Comment below to win an e-book copy of Wynfield’s Kingdom

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and Venus in Furs

“Alas, woman is faithful as long as she loves, but you demand that she be faithful without love and give herself without enjoyment. Who is cruel then, woman or man?”

You know you’ve made it
when a sexual practice
gets named after you

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895) was an Austrian writer. Though he wrote many works during his lifetime including romantic stories of Galician life, he is best known for his masterwork, Venus in Furs, a journey into masochism based in no small part on his own experiences. 

Oh, and masochism itself, of course. It was named after him.

Venus in Furs

“Love knows no virtue, no merit; it loves and forgives and tolerates everything because it must. We are not guided by reason…”

Venus in Furs, in its essence, is about love. The hero, Severin, submits himself to Wanda von Dunajew in his quest to understand it. He believes that to love is to suffer, so there is no truer way to demonstrate his love than to suffer for (and because of) it. Love isn’t comfort or even mutual respect. Love is pain. This is not exactly a romance, but an investigation into the nature of love itself. For Severin, love is a woman wielding a whip. 

“I love her passionately with a morbid intensity; madly as one can only love a woman who never responds to our love with anything but an eternally uniform, eternally calm, stony smile.”

La Venus a la Fourrure

Polanski’s La Venus a la Fourrure (2013) was a film adaptation of David Ives’ 2010 play, Venus in Fur. It’s a masterful retelling of the story. It’s filmed in a single set, a theater after hours where a director (Mathieu Amalric) has just finished day of watching auditions for the part of Wanda Von Dunajew for his own adaptation of Venus in Furs. An actress (Emmanuelle Seigner) stumbles in out of the rain as he is packing up, and begs for an audition. He reluctantly agrees, and as the audition goes on and begins to take over the night, we begin to wonder who this actress really is. Is she an actress, is she Wanda come to life, or is she Venus herself? The poor director believes himself to be in control right up until the moment the boots come out. 

This modern retelling manages to capture much more of the spirit of Venus in Furs than even a period piece could. The story is there, told in pieces of dialogue read by the actress and director, but the story and meaning is between the lines (pardon the pun). He is taken in, he questions his sanity, and is utterly undone by the embodiment of a goddess. Our Venus is submissive to no one. She doesn’t like his portrayal of women, and she’s there to reeducate him.

There’s more to this than meets the eye, however. After publishing Venus in Furs, Von Sacher Masoch himself apparently began receiving letters from a mysterious woman who identified herself only as Wanda Von Dunajew. She eventually showed up in person, claiming to be his character, and he married her.

There have been a few works of art inspired by Venus in Furs over the years, most notably the song by the Velvet Underground. Here is a live version John Cale did on his own, and I actually prefer it to the original (that’s saying something). Enjoy.