Shadowbox: London in 1832

While half of the action in SHADOWBOX, my latest novel, takes place in Paris, the other half of the story happens in London.

In fact, London is at the heart of the story.

A mighty mass of brick, and smoke, and shipping,
Dirty and dusty, but as wide as eye
Could reach, with here and there a sail just skipping
In sight, then lost amidst the forestry
Of masts; a wilderness of steeples peeping
On tiptoe through their sea-coal canopy;
A huge, dun cupola, like a foolscap crown
On a fool’s head—and there is London Town. ― Byron, Don Juan

London Bridge by George Yates (1832)

London Bridge by George Yates (1832)

London in 1832 has a strange feel about it. Neither late Georgian nor early Victorian, the city almost hangs in limbo between two great eras, holding its breath, while William IV reigns.

Waiting for the tide to turn.

Huddled in the shadows of a waning moon, before the splendour to come.

“It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names…and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city…inhabited by and teeming with people of every colour and manner and kind.” ― Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

Of course, the city was neither waiting nor in limbo.

It began to sprawl and to swarm with the great swelling of people that would turn it into the pinnacle of Empire by the time of Jack The Ripper.

Already by 1832, London was home to a great range of peoples, from all religions and nations, some brought to Britain as refugees, and some as slaves.

GODEFROY DURAND (b.1832) London Bridge, 1st May

GODEFROY DURAND (b.1832) London Bridge, 1st May

“It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent. You can draw up a tremendous list of reasons why it should be insupportable. The fogs, the smoke, the dirt, the darkness, the wet, the distances, the ugliness, the brutal size of the place, the horrible numerosity of society…” ― Henry James

Within the goldsmiths quarter around Hatton Garden, many of the craftsmen and artisans had continental names. Jewish and Huguenot refugees came in the 16th century, fleeing religious intolerance.

Some of those firms survive to this day.

Godfrey Woolverham, the secondary hero of SHADOWBOX, has a heritage of Walloon Catholics and Danish Presbyterianism. His girlfriend is Polish, and his contemporaries are Jewish, Irish, Scots.

Godfrey works for a living. His family background is essential to the story, his situation as a second-generation immigrant essential to his character.

Louis Beauregard, on the other hand, has an independent income and has no need of work, or earning a living, and can travel as he pleases. His background, what we know of it, is privileged, gentrified, the sort which populates the corridors of power.

At the start of the novel he is fleeing a crime he cannot forget, committed in London. And the Thames is at the heart of his troubles.

York Water Gate and the Adelphi from the River by Moonlight (c. 1850, oil on canvas) by Henry Pether

York Water Gate and the Adelphi from the River by Moonlight (c. 1850, oil on canvas) by Henry Pether

The London of 1832 had yet to solidify around the river.

The embankments which trammel the Thames through the city had not yet been built.

Construction of the Thames Embankment in 1854 with London Bridge in the background

Construction of the Thames Embankment in 1854 with London Bridge in the background

Bridges spanned the wide Thames from the Tower of London to Westminster.

Regent’s Canal entered from the north, bringing goods from the Midlands and the Home Counties to be stocked by London’s shops or exported through the deep-water port to the cities of Empire.

The great sandstone terraces in the west end curved around unpaved streets which had no names.

The city’s reputation as a centre of world power was on the rise.

But on the maps of the time there are still green spaces in the inner city.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields has a square of parkland which has vanished by the latter half of the 19th century.

The Ratcliffe Highway is unpaved, reaching out to the Essex marshes in a long dirt track eastwards, matched by the dirty King’s Road through the suburbs of Chelsea to the turnpike gate.

A walled city, London, in 1832 – but not so firmly constrained as Paris, the barriers less tangible, more of the mind than bricks and mortar. Lack of violent invasion or the threat thereof, and a strong navy defending the Channel ports, meant there was no need for anything more than the turnpikes and excise roads.

Barclay and Perkins's Brewery, Park Street, Southwark. Oil on canvas. This view shows the entrance to the Brewery in Park Street with the office block at the rear of the yard. On the extreme right is Great Brewhouse, with its eight huge windows and light suspension bridge that connected it with buildings on east side of the street. This scene shows the barrels on horse-drawn sleds, a butcher's boy carrying a wooden tray and to the right is a hansom cab.

Barclay and Perkins’s Brewery, Park Street, Southwark. Oil on canvas. This view shows the entrance to the Brewery in Park Street with the office block at the rear of the yard. On the extreme right is Great Brewhouse, with its eight huge windows and light suspension bridge that connected it with buildings on east side of the street. This scene shows the barrels on horse-drawn sleds, a butcher’s boy carrying a wooden tray and to the right is a hansom cab.

The most villainous rogues prowled the streets in cloaks, rich and poor, and notoriety followed the wealthy further than the nameless destitute.

“London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained” ― Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

In the great slum of the central parish of St Giles, known as the Rookery, sat London’s bane. A thieves’ den, as it’s painted, but like the slums of Paris also a place filled with people who were, simply, too poor to afford anything better.

“Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.” ― Dr Johnson

Of course, nobody can write about London without describing the weather.

“We are far from liking London well enough till we like its defects: the dense darkness of much of its winter, the soot on the chimney-pots and everywhere else, the early lamplight, the brown blur of the houses, the splashing of hansoms in Oxford Street or the Strand on December afternoons.” ― Henry James

In THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN the action takes place within a single Spring day, and the most important passage of time is measured by the tides which rule the Thames.

In SHADOWBOX, late October descends into November as the story unfolds, and the darkness which follows the year towards its end has a strong bearing on the lives of my characters.

But we all think we know what London weather was like in the 19th century:

“It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking. Inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither.” ― Charles Dickens

London also has its rain, and snow, and glorious sunny days that brighten the parks and gardens and lift the spirits. One of the joys of British seasons is the variety within each, so that winter can be crisp and bright while a poor summer drags on under endless grey skies.

I was in London in October to January: autumn, sliding into winter.

My most enduring memory of that time is of standing by the waterfront under the shadow of Blackfriars Bridge, watching the sleet driven upriver from the North Sea, sodden flakes the size of a half-crown falling onto the cold brown surface of the Thames that was whipped into pale-tipped waves.

Old London Bridge during its demolition, 1832

I never lived in London. I can’t describe the little things which make up a city’s soul the way a native city-dweller can; as with Paris, so with London, for the most part.

My descriptions are invented, but how could I lose sight of the essential spirit of the place when other writers have been there for longer, loved the city more than I every could, accepted London for being London without wishing it were somehow better?

“London is a chaotic patchwork of history, architecture, style, as disorganised as any dream, and like any dream possessing an underlying logic, but one that we can’t quite make sense of, though we know it’s there. A shoved-together city cobbled from centuries of distinct aesthetics disrespectfully clotted in a magnificent triumph of architectural philistinism… full of parks and gardens, which have always been magic places, one of the greenest cities in the world, though it’s a very dirty shade of green –and what sort of grimy dryads does London throw up? You tell me.” ― China Miéville

For my story, SHADOWBOX, London in 1832 threw up a very grimy dryad indeed.

Next in this series: Le Roi Sacré.
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Shadowbox: Paris in 1832

Paris, in 1832, is more than just the setting for SHADOWBOX. A great cosmopolitan city teeming with riches cheek-by-jowl with poverty and a sense of injustice that sparked into insurrection at the drop of a sou;

“…Paris was illuminated by a splendour possessed by no other places.” – Isak Dinesen, Letters from Africa, 1914-1931

Learning more about the city was essential so I could paint a suitable picture, in words, of the circumstances into which I was jettisoning my characters.

Marché aux fleurs (1832) by Canella, via wikimedia

Marché aux fleurs (1832) by Canella, via wikimedia

I asked myself: what do I need to learn about Paris in 1832?

And the answer came back in overwhelming detail (as a simple stream-of-consciousness brain dump, this is it):

Parishes, the Seine, political situation, newspapers, curfew, citizens, police, royalty, Revolution, colonies, clothes, religion, immigrants, trade.

It isn’t just London with French people.

Further inland, so it isn’t coastal. What bridges were in place? What format were they? Stone, or wooden, or a combination? Did they have houses along the sides? They didn’t have the Great Fire like London did, so what might have stayed?

Check Gaston Leroux/Victor Hugo for that. Look at maps online, and photos/paintings from shortly thereafter.


Why did the city arise in the first place? What special geographic features other than the Seine make it attractive to settlement?

I assume that the Seine was navigable up to the city at least until Mediaeval times, but at what point do ships cease to be a viable option? If not, where does Paris get its supplies? What port? How close? How are goods transported between those places? What infrastructure links Paris to the rest of the country, and the Empire? Which parts of Europe and the Med and Africa did it (still) own? Dukes of Savoy, of Lombardy, etc.

Politics of Paris 1832 – who was in charge? French Revolution over, Napoleon Bonaparte dead, a series of smaller rejiggings? Democracy or not as thorough? Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité – how far did this penetrate the social structure?

I owe a lot of my knowledge to a Yuletide gift from my partner: The Invention Of Paris by Eric Hazan. A love story in geography and history and literature bringing the city of Paris alive in your hands. The author obviously has a love for all the quartiers of Paris, rich and poor, ugly as well as beautiful, which comes across on the page with the most wonderful enthusiasm.

(I highly recommend it if you’re looking to fall in love with the city. If you have the opportunity to follow his written journeys on foot, don’t let my envy stop you.)

 Plate 15 of the Turgot map of Paris at wikimedia commons

Plate 15 of the Turgot map of Paris at wikimedia commons

Within the pages of The Invention of Paris I found a city sparkling with lights, ringed with market gardens, humming with intelligence and culture.

I saw the high walls of the Farmers-General encircle the city’s faubourgs for tax purposes, and the cobbles prised out of the streets of Montmartre to be thrown through the bright window-glass of the bourgeoisie’s favourite shops.

Eric Hazan led me down alleyways where the streetlamps burned all day, to show me forgotten squares between the houses where someone hung chrysanthemums from their balcony and caged birds sung overhead.

“Paris was a universe whole and entire unto herself, hollowed and fashioned by history…with her towering buildings, her massive cathedrals, her grand boulevards and ancient winding medieval streets–as vast and indestructible as nature itself.

All was embraced by her, by her volatile and enchanted populace thronging the galleries, the theaters, the cafés, giving birth over and over to genius and sanctity, philosophy and war, frivolity and the finest art; so it seemed that if all the world outside her were to sink into darkness, what was fine, what was beautiful, what was essential might there still come to its finest flower.

Even the majestic trees that graced and sheltered her streets were attuned to her–and the waters of the Seine, contained and beautiful as they wound through her heart; so that the earth on that spot, so shaped by blood and consciousness, had ceased to be the earth and had become Paris.” ― Anne Rice, Interview With The Vampire

Le Cholera, from Le Petit Journal, Paris

Cholera, from Le Petit Journal (via

In 1832, Paris was ravaged by a cholera epidemic that affected mostly the poorer quartiers of the city. The wealthy citizens fled the plague to their country mansions and waited for the ill wind to blow over. By the time SHADOWBOX takes place most of the damage had been done, and the city was in recovery, having spent the summer in riots and uproar.

In social terms, the June Rebellion sought to replace the new King with another Republic, and I’ll not challenge Victor Hugo for the right to describe that in more detail. Needless to say, Les Miserables shoved its way onto my reading list faster than the musical, or the film, would have persuaded me otherwise.

But the politics of France in 1832 has only a slight bearing on my story. SHADOWBOX describes the procession of an Englishman through Paris, and he doesn’t need to get involved with the imbroglios of Blanqui or Barbès.

The Nation Is in Danger, Auguste-Hyacinthe Debay, 1832

The Nation Is in Danger, Auguste-Hyacinthe Debay, 1832

However, it would have been folly to let Louis Beauregard swagger through Paris as if the city’s culture didn’t exist. He’s a character with an appetite for life, robust and challenging, and imposing his desires upon a place as fractious as Paris in 1832 without taking note of the city’s troubles would be doing both parties a disservice.

“Night came on, the lamps were lighted, the tables near him found occupants, and Paris began to wear that peculiar evening look of hers which seems to say, in the flare of windows and theatre-doors, and the muffled rumble of swift-rolling carriages, that this is no world for you unless you have your pockets lined and your scruples drugged.” ― Henry James, Madame de Mauves

Soirée Intime, By Philibert-Louis Debucourt (France, Paris, 1755-1832), via Wikimedia Commons

Soirée Intime, By Philibert-Louis Debucourt (Paris, 1755-1832)

So Louis encounters suspicious gendarmes taking note of every newcomer to the city. He takes his pleasure in the bourgeois quartiers where the minor aristocracy keep mistresses and he takes liberties as much as any other young man of his age.

He visits boutiques and cathedrals.

In well-lit salons he and his companions play cards and drink rough wine.

But the political situation was more fraught than the events in SHADOWBOX make explicit.

After the cholera epidemic, the June Rebellion solved nothing. Parisians were still disgruntled when the fictional Louis Beauregard strolls along its boulevards looking for adventure. Social injustices which the 1789 Revolution were meant to address had not been taken care of.

The people were easily sparked.

My story is not about Paris, however much I fell in love with the spirit of the city through literature. I chose Paris because of its attraction, because of its links with the mythology of the Cuckoo Club and the Lady (see THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN for more on this), and because of its marvellous history.

I’ll leave you with the thoughts of a writer who, for me, captures the soul of Paris in all of his writings, a man who lived through the June Rebellion in 1832 and wrote his greatest novel about those events:

“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic. Nothing is more sublime.” ― Victor Hugo

The next post in the SHADOWBOX series: London in 1832, in which we explore a very different city altogether.

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