Reviewed by Ian Lipke
When we write about London society in the early eighteenth century it is important to realise that owning land was the main form of wealth, and the wealthy had political power and influence. As the century opened, a rich gentry class developed with less power than the great landowners and nobility, but were soon overtaken by a merchant class that became numerous in the towns.
In terms of numbers, however, the craftsmen and labourers accounting for perhaps half the population, barely subsisted. Survival depended on one of two things: finding work that paid enough to allow survival or turning to a life of crime. Gin was the one cheap way to forget the horrors of existence. Cities were dirty, noisy, and overcrowded. London had about 600,000 people around 1700. The rich, only a tiny minority of the population, lived luxuriously in lavish, elegant mansions and country houses, which they furnished with comfortable, upholstered furniture.
For the huge numbers of poor people there was little opportunity to reflect on the existence of a humane god. A multitude of sources, including rationalists, were defining acceptable behaviours of mankind, from which came judgments about what was right and what was not, and therefore, contravention of the law justified severe punishment.
One is tempted to see the rationalistic thinking of the eighteenth century as a corrective to the quarrels over faith of the preceding hundred years, but there’s a bit more to it than that, and will have to be debated in another forum. Having cast a very broad brush, I hasten to admire the work of people like Thomas Newcomen and Isaac Newton, who helped make the century memorable.
Before someone takes issue with me for depicting a complex civilization with a few generalities, I ask you to consider that, in Wild, Nathan Besser’s focus is on the civilization that was the day-to-day world of Jonathan Wild and Daniel Defoe. Nathan Besser’s revelation of eighteenth century living and dying conditions, the struggle necessary to make enough money to feed a family, and the schemes that the criminal elements created to make their lives easier, are accurate representations. We are not meant to like the characters. We get to know the protagonists, and if they do not repel, we get to admire their skill in staying within the meaning of the law, outwitting the law makers, or simply skirting the law.
However, there is a large problem that cannot be overcome. Both main characters, Jonathan Wild and Daniel Defoe, are well-known historical characters. Everything that they do in this fictional novel can be matched against what we know of them from historical sources. It is evident that Besser set out to write an outrageous novel, but the eighteenth century was not the period to choose. His efforts to make his characters outrageous in a society that is already outrageous, makes them unbelievable at times.
“…what great man of history achieved success without sacrifice?
So I clenched my eyes and used as much spirit as I could muster to conjure something that I had never experienced but deeply desired, being a mighty lewd combination of several young women at the one time, their bodies intertwined in such a fashion that there was a variety of orifices to choose from, much like the multiple holes of a fingerflute” (10).
The context of this episode is this: Jonathan Wild is preparing to receive a caning across his bare buttocks. It will be administered by a member of the aristocracy. He is prostrating himself to gain advantage, for he knows that if he plays to the unnatural hunger of the older man, he will be rewarded. I can imagine that the historical Wild was of sufficiently low calibre to have used such a tactic to advantage himself. I find objectionable the linking of the great man of history with the tawdry example that follows, but cannot criticize Nathan Besser for including such an example. With some heroes, it happens. I find it more difficult to imagine Daniel Defoe in such an unglamorous business as his lovemaking with his wife (on page 79), when on the preceding page we read:
Momentarily – a perforation in the contentment – Defoe yearns for the quiet of his study. He holds a sense of the space, waiting coolly for his return. It is a wonder. How can a Sunday’s wholesome moments – God in a music-filled church or a family united in song – be less compelling than the solitude of his desk, the tap of the nib against the side of the inkwell, and the cold of the timber against is wrist (78).
This is the Daniel Defoe of history. This level of writing is a useful means of keeping separate the Defoe and Wild characters in this bawdy tale that never catches fire. In a chapter on Wild, we have the completely apt saying, “The clerk let out the whinny of a bored horse” (60), a lovely image, and “…Lord Blee, whose twiggy and towering figure moved along in gusts, like a hat blown over the lawn. His head was bandaged in lopsided calico” (214), images presented in words that have a concreteness about them. Compare this writing with Defoe’s part statement:
The grey skies break apart and fall as wet gravel. Buried alive, who would have thought. The particles of grit magnetize towards each other and build a cairn over him…The rocks tumble, scrape, screech. So loud. So very, very loud. His legs rise, folding boneless from his torso and dissolve into powdered haze (239).
Here is the footprint of a man who can write in an academic or trained author’s style. A man who wrote Robinson Crusoe and created the inimitable character, Friday. Yet I must admit to a preference for Jonathan Wild’s rawness and vulgarity.
The review keeps returning to the main characters, fleshing them out in three-dimensional garb at times, for they are all that the book offers. There is little attempt to show the other characters as much more than fleeting. The setting fares better and is satisfactorily detailed, but the cover is copied from William Hogarth’s Gin Lane, painted by the artist in 1751*, more than twenty-five years after Wild’s execution. Finally, I cannot resile from the point of view that much has not been told, that Defoe especially, offered much more than is reported here.
We’re stuck with a pair of “known to history” characters, a fair attempt at a description of the social scenery, (but no explanation as such) and a rather trivial plot. Needless to say the shortcomings that I found with this book outweigh the benefits.
By Nathan Besser
- The source is acknowledged.