Feminine indulgence in extravagance of attire was the bane of London at that era.

The Doom of the Great City, by William Delisle Hay

I’m a little pounded at work presently, so while I don’t yet have time to properly write up Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing I do have time to write up one of the short novellas I’ve recently read.

This one is an absolute oddity. I’ve mentioned before the fondness the Victorians and Edwardians had for apocalyptic fiction. The Doom of the Great City is a classic example. It’s an account of the destruction of London by that great terror of the Victorian age – really bad smog.

I should mention that this novella was as best I can tell intended as utterly serious. The emphasis there is on the word intended…

DoomGreatCity

So, we open with a framing device – it’s the far future (the 1940s!) long after the fall of London. The narrator is now an old man surrounded by family, and he’s moved to write an account of the traumatic events he personally witnessed that led to the destruction of the world’s greatest metropolis. It’s a very common framing device in fiction of this period, and one that allows Hay to contrast his future idyll with the iniquities of London in 1880.

I am transported back to the land of my birth across the intervening ocean a land of chill and sour skies, where the sun has forgotten how to shine; a laud of frost and rain, of mist and snow. I am young, but I am scarcely hopeful, for I am oppressed with many cares; I live amid noise and bustle, amid a throng of idlers and workers, good men and bad, rich and poor; I work hard at employment that demands my best energies and absorbs my young strength, and that yields me but scant repayment; I dwell shut in by bricks and mortar, and crushed by stony hearts; I am one among many, a single toiler among the millions of London!!

The bulk of the novella spends its time setting the scene. The narrator is (was) a clerk, as they so often are in these books. He lives with his mother and sister and in the usual vein of Victorian fiction there’s a fairly detailed explanation of their salaries and sources of income as compared to their outgoings. They’re barely scraping by on a combined £150 a year, “little more than sufficient to provide us with the bare-necessities of existence, while every day things seemed to be growing dearer.”

I love London. The narrator, well:

It was the opinion I formed at the time, and the opinion I still continue to hold, that London was foul and rotten to the very core, and steeped in sin of every imaginable variety.

He’s not a fan. That’s where the unintentional comedy comes in. This isn’t an apocalyptic novel where disaster strikes an undeserving populace. This is much closer to a judgement of god or nature on a city that richly deserves everything that’s coming to it. Hay spends a great many pages discussing in remarkably enthusiastic detail everything that’s wrong with the city, starting from the narrator’s own line of work:

I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called “smart,” and “a sharp, sound, practical’ man,” who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in “fair business.” In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same.

I’ll add the larger passage that quote comes from at the end of this post for those who’re curious. It starts sanely enough as you can see above, but soon he’s on to lawyers, then the church, then doctors, the entertainment industry, the aristocracy, professors of art, women, it goes on for pages. It’s a breathless outpouring of disdain for pretty much every target in sight.

After a couple of pages or so of this (out of only fifty or so in total) even Hay/the narrator must break for breath:

Enough! Even a great-grandfather’s garrulity must be checked in its reminiscent flow.

Yes please.

Thankfully once the diatribe against the evils of the contemporary age is out of the way the story picks up some. The narrator is out of London visiting, and the next morning tries to head home only to find out there’s no transport back into town:

All traffic into and out of London was indeed suspended, or rather, had never commenced. No trains had come out from the London termini, no response had been received to signals or telegrams; while men who had started to walk into town had either never returned, or else had shortly retraced their footsteps, panting and half-strangled. Telegrams from other suburbs and outskirts of town brought intelligence of a precisely similar state of things existing in those localities. No one had come from London, no one had succeeded in entering it.

Soon it becomes evident that the unthinkable has happened. The London smog has become so bad as to suffocate all within it. The whole metropolis lies wreathed in dark and sooty fog, utterly desolate. Eventually the air starts to clear a little, and so the narrator becomes one of the first to push his way back into the city – fearing for his mother and sister who are still within.

What he finds is why the story is worth reading (to the extent it is). It’s a haunting evocation of an utterly lifeless city, eerily reduced to silence and stillness:

I traversed the foggy street, seeing objects but indistinctly at ten yards distance. I saw no living being, no faces at the shrouded windows, no passers by, no children playing in the gardens or the road; not even a sparrow fluttered past to convey to me the sense of companionship. And then the frightful, muffled stillness that seemed to hold me down in a nightmare trance; not a sound of traffic, no rattle of carriages and carts, no scream and rumble of trains, no clamour of children or costermongers, no distant hum of the midday city, no voice or whisper of a wind; not the rustling of a leaf, not the echo of a foot-fall, nothing to break the deathly stillness but the panting of my laboured chest and the beating of my trembling heart.

There’s nothing that really happens – everyone is dead after all. There is though a tremendous series of descriptions of the desolation, including some very effective set-pieces particularly including a description of a horse-drawn bus stilled with horses still in harness, driver belted in and passengers rich and poor contorted in their seats.

I did struggle a bit with the narrator’s pious cries of horror and sympathy given that most of the book is given over to lengthy descriptions of how awful London and its inhabitants are. It reminded me slightly of The Black Spider – in both texts there’s a sympathy for those who are damned which is distinctly at odds with the glee with which their sufferings are described. It all reminds me a bit of that old Medieval idea that the afterlives of the saved are made more pleasurable by their being able to watch the sufferings of the damned in hell.

Still, it’s short, it’s about 99p from Amazon (and no doubt legitimately free somewhere online without too much trouble), and it’s a lovely example of a now largely extinct genre – the Victorian/Edwardian industrial apocalypse. It’s not really an overlooked classic, but nor does it deserve to be wholly forgotten either.

Here’s the fuller version of that quote. It’s absolutely mad:

I will add of what I saw around me to incline me to the belief in the black enormity of London sin. I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called “smart,” and “a sharp, sound, practical’ man,” who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in “fair business.” In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same. The laws were good, though inordinately cumbrous, and lawyers administered them for their own advantage, and at the expense of their unhappy clients. The law was a terrible engine of justice, but its intricate machinery was clogged with rusty “precedents,” and could not be got to move without a liberal oiling in the shape of fees. Hence arose the saying, that the law had one interpretation for the rich, and another altogether for the poor. The medical profession was conducted upon similar principles; the doctor — if he knew how — would keep his patient ill in order to increase his fees, and making suffering and death his daily sport, traded upon them for his own profit. Clergymen and ministers of religion, whether belonging to the State Church or to independent bodies, made “the cure of souls” a means of livelihood; they quoted the maxim, “the labourer is worthy of his hire,” applying its point to themselves; they kept alive “religious feeling” among the masses by incessant and endless quarrels among themselves on points of dogma and doctrine, extorting money in the cause of “truth” from the public, and either keeping it themselves or squandering it in various foolish and useless ways. And they made one religion for the rich and another for the poor, as anyone might learn by comparing a sermon preached before a fashionable congregation with one delivered to paupers. The merest infraction of moral integrity in one of the humbler classes was visited as intolerable; among the rich and high-born sin flourished under the hallowing sanction of religion, and vice luxuriated in the shadow of the Church. Purity of life was a simple impossibility, and chastity of soul would have been sought for in vain amongst Londoners. Theatres, music-halls, and similar institutions, appealed to the most depraved appetites; people flocked to gaze admiringly at a fashionable courtesan and her attendant harlots, or thronged to listen to obscene and filthy songs, or to witness indecent exhibitions, especially if these involved the risk of life or limb to the performers. Money flowed into the treasuries when such were the inducements, and eager rivalry in their production was the inevitable consequence. Clergymen, aristocrats, and art professors joined in extolling the stage as “the educator of public taste,” while young girls crowded to enter the ballet as the proper road to a life of delightful immorality. The press groaned daily under the weight passing through it of novels which tinctured absolute crimes with poetry and romance, which clothed the worst sensuality in the white robes of innocence, and which taught and argued in favour of every vice. Serial journals adapted to every class, rested their claims to attention on the obscenity, scurrility, or blasphemy of their pages, disguised under a film of moral platitude. Such were some of the causes at work, here were some of their immediate results. Among the higher ranks of society immorality was so common as to excite but small attention; frequent divorce suits proved this; scandalous disclosures of high life were of common occurrence; they gratified the public taste while serving to show the deeper depths below. Pleasure-seeking being the only employment of the wealthy and governing class, they elevated it into a “cult,” and wearied with the tameness of mere harlotry, gluttony, and show, brought “art” to their aid and invented “aestheticism ” as a cloak for higher flights of sin. The men of the “upper ten thousand” were trained from their cradles for a life of sensuous enjoyment. They held themselves aloof from commoner clay as from an inferior race, and they looked upon inordinate luxury as their paramount right. In their code of honour the payment of just debts had no place, unless the debt were contracted by gambling among their fellows. The “golden youth” were banded together into social guilds, bearing imbecile insignia, and using mysterious passwords, whose vicious meaning only the initiate might know. They had peopled a whole suburb with the villas of their concubines, whom the stage and the streets had furnished, while their elders sought amusement from almost infantile charms. Strange and unnatural were the crazes and fashions that pervaded this society: wearied with dissipation carried to excess, they were ever seeking new varieties, new emotions, new vices; they worshipped beauty, but it was not the beauty of created Nature, but that of art — and such art! — that most enchanted them. Ladies were divided into two “mondes,” the proper and the improper, but it was by no means easy to define the exact limits of either grade. The Phrynes of the period held their court and received adoration from the men, though not recognised by their high-born sisters; yet these were eager to copy the manners, dress, and accomplishments of the courtesan, styling themselves “professional beauties,” or veiling their hyper-passionate sensibilities under the pseudonym of “intensity;” while matrimony, even among the most externally decorous, was as much a matter of business as downright mercenary prostitution. The members of this highest rank lived in the very perfection of luxuriousness; their mansions, equipages, and servants, all were on a scale of magnificence as great as could be compassed. Dresses and furniture were splendid and costly. They fared sumptuously every day. Poverty was carefully excluded from their view, and came not within their cognisance, and ultra-extravagance was commended from the pulpit as a means of wisely diffusing wealth, and as an “encouragement to trade.” It was said that the spendthrift vanities and caprices of the wealthy were a source of good, promoting industry, and developing arts and sciences among the workers; “wherefore,” said these reasoners, “lavish arid. profuse prodigality is the commendable duty of the rich, as thereby they foster trade and benefit those who minister to their enjoyment.” When such theories were generally received, it is needless to say that politicians were blind to comparisons drawn from the history of the latter days of Rome, of Venice, or of Bourbon France. And this state of things had, of course, its dire and disastrous effects upon all grades of society below. People of the next rank, whose wealth had been gained from other sources than that of passive hereditary accumulation, busied themselves in the endeavour to gain admission within the pale of “polite society;” they sought to imitate with exactness every eccentricity of the nobles, and courted ruin to effect their purpose. A step lower, and the same procedure was invested with the grotesque addition of “vulgarity.” This abstraction consisted mainly, as I conceived, in a lack of “refinement:” it meant a want of ease and inherent use in forms of speech, manners, and usages; it conveyed the idea of eagerness where cold indifference should have been felt ; or it displayed a sense of actual pleasure, where blasé and captious disdain ought only to have been manifested. Throughout the great masses of the middle class, so styled, there beat the mighty pulse of Loudon life. In this section was contained business and professional men of every degree and kind, from the wealthy banker, the opulent trader or manufacturer, and the sordid promoter of bubble companies, down to the struggling professional man, the actor, and the ignoble clerk. It was divided into a multiplicity of grades or strata, the lowest mingling with the vast democracy of labour below, the highest, by dint of golden passports, passing current among the aristocracy. It was in this division of the social system that the real life of the great city was mainly manifest; here were to be found the chief law-makers and the chief law-breakers; here was every vice most obnoxious to the senses; here, too, was to be found what was left of virtue and goodness. Down through the middle class filtered every evil of aristocratic birth, losing nothing in the process, we may be sure, save the semblance of polish and the grace of courtly elegance; while up from the lowest depths there constantly arose a stream of grosser, fouler moral putrescence, which it would be a libel on the brutes to term merely bestiality. Do not think there was no good In London; there was, much; but it was so encompassed and mixed with evil as to be barely recognisable; while the influences of exuberant vice were such as to warp the integrity of men’s ideas of what was right, to benumb their perceptions of moral turpitude, and to lower the standard of excellence to the very mud. Besides, I only set out to tell you something of the wickedness I saw and knew and felt in London; merely a brief epitome, such as might serve to sustain the view I propounded of the guilt of that city. Have I said enough, my grandchildren? But a few words more, and I pass to the dread narrative itself .

Phew! Just for reference, he’s still not finished, I just ran out of ability to cut and paste on my kindle.

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16 Comments

Filed under 19th Century Literature, English Literature, Novellas, Post-Apocalypse Fiction

16 responses to “Feminine indulgence in extravagance of attire was the bane of London at that era.

  1. When was this written Max? I’m reminded of Dostoevsky’s observations of London and his shock. This author, however, sounds .. preachy.

  2. 1880.

    He is, ahem, perhaps a little preachy.

    Basically it’s a rant about how dreadful modern society is wrapped in an apocalyptic candy shell to help it go down.

  3. leroyhunter

    I can see how this stuff could be fun, but you have to be in the mood clearly. The quotes gave me a distinct throbbing sensation in my temples.

    I remember Balzac’s Girl With the Golden Eyes starting with a not-entirely-dissimilar rant about Paris.

    One of the things I learned reading Sven Lindqvist’s odd book A History of Bombing is that there is an extensive sub corpus of the apocalypse literature you mention – running from Victorian times up to the Thirties – real hard-core stuff, usually a vehicle for the most outrageous racism, xenophobia and class hatred. It seemed to generally involve an airborne super-weapon and the examples he quotes make it hard to understand the mentality of the (apparently wide) readership the books enjoyed.

  4. Definitely for a certain mood. It did get quite funny though, the sheer scale of the rant. I suspect some of his contemporaries were equally amused.

    I read the start once of an utterly horrific title from the 30s (I think) where the hero wakes up after some strange slumber to find decades have passed and the world is in ruins. He soon encounters men in a bestial state, all of whom are black. He realises that blacks rose up against whites and overthrew them, but were too stupid to maintain civilisation without whites there to guid them hence the ruins. His natural authority as a white though helps him as the blacks have an instinctive urge to serve him.

    There was also a white woman survivor whom he had to protect from the black population.

    That wasn’t that far in and I didn’t read further. It was part of an ebook collection and is the only time I’ve ever complained to a publisher (they should at least have flagged what kind of book it was, I was expecting pulp in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs not some KKK fantasy). It was easily the most racist thing I’ve ever encountered. Utterly repugnant.

  5. Dostoevsky was in London a little earlier. His book which covers the trip was published in 1863. Sounds as though he had some of the same feelings but with more empathy for people and less hammer-criticism

  6. Max, have you read Richard Jefferies, the Victorian nature writer who so hated London he was constantly destroying it in fiction? After London, or Wild England (1885) is actually pretty good, an early eco-apocalypse.

    Not as early as he one you read here though – really interesting. And given that block of text you present at the end, it took some heroism to get through it.

  7. Hay isn’t going to be troubling Dostoevsky on the reputation front any time soon it’s fair to say.

    Tom, I started it and got interrupted. I have a copy though and do plan to revisit it. I really liked it so I was quite sad to have to break it when I did (can’t now recall what caused that but it was extrinsic to the book). I rather like Jefferies.

    The difference is Hay writes about what he hates mostly here, and so destroys London. Jefferies writes about what he loves, and so destroys London. The Jefferies seemed a much more joyful book, full of wonder at nature. The Hay is much more condemnatory.

    The block of text becomes so unintentionally funny that actually I rather enjoyed it. You find yourself thinking “art professors, really? Them too?”

  8. Looks pretty crazy. A few sentences remind me of Thomas Bernhard’s autobiography/semi-autobiography Gathering Evidence where he attacks Austria for being the worst place in the world ever.
    Wasn’t there a lot of this kind of thing around at the time? There’s a painting of the Louvre in ruins, but I can’t remember the artist.

  9. Yes, there was a lot of this kind of thing.

    I can recommend a fine, enjoyable book on exactly that subject, the 2003 In Ruins by English architecture historian Christopher Woodward. He looks at all sorts of manifestations of our taste for ruins. That is where I learned about the Jefferies book, I think.

  10. Thanks for that Tom. I’ll look that book out.

    Laurence, like with the Dostoevsky comparison, I suspect Bernhard may be ever so slightly better written.

  11. Thank you for bringing my attention to this genre of the Victorian industrial apocalypse. l love researching the societal consequences of the industrialization, but I’ve never encountered this kind of literature that discusses the fears of its “immediate” consequences. I’m definitely reading this!

  12. Anoukh, have you read The Machine Stops by EM Forster? If you’ve an interest in societal consequences of industrialisation it’s an absolute must read (plus it’s short, which is always a bonus).

  13. leroyhunter

    I second Tom’s recommendationof In Ruins – think I mentioned it on one of your Byron reviews. Some very fine stuff in the book, even if it didn’t (for me) quite live up to what is an outstanding premise.

  14. AggieH

    Laurencepritchard: ‘A few sentences remind me of Thomas Bernhard’

    His name sprang to my mind too as I read this entertaining review. Sublime ranting that’s so extreme it’s hilarious. (Intentionally? Unintentionally? I’ve never been sure.)

    Max Cairnduff: ‘You find yourself thinking “art professors, really? Them too?”’

    Bernhard comes to mind again. In Extinction, the narrator (a man who thinks of the sudden death of his parents and brother as a ‘so-called family tragedy’) rages in pedantic detail about everything imaginable. Hats, steak, motherhood, Salzburg’s architecture, teachers, photographs, jam. As I read, I kept hearing that line from Life of Brian’s Sermon On The Mount: “He’s having a go at the *flowers* now.”

  15. Well Flora Tristan doesn’t write glowing descriptions of London in the 19thC. But then, she had an agenda.

    This thing about the fog brings me back to yesterday and snow. It was apocalyptic at work: most of my team needed more than 5 hours to arrive, some never made it, we had to hire taxis to get the staff at the metro station because there were no buses, we ran out of salt for the parking lot…
    We live in cities and we forget that nature exists and can get in the way.

    I gave up before the end of the long quote. What a rant! A pompous little man, is he not? Nothing is worth anything, in his opinion. It strikes me that the same speech could be made about our time by preachers who always think it was better in the good old days.

    By the way, there’s a fascinating scene in the London fog in The Odd Women. It’s hard to believe it could be that thick.

  16. I’ve downloaded a sample of In Ruins, so thanks for the recommends for that.

    AggieH, I really should turn to Bernhard. I’m a bad person for not having read him yet. I’ve heard his ranting is sublime, and often hilarious, before. Here I did find the ranting hilarious, but I’m pretty sure it was unintentionally so. Emma’s right, it drips with pomposity and I suspect not only could the same speech be made today I suspect that in most complex societies in most periods of history it could have been made. There’s always someone dreaming of some agrarian utopia in a far away past or distant future.

    Emma, yes, we do get very insulated in the cities from that sort of thing. Every year in the UK (and doubtless many other countries) a few people end up being rescued at great danger and expense from mountains or exposed places they went to without proper kit or planning. They buy some foul weather gear, a backpack and set off. Often they rely on their mobiles for directions. Sometimes they don’t all make it back. It’s easy to forget quite how brutal and indifferent nature can be to us, and quite how quickly things can get very bad indeed. The odd reminder such as a day the weather stops people getting into work isn’t in the wider sense necessarily a bad thing.

    Bloody annoying in the narrower everyday sense though.

    The Odd Women’s on the list, but there are many, many books on the list.

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