Clare Brant and Susan E. Whyman, Walking the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London John Gay’s Trivia (1716)(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 11 ill., ISBN-10: 0199280495
Clare Brant and Susan Whyman’s Walking the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London is a well-conceived and valuable volume. It also benefits from being well designed and produced, something that seems pleasingly fitting for a work on (and of) John Gay. The Oxford University Press hardback edition is a convenient size, attractive, has clear print layout and features a handsome colour reproduction of Peter Angilis’s painting of Covent Garden (c. 1726) on its front cover, with some of its greens and blues echoed in the colour of the dust-jacket. Overall, the book has a good range of illustrations (eleven in all) to accompany its texts. There are, for example, a contemporary map of London and some reproductions from Laroon’s Cryes of the City of London; less well known, and for that reason even more welcome, the book includes a view of a frost fair (the original of which boasts of having been printed on the ice!) and a photograph of some patterns held in the Museum of London. One of the nicest inclusions is the title page vignette from the second edition of Trivia, a street scene which, as Mark Jenner tellingly points out, is ‘pleasantly salubrious’ (p. 98) betraying little evidence of the pollution that much modern interpretation of the poem has fixed on. (Jenner also notes, however, that the ‘space does not function efficiently’(p. 98).)
This volume does two things very effectively. In the first place, it presents a clear reproduction of the text of Trivia in full. The text is based on that of the first edition but also includes the passages, such as the love affair of Cloacina with the scavenger, which Gay added to the second edition (produced in the same year). It not only presents us with Gay’s original notes and amusing Index but also provides a wealth of useful notes of its own—in the areas of classical mythology, social customs, fashion, places referred to in the text, etc. These notes do not merely provide information, but some also offer clues to the kind of interpretations the text may support, suggesting, for example, the layers of allusion to be found within a single reference. There is also a useful select bibliography at the end.
In the second place, the volume provides a series of essays intended to illuminate the poem and demonstrate the efficacy of applying a range of critical approaches to the work. The nine essays are prefaced by an introduction by the editors, Brant and Whyman, which contains a wealth of information, pithily conveyed, about relevant contexts for the poem (London in 1716, Gay’s life and his literary world). The introduction also provides a ‘guide’ to the poem, useful for the first-time reader or for those familiar with the work who want to refresh their sense of its structure, as well as an overview of the essays in terms of the overall vision of the collection. Scholars from a variety of disciplines were brought together to work on the poem. Brant and Whyman tell us that their preferred term for such an approach is ‘multidisciplinarity’, rather than ‘interdisciplinarity’, as the former term suggests ‘a conscious shift in one’s methods and more active integration between fields’ (p.20). The result is successful, though occasionally the vaunting of the methodology (particularly when it is repeated in individual essays) becomes a little tiresome. Also, I suspect that the discussion of ‘who are we as scholars’ might prove a little tedious to those who aren’t university lecturers.
Bringing together academics from a range of disciplines to a poem which contains such a wide range of reference itself —- to classical literature, to clothes, to fashionable places, to methods of perambulation -— and which sets itself up as a mock guide-book, was an inspired idea and one that works very well. The essays give us a wide range of contexts within which to read Trivia. Aileen Ribeiro contributes an essential piece on dress ‘both as reality and metaphor’; Tim Hitchcock writes on public poverty; Philip Carter considers biography in the city; Mark Jenner looks anew at the subject of ‘Pollution, Plague and Poetics’. The theme of space (as one might imagine) is very much in evidence: Whyman, through evidence from letters, considers the sharing of public spaces; Alison Stenton considers ‘movement in the city and cultural geography’. Nor are the more traditionally literary approaches neglected: Susanna Braund provides a useful essay discussing Gay’s negotiation not only of classical sources but of the question of genre; Margaret Hunt examines Gay’s construction of gender on the streets of the city; and Clare Brant’s essay considers a series of ‘paradigms for reading the poem’ from questions of literary genre to more recent theorisations of the city.
Unsurprisingly in a work of this sort, there are a number of concerns which recur throughout the volume, and happily, when they do they are susceptible to a variety of treatments and interpretations. The issue of whether Gay himself was an ‘idler’, happier in a coach than walking, becomes one such unwitting running theme within the work. The sustained comparison with Addison and Steele’s Mr Spectator is another. It is in such running themes (pardon the pun) that the work is strongest. One of the advantages of the collection is that it does not espouse a single standpoint or methodology. What one might take issue with in one essay is often dealt with in another: there is no set tone or outlook to the volume. That being said, at times some of the essays, especially those interested in assessing the ideological leanings of the work, fail to take account sufficiently of the sense of wit and the deliberate self-undermining of the poem — particularly of the so-called narrative persona. And some contributors are less willing than others to acknowledge the problems of applying ‘context’ to the literary work—especially one which, as Stephen Copley and Ian Haywood remind us in an essay which is deservedly much referred to in this volume, ‘cannot be seen simply as a piece of “realistic” loco-descriptive poetry’ as ‘there is no available poetic mode in which such a possibility is conceivable’.
However, all in all, this is an engaging and thought-provoking volume and much to be recommended. Its main virtues seem very appropriately those of the eighteenth century—its sense of public debate, pleasing variety, succinctness and nice match of subject matter and presentation.
To Cite This Article:
Emma McEvoy, ‘Review of Clare Brant and Susan E. Whyman, Walking the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London John Gay’s Trivia (1716)(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 11 ill., ISBN-10: 0199280495 ’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2008/mcevoy.html. Accessed on [date of access]