Books: “Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770” by Emily Cockayne

17 July, 2008 at 3:45 pm Leave a comment

Hubbub:
Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770
by Emily Cockayne

Paperback: 352 pages (from page 250 on, it’s notes, bibliography and index)
Publisher: Yale University Press (29 April 2008)

ISBN-10: 0300137567
ISBN-13: 978-0300137569
Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.5 x 2.5 cm

There’s only one handful of authors who have the gift of perfectly describing experiences of the senses. H.P. Lovecraft, for example, deserves the title of “Master of Olfactory Horror”, and Patrick Süskind did a decent job in “The Perfume”. Putting scents and music into words is like explaining the concept of a spiral staircase without using one’s hands. How can one write a three-dimensional description of a lovely scent without trivializing or stumbling right into the corny field? And how much more difficult is it to put stench into words, and the atmosphere it creates?

We’ve discussed before that 100 % accuracy is not necessarily wanted when it comes to historical novels, neither on the writers’ nor the readers’ side. Yes, there were fleas and bedbugs in the 18th century; no, there’s no need to point out their presence forty times. But still, an author should get a feeling for the atmosphere of the time she or he writes about. Getting a feeling for the stench, filth and noise on a busy street in London of 1759 is essential when trying to convey that atmosphere to the reader.

There are two ways for authors to achieve such knowledge. First option: author and ten friends do not wash or change their clothes for three months and live in a pigsty, right next to an outhouse. Second option: author buys Emily Cockayne’s “Hubbub”. Have a wild guess which was my choice.

I can’t praise this book enough. Not only has Mrs Cockayne put considerable time and effort into her researches, citing many highly fascinating, revolting, amusing, amazing and astonishing statements by contemporary witnesses. No, she’s also a writer with a sly sense of humour. Her book is a treasure trove of facts we didn’t know about the daily life in the 17th and 18th century, and isn’t that exactly the kind of knowledge we are trying to find? It’s not difficult to read up the facts about this war or that battle, the family-lives of the kings and habits of the wealthy, but it’s the fruit-seller’s cheating and the cobbler’s and blacksmith’s noise and the skivvy’s stench and the whore’s rioting and the three times darned pigs shitting in the garden of their owner’s neighbour that are the basis for all history.

The “unwashed masses” – indeed!

“Hubbub” is not only a book for authors, though. It’s also one for readers! Most chapters are titled with a proverb, and my inner language geek was delighted to learn more about the origins of so many sayings. You’ll love it, trust me on that. And you don’t have to be a history buff to have a field day with this book; so many contemporary reports read as if they came straight from today’s newspaper.

Noisy children causing annoyances at church? Check.
Careless pet owners endangering people with their dogs? Check.
Butchers selling rotten meat? Check.
Messy neighbours partying all night? Check.
It makes you feel a little less hopeless about our daily troubles if you realise that 250 years ago, people had exactly the same problems. Right down to the dog piles on the street and the drunkard placing a turd in your front garden.

So, is it possible to describe stench and filth and noise? Yes! Emily Cockayne writes like William Hogarth used to paint. And wouldn’t you reach for your credit card immediately if you could buy a Hogarth for only £ 8.26…?

© Emma Collingwood

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Entry filed under: 18th century, books, resource. Tags: , , , .

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