Romantic London: John Corry and the Georgic City

Article excerpt

The idea of Romantic London is as immense and as contradictory as the idea of Romanticism itself. For William Blake, probably its most visionary observer, it is literally the universe. Blake's London is at once poignantly local, its immediate environs reflecting a life lived almost entirely within certain neighborhoods and districts, and awesomely cosmic, reaching to the bounds of eternity. This twofold perspective suggests that Romantic representations of London, even "Infinite London's awful spires" in Blake ("Milton" Plate C, cancelled), do not define themselves in absolute opposition to more mundane accounts--for instance, Lockie's Topography of London, giving a concise local description of and accurate direction to every square, street, lane, court, dock, wharf, inn, public-office, &c. (1810)--but occupy a common, if narrowly overlapping, ground. The London writings of John Corry (1760?-1825?) locate themselves somewhere in this overlap. As the tentative dates indicate, little is known about Corry (Pitcher 152-60). What is known is that he was an Irish journalist working in Dublin until the 1790s when he went to London where he eventually operated as a bookseller and publisher on Princess Street in Leicester Square. Corry's complete canon has yet to be established, but he wrote poetry, novels, biographies, histories, and satires. A Satirical View of London and The English Metropolis constitute his main writings on London, though the novel-like Memoirs of Edward Thornton, subtitled A Sketch of Modern Dissipation in London, must also be included in this group. While not dealing specifically with London, on the other hand, a number of local and municipal histories written by Corry--The History of Liverpool, The History of Bristol (which he co-authored), and The History of Macclesfield--have obvious generic relevance, while satiric works like The Detector of Quackery and Satire Made Easy deal with subjects central to a thesis about urban culture emerging from the London writings.

To speak of such a thesis in Corry, however, is to speak only in terms of a formative critique. The vein in which Corry wrote typically fashions itself from disparate popular tendencies, at once current and outdated, censorious and panegyrical, moralizing and analytical. It is this inchoate nature, however, that makes Corry's London writings if not exemplary of a coherent criticism of urban culture, then suggestive of such a criticism in its early stages. This essay sees Corry as working broadly within established topographical traditions while responding to new demographic realities in urban Romantic England.

                                    * 

Memoirs of Edward Thornton presents a familiar tale of the city, relating the moral progress of Edward Thornton, a young country gentleman who decides to complement his formal education by experiencing life in London. To that end, his father arranges an introduction to a worldly Londoner with a satiric bent named Mr. Weston who serves as Edward's guide, accompanying his young charge through London's drawing-rooms and dens of vice alike. After a series of misadventures involving gamers, gold-diggers, and loan-sharks, however, Edward finds happiness with one Miss Wilmot--a virtuous young lady living just outside of London in rustic Bellevue, a country seat described as "the abode of female virtue and beauty" (20)--but only after almost losing her as a result of his misadventures in the city.

Involving as it does a visit to an exotic new place, Memoirs of Edward Thornton is more than a simple moral tale. Corry's hero is a classic ingenue with antecedents in famous traveler-innocents like Swift's Lemuel Gulliver and Montesquieu's Hindoo traveler--in effect, an Englishman abroad in London--just as the native Londoners he encounters are wholly foreign to his rustic perspective. In "'Why Go Abroad?' Djuna Barnes and the Urban Travel Narrative," Justin D. Edwards describes what he terms "urban exposes," under which rubric he includes both fiction and journalism, as a "new subgenre of travel writing" starting from the same assumptions about otherness as traditional travel narratives: "In other words, because the urban travel text attempted to reclaim slums and poverty-stricken areas for middle-class understanding, they took on the techniques of the traditional travel text by setting up an artificial dichotomy between 'norm' and 'other,' center and margin" (7). …