However – like the earthquake that struck the capital in 1750 – when the city was shaken up, a dark underbelly of prostitution, alcoholism, gambling and fighting rose to the surface, blurring the lines between respectability and scandal. Sitting bleary-eyed and bulbous-bottomed on top of the heap of miscreants is a gallery of drunken, licentious, foolish and surprisingly poignant characters whose scandalous affairs have been given a fresh breath of life thanks to twenty-first-century caricaturist Adrian Teal.
Teal’s The Gin Lane Gazette is a fictional newspaper that follows the scandalous and newsworthy events of Georgian England. Contained within its 130 pages is a wonderful collection of imagined articles and extracts from the newspaper’s fifty-year history, presented as the life’s work of its editor, Nathaniel Crowquill. The book is separated into five parts that chart each decade of the final half of the eighteenth century.
While Crowquill is fictional, the events detailed are very real – from the early death of Edward Bright – the ‘fattest man in the kingdom’, and Teresa Cornelys’ infamous parties at Carlisle House, to the murder of the Earl of Sandwich’s mistress, the first hot air balloon flight, and the undignified death of King George II. The articles are written in a style befitting an eighteenth-century hack, and are packed with great one-liners, a favourite being:
For my part, I have long been of the Opinion that a learned Lady is as novel as a learned Pig or as rare in the World as a Hog that sprouts wings & flies.
Teal’s masterstroke is the creation of Nathaniel Crowquill, who is so archetypal of the age that I refuse to believe he is fictional (he is). He binds the book together with a first person narrative at the beginning of each section. Through his colourful words we can chart his rise from jobbing journalist to one-time romantic and then life-long bachelor.
Fast paced and funny, The Gin Lane Gazette impresses with the quality of Teal’s research and the depth of his insight into the people, places, events and daily life of the late eighteenth century. Every page is beautifully decorated with eye-popping caricatures and illustrations, buttressed by a plethora of colourful notices and adverts for everything, from new toys shops and quack doctors, to a request for help in the making of ‘metal wings’. Teal wears his learning lightly, but the book is an exceptional feat that works on several levels – a light-hearted romp and a strikingly original way of ‘doing history’.
So unbelievable are some of the stories and so partial is Crowquill’s hand, that you find yourself googling each and every character to find out more. It is a fantastic gateway into the wider historical themes of the age. One article discusses the 1653 Marriage Act – often a stopping-point in the long trajectory of social history – and offers a taste of how its implementation may have been perceived by the everyday people of capital.
Too often bookshops are lined with popular biographies and ‘new’ histories of well-trodden periods, but The Gin Lane Gazette is a real leap of faith and remarkably imaginative. The author’s love of the period jumps out of each and every page to the point where one is left wondering where Crowquill ends and Teal begins.
If I were Michael Gove (which thank God I am not), I would insist that this book be fixed into the A Level curriculum.