The First Bohemians: Love and squalor

There was nothing affected about the lifestyle, if you can call it that, of these bohemians, many of whom were derelicts. There was no need to take your lobster for a walk, as the poet Gérard de Nerval did, or to wear a green carnation like Oscar Wilde.

The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London’s Golden Age
Vic Gatrell
Allen Lane, 512pp, £25

The “first bohemians” were the 146 painters and engravers who at some point in the 18th century had an address within a quartermile of the Covent Garden Piazza in London. These included William Blake, Paul and Thomas Sandby, Isaac Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson, Turner, Joshua Reynolds, Canaletto, Hogarth, Fuseli, Gainsborough and James Gillray. Together with the actors and writers who also lived there, this was, Vic Gatrell writes, “a creative community without equal in history”. From the razzledazzle of Covent Garden – a place “dearer to me”, wrote Charles Lamb, who lived above a brazier’s shop on Russell Street, “than any gardens of Alcinous” – came the flowering of Georgian culture.

Gatrell’s definition of a bohemian is pleasingly loose – it includes Sir “Sloshua” Reynolds, after all – and refers to a pleasingly louche society. There was not yet a fully formed bourgeoisie from which bohemia could distance itself. So: “If Covent Garden artists and writers loved, drank and gambled more freely than respectable people later thought seemly – well, 18th-century practice pointed that way.”

There was nothing affected about the lifestyle, if you can call it that, of these bohemians, many of whom were derelicts. There was no need to take your lobster for a walk, as the poet Gérard de Nerval did, or to wear a green carnation like Oscar Wilde. Eighteenth-century manners were eccentric anyway; libertine values were widespread and bawdry was in the bloodstream.

Gentlemen were often indistinguishable in appearance from paupers. Samuel Johnson’s biography of the dilapidated poet and murderer Richard Savage first gave the “bohemian” his feckless identity. Hogarth’s painting and print The Distressed Poet, in which he depicts a writer in his garret pulling at the hair beneath his wig while struggling with a poem called “Poverty”, provided the bohemian archetype.

Figures such as the respected Royal Academician George Dawe embodied the ideal. Known by his friends as “the Grub”, Dawe washed once a week and then, according to Charles Lamb, applied water only to the “inner oval or portrait . . . of his countenance, leaving the unwashed temples to form a natural black frame”.

The first part of this book is about Covent Garden, the streets, theatres, bordellos and back alleys, the babel of accents, the proximity of the artists to one another, the knitting together of their lives. London was small and Covent Garden was a village in which everyone knew everyone else. The second part covers the response of the resident bohemians to the vibrant culture around them, their depictions of the pimps, whores, thieves, shopkeepers, actors, musicians and rakes, plying their trade or otherwise enjoying themselves.

Pleasure, particularly through misbehaviour, is one of Gatrell’s great interests. His last book, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in 18th-Century London, a ripe survey of satirical prints, was generally proclaimed a masterpiece, and in The First Bohemians – also destined to be loaded with prizes –he returns to the “importance”, “necessity” and “truthtelling” of satire, the 18th century’s mental health check.

The First Bohemians is generously, often ingeniously, illustrated and Gatrell’s pithy commentary on the prints and pictures can be scathing; it will be hard to look at some of these images in the same way again. Of Hogarth’s The Enraged Musician, he notes of the milk girl with the bucket on her head: “Though Hogarth never bothered himself with hygienic matters, it’s worth knowing what [she] was selling.” He then refers us to the passage in Tobias Smollett’s Expedition of Humphry Clinker in which milk is described as “frothed with bruised snails . . . spittle, snot, and tobacco quids”.

Like many of the men he describes (there are no women here), Gatrell is terrific company. He praises 18th-century writing for propelling us “niftily to the point” and his own his prose performs the same trick. Not one to pile up his sentences, he keeps his observations simple, his opinions straightforward and his narrative no-nonsense.

Reynolds’s presidential discourses to the Royal Academy, for instance, are “windy appeals to universal truths”; artists were “rough men by and large, and many had the characteristics of poor ones. Stunted growth was common.” (Among the “five-foot men or less” were Hogarth, Samuel Scott, the German-born enamellist Christian Friedrich Zincke, Gawen Hamilton, Richard Cosway and George Vertue.)

Gatrell notes, in an aside, how badly artists of the past drew cats. Rowlandson, the hero of the book, was “a path-breaker who engaged with human subjects and said new things”, who allowed “humble people as much visibility as rich people – even a greater entitlement to happiness”. The author succeeds in his attempt to raise the carnivalesque Rowlandson above the moralising Hogarth, yet he concedes that “at times Rowlandson’s cheeriness is so unremitting that one yearns for other registers”.

The “Gordon riots” in 1780 brought an end to this bohemia; artists now followed the money. The exodus concluded in 1799, when the 24-year-old Turner left the lane where his father worked as a wig-maker for a house at 64 Harley Street, on the other side of the cordon sanitaire between London’s high and low life. By 1816, only ten out of the city’s 480 painters (by Gatrell’s estimation) had an address that referred to Covent Garden – it was now Soho that was boho.

Frances Wilson’s “The Courtesan’s Revenge”, a biography of Harriette Wilson, is published by Faber & Faber (£9.99)

Wages of sin: The Rake at the Rose Tavern (1734) by William Hogarth, from his Rake's Progress series. Image: Bridgeman Art Library

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism