Advertisement

Interview with Catharine Arnold

13 June 2015 | Sarah Fortescue

Catharine Arnold is a renowned author, having penned five books on London’s fascinating history – the most recent is Globe Life in Shakespeare’s London. She spoke to London Calling about her most interesting discoveries. Catch part two of the interview tomorrow, including her top London recommendations.

London Calling: Your first book, London and Its Dead: Necropolis guides readers through the history of London’s traditions of honouring its dead. Was anything ever slightly off-putting about the research? What was your most interesting discovery?

Catharine Arnold: When my agent first suggested Necropolis, I have to admit I had reservations about the idea. I felt it was too niche, and couldn’t imagine that many people would have an interest.
One editor suggested I write a book about London and death, which called for an enormous amount of research, a blend of literary, artistic, sociological, and archaeological sources – a really cross-cultural approach.

It also meant a lot of fieldwork, extensive treks across London, from Kensal Green and Brompton in the west to Tower Hamlets and Abney Park in the East. But I met some brilliant people, the ‘Friends’ who look after these cemeteries and raise funds to keep them going, and who were so unsparing of their time and support.

The most upsetting part of the research was reading detailed accounts of the plague of 1665, which wiped out almost 100,000 Londoners, and the cholera epidemics in the 1840s, with overflowing burial grounds reeking of putrescence and bodies dug up to make room for more. People were buried in ghastly conditions, and the London burial grounds were essentially slums of the dead. Sometimes tiny details of one little life, little 9-year-old Rosie buried in Highgate for instance, made me cry so much I had to stop for the day.

LC: Bedlam: London and its Mad explores the treatment of London’s insane citizens. Mental illness is still something that’s largely misunderstood. What was the most striking find? Did you think that it was refreshing to find London’s attitudes changing as they have done, or are we still too far behind in our understanding?

CA: The most striking find for me was the way in which we have changed our perceptions of the cause of mental illness. These days, at least, we do not lash mental patients with whips made of porpoise hide, or lock them in dark rooms, or drill holes through their skulls without consent.

But it is interesting that mental illness was recognised for what it was by the Romans, as an inevitable affliction that was really no fault of the sufferer. The Romans attempted to treat mental illness with opiates, to calm them down, or trepanning. In mediaeval times, mental illness was believed to originate from demonic possession, with patients beaten until the devil would leave them.

I find it strange that even now, mental illness carries an enormous stigma that physical ill health does not, as if to be depressed or suicidal constitutes a lack of moral fibre, a loss of nerve. Mental illness is, I believe, largely physiological in origin. The more we can accept that as a society the better. I think it’s very helpful that now there is a public conversation about mental illness and we have celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax prepared to speak out and discuss their issues with mental illness. 

LC: City of Sin: London and its Vices describes London as the city of lust. Is that something you’d agree with? English also have a reputation as being prudes… is that a falsely applied label? Perhaps London differs from the rest of the country…?

CA: I think London is different. For so many people, especially gay people, London is the place to escape to if you know you are Different. London is diverse, and inclusive. You can disappear into a crowd. Or you can for the first time in your life meet people who accept your differences and needs.

I also found a connection between sex and power in London. Powerful men have always called the shots when it comes to sex, and often had highly developed specialist tastes! The sex industry reflects this. It was basically a service sector for high-powered men who exploited women – and for many women, who had come to London looking for a better life, it turned out to be the only way they could survive. The book was examining the cultural attitudes that led to the claims that there were 50,000 female prostitutes working the streets of London in the 1860s. The city was full of specialist brothels catering to every taste. There was a marked change, however, in the later years of the c.20th when we find trafficked women – basically victims of the modern slave trade – forced to work in brothels and horribly abused.

So I suppose there are two strands here – London as a venue for those in search of personal sexual liberation and in search of acceptance, and the underbelly of the sex industry, where, as always, women and men too are exploited to serve the needs of the rich and powerful.

LC: Underworld London: City of Crime. Crime and Punishment in the Capital City follows London’s history of criminality and retribution. What were some of the more brutal crimes and punishments, and the more common ones? Are there similarities in today’s London, and any particular period? Why do you think that might be?

CA: If one questions whether or not society has become more humane, then the permanent abolition of the death penalty in 1969 is one of the great steps forward.

Researching Underworld London, I was shocked by two facts: that in previous centuries, children were executed for stealing food; and that many of men and women who went to the gallows had been innocent. There was insufficient legal representation: the majority of those who found themselves in court, often on trumped up charges of dubious origin could not afford to instruct a barrister, and were easily defeated when they attempted to represent themselves.

I was conscious throughout of the miscarriages of justice which led to the death of innocent men and women. For instance, there was the case of young Eliza Fenning, who in 1815 was accused of attempting to murder her employer’s family, although nobody actually died and the ‘poisoning’ seems to have been food poisoning. Reading between the lines, it appears that Eliza had rebuffed the advances of the son of the house, who then accused her of attempted murder. Eliza received the death sentence, which met with public outrage. Even a petition to the King could not save her, and Eliza was executed in her wedding dress, in front of a crowd of 45,000 people. Hundreds followed her coffin after she had been cut down.

Modern miscarriages of justice include the fate of Timothy Evans, hanged for the murder of his wife and child. It later emerged that their landlord, the necrophiliac serial killer John Reginald Christie, had actually killed them. Then there was Derek Bentley, a young man with learning difficulties, hanged for shooting a police officer, and the case of Ruth Ellis, the nightclub hostess, executed for shooting her abusive partner, despite massive campaigns to save her.

While hanging is a gruesome enough method of execution, prisoners experienced even more barbaric fates in earlier centuries. Traitors were not only hanged and quartered at Tyburn Gallows, but they were dragged there first, trailing along the ground behind a horse; in 1531 Richard Rouse, a cook suspected of attempting to poison the Bishop of Rochester, was placed in a cauldron of water in Smithfield and boiled to death. Mercifully, there is no longer execution in London, public, private or otherwise.

The other aspect of writing Underworld London was the sheer capacity for evil that certain individuals are capable of. Writing about the mass murderer John Reginald Christie gave me nightmares – I actually dreamt that I was sitting in his sinister basement kitchen, trying to interview him!

LC: Your last book, Globe Life in Shakespeare’s London is one I enjoyed immensely as a Shakespeare fan. As a fellow admirer of the Bard, what did you find most interesting about your research?

CA: I suppose what intrigued me most was the way that we think we don’t know Shakespeare – so much of his life is conjecture. For centuries, scholars and fans have asked themselves how much education he had, whether he was in the army, travelled abroad, worked as a tutor to a noble house, was gay or straight – the few fragments we do have of Shakespeare’s life are tantalisingly brief.

And yet, when you sit down and read Shakespeare, or watch him in performance, you are immediately taken to the heart of a brilliantly insightful man who had clearly known what it was to suffer love, hatred, jealousy, a joy of physicality that found its expression in sex, nature, a capacity for profound content in a happy family life, and great misery and despair when such human pleasures are destroyed.

There’s the love of wordplay, the actor manager’s real talent for putting emotions into physical expression, and a really filthy West Midlands sense of humour, with ‘dad jokes’ worthy of a Brummie fitter. He really was a ‘man of parts.’ I always think trying to pin down Shakespeare is like looking at someone on stage, from the gods, through the wrong end of the opera glasses. You see him here, you see him there, for a fraction of a second, and then – he’s disappeared again into the wings.

LC: With five books under your belt, there must be plans for more… are there?

CA: I’m working on a book called King of Hearts, about the women in the life of Edward VII. The significant thing is that these royal mistresses are far from vapid society women or simpering courtesans. From Lillie Langtry to Alice Keppel, they are strong, resilient, and athletic with both exceptional looks and consistent good humour. Lillie carved out a life for herself in the theatre despite a violent, alcoholic first husband; Daisy Countess of Warwick transformed herself from society hostess to socialist campaigner; Alice Keppel was a crack shot. In many ways, these women were more like Bond girls than polite society ladies!

I’m really enjoying working on this book, with plenty of sumptuous details of clothes, food and country house living. It’s an absolute treat. And Bertie – Edward VII – himself emerges as a man of some character. I honestly believe that had he lived a decade longer, World War One would not have been the bitter and protracted campaign that it turned out to be.


Globe Life in Shakespeare’s London is out now, published by Simon and Schuster and available in all good bookshops.

Be sure to check out part two of Catherine Arnold’s interview with London Calling tomorrow, in which she’ll discuss her love for London, and recommend how to learn more about the London she’s uncovered.

Advertisement

Most popular

What to See at The Cinema
What to See at The Cinema
Advertisement
Top Theatre of the Week in London
Top Theatre of the Week in London
Advertisement
The Best Exhibitions in London Right Now
The Best Exhibitions in London Right Now
Advertisement
Top Gigs of the Week in London
Top Gigs of the Week in London
The Best Street Food Markets in London
The Best Street Food Markets in London
Pride 2019: The Best British LGBT Films To Celebrate With And Learn From
Pride 2019: The Best British LGBT Films To Celebrate With And Learn From

Your inbox deserves a little culture! Get our monthly newsletter

Advertisement