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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

26 June 2012

Casanova in London

IN 1763 GIACOMO CASANOVA travelled to London and began renting rooms in Pall Mall to be near St James’s Palace. With this beachhead established, he could start screwing around in Covent Garden and Soho.

His memoirs were translated by the Welsh mystic Arthur Machen and they can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Wikipedia has this public domain image of Casanova, a red chalk sketch by his brother Francesco:

Chalk sketch of Giacomo Casanova


If you’re hoping for some Fanny Hill-style smut then you’ll be disappointed. Only someone with an academic interest in Casanova is likely to work their way through more than a few chapters. Sensory descriptions are rare and the writing style follows the usual she-said-this he-did-that convention of the times. However, there are a couple of sound references which are worth drawing attention to.

Banning non-religious music on a Sunday might seem surprising at first for an era usually thought of as disorderly and licentious:

When I left Soho Square I went to St. James’s Park to see Lady Harrington for whom I bore a letter, as I have mentioned. This lady lived in the precincts of the Court, and received company every Sunday. It was allowable to play in her house, as the park is under the jurisdiction of the Crown. In any other place there is no playing cards or singing on Sundays. The town abounds in spies, and if they have reason to suppose that there is any gaming or music going on, they watch for their opportunity, slip into the house, and arrest all the bad Christians, who are diverting themselves in a manner which is thought innocent enough in any other country. But to make up for this severity the Englishman may go in perfect liberty to the tavern or the brothel, and sanctify the Sabbath as he pleases.

Moralistic restrictions on behaviour evidently could be imposed, so long as powerful interests were able and willing to mobilise the necessary forces. But Casanova also tells of how the collective voice of Londoners had to be obeyed by those of even the highest social standing:

After a long discussion on politics, national manners, literature, in which subjects Martinelli shone, we went to Drury Lane Theatre, where I had a specimen of the rough insular manners. By some accident or other the company could not give the piece that had been announced, and the audience were in a tumult. Garrick, the celebrated actor who was buried twenty years later in Westminster Abbey, came forward and tried in vain to restore order. He was obliged to retire behind the curtain. Then the king, the queen, and all the fashionables left the theatre, and in less than an hour the theatre was gutted, till nothing but the bare walls were left.

After this destruction, which went on without any authority interposing, the mad populace rushed to the taverns to consume gin and beer. In a fortnight the theatre was refitted and the piece announced again, and when Garrick appeared before the curtain to implore the indulgence of the house, a voice from the pit shouted, “On your knees.” A thousand voices took up the cry “On your knees,” and the English Roscius was obliged to kneel down and beg forgiveness. Then came a thunder of applause, and everything was over. Such are the English, and above all, the Londoners. They hoot the king and the royal family when they appear in public, and the consequence is, that they are never seen, save on great occasions, when order is kept by hundreds of constables.

Such are the English, and above all, the Londoners – does you proud.

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