The London Spy by Ned Ward, Or, Italian Paste and the Power of Advertising

The best dollar I ever spent. 'Tis no shame for a book to be remaindered (unless you're a milion dollar celebrity "tell-all", robbing a hundred honest authors of their living), any more than for a cat or a dog to be in the pound. They printed more copies than they could sell, or the book languished on the shelf and never found its true reader, to take it home to cherish it and keep it by their bedside, what the bunny rescuers call a "forever home".

I found my copy of The London Spy on a sale table at the International Medieval Congress here in Kalamazoo, which might explained why it hadn't found a home, being "Ned Ward's classic account of underworld life in eighteenth century London". The book was simply out of its era. Medievalists want things that befell between 500 AD and 1500, except for the Saturday night dance, when they'll love anything. Myself, long a bringer-home of stray cats, dogs, bats and rabbits, when I saw the phrase underworld life in eighteenth century... was on that book like a duck on a junebug.

Friends of the Hogarth coffee-house, Gin Lane, and The Black Adder will want a copy of this book. With language as high-flown as anything in Dr. Johnson, this book is vulgar, scatological, cheerfully racist towards Irishmen and hilarious. Edward "Ned" Ward, author of A Trip to Jamaica (which place he immortalized as "The Dunghill of the Universe") and other works, started wandering around London between 1698 and 1700 and published what he heard, smelt and saw in eighteen parts. I keep mine on the bedside table to open at random when I haven't anything else to read, and fall asleep giggling.

In this passage at a public bath, a "rubber" (masseur) decides to reuse the still-warm bath water used by a high-born lady, to save himself the labor involved in emptying the tub and heating fresh water with wood. Just as he's showing a new customer into the scented bath, he discovers that her Ladyship left a little something in the tub-- but thinking fast, the silver-tongued yeoman turns a turd into gold:

"'At last the gentleman looking about him, saw the remains of her cleanly ladyship in his bath. "What a plague," says he, is this that is swimming amongst the herbs!" "Sir," says the rubber, "it is nothing but Italian paste, which is accounted the most excellent thing to cleanse and make smooth the skin imaginable, and it is what my mistress cannot afford to use but in an extraordinary bath which is paid for above the common rates of the house." "Prithee, friend", says the gentleman, if it be so good for the skin, rub me well with it, but egad," says he, "in my mind it looks as like a sir-reverence as ever I saw anything in my life." "Aye, sir," says the servant, "and so it does, but it is an incomparable thing to wash with, for all that it looks so nastily, and is a compound of the richest gums and best castle-soap boiled up together, that can be bought for money." "Pray," says the beau, "take a little pains with me, and rub me all over with it very well. Who is it that makes it? I'll buy some for my hands." "It is made, sir," says the rubber, "by a gentle-woman in this town, but where she lives I cannot tell. My mistress, were she within, could inform you, but she went into the City to dinner, and is not returned yet."

"'Thus my comrade that attended him, by the good management of his tongue, briught off the mischance cleverly without discovery. the perfumes and sweet herbs in the bath so overpowered the scent, that the gentleman, though he nosed it, being amongst such a mixture of effluvia, it confounded his smelling, and rendered him incapable of distinguishing a fair-lady's sir-reverence from the excrement of a civet-cat. so he rose out of his bath extremely pleased, and gave him that attended him half a crown for his extraordinary care and trouble, and so marched away with great satisfaction.'"

My copy was edited by Mr. Paul Hylands from the Fourth Edition of 1709, and was published in East Lansing (Michigan State Spartans, no doubt) by Colleagues Press, Box 4007, Michigan 48826. I regret to say that you can find it on Amazon at $99.95 for the hardcover or $69.95 for the paperback. Abebooks doesn't have any copies, and Bibliofind is owned by the monster Amazon anyway, but if you keep your eyes open in the used book stores you won't regret it. Now we know what the wine-sellers buy that's half so dear as the stuff they sell. I cannot but hope, in the name of democracy and conscientization, that Dover books would discover this treasure and bring out one of its five-dollar editions.

1 comment:

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I loved Bibliofind before Amazon ate it. At the very least, with ABE, I try and drop a note to the sellers, thanking them.