before Murger, London had a literary Bohemia based on fraternal, informal
clubs. There were also individual writers whose dissolute, vagabond lives
bear some comparison with the Bohemian legend as it later evolved. London
during the 19th century had its own Bohemian enclaves in places like Chelsea,
Soho and Fleet Street.
Bohemia in its more proper sense arose with the growth of capitalism in Europe. With the decline of feudal and aristocratic patronage the arts came to rely upon the increasingly prosperous and powerful bourgeois for commissions and support. Artists were inevitably forced into more or less open market situations which were often highly competitive, as the history of London's literary Grub Street shows even in the 18th century. To survive, at some level or another one had to please the buying public, or else the buyer-patron of the moment. London, in fact, as the first home of modern capitalism produced a romantic Bohemian prototype in the struggling Grub Street hack - a figure wryly portrayed in William Hogarth's etching 'The Distressed Poet' - but it took Murger's Paris to give him a certain dignity, along with the gypsy title. Grub Street itself can lay claim to being the first Bohemian ghetto.
Despite the assumptions of the English middle classes and those artists who wished to be inconspicuous amongst them it is clear that there was a Bohemia in London contemporary with that of Paris during the 19th century and one with a very long literary tradition.
London could boast no single geographical focus for artists, no long-established, traditional ghetto, yet remains a fact that pre-romantic varieties of literary Bohemia had existed there 250 years before the term was specifically associated with the artistic life and with Murger's Paris.
As Murger himself noted, France itself had pre-romantic exemplar in the shape of the 15th century poet-rogue Francois Villon. Arthur Ransome in his book 'Bohemia in London' (1907), supposed that Villon was "the first remembered Bohemian poet", and recalled his own youthful desire to relive such a free and casual life. The comfort and tidiness of Ransome's more mature middle-class attitude is revealed, however, in his comment that Villon "had an uncomfortable life and an untidy death": one's death should always be a tidy affair.
It is worth reflecting that while Parisian Bohemia had its taverns and wine bars it was also at least partly a salon culture. Most importantly, this meant that it did not exclude women. They may have been marginalised - even, as grisettes and models, sexually exploited - but they were a constant presence in a way that they rarely were in the English tradition. In Paris there was always some place for intellectual women. But it is hard to imagine even cultured Londoners accepting somebody like George Sand, whose affectation of a male persona at one stage went way beyond her choice of a pen-name into the more practical arena of wearing men' s clothes, smoking cigars, and courting actresses; yet in France she was a popular novelist.
In London, Bohemianism was always an exclusively male affair. After the hiatus caused by the Puritan Revolution and its attendant Civil War a form of Bohemian life was resumed in the late 17th century at Will' s Coffee House on the corner of Bow and Russell Streets. Within its walls for a number of years gathered some of the best Restoration and Augustan writers - William Wycherly, William Congreve, Joseph Addison and Alexander Pope - and all drank deeply, not only of coffee, but of the Muses' Pierian spring. John Dryden, one time Poet Laureate, acted as its resident wit during much of his career, thus taking up the worshipful mantle of Ben Jonson to a new generation.
By the middle of the 18th century the coffee house had lost their novelty and the inn was restored as the home of free spirits. There was a new and mighty arbiter of poetic in the solemn bulk of Doctor Samuel Johnson, who presided at a lively institution called The Club (founded 1764) which met at the Turk's Head tavern in Soho. While it later became the Literary Club its inspiration came from a painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the most famous Portraitist of his day - hardly a Bohemian type a la Murger. Indeed, few of the literary members of the Club - men such as Edmund Burke, David Carrick, Oliver Goldsmith and James Boswell (Johnson's great biographer) could be construed as Bohemians in that romantic sense either, although each probably, and Goldsmith certainly, had his moments. What a strange club it must have been, to have included Sir Joseph Banks and Adam Smith.
18th century London does however provide one unambiguously Bohemian figure in Richard Savage. Savage was a companion and friend during Johnson's early career and the good Doctor repaid the debt with a magnificent, if inaccurate, biography written soon after the poet's death in 1743. Even in Johnson's guardedly complimentary account Savage comes across as a difficult and careless person: lazy, spendthrift, a drain on his friends and quite his own worst enemy. He was determined in his belief that the world owed him a living and so insisted that he was the illegitimate son of the Countess of Macclesfield.
Oscar Wilde was not unnoticeable during the late 19th century. His youthful attempts to draw attention to his self-proclaimed genius, with a wildly eccentric Bohemian costume and a demonstrated passion for sunflowers and lilies, outraged public opinion in the 1880s and paved the way for the homophobic backlash that rejoiced in his later downfall. In the 1840s the poet Gerard de Nerval could gaily walk a lobster on a ribbon through the arcades of the Palais-Royal in Paris and when asked why he kept such a creature reply that it was "quiet and serious", "knew the secrets of the sea" and did not bark: this was the kind of behaviour that came to be expected of young mad artists in France. The English may not have been so tolerantly mused.
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