The Streets of Babylon


In which Agnes and I visit the Great Exhibition

The sun rose blood red after a terrible, pitch black night. No one could yet imagine what horrors the sea had witnessed. There was more wreckage in the waves than there had been at dusk, but no watchful eye was there to discern it. From her cliff top the fisherman’s daughter saw nothing but the flaming hues of the sun, lending both sky and sea traces of blood and horror.

‘London! England!’

The cabin door opened, and I hastily stowed away my manuscript in my portmanteau. Agnes was so eager she could hardly keep still. The steamer Helen McGregor was docking, and I hurried up the stairway with my book bag in tow. My companion was not the only one feeling over-excited. My own heart, too, was ticking like a demented Swiss watch.

Before me lay buildings familiar from prints and engravings. For the country dwellers in Miss Austen’s novels this was a city which represented the height of refinement. From here, the young Queen ruled over an empire on which the sun truly never set. By her charming example, the world would soon see that feminine gentleness and serenity could rule just as well as masculine brutality. In this city, readers sat poring over my novels, learning still more about manners, politeness and the thousands of opportunities open to women. On deck sat a young lady, in fact, so engrossed in my novel The Manor House that she had scarcely noticed we were putting in to London. Perhaps in English translation the Swedish province of Sörmland was as exotic as the Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Greenwich Observatory.

‘Look,’ cried Agnes, once we were on deck. She was pointing in all directions – at the grand buildings, at the small boats and other craft, at the Thames dockyards where ships to command the oceans were being built.

For me, too, London was new and virginal. I grew up in a Swedish manor house, and I have seen a good deal of the world. No one would believe Euthanasia Bondeson to be a country girl. Granted, my parents had a taste for peculiar names (I would have preferred them to choose ‘Malvina’ or ‘Ariadne’, which they were also considering), but my experiences have not been unvaried. When the great city revealed itself before me, I gasped.

‘Look, Aunt Euthanasia! What sort of boat is that? Oh, so many steamers!’

I relayed information and explanation as best I could. The many-masted vessel was a square-rigger and that slender beauty could be nothing other than a clipper, soon to be speeding across the waves to fetch tea and silk from distant China. Alongside her bobbed a row of steamboats, like provincial lasses at a Stockholm ball. Small boats hurried to and fro; there were gentlemen in uniform and sailors in white trousers; there was the singing sound of capstans and masts – the great city went to my head, and all the bridges of London extended before me: London Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge and all those other names. The greatest miracle of all was invisible to our eyes. The Thames Tunnel ran from Wapping to Rotherhithe, linking north and south beneath the waters of the river.

‘Isn’t it fabulous?’ said Agnes, and gave a little jump of delight, making her earrings leap and her gold chains jingle. Her dress rode up several inches, of course, revealing both button boots and well-turned calves. I gave a small sigh, but then smiled and instructed her thoroughly in the geography and customs of the city. The gangplanks were lowered into place, and we stepped onto British soil.

Today was the seventh of September 1851. London was more than ever the centre of the world: it was the year of the Great Exhibition, and the inhabitants not only of the Empire but of the whole world were assembled in Hyde Park, as though they had been summoned there to be taxed.

I cannot deny that the Exhibition was one of the reasons for our own visit to England. It had been a busy year for us both. In the spring we had travelled in France, where I collected material for a novel about the revolution of 1848, and we spent the summer months bathing at the Hälsans brunn spa in Skåne, the southernmost province of our homeland. For Agnes it was a tranquil summer, with all the diversions and attentions that a young girl may expect of a spa visit, while I battled with proofs and new manuscripts between my bathing sessions.

In London we knew no one. That was one important reason for going there. My publishers were there, of course, and my translator – but they would not demand friendship. They knew the literary world. Here we would find peace and quiet. I would be spared readers looking at me, first shyly, then with determination, uttering their interminable ‘Euthanasia Bondeson? Can it really be my privilege?’

No one met us on the quayside. One gentleman immediately noticed that we were travelling alone and asked if he could help. He seemed to be an honourable man, but I had to think of Agnes, and asked him to summon one of the police officers.

The English police are unlike anything seen in Sweden. When we talk of police officers, the English say ‘policemen’. I would almost go a step further and call them ‘police gentlemen’. They are a splendid species, the English police: tall, upright, well dressed in close-fitting, dark-blue tailcoats with silver embroidery on the collar, tall black hats and white gloves. One can hardly believe they perform the same task as our surly Swedish police officers, who stink of schnapps and wield their sticks on anything that crosses their path. The English police gentlemen are unarmed, and it is not beneath their dignity to help two unaccompanied ladies with their luggage and find them a cab.

The obliging police gentleman piloted us past the small, light, two-wheeled hansom cabs, the popular choice. They are for passengers only. With all our baggage, we required a slower, more stable, four-wheeled carriage, known as a growler, which conveyed us safely towards the centre of London.

A teeming city greeted us. Agnes’s jaw dropped, in that rather gooselike way of hers. She is considerably cleverer than one might give her credit for, but young and impressionable. The menfolk of London gawped just as much at her as she did at their city. When we came to a halt in a traffic jam at Temple, they began crowding round our carriage to get a glimpse of the girl, and I heard voices say the name Jenny Lind. Agnes is a very beautiful girl, with the pale blond hair of the Nordic races, blue eyes and a dainty nose, and the seductive freshness of the high mountains, her cheeks as red as a lingonberry. It is an insult to compare her to Miss Lind, whose snub nose is as renowned throughout the world as her voice. I called to the cabbie to get us out of there, and he raised his whip and brought it down everywhere but on the horse. The men dispersed, and we continued at a brisk pace to the Golden Cross, a family hotel in the Strand.

Our police gentleman had recommended the hotel. It was an excellent choice – comfortable without being elegant, homely without being cramped, and affordable without seeming cheap. What is more, the Golden Cross was a name we ought to have been able to remember. We installed ourselves in two rooms with a connecting door – an absolute necessity for my writing – checking ourselves in as Miss E. Bondeson and her companion Agnes Björk. A tree name: she has that much in common with Miss Lind. Lind means ‘linden’, and Agnes’s surname means ‘birch’. The birch, tall, slender and fair, is a most appropriate symbol for her.

Outside, the sun was shining. We had left Skåne on the verge of autumn, but here it was high summer. Agnes was as thrilled as a child, wanting go out and explore at once. There would not be time for the Great Exhibition, of course, as it was already Sunday afternoon, but could we not at least take a little stroll along the streets of the city?

I could understand her impatience. That longing for the unknown can still, after forty years, take a claw-like grip on my stomach regions. A wise mistress can hardly ask the girl to rest and relax, with the whole world clamouring outside the window.

‘Very well!’ I said, glancing in the mirror and taking up my umbrella – for you never know with the English weather. ‘Let us venture forth and conquer London!’

Agnes is taller than I, but we are both strong walkers. We would never think of taking newly purchased boots on our travels, and our everyday skirts are always well bound at the hem to withstand both mud and the filth of the streets. I had already studied my map of the city carefully. I wished to say nothing to Agnes, but I can reveal to my dear readers my difficulties in finding my way in strange cities. Even in Stockholm, my home town, it is not always easy. I am neither inattentive nor stupid, but my surroundings spin like a cogwheel in my head. I presume it is all to do with the rotation of the Earth. Thorough study and a reliable map are the only cures for my affliction. Agnes is even worse, and therefore admires my sense of direction. I chose not to disillusion her as we hurried downstairs and out into the Strand.

Out in the street, Agnes gasped. People of every physiognomy, costume and colour were rushing along the pavements. The streets were thronged with carriages and brightly coloured omnibuses. Stockholm was a backwater compared to London.

‘I never knew there were so many people!’ whispered Agnes, and I felt glad I had not taken her to Paris. We walked past St. James’s Palace, on through Green Park and into Hyde Park. Then we were thrown from one extreme to the other – from the hurly-burly life of the streets into the lush stillness of the parks – until we saw what we had really come for. Over by the Serpentine lay the Crystal Palace, that glorious construction which housed the World Fair. Even from a distance, the Palace was unlike anything we had ever seen. It was at the same time a shrine to the peaceful intercourse of peoples, a hothouse for culture and industry and a station for the railway trains of human encounter.

The Crystal Palace was almost 2,000 feet in length and built entirely of iron and glass. The strongest and the frailest of materials had entered into beautiful union, and I felt my heart beat faster with joy. ‘What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason,’ says Prince Hamlet – and though the melancholy prince may not mean it, I do. At the sight of that gigantic structure, surrounded by a swarm of people and carriages, I was filled with delight at the human race, myself included.

‘Aunt Euthanasia, it’s wonderful!’ whispered Agnes, rolling her blue eyes so much that I was afraid she might swoon. I put my arm about her waist and looked around for somewhere to sit.

In London one is seldom left long in a quandary. A kindly lady came sailing like a Thames barge along the path through the park, and hove-to alongside us.

‘Is the poor girl unwell?’

‘She just feels a little faint.’ Agnes gave a wan smile. Her English is very limited.

‘There are cafés everywhere,’ said the lady, ‘but if the girl is delicate, there are cows in St. James’s Park, and fresh milk is available.’

I must have resembled that curved symbol generally used to conclude dubious statements. The lady smiled.

‘I expect you are a stranger here,’ she said. ‘There are cows in the park. Many Londoners would have to go without fresh milk otherwise.’

‘Oh, I see!’ I said, and explained this to Agnes. The news transformed her.

‘Yes! Yes! I want milk!’

She now seemed anything but delicate. We went back the way we had come, and did indeed find a whole row of cows along the edge of St. James’s Park. The milkmaid was ready at once to provide Agnes with a mug of milk. While the girl drank, we watched the crowds: the children decked out in their finery, being taken for walks by their nursemaids; and the pretty servant girls being courted by soldiers. Despite the bustle and decadence of the city, I felt a hint of the pleasures of country life. Fortified, we returned to our hotel.