Nothing can be less beautiful than the first sight of London

Emily Shore’s journal, 1837

Emily Shore was just nineteen when she died of tuberculosis—a short life, but one brimming with intellectual curiosity. Born in Suffolk, England in 1819, her now-celebrated journal contains not just her intricate observations of the natural world, but also thoughtful reflections on literature, religion, her family, and her impending death. In May of 1835, when she wrote this entry, she found herself far removed from her comfort zone, immersed in a city shrouded beneath a thick fog, many miles from the tranquil countryside that she loved.

The Diary Entry

May 20. I am actually writing this part of my journal in London…. For many miles before we arrived, the atmosphere was polluted with the smoke of the town and the vile smell of brickmaking. But over the town itself hung a dense cloud of smoke and fog which totally hid all but the nearest buildings. No view of it from a distance could be obtained, and there was no beauty in the surrounding country to set it off to advantage. The region for some miles round is neither country nor town; it consists of flat fields, with a few trees, thickly interspersed with those hideous creations, citizens’ boxes. In short, nothing can be less beautiful, less imposing, less interesting, than the first sight of London, at least from the north road.

We avoided the City altogether, going by the New Road, through Regent’s Park. I was altogether disappointed in the Park. I had expected at least to see fine timber. No such thing. The horrid atmosphere of London checks all vegetation. As far as I could see, there was not a tree in Regent’s Park to compare with the greater part of those in Whitewood. Besides, the sky is smoky and dingy; there is no freshness in the air, nor the bloom of spring everywhere, as in the country. It has also a formal look; it is intersected with wide public roads, which are inclosed by hedges or railings. These roads were full of carriages, cabs, horsemen, and pedestrians, which are supposed to give so much liveliness to the scene; so they do, but I like a retired, unfrequented park much better.

On leaving Regent’s Park we entered Portland Place. Here I was much struck with the grandeur of the buildings, surpassing anything I ever saw in the shape of private houses. If London had all been like this, it would have been a magnificent city. But I believe not many parts are so noble as this.

Further Reading

Written over the course of eight years, Emily Shore’s journal ran to twelve handwritten volumes and was first published in 1891, fifty years after death, edited by her sisters. Long out of print and copyright, you can now read it at the Internet Archive.

Alternatively, you could visit The Journal of Emily Shore Digital Edition, edited by Barbara Timm Gates and maintained by the University of Virginia Press. This is a comprehensive edition of the journal, nicely laid out and with notes and images.

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