John McDonnell has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web his website with the electronic text, including scanned images, of the anonymous London Characters and the Humourous Side of London Life. With Upwards of 70 Illustrations apparently by a "Mr. Jones," which the London firm Stanley Rivers & Co. published in 1871. Brackets indicate explanatory material, such as interpretations of contemporary slang, by Mr. McDonnell. > — George P. Landow.]
t is not to be supposed indeed that utter strangers would go and live together without some strong inducements; and these inducements are generally money on the one side and society on the other. The people who want the money---through having "larger houses than they require," or other causes, of which any number may be found with great facility---are less to be pitied than the people who want the society, for the latter must be dismally reduced in this respect before they can be brought to take it on chance. In a "cheerful family, musically inclined," part of the compact of course is that the incomer shall be cheerful, if not musical and companionable, at any rate. The requisition sounds awful, but it is one to which hundreds of harmless persons in this metropolis submit rather than be left alone. Many, of course, are induced by considerations of economy; and of those still more unfortunate than the ordinary class, are those of the more helpless, who do not accept a "home," upon independent terms, but obtain it either gratuitously or for some very small payment upon condition of being useful or helping to make things pleasant. Of these there are large numbers, to judge by the advertisements; and I suspect that they are rather worse off than those who "go out" regularly as governesses and companions, for the latter have at least a chance of lighting upon rich and generous patrons. And here I may mention that a great deal of nonsense is written about governesses---more perhaps than about most other things. Their trade is a bad one, no doubt, because the market is overstocked. But that is no fault of the employers, who cannot be expected to fill their houses with young ladies of varying tastes and tempers, on account of their presumably "superior" education and intelligence. Nor is it to be taken for granted that every governess is of the "superior" kind, and all the people who engage their services, vulgar wretches who delight in inflicting mortification upon their betters. Who has not heard of families of the best breeding and refinement being tortured beyond all endurance by governesses of conspicuous inability to teach, who have let their pupils run wild, and concentrated their attention upon the men of the house, and whose insolent and overbearing ways have made the work of getting rid of them one of no common difficulty? Our novelists have not given us many illustrations of this side of the picture; but you may depend upon it that Becky Sharpes [from Thackeray's Vanity Fair] are at least as plentiful as Jane Eyres in real life.
A favorite resort of the homeless are boarding-houses. Of these establishments there are hundreds in London---from those devoted to the entertainment of minor City clerks, rigorously "engaged during the day," to those which---one is almost led to suppose---nobody under the rank of a baronet is received, and even then not without a reference as to respectability on the part of a peer. But most of these houses have one or two features in common. There is always a large admixture of people who go there for the sake of society; and of this number a considerable proportion is sure to consist of widows or spinsters of extremely marriageable tendencies. The result is that, unless the residents be very numerous, individual freedom is lost, and, instead of living an independent life as at an hotel, the members of a "circle" find themselves surrounded by such amenities as may be supposed to belong a rather large and singularly disunited family.
A great many marriages, however, are made in these establishments, and it is not on record that they turn out otherwise then well. It must be admitted, too, that men go there to find wives as well as women to find husbands, so that the arrangement thus far is fair on both sides. But I have been informed by men who are not among the latter number, that it is found difficult sometimes to get the fact generally understood. The consequent mistakes of course lead to confusion, and the result is the occassional retirement of determined bachelors into more private life.
There are "homes" in London where there is not much mention of marriage, except as a reminiscence, and few of their members have the chance even of this melancholy enjoyment. I allude to houses in which, through the exertions principally of benevolent ladies, other ladies, who would probably be equally benevolent were they not less fortunate, have a residence assigned to them upon advantageous terms. That is to say, they live in an establishment where all their wants are supplied upon the payment, by themselves or their friends, of a small contribution towards the necessary outlay, the remainder being covered by subscriptions of a strictly private character. The recipients of this assistance are all gentlewomen---as is necessary to the state of social equality in which they live---and their admittance is obtained by favour of the benevolent ladies in question. These ladies are influenced, I suppose, by the introductions brought by the candidates, and considerations of their previous position---which has in every case been a great deal superior to their present position, as may be supposed. The said "homes" are very few in number; so far as I know, they have no connection with one another, and they are entirely private in their arrangements. The neighbours may happen to know that a certain house in which they find so many ladies living together is not a boarding house in the ordinary acceptation of the term; but there is nothing to proclaim the fact, and the inmates live in an apparent state of independence equal to that of anybody about them. And they live as contented, I believe, as can be in the case of persons who are not of such social importance as they were, and who have plenty of leisure to talk over the fact. They are all gentlewomen, as I have said, and upon terms of social equality; but it may be supposed that there are differences between them, as there are between people generally in society. You may depend upon it, that the lady who is related to an earl is of opinion that she is a preferable object of consideration to the lady who is related only to a baronet, while the claims of the other ladies to their several degrees of precedence are not unadjusted for want of accurate investigation. A few very likely "give themselves airs" upon this score, while some pride themselves upon their beauty when young---(none of the ladies are quite young now)---and others establish a superiority upon account of their mental gifts. All this imparts a pleasant variety to the conversation which would otherwise be in danger of falling into monotony. Such at least, I suppose, to be the case, for I am dealing in generalities, and cannot claim to a knowledge of any one in particular of these ladies' homes. For the rest, the occupants are said to pass an easy, agreeable life, more especially those who are not without friends whom they can go to visit---in which case they are free to have as much amusement as if they lived in houses of their own.
I said something about boarding-houses just now. A great many of the homeless who have not tried these establishments---or having tried them are unwilling to renew the experiment---live in furnished lodgings. On the Continent they would probably put up at hotels: but hotels in this country are not adapted for modest requirements, and furnished lodgings take a place which they have not yet learned to occupy. The mode of life is anomalous. It is neither public nor private. You may be independent in an hotel; you may be independent in your own house; in lodgings you can be independent by no possibility. If you spend rather more money than you would either in an hotel or your own house, you obtain comfort and attention; but the object of most persons who take lodgings is to be rather economical than otherwise, so that the reservation is of very little avail. Lodgings are of two classes---those that profess to be so, and those that solemnly declare they are not. The former are decidedly preferable, apart from the immorality of encouraging a sham. In the former case, if you occupy---say as a bachelor---only a couple of rooms in town, and the rest of the house is let to other people, you will obtain but precarious attendance from the solitary servant, and the chances are that you will never be able to get a decently-cooked meal. The food that they waste in such places by their barbarous mode of dealing with it is sad to think upon. Your only resource is to live out of doors as much as possible, and consider your rooms only as a refuge---the logical consequence of which is that it is best to abandon them altogether.
But you are better placed even under these conditions than if you go to a house in one of the suburbs---a pretty villa-looking place---knowing nothing about it beyond the information offered by the bill in the window. A not very clean servant opens the door, and does not impress you favourably at first glance. You are hesitating, under some discouragement, when the mistress of the house---presenting in her decorated exterior a considerable contrast to the servant---appears upon the scene and reproves the domestic sternly for her neglected appearance, sends her away to restore it, and meantime proceeds to transact business upon her own account. You ask her if she lets apartments. She gives a reproving look, and says "No," ignoring the announcement made by the bill. You mention that you knocked in consequence of seeing that intimation in the window; upon which the lady says---
"Oh, is it up? I was not aware. The fact is, I wish to receive a gentleman to occupy part of the house, as it is too large for us"---the old story---"and my husband being a great deal out, I find it rather lonely. But my husband is very proud and objects to having strange company."
You remark that you need not have applied in that case, and will go elsewhere. This brings the lady to the point.
"Oh, I did not mean to say that you could not have any apartments here. I intend to have my own way in that matter"---this is said in a playful, fluttery manner, with a running laugh. "If you will step in I will show you the accommodation we have. All I meant to say was, that we are not accustomed to let lodgings."
Rather amused than annoyed, you submit to be shown the rooms. They are pretty rooms---light and cheerful, and ornamental to a fault---and the garden at the back is alone a relief from the pent-up place you have been occupying in town. So, after a few preliminary negotiations---conducted on the lady's side in the same playful manner---you agree to take the place, say for three months. The lady is evidently pleased at your decision, and avails herself of the opportunity for renewing her assurance that the house is not a lodging-house, and that you may expect all the comforts of a domestic life.
"There are no other lodgers," she added; then, as if suddenly recollecting, she corrects herself: "That is to say, there is a commercial gentleman who is a great deal away, sleeping here for a night or two---a friend of my husband's---and yes, let me see, a medical gentleman to whom we have allowed the partial use of a bedroom to oblige a neighbour just for the present, but I do not count either of them as lodgers."
A commercial gentleman sleeping for a night or two, while he is a great deal away, does not seem an ordinary lodger at any rate; and from the distinction drawn in the case of the medical gentleman who is only allowed the partial use of a bedroom, you are inclined to think that he is permitted to lie down but not go to sleep. However, you make no objection to these anomalies, and take possession of your new abode.
There never was such an imposter, as you find out only next day. The bagman and the medical student---as those gentlemen must be described, if the naked truth be respected---turn out to be regular lodgers, and as thorough nuisances as a couple of noisy men addicted to late hours and exaggerated conviviality can well be. And the woman never mentioned a discharged policeman---her father, I believe---to whom she affords a temporary asylum in the kitchen, in return for intermittent attentions in the way of blacking boots and cleaning knives---when he happens to be sober. For the rest, there is nobody in the house who can cook even such a simple matter as a mutton chop without spoiling it; and there seems to be everybody in the house who is determined that your private stores shall not be allowed to spoil for want of eating and drinking. Nothing is safe from the enemy, who combines forces against you, and they take care that you shall have no protection, for not a lock which can give shelter to any portable article will act after you have been two days in the house. As for your personal effects, they are in equal danger. The average amount of loss in wearing apparel is one shirt and two handkerchiefs a week; and miscellaneous articles are sure to go if they are in the least degree pretty or curious. And the coolest part of the proceeding is, that the mildest complaint on your part brings down a storm upon your devoted head, such as you could not have expected from the playful and fluttering person who had given you such pleasant assurances when you took the rooms. She claims to be Caesar's wife in point of immunity from suspicion, and asserts the same privilege for everybody in the house. "No gentleman was ever robbed there," she says; and she plainly hints that no gentleman would say he was, even though he said the fact.
This is no exaggerated picture of many suburban lodgings to which outsiders of society are led to resort for want of better accommodation; and a large number of persons who are not outsiders in the sense in which I have employed the term, but who are simply not settled in the metropolis, are exposed to a similar fate. For those who are prepared for an ordeal of another nature, the "cleerful family, musically inclined," offers, one would think, a far preferable alternative. But it is not everybody who is prepared to have society thrust upon him, either in this quiet domestic way or in a large boarding-house, and there ought to be better provision than there is for the floating mass of casual residents in London. In Paris not only are there hotels suited to the requirements of all classes of persons, but the maisons meubles [furnished lodgings] are places where they may live almost as independently as in their own houses. In London, the only realization of the luxury short of an entire house is in what we call "chambers;" and a man's chambers are most certainly his castle, whatever his house may be. That the want is being appreciated, is evident from the rapid extension of the "chambers" system, in the way of the independent suites of rooms known as "flats." But the flats, as now provided in Victoria Street, and elsewhere, cost as much as entire houses, while the latest additions, the Belgrave and Grosvenor mansions, are even more costly, and beyond the reach of the classes to whom I have been referring. The latter would be deeply grateful for accommodation of the kind on a more moderate scale, and the investment of capital in such an object could not fail to be profitable. Besides the desolate people into whose sorrows I have entered, there are in London, it must be remembered, many hundreds of outsiders of society of a different kind, who are outsiders only from that conventional society in which it takes so much money to "move," and who ought to command greater comfort than they do while they are working their way in professional pursuits. For those actually in want of companionship, I suppose they will always incline to the hotel, or the boarding-house, or the "cheerful family, musically inclined."
Last modified 24 November 2012