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. [Decorated initial "A" by Thackeray from Vanity Fair — George P. Landow.]
he consideration of the Bill is likely to occupy a great many days. Meanwhile let us look into another committee-room. Here the scene is very similar to that presented in the adjacent apartment. At first sight you would say that there were the same walls and windows, the same horseshoe table, the same committee, the same clerk, and the same shorthand writer. I cannot say the same counsel, for there are no counsel at all. The subject of investigation is connected with the registration of voters, amd the witnesses are examined by the members of the committee themselves. Glancing again at the latter, you observe that they consist of prominent political men, including several Cabinet Ministers, the latter of whom are remarkably reticent, and seem bent upon acquiring information for their own purposes, as they doubtless are. The proceedings are very dull, and do not repay the uininterested listener, who is unlikely to make a long stay. In another room a railway Bill is undergoing investigation. It is an auxiliary to the Metropolitan line, and a great map of the route is affixed to the wall. We come next to an apartment where several little bottles of water are engaging the attention of the committee, and several scientific gentlemen are explaining the results of their investigation into the quality of the more or less pure liquid. But there is nothing very interesting in all this, and a proposal to descend once more into Westminster Hall will probably meet with approbation.
All the Courts are sitting, and the proceedings in each must concern a great number of persons. But there is one court -- the one whose entrance is the farthest from Palace Yard, and the nearest, therefore, to the steps we are now descending -- which seems to have a peculiar interest for the public. There is a large crowd outside, the members of which are evidently incredulous of the policeman's assurance that there is no room for them within. But they can scarcely fail to concede the fact when they see the concourse which pours forth when the doors are presently opened; for it is now the middle of the day, and the Court has adjourned for refreshment.
In either body the idlers are predominent. Scores upon scores of these seem to spend their days down at Westminster, with no apparent object but to obtain gratuitous entertainment of a dramatic character. In this object, however, they must be frequently disappointed; for, although many cases in court may be "as good as a play," a great deal depends upon what play they are as good as. They may be a great deal better than some plays, and yet not be amusing. But I suspect that many of these mysterious people, who patiently sit out the long hours when everybody else wishes to get away, have a stronger inducement than mere amusement. Some are so mouldy in appearance, and so abject in their manners, that they must surely come for shelter and something like society. It is a distraction, I suppose, for these unhappy men to concern themselves about other people's business rather than their own. I say men, but there are some women among them, and their case is still more anomalous. They come in couples, never alone, as the men always do, and instead of being abject in their manners, take up a tone of smart cynicism when commenting upon the proceedings to one another. To judge from their remarks, which I have overheard from time to time, I suspect these ladies to be under the fixed and unchangeable belief that her Majesty's judges are a set of old villains who have themselves been guilty of most of the delinquencies upon which they sit in judgment, and that the counsel -- less wicked than the judges only because they are younger -- are all habitual liars, and hate truth as another person, to whom their fair critics frequently compare them, is said to hate holy water. Further, I believe the said fair critics to entertain the impression that no poor man or woman can possibly obtain justice in a court of law.
This class of persons -- men and women -- form, as I have said, the majority of those who emerge from the court, which court, it may be here mentioned, is no other than the Court for the trial of Matrimonial Causes, otherwise known as the Divorce Court. But many of those concerned in the proceedings also come forth, and either go off to lunch or distribute themselves in groups about the Hall. A case of unusual interest is to be taken presently, and the parties appear to be all present. That well-built gentleman with the objectionably curled whiskers and the somewhat simpering smile, who is dressed with such scrupulous care and regard for conventional authenticity, I take at once to be the co-respondent. What nonsense it is to judge people by appearances. The only co-respondent present (and he belongs to another case), I afterwards find to be that ugly, brutal-looking man with a black beard, whose countenance, sufficient to convict him elsewhere, ought to be his best defence in the Divorce Court -- and would be, probably, were the Court a less experienced tribunal. The gentleman with the curled whiskers walks off with a lady, and promenades with her up and down the Hall. The fact I find to be that he is the lady's solicitor [legal adviser], who is giving her some parting words of advice previous to her appearance in the box; for the lady, it seems, is the petitioner, not the respondent, and will be the first witness called. She is a charming creature, the petitioner: gushing to a fault; with fair, fluffy, and fashionable hair, and no bonnet to speak of, as regards its size, though the accessory is calculated in every other respect to inspire admiring remark. Her costume -- well, it is one of those complete dresses which are especially called "costumes" by milliners. Altogether her array is admirably calculated to encourage her natural gifts and graces; and it would be difficult to conceive a more perfect object of sympathy -- except that she shows no sign of having been ill-treated. Her husband, I am informed, is not to be seen in the Hall. He is probably in court. But some of his witnesses are there; for the monster, it seems, intends to defend the case. The witnesses pointed out to me are a couple of women -- one said to be a cook, while the face of the other says "charwoman" as plainly as countenance can speak. These two worthies are sitting together upon the steps of the court discussing some sandwiches which they had brought with them in a basket, and enlivening their collation by frequent appeals to a flat bottle containing a white liquid which, other things being equal, might be mistaken for water. The naked eye, indeed, might make the mistake, but the naked nose never; besides, they take it in measured doses from a wine-glass, which is a mark of attention that people seldom pay to liquid in its virgin condition. The fair creatures seem to be greatly entertained by their conversation, which has partly reference to the particulars of the case just concluded, and partly to their expectations of the case about to commence. They are not long in anxiety concerning the latter; for the judge is now found to have taken his seat, and there is a general rush into the court. We get foremost places -- never mind how -- and are able both to hear and see.
The petitioner's counsel, like her solicitor, is a "ladies' lawyer" -- a Q.C. [Queen's Counsel], and a highly successful man in his profession. He tempers firmness with the utmost suavity, and his appearance generally is greatly in his favour. He is none of your slovenly barristers who wear slatternly robes, crumpled bands, and wigs that have not been dressed for years. His appointments are all neat and compact, like himself generally, and he even carries his regard for the Graces so far as to wear gloves, unlike most men at the bar, who fancy, I suppose, that clients and attorneys think them unbusiness-like. He states the petitioner's case with all the eloquence of which he is master; and such a course of insult and injury as he narrates one could scarcely suppose to be exercised towards so fair a victim except by a monster in human form. Not, however, that such is the appearance of the respondent, who is now pointed out to us, sitting at the solicitor's table. He looks a mere boy; a little dissipated, perhaps, in appearance, but more foolish than anything else. I believe his mental condition to be induced, not by insanity, as some of his friends have tried to make out, but a strong determination of blackguardism to the head. Looking at the petitioner, one cannot help hoping that he will prove the M. in H. F. which he is represented to be.
The petitioner is called upon in due course for her evidence. There are some ladylike delays, as there always are in such cases. First, the usher tells her that she must remove her right glove, as preliminary to holding "the book." What a pity that she was not apprised of this necessity a quarter of an hour before! Gloves that fit like gloves are not got off in a hurry; so there is a little delay, not made less by the confusion of the wearer, who is evidently conscious that the eyes of Europe are upon her. Then the judge tells her that she must lift her veil. He has a notion that the short spotted piece of net which the lady wears stretched across her face can be thrown over her head on the shortest notice. Nothing of the kind. She has to unpin it, and take it bodily off. "So very provoking," as she afterwards remarks; "before the whole Court, too!" I am bound to say that she looks far more injured without her veil than with it; for a pretty little spotted thing which throws up the delicacy of the complexion is not so well calculated to inspire pity as it ought to be. The good impression which she has already created is confirmed by the manner in which she gives her evidence -- somewhat reluctantly, and with the sympathizing assistance of the junior counsel, but consistently and to the purpose. She is not unagitated, as you may suppose, and at one point in her statement drops the glove which has been withdrawn. This is picked up at once by the taxing-master of the court, who retains it during the remainder of her examination, and then hands it back with a chivalrous air, such as would not have been expected from so prosaic an official.
At last, after having been thoroughly stared out of countenance by everybody in court for twenty minutes or so, and made the subject of sotto voce [in an undertone] commentary of an improving kind on every side, the petitioner resumes her place in front of her counsel, her first care being to reattach the spotted veil, which she does with the aid of a young person of most exemplary appearance, looking like a governess with a grievance, by whom she is accompanied. The glove she resumes at her leisure.
Some evidence follows in support of her case, which seems as strong a one as could well be. But the respondent has a case also, and his, too, is not without support. The cook and the charwoman, inspired by their lunch, compromise themselves so completely that they are told one after the other to stand down; but the evidence of a gentleman who follows them is decidedly damaging to the petitioner. He makes some unexpected statements, indeed, which the other side shows no signs of meeting. When the time comes, however, when he is open to cross-examination, the junior counsel for the petitioner, who has never held a brief before, makes, from the freshness of his inexperience, a suggestion to his senior, to which the senior, after some hesitation, accedes. The witness, it should be here stated, bears a name not unknown as a novelist, but the fact has not yet appeared before the Court.
Ignoring loftily the allegations made by the witness, the junior proceeds in this fashion with his cross-examination:
Counsel. "I believe, sir, that among your other avocations you are a writer for the press?"
Witness. "I am."
C. "You are a writer of fiction, I believe?"
W. "Yes, I write novels."
C. "You write from your imagination, I think; you invent what you put into your books?"
W. "I certainly do not take my writings from other people."
C. "And what you write is not true?"
W. "I do not pretend it to be so."
C. "Oh! you do not pretend it to be so. So everything you write is simply lies; there is not a word of truth in any of your works?"
W. "They are written from the imagination."
C. "Do not prevaricate, sir; remember, you are upon your oath. Have you been writing truth, or have you been writing lies?"
W. "Well, lies, since you will have it so."
C. "Very well, sir. And for how long have you been writing nothing but lies?"
W. "I must really appeal to his lordship, whether I am to be subjected -- -- "
Judge. "You had better answer the counsel, sir."
C. "I repeat, for how many years have you been writing nothing but lies?"
W. "Well, since you will have it so -- about twelve years."
C. "Very well, sir; it would have been much better to have told us so candidly at first. And you have a mother, I think, who also writes lies?"
W. "I have a mother who used to write novels."
C. "This is very sad -- that I cannot induce you to be definite in your terms. For how many years did your mother write lies?"
W. "She wrote for about twenty years."
C. "And during that time never wrote a word of truth?"
W. "I suppose not, in the sense you mean."
C. "That will do, sir. You have been writing nothing but lies for the last twelve years, and your mother wrote nothing but lies for twenty years before. I need not question you as to your statements concerning my clients, as the court and the jury must have formed their own opinion upon that subject. You may now stand down, sir."
The witness's testimony is thus triumphantly shaken -- a fact of which the leader does not fail to make use in his reply. The judge tells the jury that they need not trouble themselves about the facts elicited in cross-examination; but the jury are evidently impressed with the lying propensities of the witness, and return a verdict for the petitioner without leaving the box.
A friend tells me that my memory is misleading me, and that the case to which I refer was not tried in the Divorce Court. It may be so; but it is nevertheless true that, even in such a well-conducted tribunal as that of Lord Penzance, a pretty petitioner excites more interest than an ugly one, and a bold line of cross-examination will sometimes materially assist a case.
We turn next into another court, where nothing less interesting than a breach of promise of marriage case is being tried.
The experience of most persons, I fancy, would tend to the conclusion that the offences which lead to actions of this nature are continually being committed in all classes of society, and that the occasional cases which we hear of in the courts are but a small proportion of the number. It is seldom, indeed, that we find an instance in which both of the parties belong to the upper ranks; for it is only under very exceptional circumstances that persons of high social status would voluntarily submit to the exposure involved. As a general rule, the plaintiff or the defendant, or, it may be, both the one and the other, are of eccentric character, whose courtship has been removed from the ordinary conditions which procede matrimony. There are usually discrepancies as to age, or station, or money, or good sense, or good looks; and the revelations to which the proceedings lead frequently bring before us the strangest pictures of life. Here, for instance, is one as developed in evidence to-day. The plaintiff and defendant stand in the same relation to one another as the plaintiff and defendant in the case of "Bardell v. Pickwick" -- that is to say, Mrs. Brown let lodgings, and Mr. Jones lived in them -- otherwise there is not much resemblance between the two cases. Mrs. Brown was a widow with two children. She enjoyed a combination of personal characteristics which, as her counsel reminded the court, might, upon Royal authority, be considered attractions; that is to say, she was "fair, fat, and forty," though it seems that she did not, in the opinion of those who saw her in court, look anything like the age which was considered so charming by his late Majesty George the Fourth. Mr. Jones, described by the plaintiff's counsel to be about fifty-five, but "guessed" by one of the witnesses to be nearly twenty years older, is evidently, from his appearance an aged man, is paralysed besides, and has been so for some years, though one of the witnesses says that "he sometimes got better." He is, however, capable of enjoying life in his own way, which way seems to be by no means disassociated with amusements out of doors. Thus it appears that he has been in the habit of accompanying Mrs. [Brown], her two children, and his particular friend Mr. Robinson, a retired builder, to music-halls and similar places of recreation; and not only Mr. Robinson, but the cabman who drove them about, is stated to have been aware of the understanding between him and the fair -- not to say fat and forty -- widow. Mr. Robinson's view of the matter was that Mr. [Jones], by proposing such an alliance, was "going to make an old fool of himself;" but it is to be feared that Mr. Robinson's opinion was not quite disinterested, for he admitted that he lived not only with, but "upon" the defendant [Mr. Jones], in whose premises he must have been rather at home than otherwise; for, according to his own comprehensive account, he slept there, he breakfasted there, he dined there, he supped there, and he "grogged" [got drunk] there. The force of living with a man, one would think, could no farther go. In return for this slight accommodation he was in the habit of giving defendant such little assistance as his infirmities might require; and the idea of being displaced by such an intrusion as a wife, seems to have been peculiarly distasteful to him. For the defendant [Mr. Jones], it should be observed, was a rich man for his station in life, and did not care who knew it, for he had cards announcing that he was "a widower and gentleman," and was so "described in the books of the Bank of England," and further, that he had an office where he lent money. He told his friends that he had nearly five thousand pounds in the Bank, and that he would settle four thousand of it upon the plaintiff [Mrs. Brown]. The cabman, who, in consequence of being regularly employed to drive the party about on their pleasures, seems to have been quite on intimate terms, deposed that the defendant spoke about the lady "in a jocular way," the jocularity consisting, as he explained, somewhat to the surprise of the judge, in saying that she was a very nice woman, and that he intended to marry her. The cabman, too, was able to tell that he had driven Mr. Jones to Doctors' Commons, and saw him get a marriage-licence, and present it to Mrs. Brown. Nay, more, he certified that the defendant had given a material guarantee of his honourable intentions in a manner, I fancy, hitherto unknown to courtship, having ordered a brass plate with his own name to be placed upon her door, and adorned the portal with a touching mark of his affection in the form of a new knocker. It might be said that "he who adorned her had left but the name," and that, notwithstanding the knocker, he did not care a rap about her. But such things are difficult to conceive; and the evidence discloses every appearance of the fact, that if ever man meant seriously towards a lady, that man was Mr. Jones.
But he failed in his troth after all. We are proverbially told that one power proposes, and another disposes; but Mr. Jones did both. He had proposed to Mrs. Brown, and then felt disposed not to have her. Hence the present action. The defence, as frequently happens in breach-pf-promise cases, is that the defendant was not worth having; and he certainly presents a helpless and generally abject appearance in court. But appearances of the kind are not always implicitly relied upon by judges and experienced juries. A wealthy farmer, under similar circumstances, has been known to present himself before the tribunal in the guise of a farm labourer, in a smockfrock, with haybands round his legs, a pitchfork in his hand, and presenting generally, in his language and deportment, a picture of Cymon before he fell in love with Iphigenia. Such stooping to conquer is usually appreciated by spectators, and there is evidently a suspicion in the present case that Mr. Jones's miserable make-up has been overdone. Both Mr. Robinson and the cabman distinctly state that he was a very different person during his courtship -- looked well fed, was well dressed, wore jewellery, and took care of himself generally. So his counsel's appeal cannot, evidently, be sustained upon the grounds urged; and the judge directing that the question is simply one of damages, the jury assess them at a good round sum -- evidently beyond the expectations of the lady's counsel, who, in the absence of any allegation of damaged affections, had not anticipated that a business-like view of her loss of position would have produced so much. But the element of hazard enters considerably into the finding of juries, as we all know.
The next case is of a commonplace character, and there is nothing to note except a couple of stories then and there told to me, of a similar number of counsel present. One is a tall man, who looks principally keen, but has a great turn for humour, and will make any case in which he is engaged amusing. He has a large practice now, but a very few years ago he had none at all, and was glad to hold any brief with which his more fortunate friends might entrust him. One of these was a very eminent member of the bar, who happened one day to have a particularly bad case, which, scandal has it, he felt particularly inclined to shirk. It was a bill case of a very disgraceful kind, and the client was on the wrong side; so, under the plea of business elsewhere, he handed over his brief to the faithful junior, and sought refuge in another court. Half an hour afterwards he was in Westminster Hall, taking his ease in legal meditation fancy free, when the faithful junior was seen rushing out of court with his gown torn nearly off his shoulders, his hands rather more behind than before, and his wig scarcely asserting a connection with the wearer's head.
"Well, how have you got on?" asked the great man, smiling, and declining to notice the other's confusion.
"Got on!" was the agitated answer; "the bill is impounded, the witnesses are ordered not to leave the court, the attorney is to be struck off the rolls, and I -- I have with difficulty escaped!"
What a charming thing it is to be a great man at the bar -- so that you can leave embarrassing cases of the kind to faithful juniors!
The other member of the bar to whom I have alluded is a very severe-looking person, who enjoys a great deal of what is said to have been Lord Thurlow's privilege -- that of looking a great deal wiser than any man ever was. Did I say that I heard only one story connected with him? I should have said two. One is to this effect. When a young man -- he has learned a great deal since then, I have no doubt -- he held the office of judge in a small colony. He was the sole occupant of the bench, so he carried everything his own way. One day a member of the legal bar disputed his ruling upon a certain point, and appealed to printed authority in support of his position. The judge's account of the incident, as given by himself, is said to be this:
"Would you believe it -- one of my own bar had the impertinence to tell me that he was right and that I was wrong, and he appealed to a law book to support him -- his own book, and the only one in the colony."
"And what did you do?" was the natural question.
"What did I do?" was the indignant answer; "there was only one thing to do; I borrowed the book from him, and lost it, so that we shall hear no more scandal of that kind."
A prisoner brought before him on a charge of theft pleaded "guilty." The judge explained to him that he was not obliged to take this course, but might have the benefit of a trial; so the prisoner pleaded "not guilty." The jury acquitted him; upon which the judge, addressing the accused, said, in his most severe manner --
"Prisoner at the bar, you have confessed yourself a thief, and the jury have found you a liar -- begone from my sight."
We are now in another court, where an unusual scene is presented to a stranger. He has surely come into a convent! There are nuns on all sides of him, varied by a few priests! At a second glance, however, he is assured of the fact. He has not come into a convent, but a convent has come into court. There is a nun in the witness-box -- a mother or a sister, which is it? Some of the mothers are as young as some of the sisters. She is certainly younger than most of the nuns present, has a comely face and figure, and the clearest of complexions. She gives her evidence -- which has reference to a late member of the community who has been expelled, and the legality of whose expulsion is being tried by the court -- with an artless innocence which interests all present. She is the best witness that the defendants have had on their behalf -- for some members of the order were not more engaging in appearance than nuns need be, and cannot be considered to have given their evidence without a strong feeling against the plaintiff. This same plaintiff, who sits in front of the counsel, with her face towards the bench, has been the main object of public attention for a fortnight past, and her case promises to engage the court for days still to come. She is closely veiled, and the curious public have not been able to see her face since she gave her evidence in the box. She talks sometimes to an old gentleman and a young lady who sit on either side of her -- the latter understood to be her sister -- but otherwise shows little signs of animation. The sister, by the way, is of the period, periody, and her elaborate coiffure, bonnet, and robes, contrast strangely with the muffled figure, in deep black, of the ex-nun. The latter made out a strong case in the beginning, but it has weakened considerably by the character of the defence; and the revelation of convent life, made on the one side or the other, have at least not been so alarming as they were expected to be by the public. Still the impression upon the minds of those who have watched the proceedings is that the girl has been harshly treated, and it is generally expected that she will get a verdict, with tolerably substantial damages. And here it may be mentioned -- as I am not adhering to unity as to time, and have not confined myself to any one day "down at Westminster," that the end justified the anticipations, as far as the court was concerned. How far the case can be considered concluded remains to be seen.
At four o'clock the committees close their proceedings, the Speaker of the House of Commons being announced in the different rooms as "at prayers;" and the Hall is once more full of the moving life from upstairs. Some of the courts, too, have risen, and are pouring forth their quota to the crowd. There is a large assembly of the public, moreover, in the Hall, waiting to see the members go into the House; and there is a great deal of cheering and counter-demonstration as certain statesmen are recognised. For a great question, of a constitutional character, is before the legislature, and popular feeling runs strongly on both sides. In a short time the last court will have closed, and all engaged therein will have disappeared, except those of the lawyers who are members of the House. These have a laborious time of it, and must perhaps attend in their places for two or three hours before they can get away to dine, either in the House or elsewhere. So those of the public who choose to remain must transfer their interest to a new direction.
Last modified 24 November 2012