Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 11 - Town Morals

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HAVE you seen Charles Matthews in "Used Up ?" Sir Charles Coldstream represents us all. We are everlastingly seeking a sensation, and never finding it. Sir Charles's valet's description of him describes us all "He's always sighing for what he calls excitement - you see, everytbing is old to him - he's used up - nothing amuses him - he can't feel." And so he looks in the crater of Vesuvius and finds nothing in it, and the Bay of Naples he considers inferior to that of Dublin - the Campagna to him is a swamp - Greece a morass - Athens a bad Edinburgh - Egypt a desert - the pyramids humbugs. The same confession is on every one's lips. The boy of sixteen, with a beardless chin, has a melancholy blasé air; the girl gets wise, mourns over the vanity of life, and laughs at love as a romance; a heart - unless it be a bullock's, and well cooked,- is tacitly understood to be a mistake; and conscience a thing that no one can afford to keep. Our young men are bald at twenty-five, and woman is exhausted still sooner. I am told Quakers [-111-] are sometimes moved by the spirit. I am told mad Ranters sing, and preach, and roar as if they were in earnest. I hear that there is even enthusiasm amongst the Mormons; but that matters little. We are very few of us connected with such outre sects, and the exceptions but prove the rule.
    But a truce to generalities. Let us give modern instances. Look at Jenkins, the genteel stockbroker. In autumn he may be seen getting into his brougham, which already contains his better-half and the olive branches that have blessed their mutual loves. This brougham will deposit the Jenkinses, and boxes of luggage innumerable, at the Brighton Railway Terminus, whence it is their intention to start for that crowded and once fashionable watering-place. Jenkins has been dying all the summer of the heat. Why, like the blessed ass as he is, did he stop in town, when for a few shillings he might have been braced and cooled by sea breezes, but because of that monotony which forbids a man consulting nature and common sense. Jenkins only goes out of town when the fashionable world goes; he would not for the life of him leave till the season was over.
    Again, does ever the country look lovelier than when the snows of winter reluctantly make way for the first flowers of spring? Is ever the air more balmy or purer than when the young breath of summer, like a tender maiden, kisses timidly the cheek, and winds its way, like a blessing from above, to the weary heart? Does ever the sky look bluer, or the sun more glorious, or the [-112-] earth more green, or is ever the melody of birds more musical, than then? and yet at that time the beau monde must resort to town, and London drawing-rooms must emit a polluted air, and late hours must enfeeble, and bright eyes must become dull, and cheeks that might have vied in loveliness with the rose, sallow and pale.
    It is a fine thing for a man to get hold of a good cause; one of the finest sights that earth can boast is that of a man or set of men standing up to put into action what they know to be some blessed God-sent truth. A Cromwell mourning the flat Popery of St. Paul's - a Luther, before principalities and powers, exclaiming. "Here stand I and will not move, so help me God!"-a Howard making a tour of the jails of Europe, and dying alone and neglected on the shores of the Black Sea - a Henry Martyn leaving the cloistered halls of Cambridge, abandoning the golden prospects opening around him, and abandoning what is dearer still, the evils of youth, to preach Christ, and Him crucified, beneath the burning and fatal sun of the East - or a Hebrew maiden, like Jepthah's daughter, dying for her country or her country's good, - are sights rare and blessed, and beautiful and divine. All true teachers are the same, and are glorious to behold. For a time no one regards their testimony. The man stands by himself - a reed, but not shaken by the wind - a voice crying in the wilderness - a John the Baptist nursed in the wilds, and away from the deadening spell of the world. [-113-] Then comes the influence of the solitary thinker on old fallacies; the young and the enthusiastic rush to his side, the sceptic and the scoffer one by one disappear, and the world is conquered; or if it be not so, if he languishes in jail like Galileo, or wanders on the face of the earth seeking rest and finding none, like our Puritan forefathers; or die, as many an hero has died, as the Christ did, when the power of the Prince of Darkness prevailed, and the veil of the Temple was rent in twain; still there is for him a resurrection, when a coming age will honour his memory, collect his scattered ashes, and build them a fitting tomb. Yet even this kind of heroism has come to be but a monotonous affair.
    Now-a-days the thing can be done, and in one way - a meeting at Exeter Hall, a dinner at Freemasons' tavern, Harker for toast-master, a few vocalists to sing between the pieces, and for chairman a lord by all means; if possible, a royal duke. The truest thing about us is our appetite. Our appreciation of a hero is as our appreciation of a coat; a saviour of a nation and a Soyer we class together, and do justice to both at the same time. We moderns eat where our fathers bled. Our powers we show by the number of bottles of wine we can consume; our devotion is to our dinners; the sword has made way for the carving-knife; our battle is against the ills to which gluttonness and wine-bibbing flesh is heir; the devil that comes to us is the gout; the hell in which we believe and against which we fight is indigestion; our means of grace are blue pill and [-114-] black draught. All art and science and lettered lore, all the memories of the past and the hopes of the future-
        "All thoughts, all passions, all delights-
        Whatever stirs this mortal frame,"
now.a-days, tend to dinner. Our sympathy with the unfortunate females, or the indigent blind, with the propagation of the Gospel in foreign parts, or with the diffusion of useful knowledge at home - with the Earl of Derby or Mr. Cobden - with Lord John Russell or Mr. Disraeli - with the soldier who has blustered and bullied till the world has taken him for a hero - with the merchant who has bound together in the peaceful  pursuits of trade hereditary foes - with the engineer who has won dominion over time and space - with the poet who has sat
        "In the light of thought
        Singing hymns unbidden,
        Till the world is wrought
        To sympathy, with hopes and joys it heeded not,"
finds a common mode of utterance, and that utterance to all has a common emphasis. Even the Church apes the world in this respect; and even that section which calls itself non-conforming, conforms here. When dinner is concerned, it forgets to protest, and becomes dumb. Dr. Watts might sing,
        "Lord, what a wretched land is this
        That yields us no supplies;"
[115-] but his successors do not. I read of grand ordination dinners, of grand dinners when a new chapel is erected or an old pastor retires. But lately I saw one reverend gentleman at law with another. Most of my readers will recollect the case. It was that of Tidman against Ainslie. Dr. Tidman triumphs, and the Missionary Society is vindicated. What was the consequence ? - a dinner to Dr. Tidman at the Guildhall Coffee-house, at which all the leading ministers of the denomination to which he belonged were present.
    The Queen is the fountain of honour. What has been the manlier of men selected for royal honour? The last instance is Lord Dudley, who has been made an earl. Why? Is it that he lent Mr. Lumley nearly £100,000 to keep the Haymarket Opera House open? because really this is all the general public knows about Lord Dudley. The other day Lord Derby was the means of getting a peerage for a wealthy and undistinguished commoner. Is it come to this, then, that we give to rich men, as such, honours which ought to be precious, and awarded by public opinion to the most gifted and the most illustrious of our fellows. If in private life I toady a rich swell, that I may put my feet under his mahogany, and drink his wine, besides making an ass of myself, I do little harm; but if we prostitute the honours of the nation, the nation itself suffers; and, as regards noble sentiments and enlightened public spirit, withers and declines.
    Guizot says - and if he had not said it somebody [-116-] else would - that our civilization is yet young. I believe it. At present it is little better than an experiment. If it be a good,. it is not without its disadvantages. It has its drawbacks. Man gives up something for it. One of its greatest evils perhaps is its monotony, which makes us curse and mourn our fate - which forces from our lips the exclamation of Mariana, in the "Moated Grange "-
        "I'm a aweary, aweary-
            Oh, would that I were dead;"
or which impels us, with the "Blighted Being" of Locksley Hall, to long to "burst all bonds of habit and to wander far away." Do these lines chance to attract the attention of one of the lords of creation- of one who,
        "Thoughtless of mamma's alarms,
        Sports high-heeled boots and whiskers,"
- what is it, we would ask, most magnanimous Sir in the most delicate manner imaginable, that keeps you standing. by the hour together, looking out of the window of your club in Pall Mall, in the utter weariness of your heart, swearing now at the weather, now at the waiter, and, anon, muttering something about jour dreaming that you dwelt in marble halls, but that very monotony of civilization which we so much deprecate? Were it not for that, you might be working in this working world-touching the very kernel and core of life, instead of thus feeding on its shell. [-117-] And if it be that the soft eye of woman looks down on what we now write, what is it, we would ask, O peerless paragon, O celestial goddess, but the same feeling that makes you put aside the last new novel, and, in shameless defiance of the rules taught in that valuable publication and snob's vade mecum - "Hints on the Etiquette and the Usages of Society," actually yawn - aye, yawn, when that gold watch, hanging by your most fairy-like and loveliest of forms, does not tell one hour that does not bear with it from earth to heaven some tragedy acted - some villainy achieved - some heroic thing done: aye, yawn, when before you is spread out the great rôle of life, with its laughter and tears - with its blasts from hell - with its odours coining down from heaven itself. A brave, bold, noble-hearted Miss Nightingale breaks through this monotony, and sails to nurse the wounded or the dying of our army in the East, and "Common Sense" writes in newspapers against such a noble act; and a religious paper saw in it Popery at the very least. What a howl has there been in some quarters because a few clergymen have taken to preaching in theatres! Even woman's heart, with its gushing sympathies, has become dead and shrivelled up, where that relentless scourge -  that demon of our time, the monotony of civilization - has been suffered to intrude. It is owing to that, that when we look for deeds angels might love to do, our daughters, and sisters, and those whom we most passionately love, scream out Italian songs which neither they [-118-] nor we understand, and bring to us, as the result of their noblest energies, a fancy bag or a chain of German wool. such is the result of what Sir W. Curtis termed the three R's and the usual accomplishments. Humanity has been stereotyped. We follow one another like a flock of sheep. We have levelled with a vengeance; we have reduced the doctrine of human equality to an absurdity - we live alike, think alike, die alike. A party in a parlour in Belgrave Square, "all silent and all d-d," is as like a party in a parlour in Hackney as two peas. The beard movement was a failure; so was the great question of hat reform, and for similar reasons. We still scowl upon a man with a wide-a-wake, as we should upon a pick-pocket or a cut-throat. A leaden monotony hangs heavy on us all. Not more does one man or woman differ from another than does policeman A1 differ from policeman A999. Individuality seems gone: independent life no longer exists. Our very thought and inner life is that of Buggins, who lives next door. The skill of the tailor has made us all one, and man, as God made him, cuts but a sorry figure by the sick of man as his tailor made him. This is an undeniable fact: it is not only true but the truth. One motive serves for every variety of deed - for dancing the polka or marrying a wife - for wearing white gloves or worshipping the Most High. "At any rate, my dears," said a fashionable dame to her daughters when they turned round to go home, on finding that the crowded state of the church to which they repaired would not admit of their worshipping [-119-] according to Act of Parliament,- "At any rate, my dears, we have done the genteel thing." By that mockery to God she had made herself right in the sight of man. Actually we are all so much alike that not very long since in Madrid a journeyman tailor was mistaken for a Prince. It is not always that such extreme cases happen ; but the tendency of civilization, as we have it now, is to work us all up into one common, unmeaning whole - to confound all the old distinctions by which classes were marked - to mix up the peasant and the prince, more by bringing down the latter than elevating the former; and thus we all become unmeamng, and monotonous, and common-place. The splendid livery in which "Jeames" rejoices may show that he is footman to a family that dates from the Conquest: it may be that he is footman to the keeper of the ham and beef shop near London Bridge. The uninitiated cannot tell the difference. A man says he is a lord; otherwise we should not take him for one of the nobles of the earth. A man puts on a black gown, and says he is a religious teacher: otherwise we should not take him for one who could understand and enlighten the anxious yearnings of the human heart. The old sublime faith in God and heaven is gone. We have had none of it since the days of old Noll: it went out when Charles and his mistresses came in. But instead, we have a world of propriety and conventionalism. We have a universal worshipping of Mrs. Grundy. A craven fear sits in the hearts of all. Men dare not be generous, high-minded, and true. A [-120-] man dares not act otherwise than the class by which he is surrounded: he must conform to their regulations or die; outside the pale there is no hope. If he would not be as others are, it were better that a millstone were hung round his neck and that he were cast into the sea. If, as a tradesman, he will not devote his energies to money-making - if he will not rise up early and sit up late - if he will not starve the mind - if he will not violate the conditions by which the physical and mental powers are sustained - he will find that in Christian England, in the nineteenth century, there is no room for such as he. The externals which men in their ignorance have come to believe essential to happiness, he will see another's. Great city "feeds" - white-bait dinners at Blackwall, and "genteel residences," within a few miles of the Bank or the bridges - fat coachmen and fiery steeds - corporation honours and emoluments, - a man may seek in vain if he will not take first, the ledger for his Gospel, and mammon for his God. It is just the same with the professions. Would the "most distinguished counsel" ever have a brief were he to scorn to employ the powers God has given him to obtain impunity for the man whose heart's life has become polluted with crime beyond the power of reform. Many a statesman has to thank a similar laxity of conscience for his place and power.

source: J. Ewing Ritchie, Aboutf London, 1860