Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853

THE COMPLAINT OF A STRANGE CHARACTER.

    I suppose I was born to set the world an example - at any rate, I have figured in every capacity that the most ingenious imagination can conceive, and have filled well-nigh every situation which mortal man, whether living or dead, can be made to occupy. I have led a long life, in the course of which I have been everything, and I can say with almost equal truth I have done nothing. Every feature of my face is familiar to at least fifty thousand of her Majesty's subjects; and yet I have but few acquaintances, and still fewer friends. I, of all men, am to be designated as the man who has "played many parts." I have gone through every possible calamity incidental to the human lot, besides a great many that are impossible even to the most unfortunate; and I have been blessed a thousand times in the course of my life beyond the sum of human felicity-and, what may appear strange, I have never grieved at the one lot, nor rejoiced at the other. I have fought desperately, with but a rag of drapery round my loins, against savage lions and tigers, wrestled with monsters of the forest and the flood, slept tranquilly in the embrace of the boa-constrictor-been pierced through and through with every description of deadly weapon, ancient and modern - and been hurled headlong from horrible precipices into horrible gulfs - and here I am, and none the worse for it all. And I have sat at a magnificent feast arrayed in gorgeous robes in "my ancestral halls "-I have led my valiant hosts to victory in embattled fields, and have swayed my sceptre on a golden throne - and here I am, scribbling in a two-pair back, and none the better for it all. How all this came about, the reader will soon know. The key to my "strange, eventful history"lies in one word-Ladies and gentlemen, I am a Model.
    I was born in London, not far from where the Pantheon now stands, in Oxford-street. My father was an ambitious artist, who wasted the best part of his life in the pursuit of what is called high art, and passed the days of his manhood's years seated from morning to night in front of a canvas as big as he could afford to buy. My first sensation of existence was one of cold; I suspect I woke into consciousness for the first time one October morning, through lying bottom upwards on the table, in the character of a murdered innocent in my father's great picture of the "Massacre of the Judean Children under Herod." I squalled. and kicked, on awaking with the cold; and if I know anything of my father's temper and usages on such occasions, these signs of life irritated him, and I was packed off out of the room as good for nothing, at least until I could be coaxed again to sleep. During infancy, I can recollect, I prattled a good deal on my mother's knee in the capacity of the child of the Madonna, as well as doing Cupid in every variety of attitude. When I grew old enough, my mother taught me to read, which was all the instruction I ever got. I taught myself to write, with a crayon on blank canvases, in after years. I should in all probability have been sent to school, had my mother lived. But I had the unhappiness to lose her in my seventh year, and was turned over to the care of a housekeeper, who was a crabbed, cindery kind of vixen, and but too glad to get rid of me under any pretext. I passed my time chiefly in my father's studio, where I would sit for hours on the floor, with the handle of a little cabinet drawer in my mouth, in the character of Romulus sucking the wolf, or lie sprawling under a few vine-leaves gathered from the garden, as one or both of the babes in the wood-or sat demurely, or stood with a fool's cap on my head, or gesticulated in every variety of attitude for the pupils of a village school- my father poking me into any shape he wanted with the knobby end of his mahl-stick, without rising from his seat. He grew a sort of mysterious terror to me, and under his cold and petrifying glance I was afraid to move, and thus early acquired the habit of remaining in one position, however disagreeable it might be, without flinching, for the hour together. This, however, was the only discipline which I underwent; and having plenty of time for exercise with the neighbours' children, I grew up tolerably healthy, but with a mortal hatred to the arts and everything connected with them. Thus by degrees I advanced into boyhood, and became big enough to serve for a shepherd-boy or a young- cattle-driver-a young angler or a shrimper with fluttering rags and bare feet - or the young princes in the tower in a close-fitting suit of silk and velvet. As young Arthur on the point of having his eyes put out, I was shown off at one of the exhibitions to such advantage that I became quite famous among the artists as a model stripling, and was bandied about from one to the other among the professionals, figuring one day as an angel on Jacob's ladder, starving the next as Ishmael under a rock, and rioting on the third as the boy Bacchus crowned with a wreath of vine-leaves. My poor father found this much more profitable than putting me to school- and to school I never went.
    I might have learned something at least of the practice of the art, but my father never offered to teach me or encouraged me to learn. He said I had no genius. I imagine he was right; certain it is I had no inclination, and never desired to make the experiment. The older I grew the more my figure came into request-my faultless shape, my well-modelled features, and, above all, the statue-like tranquillity of position which I maintained when once "set," brought me a connection, and for many years I was scarcely a day unengaged! My father was seized with paralysis just as I became of age, and, dying shortly after, bequeathed me his debts to pay, a few unfinished pictures, and the old furniture of the house. It took everything there was to square accounts with the creditors, who considerately gave me a receipt in full when they found there was nothing more to be got. Thus was I driven, at my entrance into manhood, to abandon the paternal home and retire to a private lodging - to begin the world for myself, with nothing but myself - my five feet ten and a half inches, for my capital.
    I was now a man, and a model, but I was nothing else, and had no prospect of becoming anything else, though I ransacked my brains day and night in the hope of finding some other opening for my no-talents. I thought of the stage, but I had no memory, or if I had such a faculty it had never been called into exercise. I tried for a clerkship, but they would not have my writing, which I laboured in vain a long time to improve - and I had but indefinite notions of arithmetic. There was no other road open to me-I was good for nothing but to be looked at and painted, and to that I must submit. I must play the part of an animated image, a sort of breathing brother to a marble block, a lay-figure, or a plaster-cast. There was one consolation attending my lot. It never debased me to the level of the low and vulgar; if I was condemned by circumstances to be a model, I determined to be a model, ostensibly at least, of a gentleman-and outwardly to assume that rank in the world, cost what privations it might. So I have lived a gentleman upon town, my hands unsoiled by labour, my linen white as a lord's, my costume and whole outward man undeniably genteel. For now nearly forty years have I been known among the profession as Gentleman G---; and if I have achieved no triumphs in my own person, my vera effigies, in a thousand characters, has won the applause and admiration of mankind. I have been hung - ahem - in five hundred galleries, as an impersonation of the warrior, the senator, and the hero; and in as many more perhaps as brigand, bandit, or bold outlaw. I have lent my head to Achilles, Paris, and Hector - to Eneas, Turnus, and Euryalus. My lower limbs have been substituted for those of half the great men of the present and past centuries. On feet of mine King Charles the First walks to the block, Napoleon forces the bridge of Arcola, and Nelson boards the ships of the enemy. I have languished in the dungeons of the Inquisition because Galileo could not be had to do it, and been bandaged for execution instead of the unfortunate D'Enghien for the same reason; and I can say that I have borne either fate with an equal mind. Habit, which creates our world for us, has long reconciled me to the position which untoward circumstances thrust me into. As age has crept upon me, I am able to say that neither my usefulness nor popularity has declined. I am as good now (or at least I was till lately) for a sage or a senator as I was in infancy for a Cupid, or a babe massacred or at the breast;-I am considered capital as a cardinal, as I was twenty years ago for a bravo. I have had, too, all along, a pleasing satisfaction in knowing that in the little circle in which I domestically revolve, I have been regarded with a kind of mystery, and have been looked upon for years as some decayed personage of eminence, living incog. the life of a recluse after the setting of former greatness. I may say without vanity that my appearance hitherto more than justifies this flattering supposition, which I have cautiously refrained from dissipating. Reports have sometimes been whispered about that I was the Dauphin of France, the son of the unfortunate Louis the Sixteenth, and that my pensive cast of countenance was the index of ineradicable grief for my murdered parents and lost throne. At other times I have been set down as a Polish prince, calmly waiting an opportunity to vindicate the independence of my native country. Then I have been thought a Russian noble-man, escaped miraculously from the massacre of the conspirators at the accession of Nicholas to the throne of the Czars. None of these guesses at my supposed royal or noble origin have, however, retained a definite shape for any length of time, but have varied with the demands of the hour. If I have never denied the truth of any of them, neither have I countenanced a single conjecture of the kind; and when each in its turn has vanished away, the conviction has remained in the minds of the observant public, that though they may be mistaken in discovering my real rank, yet there could not be a doubt that I had been somebody-which is true enough.
    But woe is me! While others are endeavouring in vain to discover the source of my former imagined greatness, I have myself recently made the discovery of a fact which will be the ruin of me. Now that my head is bald, and my whiskers nearly white, and other signs of years come stealing on, the source of my income threatens to fail me - to fail at the time when it will be most wanted, at the approach of the infirmities of age. It was the other day, as I lay stretched upon a bed of death, upon which I had personated Cardinal Wolsey, with chalked cheek and half-averted face, for four hours a day for the last week, that the horrible fact dawned, or rather darted with fierce and prophetic force upon my mind. I have striven in vain to shake off the conviction that then forced itself upon my distracted conscience; but it will not be got rid of-on the contrary, it grows daily stronger, and will not be beckoned away. Have compassion upon me, O my friends, I AM GROWING FAT-I feel it daily and hourly in every inch of my flesh - and I am a ruined man. At the rate I have been going on for the last month, I shall be twenty stone weight in another year- and then "Othello's occupation's gone," and I must take up with Boniface or Falstaff without stuffing. "Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into" anything, so that I got rid of it, and retained my gentlemanly proportions and necessary competence. In vain have I resorted to every device of diet, and regimen, and exercise; I have tried semi-starvation and total abstinence, and walked myself in the early morning hours till weary and footsore. All is of no avail; I am doomed to perpetual expansion. My closefitting suit has been already twice let out, in order to take me in. My patrons already begin to murmur the fatal words, "Too stout," which are more than I can bear. Ah, those fatal monosyllables ! -they are the terms of my death-warrant. I am a gone model. What will become of me? There is but one hope left, and of that I hasten to avail myself. I throw my case upon the consideration of a generous public. Society certainly owes me something. The age which worships heroes so devoutly and enthusiastically, will not altogether despise the representative of a hundred heroes. A race which subscribes its thousands to erect a monument to one great man, will not refuse the necessaries of life to one who has in his time performed the part of almost every man of note in the biography. My monuments exist already in a thousand shapes, and are enshrined in costly cabinets and lordly galleries, while my rebellious unfilial flesh yet walks the earth, and, unless a grateful public soon comes to the rescue, will be condemned to wander in forlorn and friendless obesity, a prey to the cold alms of alien charity. I appeal, therefore, to the philanthropy of my fellow-men, and to their love for heroism and the arts. My publisher has kindly consented to receive and forward to me the contributions of a benevolent and discriminating public, who in preventing the poverty which threatens my future lot, will know that they are supplying comfort in his old age to the luckless representative of most of the master-spirits of the past- and to one who, lacking it is true many desirable accomplishments, has been always, when off duty, in appearance at least, the model of a gentleman.