Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - The Lounger in Regent Street

[-back to menu for this book-]



life15.gif (40642 bytes)IT is the beginning of the evening in the city - and therefore high noon in the West. A bright summer sun is warmly white upon the terraced and stuccoed ranges of Regent Street. The flaring, dusty thoroughfare is swarming with flashing equipages, and pouring crowds of gay pedestrians. The ample wooden pavement is divided into two long lines of moving vehicles. How they sweep gaudily on - a changing, shifting panorama of glittering pannels and glancing wheels, and sleek-pacing horses, and overpowering footmen, and delicious peeps into the dim cushioned interiors, where the eye loses itself in half-seen, half-missed visions of fair faces and rich tresses, and reclining forms dressed in cool muslins, or lost in the massive folds of costly shawls. And the broad, clean, white pare! How it swarms with that continuous procession of gaily-dressed women and men. How, as you glance along it, the multitude - the shifting, rushing, rolling multitude - becomes one dazzling, puzzling, confounding chaos of faces and forms, and hats and bonnets, and paletots and visites, and moustaches and curls-all jumbled up together-all mixing-all blending-and all forming one confounding, bewildering, bewitching whole-which, as you contemplate it, makes the eye dazzle and the brain ache!
    [-117-] It is high noon in Regent Street. At every shop-door the big-calved, gaudy-plushed footmen cluster. By every lamp-post the dealers in poodles and terriers and spaniel pups congregate. Men with pen-knives, which seem all blades, abound. Along the kerb-stone, itinerant venders of prints, and stain-cleaning pastes, and mosaic gold chains, and studs, display their merchandise; and round the corner, near the tavern door, the Italian boy grinds his piano-organ in dumb show. Happily, the music of the wheels drowns the noise of the instrument.
    The shops are as brilliant as they may be. How richly falls the drapery of those emblazoned shawls through the fair plate-glass. How the rows of "loves of bonnets," each upon its peg, gladden and sadden at the same moment bright female eyes. How chastely luscious in its artistic network depend the rich clusters of precious old-fashioned lace. How gorgeously shines the plate-massive lumps of chased, and carved, and graven, and frosted silver and gold; and how pleasant to look upon lie the tempting cakes, and bon-bons, and jellies, ranged round the glistening barley-sugar cages in the confectioner's window! Everything and everybody look their best-the very pictures on the music in Jullien's shop become artistic; the unchanging prints of Moyen age fashions, and odd scraps from Daumier's pencil in Delaporte's big window, look cheerful; and the symmetrical one leg, in half of a pair of buckskin breeches and a top boot, which ornaments the shop hard by, seems positively about to hop through the window, and kick anybody who does not look happy, and flustered, and smiling, and hot!
    Yes - once more we repeat, it is high noon in the [-118-] West. Regent Street is at its fullest, and its brightest, and its gayest; and the Regent Street Lounger is abroad with the butterflies! Now, therefore, to plunge into his habits and characteristics.
    The Regent Street Lounger must not be confounded with other loungers who occasionally lounge in Regent Street. He is not the lounger of the Lowther Arcade - or of the steam-boat piers - or of the stage doors - or of the piazzas of Covent Garden, or the central fruity and flowery tunnel thereof. He is not even the Lounger of the Quadrant. Hard as inferior philosophers may find it to believe, the Lounger of the Quadrant is a different being from the Lounger of Regent Street. The former is a mosaic edition of the latter. He shuns the glare of the open streets, and finds comfort in the subdued light of the colonnade. His smartness is often alloyed by seediness. His hat has more jauntiness in its set than nap in its texture. His linen is questionable, and his general air is mildewy. He haunts dim cigar shops, and glides furtively into fifth-rate billiard rooms. Often the Quadrant Lounger is a foreigner. Then he smokes cigarettes, and has brown fingers heavy with dim rings; and if you look to his broad feet, you are instantly transported in imagination to Boulogne-sur-Mer, Rue de l'Ecu - the shop where they are always selling bankrupt stocks of divers-coloured boots, with pearl buttons which don't button, and little toe-tips of varnished leather, at the reasonable rate of four francs a-pair.
    But the Regent Street Lounger is a better style of man than his neighbour of the Quadrant. You may see him in the evening at the Opera just at the break of the stalls, with his back to the stage, sweeping the [-119-] house with a double-barrelled lorgnette. He is also to be met with at Lovegrove's when the whitebait is smallest and crispest. Anon he is pastoral in Kensington Gardens - only when the band plays though - and, eke, he is on view sundry nights in the week at such theatres as the St. James's or the Lyceum. But, 'tis very odd, we will keep wandering from the text- it is in Regent's Street we have now to do with him.
    Where he lives, how he lives, and what he is when he is at home, we are not sufficiently impertinent to inquire. Never mind the coulisse of his existence, Regent Street is the stage. And is not the make-up good? - the hat glistened with so perfect a polish, the Joinville arranged in so faultless a tie, the coat so dustless and creaseless, the boots so faultless in their proportions, and all this carried off with such an air, or rather with such a wonderful combination of airs, at once so easy, so graceful, so knowing, so indifferent, so sprightly, so lazy - in fact, and the word sums up the sentence-so exquisitely "loungy."
    The Regent Street Lounger knows Town. He is of it, perhaps on it. He may not perhaps approach the inner penetralia of West-end life, but he hangs upon its outward development. If he cannot ride in the coronetted carriage, he will at least be within sound of the wheels. If he does not know the peer, he knows the peer's liveries. Try him - cross-question him. Not a carriage which rolls along the wood, or waits along the kerb, but he can tell the occupant of. He is learned in hammer-cloths, elaborate on crests, and can discern the strawberry leaf on the pannel even when the two sleek and glossy horses, with their foaming mouths and high action, being put to their mettle [-120-] by the fat be-wigged coachman, seem to shoot past like a rocket.
    The Regent Street Lounger cares little about the shops. The people are his study. He is not like the more easterly tribes of Loungers. He never stops to listen to a man whistling canary notes with a quill in a tin jug of water. An excavated gas-pipe has no charms for him. He can withstand the temptation of an omnibus horse which has slipped on the wooden pavement, and he pays not the most remote attention to the gentleman who disposes of favourite lyric poetry at six yards a-penny; on the contrary, he paces easily yet jauntily on from the baker's at the corner of Glass-house Street to the music-shop which marks the confluence of Regent and Oxford Streets. These are the general frontiers of his lounging dominions. And he traverses his kingdom with a certain observant thoughtfulness. Not a lady escapes the ordeal. His eye falls listlessly, yet searchingly, on face and form, and toilet and dress-from the saucy little boot to the flutter of the parasol fringe. He has a keen appreciation of visites, and entertains deep theories on the handling and disposing of shawls. Gentlemen fare no better. He divides them into two classes - the "good style of men" and the "bad style of men." The mere harmless, pitiful little gent does not even excite his contempt. He is philosophic, and knows that we are all mortal - little minnows and big whales.
    As we have said, the Regent Street Lounger does not much affect the shops. His eye ranges calmly and superciliously along the squares of plate-glass. If he peer in, 'tis to see the customers, not the goods; 'tis where half-a-dozen carriages are drawn up at the [-121-] mercer's door, or by the pastry-cook's lintels. In the latter establishment he sometimes, for a brief space, conducts his lounge. He does not look, at the little bill of fare, spread on the miniature bat - why should he? He knows everything in the shop, and the price of everything, from the humble bun to the recherché preserve; from vapid soda-water to fragrant Maraschino. So he idly eats his ice, and then imbibes his tumbler of water, and listlessly drums with his neatly gloved fingers on the marble table, and watches in pleasant contemplation the swarms of ladies who sip, and nibble, and chatter so gaily, and who are afterwards so silent, and have such wretched appetites at dinner; after which he lounges out as he lounged in, and resumes his lounge up and down the street, just where he left it off.
    On occasions of a sudden shower, the Regent Street Lounger has - putting out of view the shops - two harbours of refuge. As he happens to be respectively next the Oxford Street or the Piccadilly end of his lounge, he retreats either to the Pantheon, making for the back entrance through Marlborough Street, or he seeks for shelter in the Quadrant. In neither of these sanctuaries, however, can he be said to lounge. He seldom makes his way into the mare magnum of the Pantheon, contenting himself with loitering in the conservatory, idly watching the parroquets and love birds, and ready, the moment the rain has ceased to tinkle on the glass roof, to betake himself to his beloved pavement. In the same way, his demeanour under the colonnade of the Quadrant triumphantly proves him to be a mere visitor - not an habitué. He fidgets uneasily about the upper end, watching the sky, and [-122-] casting only a contemptuous glance at the humble shops behind him, with their wares of snuff-boxes, cheroots, meerschaums, gents' paletots, artists' lay figures, toys, wigs, walking-sticks, and paint-boxes. The moment the sky clears, and adventurous folk mount the outsides of the passing omnibuses, he starts again on his pilgrimage. It is rare, very rare, to find our Lounger upon the western pavement of his favourite lounge. He calls that the "eighteen-penny side" of Regent Street; dignifying the eastern foot- way by the title of the "half-crown side." Accordingly, unless he has just made a run across, to look at a new monstrosity, in the way of a flat hard German print, at the dismal high-art shop a little above Vigo Street, or unless he has a mind to sip a thimbleful of Verey's cognac, he never, unless the sun be burning indeed, shows himself in the shady, alias the eighteenpenny side of Regent Street.
    Of course the Regent Street Lounger has his seasons of glory. When Parliament is up, and the Operas, closed, and the French Plays over, and the concerts hushed - when people are climbing the Alps, or shooting grouse on the Grampians, or talking bad French on the Boulevards, or cursing the bills of the Rhine hotels, or up to the neck in salt-water at Ramsgate, or in hot mud at Baden - when that autumnal time comes, the Lounger disappears. He fades with the waning year. When nought but hack cabs rattle along the wood, none but highlows clatter along the pavement. The coronetted panel and the glazed boot disappear together. If a solitary Lounger show, 'tis as we sometimes hear of an unseasonable woodcock. No, the wide thoroughfare is empty and dismal. The shops [-123-] are in undress; remains of summer stocks are being sold off at a tremendous sacrifice; the beautiful face which graced the town-chariot ornaments the travelling landau; the poodle and spaniel pup men have gone; the penknife men have gone; the chain and stud men have gone; the pretty toilets have gone; the merry parties in the pastry-cooks have gone; the shawls and bonnets in the windows have gone; the happy, bustling, thronging, talking,. laughing, flirting, fluttering mob have gone; and, with all these, men, women, children, and things, there has gone - whither, we know not - how, we know not - when, we know not - why, we know not - but there has also gone the Lounger in Regent Street.


[-nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]