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

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life23.gif (32965 bytes)THE English are not fond of out-of-door lounging, for several reasons. They have, in the first place, for the most part, comfortable homes; they have an eccentric climate; and they have no spare time - at least very little. When they have, in their restless locomotive nature, they must still keep going on. Hence they prefer taking the air on the railway or steamer to sitting still on chairs. Those which surround the Cabinets de Lecture and the Cafe de la Rotonde, in the Palais Royal (they may call it "National" for the nonce, if they please, but it always will be the Palais Royal), would in themselves supply all the Parks of London, from Primrose Hill to Storey's Gate - from Kensington Gardens to Bethnal Green. How different are they in Paris in this respect: unless one has witnessed it, it is impossible to conceive the fondness of the inhabitants for getting out of doors. Wet or fine - in peace or rebellion - warm or cold-winter or summer, they turn out just the same, to wander about the public promenades of their adored city, or dream away the time upon those same eternal little rush-bottomed chairs, which they hire at two sous each, reading the newspapers, or tapping the toes of their well-polished boots with their umbrellas. It is fortunate that our English words home and comfort have no [-185-] synonyms in their language. If they had, the Parisians would be painfully worried to understand the meaning of them. 
    But, although we do not find such crowds of idlers in the Park at the present day, possibly the types encountered are more distinct. We say at the present day, because formerly the gayest of the gay thronged the walks, including royalty itself, with its attendant suite. Dear old Pepys has left us a mass of little mems thereanent. See where he says, on the 16th of March, 1662, that, while idling there in the Park, "which is now very pleasant," he "saw the King and Duke come to see their fowle play." In 1661, in April, he says, "To St. James' Park, where I saw the Duke of York playing at pall-mall, the first time that ever I saw the sport." And later, which is quaintly interesting, he writes: "Dec. 15. To the Duke, and followed him into the Park, where, though the ice was broken, he would go slide upon his skaits, which I did not like, but he slides very well." We can imagine that Pepys was not strong upon skates. The first tumble - and nobody learns to skate without being sorely contused - would have been quite sufficient to have disgusted him with this then novel amusement. We find, however, that the love of feeding the ducks and skating in the Park has not diminished. Afterwards, he tells us how he saw the King and Queen, with Lady Castlemaine and Mrs. Stuart cum multis aliis, walking about. He adds: "All the ladies walked, talking and fiddling with their hats and feathers, and changing and trying one another's heads, and laughing. But it was the finest sight to see, considering their great beauties and dress, that ever I did see in all my life."
    [-186-] Evelyn is a little more scandalous. He says, on March 1, 1671 : "I  once walked with the King through St. James' Park to the garden, where I both saw and heard a very familiar discourse between Mrs. Nellie, as they called an impudent comedian; she looking out of her garden on a terrace at the top of the wall, and standing on the green walk under it. I was heartily sorry at this scene. Thence the King walked to the Duchess of Cleveland "- (the Lady Castlemaine of Pepys) - another lady of pleasure, and curse of our nation. Horace Walpole, eighty years afterwards, speaks of receiving a card from Lady Caroline Petersham to go with her to Vauxhall. And the party that sailed up the Park,  "with all our colours flying," he says, consisted of the Duke of Kingston, Lady Caroline, Lord March, Mr. Whitehead, "a pretty Miss Beauclerc, and a very foolish Miss Sparre." He adds, that Lady Caroline and little Ashe, or the Pollard Ashe, as they called her, had just finished their last layer of red, and looked as handsome as crimson could make them; and that they marched to their barge, with a boat of French horns attending, and little Ashe singing.
    Now-a-days, the idlers in the Park remind us little of the personages in the above extracts. Poverty is far more frequently encountered there than wealth; and more, we fear, walk there to dine with "Duke Humfrey" than to get an appetite for a meal elsewhere. At early morning, when the air is clearest, you encounter few persons; nor, somewhat later, do you find the crowds assembled to read the papers and discuss the politics after breakfast, as in Paris. You may, perhaps, encounter a student reading hard at [-187-] some uninviting-looking book, and stumbling over the withies bent into the shuffled-out grass, as he moves along; or, perchance, an actor, as he threatens the lower boughs of the larger trees with his stick (most actors carry sticks), while he is rehearsing his part in some forthcoming play. And yet, lonely as the Park is at this time, and half deserted, it is seldom chosen for the purpose of tender declarations, avowals, promises, oaths, quarrels, and all the other usual accompaniments of courtship. No; in this respect, perhaps, those chiefly concerned show their wit. The world, with its broad daylight, its tumultuous noise, and its distracted eyes - is far more adapted for secrecy than the shade and the retreat; and more than this, society will always lend itself as an accomplice of things which are not sought to be concealed.
    Towards noon, a movement of laughing mirth and noise commences by the arrival of the children and their nursery-maids; and in the children lies, in our opinion, the greatest attraction here offered - even beyond the ducks - the real zoological "ducks." Not that we think slightingly of feeding them. We have heard, by the way, that it was one of the great O'Connell's favourite délassemens, and that he enjoyed it as much as the smallest fellow capable of tossing a bit of biscuit. It is great fun to see the rush made after a morsel: how the birds flash through the water to obtain it, and how, as in every community, the strongest always gets it. But if you want to enjoy the sport to perfection, throw in one of the small round rolls you get at evening-party supper-tables, and a fearful tumult is created. The prize is much too large for them to get hold of, as it is too valuable to be re-[-188-]linquished: and so it is pushed and floated about, and vainly pecked at, surrounded by the whole tribe, squabbling, splashing, and fluttering-swayed, like large crowds, here and there - until it gets sufficiently soft to be accessible to their bills, when its consumption is speedily achieved.
    But to return to the children. We mean especially those who have not yet numbered eight years, and whose limbs have still all the smooth roundness of infancy. There is something very pleasing in their graceful movements, their fresh cheeks, and their beautiful hair, and a perfect charm in their gaiety; in the innocent joy sparkling in their eyes, and the pure and living blood colouring their cheeks, which our brightest belles would give so much to imitate. This attraction, perhaps, belongs only to those who run about: albeit it takes a great deal to beat the saucy beauty of an English baby. It is almost enough to make one a convert in favour of matrimony, even in these "fast" times. The only pity is that these little people should ever be destined to become men.


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