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

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life7.gif (50695 bytes)THERE is no rus in urbe like Covent Garden Market. 
    The patches of struggling vegetation in square, park, or garden, whose only commerce with the sun is a sort of bowing acquaintance - a  distant nod exchanged en passant through the chinks of a smoky cloud - have been wittily designated "Nature put in the pound for straying." But this is wit at the expense of truth. They are not Nature at all, but a vile caricature, daubed in charcoal and lampblack. The petrified trees of a coal-mine have as much claim on our sympathies. They satisfy no yearnings, but are silent and sullen as the walls that frown on them. They make no response to the inward voice that "babbles of green fields;" and, like the windows of a prison, show us a glimpse of the unencompassed world only through a black grating that reminds us of our imprisonment.
    How differently are we affected by Covent Garden Market. Here Nature empties forth her teeming lap, filled with the choicest produce of her happiest generation. The loveliness of the land is there and the fatness thereof. At one glance we pass in review the prime and bloom of vegetation, and communicate directly with the riches of the earth. It is the metropolitan congress of the vegetable kingdom, where every [-51-] department of the "growing" and "blowing" world has its representatives - the useful and the ornamental, the needful and the superfluous, the esculent and the medicinal. Here the Londoner fraternizes with the rustic, and acknowledges that he is not all bricks and mortar - that Nature has still some parental claims upon him which he cannot entirely away with.
    It is a twofold temple, dedicated to Pomona and Flora, in which daily devotion is paid to the productive divinities. Here, as in a very temple, all classes and grades, all denominations and distinctions of men, jostle each other in the humility of a common dependence on the same appetites, the same instincts, the same organs of taste, sight, and smell - the fashionable lady who has left her Brougham at the entrance, in quest of the pampered nursling of the conservatory, and the wan needlewoman, bent on the purchase of a bunch of wallflowers, or a root of pale primroses to keep her paler cheeks in countenance; the artizan's wife, purveying for her husband's meal, and the comfortable housekeeper, primed with the discriminating lore of Mrs. Glass, making provisions for her winter's preserves; the bloated gourmand, in search of precocious peas, and the sickly hypochondriac, eager to try the virtue of some healing herb.
    The priestesses who serve the temple form two distinct classes, those of Pomona and those of Flora - the Basket-woman and the Bouquet-girl. It is to the first that our artist has dedicated the mingled grace and vigour of his pencil, and has shown her to us in the midst of her athletic avocations. Hers is no finikin type of female beauty ; the taper waist and slender neck would ill befit the rude labours she is devoted to. [-52-] Her portly figure is rather architectural than sculptural in its graces; and with arms upraised, in support of the basket balanced on her head, she might serve as a model for the caryatids of a new temple to the deity she serves.
    He who would behold her in full activity must gratify his curiosity at some expense. He must voluntarily accomplish that which is enforced upon the vegetable visitor of the market-he must tear himself from his bed, foregoing the suavities of the morning's sleep to face the bleak air of dawning day. Unless, indeed, he repair to the scene, as we have often done, as a sort of "finish "- to use the language of antiquated fast men - after a round of evening parties, his temples throbbing with an unhallowed mixture of festive beverages, from the bland negus to the icebound fire of champagne punch; his senses jaded with a thousand artificial and violent delights; and, perhaps, a secret wound rankling at his heart - a wound that he has attempted to treat with light indifference, and to bury under a hecatomb of flirtations, but which now asserts itself with redoubled pangs, and mingles its reproaches to the. many-voiced objurgations of conscience to sicken and disgust him with his existence. Under such circumstances is it that the most striking phase of Covent Garden - that which it presents on the morning of a market-day - will produce its fullest effect. It is under such circumstances that it has impressed itself upon our minds, and that we can speak of it most naturally.
    Led by a vague instinct, an unconscious attraction- as towards some refreshing influence, some healing spring that should comfort the fevered spirit that lay [-53-] sick within us-we have found ourselves mechanically following some huge cabbage-laden waggon, as it loomed and rumbled through the deserted streets until it stopped and ranged itself with its companions round the market square. Here, with vacant attention, we have watched each process, joined each busy group, followed with our eyes the contents of each waggon in its various distribution, snuffing eagerly the mingled perfumes from the extempore parterres that were spreading before us, and inhaling with joyful and dilated lungs the countrified atmosphere that was, as it were, being unpacked with each cart-load of rustic produce.
    Gradually, as all impurities seemed cleansed away from our mind, and a more cheerful and healthy spirit awakened within us, we took a keener interest in the increasing bustle and variety of the spectacle that disclosed itself with the full dawn of morning. We watched the nature of each particular scene and the character of the actors therein, or listened to the arguments accompanying each bargain, until it was finally completed in the adjoining public-house, amidst the ceremonial libations of gin, half-and-half, or heavy wet; scrutinizing the peculiarities of buyer and seller. First, the various grades of rusticity in the vendors, from the complete bacon-fed bumpkin, who has come up with a load of turnips, and the semi-countrified market-gardener - half country half town, like a stagecoach-omnibus - to the cockney nurseryman, distinguishable only by the inseparable pedantry of his profession. The no less marked and more numerous distinctions in the purchasers the well-to-do shopkeeper, with neatly appointed cart and sleek horse; [-54-] the petty dealer, whose equipage exhibits various stages of rickets; the hawker, with a truck or donkey- cart, whose stentorian voice will shortly awaken ti~ echoes of many a tranquil quarter, with the familiar cry of "green gooseberries," "all a-growing all a-blowing," or "cherries round and sound," &c., &c.~ lastly, the stall-woman and the flower-girl-she of the "two bunches a-penny" - laying out with anxious discretion the small capital borrowed for the day, and for which exorbitant interest will have to be paid to some extortionate old hag - some withered she-Rothschild of rags and tatters - who, by some infernal compact with the devil of usury and a hard heart in lieu of the philosopher's stone, contrives to reap a golden harvest from squalid misery.* (*This is a fact. There is a class of money-lenders - generally women - who furnish capital to the lower class of hawkers, at the most outrageous profit.)
    Amidst this medley of divided interests, of varied ranks and conditions, of larger or smaller insects, swarming and feeding on the plenteous growth of Nature, moves the stately form of the Basket-woman, upreared above the rest by the height of her toppling burden, discharging her simple and unvarying functions like the embodiment of invisible justice presiding over and regulating the affairs of men.
    Bodily refreshed by approximation with pure and wholesome objects, gradually diverted from morbid discontent, and restored to something like equanimity, by the contemplation of persevering industry struggling through misery less fantastic than our own, we have bent our steps homeward, a wiser and a more sleepy man.
    [-55-] Towards the afternoon another and very different phase of the market is presented. To the range of heavy tilted carts and waggons has succeeded a line of brilliant and elegant equipages. The utile has given place to the dulce, and pleasure now shows itself almost as busy as need. .Over this period of the day Flora more especially presides, and the Bouquet-girl - her priestess - is in the height of her ministry. Her delicate fingers are now busily employed in tricking out the loveliness of nature; for even her loveliest daughters must be drilled and trained ere they can make their debut in the world of artifice they are called upon to adorn. Their slender stems need a wiry support to prop the head, that else would droop in the oppressive atmosphere of the ball-room or the theatre. Art must draw fresh beauties from the contrast of each with the other; nor will the self-complacent ingenuity that paints the lily and gilds refined gold be satisfied till it has completed their toilet by investing them in a white robe of broidered paper.
    The clients of the Bouquet-girl consist almost exclusively of the sighing herd of lovers. These, with the exception of an occasional wholesale order from the manager of a theatre with a view to some triumphant debut, form the staple consumers of her wares. But among the whole tribe she has no such insatiate customer as he who is struggling in the toils of a danseuse. "If music be the food of love," bouquets are certainly the very air upon the regular supply of which hangs its existence; and on such air does the danseuse, chamelion-like, seem exclusively to live. They are the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of her life - the symbols of her triumphs public and domestic [-56-] - the tribute exacted by the achievements of her feet, and the conquests of her glancing eye. A collection of all the bouquets she receives, arranged and ticketed according to date and circumstance, would form a minute record of her career. Not but all passions, even of the humblest nature, are sufficiently burdensome in this particular, but let any man who as yet has only "paid attentions," as it is called, in the ordinary sphere of life, try even a flirtation with a danseuse, and he will see what an overgrown and ruinous item the article bouquet will form in his yearly expenditure. If he be not a man of some substance, or prepared to face the inquisitors of Portugal Street, he had better take us at our word than adventure on the experiment.
    Over what a multiplicity of love-affairs, in every stage of advancement, suspense, or retrogression, does the Bouquet-girl preside and administer to! For the destruction of how many beleaguered citadels do her arsenals furnish ammunition - from the open siege, carried on in the eye of the world, to the secret and artful mine, unsuspected till some terrible explosion reveals it to universal scandal! How many a course of true love has she traced through all its windings. The legitimate and successful suit, whose regular supply of bouquets ends at last with the bridal wreath of orange-flowers; and the illegitimate suit, whose series of bouquets has no other climax than abrupt cessation, a gradual dying-off, or a change in the address to which they are directed.
    Depository of secrets so important, upon which depend the fair name and the happiness of so many, what a bonne fortune would the confessions of a Bouquet- girl be to a revelation and mystery-mongering novelist. [-57-] It is to be hoped, however, that she is worthy of the trust reposed in her; indeed, we firmly and fondly believe it; for ourselves in the greenness of youth have furnished our little quota of delicate confidences to the mass of perilous stuff that slumbers in the fair bosom of one in particular, whom we will not name. With a solemn adjuration to the Bouquet-girl to pursue her amiable but responsible calling with inviolable secrecy and discretion, for the sake of mercy and the peace of society in general, we will bid her farewell, and a long ascendancy of the planet Venus.


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