The Difficulty in handling it—The Question of its Recognition— The Argyll
Rooms—Mr. Acton’s visit there—The Women and their Patrons—The Floating Population of Windmill-street—-Cremorne Gardens in the Season.
The only explanation that can be offered to the supersensitive reader, who will
doubtless experience a shock of alarm at discovering this Part’s heading,
is, that it would be simply impossible to treat with any pretension to
completeness of the curses of London without including it.
Doubtless it is a curse, the mere mention of which, let alone its investigation, the delicate-minded naturally shrinks from. But it is a matter for congratulation, perhaps, that we are not all so delicate-minded. Cowardice is not unfrequently mistaken for daintiness of nature. It is so with the subject in question. It is not a pleasant subject—very far from it; but that is not a sufficient excuse for letting it alone. We should never forget that it is our distaste for meddling with unsavoury business that does not immediately and personally concern us, that is the evil-doers’ armour of impunity. The monstrous evil in question has grown to its present dimensions chiefly because we have silently borne with it and let it grow up in all its lusty rankness under our noses; and rather than pluck it up by the roots, rather than acknowledge its existence even, have turned away our heads and inclined our eyes skyward, and thanked God for the many mercies conferred on us.
And here the writer hastens to confess, not without a tingling sense of cowardice too, perhaps, that it is not his intention to expose this terrible canker that preys on the heart and vitals of society in all its plain and bare repulsiveness. Undoubtedly it is better at all times to conceal from the public gaze as much as may be safely hid of the blotches and plague-spots that afflict the social body; but if to hide them, and cast white cloths over them, and sprinkle them with rose-water answers no other purpose (beyond conciliating the squeamish) than to encourage festering and decay, why then it becomes a pity that the whole foul matter may not be brought fairly to board, to be dealt with according to the best of our sanitary knowledge.
The saving, as well as the chastening, hand of the law should be held out to the countless host that constitute what is acknowledged as emphatically the social evil. It has been urged, that “to take this species of vice under legal regulation is to give it, in the public eye, a species of legal sanction.” Ministers from the pulpit have preached that “it can never be right to regulate what it is wrong to do and wrong to tolerate. To license immorality is to protect and encourage it. Individuals and houses which have a place on the public registers naturally regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as being under the law’s guardianship and authority,—not, as they ought to be, under its ban and repression.”
Against this grim and essentially unchristian doctrine, let us set the argument of a learned and brilliant writer, who some years since was courageous enough to shed a little wholesome light on this ugly subject, from the pages of a popular magazine.
“It is urged that the ‘tacit sanction’ given to vice, by such a recognition of prostitution as would be involved in a system of supervision, registration, or license, would be a greater evil than all the maladies (moral and physical) which now flow from its unchecked prevalence. But let it be considered that by ignoring we do not abolish it, we do not even conceal it; it speaks aloud; it walks abroad; it is a vice as patent and as well-known as drunkenness; it is already ‘tacitly sanctioned’ by the mere fact of its permitted, or connived-at, existence; by the very circumstance which stares us in the face, that the legislative and executive authorities, seeing it, deploring it, yet confess by their inaction their inability to check it, and their unwillingness to prohibit it, and virtually say to the unfortunate prostitutes and their frequenters, ‘As long as you create no public scandal, but throw a decent veil over your proceedings, we shall not interfere with you, but shall regard you as an inevitable evil.’ By an attempt to regulate and control them, the authorities would confess nothing more than they already in act acknowledge, viz, their desire to mitigate an evil which they have discovered their incompetency to suppress. By prohibiting the practice of prostitution under certain conditions, they do not legalise or authorise it under all other conditions; they simply announce that, under these certain conditions, they feel called upon promptly to interfere. The legislature does not forbid drunkenness, knowing that it would be futile to do so: but if a man, when drunk, is disorderly, pugnacious, or indecent, or in other mode compromises public comfort or public morals, it steps forward to arrest and punish him; yet surely by no fair use of words can it be represented as thereby sanctioning drunkenness when unaccompanied by indecorous or riotous behaviour, for it merely declares that in the one case interference falls within its functions, and that in the other case it does not.”
No living writer, however, dare bring the subject before the public as it should be brought. A penman bolder than his brethren has but to raise the curtain that conceals the thousand-and-one abominations that find growth in this magnificent city of ours, but an inch higher than “decorum” permits, than the eyes of outraged modesty immediately take refuge behind her pocket-handkerchief, and society at large is aghast at the man’s audacity, not to say “indecency.” Warned by the fate of such daring ones, therefore, it shall be the writer’s care to avoid all startling revelations, and the painting of pictures in their real colours, and to confine himself to plain black-and-white inoffensive enumerations and descriptions, placing the plain facts and figures before the reader, that he may deal with them according to his conscience.
It should incline us to a merciful consideration of the fallen-woman when we reflect on the monotony of misery her existence is. She is to herself vile, and she has no other resource but to flee to the gin-measure, and therein hide herself from herself. She has no pleasure even. Never was there made a grimmer joke than that which designates her life a short and merry one. True, she is found at places where amusement and wild reckless gaiety is sought; but does she ever appear amused, or, while she remains sober, recklessly gay? I am not now alluding to the low prostitute, the conscienceless wretch who wallows in vice and mire and strong liquor in a back street of Shadwell, but to the woman of some breeding and delicacy, the “well-dressed” creature, in fact, who does not habitually “walk the streets,” but betakes herself to places of popular resort for persons of a “fast” turn, and who have money, and are desirous of expending some of it in “seeing life.” Such a woman would be a frequent visitant at the Argyll Rooms, for instance; let us turn to Mr. Acton, and see how vastly she enjoys herself there.
“The most striking thing to me about the place was an upper gallery fringed with this sort of company. A sprinkling of each class seemed to be there by assignation, and with no idea of seeking acquaintances. A number of both sexes, again, were evidently visitors for distraction’s sake alone; the rest were to all intents and purposes in quest of intrigues.
“The utter indifference of the stylish loungers in these shambles contrasted painfully with the anxious countenances of the many unnoticed women whom the improved manners of the time by no means permit to make advances. I noticed some very sad eyes, that gave the lie to laughing lips, as they wandered round in search of some familiar face in hope of friendly greeting. There was the sly triumph of here and there a vixenish hoyden with her leash of patrons about her, and the same envy, hatred, and malice of the neglected ‘has-been’ that some have thought they saw in everyday society. The glory of the ascendant harlot was no plainer than the discomfiture of her sister out of luck, whom want of elbow-room and excitement threw back upon her vacant self. The affectation of reserve and gentility that pervaded the pens of that upper region seemed to me but to lay more bare the skeleton; and I thought, as I circulated among the promiscuous herd to groundlings, that the sixpenny balcony would better serve to point a moral than the somewhat more natural, and at all events far more hilarious, throng about me. As far as regarded public order, it seemed an admirable arrangement; to the proprietor of the rooms, profitable; of most of its cribbed and cabined occupants, a voluntary martyrdom; in all of them, in making more plain their folly and misfortunes, a mistake.
“The great mass of the general company were on that occasion males—young, middle-aged, and old, married and single, of every shade of rank and respectability; and of these again the majority seemed to have no other aim than to kill an hour or two in philosophising, staring at one another and the women about them, and listening to good music, without a thought of dancing or intention of ultimate dissipation. A few had come with companions of our sex to dance, and many had paid their shillings on speculation only. Some pretty grisettes had been brought by their lovers to be seen and to see; and once or twice I thought I saw ‘a sunbeam that had lost its way,’ where a modest young girl was being paraded by a foolish swain, or indoctrinated into the charms of town by a designing scamp. There were plenty of dancers, and the casual polka was often enough, by mutual consent, the beginning and end of the acquaintance. There was little appearance of refreshment or solicitation, and none whatever of ill-behaviour or drunkenness. It was clear that two rills of population had met in Windmill-street—one idle and vicious by profession or inclination, the other idle for a few hours on compulsion. Between them there was little amalgamation. A few dozen couples of the former, had there been no casino, would have concocted their amours in the thoroughfares; the crowd who formed the other seemed to seek the place with no definite views beyond light music and shelter. Many, whose thorough British gravity was proof against more than all the meretriciousness of the assembly, would, I fancy, have been there had it been confined to males only. I am convinced they were open to neither flirtation nor temptation, and I know enough of my countryman’s general taste to affirm that they ran little hazard of the latter.”
Again, Cremorne Gardens “in the season” would seem a likely place to seek the siren devoted to a life mirthful though brief. Let us again accompany Mr. Acton.
“As calico and merry respectability tailed off eastward by penny steamers, the setting sun brought westward hansoms freighted with demure immorality in silk and fine linen. By about ten o’clock age and innocence—of whom there had been much in the place that day—had retired, weary of amusement, leaving the massive elms, the grass-plots, and the geranium-beds, the kiosks, temples, ‘monster platforms,’ and ‘crystal circle’ of Cremorne to flicker in the thousand gaslights there for the gratification of the dancing public only. On and around that platform waltzed, strolled, and fed some thousand souls, perhaps seven hundred of them men of the upper and middle class, the remainder prostitutes more or less pronouncêes. I suppose that a hundred couples—partly old acquaintances, part improvised—were engaged in dancing and other amusements, and the rest of the society, myself included, circulated listlessly about the garden, and enjoyed in a grim kind of way the ‘selection’ from some favourite opera and the cool night breeze from the river.
“The extent of disillusion he has purchased in this world comes forcibly home to the middle-aged man who in such a scene attempts to fathom former faith and ancient joys, and perhaps even vainly to fancy he might by some possibility begin again. I saw scores, nay hundreds, about me in the same position as myself. We were there, and some of us, I feel sure, hardly knew why; but being there, and it being obviously impossible to enjoy the place after the manner of youth, it was necessary, I suppose, to chew the cud of sweet and bitter fancies; and then so little pleasure came, that the Britannic solidity waxed solider than ever even in a garden full of music and dancing, and so an almost mute procession, not of joyous revellers, but thoughtful careworn men and Women, paced round and round the platform as on a horizontal treadmill. There was now and then a bare recognition between Passers-by: they seemed to touch and go like ants in the hurry of business. I do not imagine for a moment they could have been aware that a self-appointed inspector was among them; but, had they known it never so well, the intercourse of the sexes could hardly have been more reserved—as a general rule, be it always understood. For my part I was occupied, when the first chill of change was shaken off, in quest of noise, disorder, debauchery, and bad manners. Hopeless task! The picnic at Burnham Beeches, that showed no more life and merriment than Cremorne on the night and time above mentioned, would be a failure indeed, unless the company were antiquarians or undertakers. A jolly burst of laughter now and then came bounding through the crowd that fringed the dancing-floor and roved about the adjacent sheds in search of company; but that gone by, you heard very plain the sigh of the poplar, the surging gossip of the tulip-tree, and the plash of the little embowered fountain that served two plaster children for an endless shower-bath. The function of the very band appeared to be to drown not noise, but stillness.”