Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - Nine P.M. : After Dinner at the Hotel Brobdingnag

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NINE P.M.: AFTER DINNER AT THE HOTEL BROBDINGNAG

    "BUT which is David, and which is Goliath, the little boy at the fair is said to have asked the proprietor of the peep-show." "Whichever you like, my little dear; you pays your money and you takes your choice." Similarly, my dear readers, you are quite at liberty to assume that by the Hotel Brobdingnag is meant the Grand, the Métropole, the Victoria, the Westminster Palace, the Grosvenor, the Windsor, the Charing Cross, the Holborn Viaduct, the First Avenue, the Great Northern, the Cannon Street, or the Grand Midland. You have paid your money for this work; and you are entitled to take your choice of one out of the many gigantic and palatial hotels which at present adorn the British Metropolis.
    The Hotel Brobdingnag may thus be in Chevy Chase Avenue, W.C.; or in Screech Owl Street, S.W.; or in the Five Fields, Pimlico; or on the Heavy Hill Causeway; or in Saltpetre Street, E.C. ; or at the Brill, Somers Town. At all events, it is 9 P.M. ; you have been dining at the table d'hote of the Hotel Brobdingnag; and you are now enjoying a mild Havana, and a [-138-] cup of excellent coffee in the vestibule of the vast caravansary. This entrance hall is spacious and lofty; and its dome-shaped roof, which is elaborately panelled and carved, is supported by towering columns of - well, one may say malachite while one is about it - with Corinthian capitals richly gilt. The floor is laid in a tasteful pattern of tesselated stone; the doors are of ebony and gold; and the entrances to the avenues leading to the lift, the ladies' drawing-room, and the smoking and billiard room, are hung with costly draperies of crimson plush.
    Wherever there is space available for a looking-glass, huge Venetian mirrors in flamboyant frames meet your eye ; and round the sides of the vestibule itself are placed roomy settees and arm-chairs upholstered in crimson morocco. Over the centre of the tesselated pavement is laid a splendid Persian carpet; and the great white and black marble fireplace, with its chimney-piece supported by Caryatides, representing mermaids or Tritons - I forget which - is almost as imposing and as ornate as the fireplace from Rubens's house in Antwerp, which - the chimneypiece, not the Flemish city - Lord Rosebery has got in his hall at Mentmore.
    The dining-room which you have just quitted is as large as the vestibule, and even more sumptuously furnished. There is one large round table for solitary diners, but the remainder of the guests-there are about a thousand, all told, in the hotel - are accommodated in parties of from two to six at tables of different [-139-] sizes. The ceiling is coved, carved, and artistically embellished with arabesques. The walls are panelled with crimson damask; the dado exhibiting a series of florid wood - carvings - or, may be, the dado is of Lincrusta, - the carpet is a three-pile Indian Axminster, and the window curtains are of Henri Deux tapestry.
    From the ceiling hangs a colossal chandelier of Venetian glass, the very finest that the historic works at Murano could produce; and, it is almost needless to say, the vast establishment is from cellar to roof illumined by the electric light. In your bedroom, you can turn on and turn off that blessed luminary whenever you like throughout the night; although, of course, there is plenty of gas on hand to meet the contingency of Electra, who is somewhat of a capricious dame, taking it into her head to have a fit of the tantrums and vanishing for a few minutes, without giving you the slightest warning.
    Everything in this thoroughly up-to-date caravansary is on a colossal or Brobdingnagian scale. The hall-porter, who wears a semi-military uniform, and a cap with a gold band-surely, he ought to have a cocked hat with feathers for Sundays - is, you will surmise, of Teutonic extraction; and he is tall enough and stalwart enough to have been a drum-major in the Prussian Imperial Guards. His under-porters are likewise Sons of Anak; and the servitor, who attends to the perpetually ascending and descending lift, is a bushy-whiskered Englishman, whom you shrewdly suspect of having been one of Barclay and Perkins's draymen, who, [-140-] having become slightly weary of beer, has resolved to consume only the lightest claret, which, we all know, is the beverage served out, without stint, to all the employés of the Hotel Brobdingnag.
    The lift itself is an octagonal apartment, which will hold at least a dozen inmates; and as, later on, you take your seat in the chamber in order to ascend to the sixth floor on which your modest but very comfortable bedroom is situated, you remember that thirty years ago there was not such a convenience as a lift at all in any English hotel. Who invented the lift? The Americans say they did; but their claim to the invention is baseless. Recent antiquarian discoveries at Rome have proved that there were lifts at the Coliseum for the conveyance of the wild beasts from their subterranean dens to the level of the arena; and it can be shown that the modern domestic lift is an Italian device, since in the Greville Memoirs we read that the agreeable diarist, who told such nice stories about George IV. and William IV., and who was known at Tattersall's as the "Gruncher", saw a lift in a palace at Genoa more than sixty years ago.
    The Regent Orleans also made use of a lift for his select supper parties, at which he and his exemplary guests were adverse to servants being present. When the first course had been partaken of, a spring was touched, and the table descended into the regions below, to reappear, in a minute or so, laden with the second course. The Empress Josephine had a similar contrivance at the Tuileries; her entire toilette descending on a [-141-] table, from an apartment above, into the Imperial dressing-room; and this appliance, so the papers said, was revived in the early days of the Second Empire by the Empress Eugénie.
    Being solitary, you made one of about twenty other guests at the huge round table in the centre of the dining saloon, and - well, let me see, what did you have for dinner? It is unnecessary to specify the items in the bill of fare; let it suffice to say you had a choice of two soups, a thick and a clear one. There were two fishes and two entrées; a joint; game or poultry, according to the season, plenty of well-dressed vegetables; a sweet, an ice, and a varied dessert. Your dinner cost you five shillings and sixpence; and yet another five shillings you expended in a modest pint of champagne, of a well-known brand; but had you forsworn the vintage of Epernay you might have had a pint of very palatable claret for eighteenpence.
    Forty years ago there were no pints of claret obtainable at any hotel in the United Kingdom; nay, when I first went to the United States in 1863, there were no pint bottles of claret, and no table napkins, on board the Cunard steamship Arabia. The vestibule in which you are enjoying your Havana and your coffee is crowded with ladies and gentlemen, the majority of whom are staying in the hotel; while many others may be chance diners who have wired during the afternoon for a table to be reserved for them. They are always wiring and telephoning to and from the Hotel Brobdingnag; it is one of the pulses of the world, and is perpetu-[-142-]ally being felt. If you want a box at the opera, or to know the last quotation of Consols, or to ascertain whether the Hon. Octavius Ratley has got in for the Mercantile Division of Smokely-on-Sewer, you can ascertain all that you wish to learn, without stirring outside the Hotel Brobdingnag.
    So luxurious are your surroundings that you frequently fail to realise the fact that you are staying at an hotel. You fancy that you are in some gorgeously appointed West-End club, at which ladies as well as gentlemen are present; and with great inward contentment you perceive that, although none of the ladies are indulging in the Indian weed, not one of them has any complaint to make of the cigars or cigarettes which the gentlemen are so assiduously puffing. There are, of course, in the Hotel Brobdingnag spacious smoking and billiard rooms for the male guests, and drawing-rooms for the ladies, to say nothing of reading-rooms available for both sexes; and to the drawing-rooms, evidently, those ladies will repair who cannot endure the odour of tobacco. Others who do not mind, and even enjoy the aroma of the weed, and who prefer to enjoy the society of their husbands or brothers, while those individuals are taking their after-dinner smoke, grace the settees of the vestibule with their presence; and most cheerful and charming they look under the circumstances. A great many of the ladies and gentlemen are in full evening dress; and by half-past nine large numbers of the visitors will depart in broughams or hansoms, or four- wheelers, for the Royal Italian Opera, or the Lyceum, [-143-] the Lyric, or the Gaiety; but always remember that low-necked dresses for ladies, or sable garb and white chokers for gentlemen, are not insisted upon in the vestibule after dinner at the Hotel Brobdingnag.
    You may dress as you please-in fact, in nine hundred and ninety-nine items out of the thousand, the Hotel Brobdingnag is Liberty Hall. There is only one restrictive law, and that is one of the Medes and Persians. You are expected, while you are in the hotel, to behave yourself properly.
    It is only when you descend from the vestibule, a few marble steps into the outer hall, that you arrive at last at the conviction that it is really an hotel that you are domiciled in. Then you see an almost continuous stream of vehicles, heavily laden with luggage, driving up to the hotel; then you see the occupants of the vehicles entering the hotel to inquire at the office what rooms they can have; and then, when they have made their arrangements, you see the luggage swiftly seized upon by brawny porters, and made to disappear with almost magical rapidity. It is spirited away, you know not how, and in some way or another conveyed along a subterranean tunnel to the luggage lift; and when the guests' lift takes you up to your sky-parlour on the sixth floor, you will find all your belongings, neatly unstrapped, awaiting you.
    I have made this rapid sketch of a modern Grand Hotel for a very definite, and, it may be, slightly useful purpose. To you young or middle-aged, but always highly-prized readers of mine, there will be possibly very [-144-] little matter for astonishment in the Grand Hotel to which you so blithely resort. You would consider it quite an outrage if you were unable to find hotels of the character which I have briefly delineated, not only in London, but in all the provincial cities, and in Edinburgh and Dublin.
    If you go to the sea-side you find palatial hotels at Brighton and St. Leonard's, at Eastbourne and Folkestone and Bournemouth. When you go abroad for your autumnal trip you travel from one Brobdingnagian hotel to another; from Paris to Rome; or Brussels to Vienna and Buda Pesth. Will you allow me to tell you that I can remember the time when there were no Hotel Brobdingnags in England, and very few on the Continent? Forty years since, the very best hotels in Europe were to be found in Switzerland; and the excellent managements of these establishments and the moderation of their charges led Albert Smith, the most adventurous, the most indefatigable and the thriftiest of tourists, to uplift his voice against the costly, uncomfortable, and ill-managed hotels of his own country. I grant, that at the period in question the nobility and gentry could be adequately accommodated at such hotels as Mivart's; as the Clarendon, in Old Bond Street ; at Long's in the same thoroughfare; and at Thomas's, under the colonnade of Her Majesty's Theatre.
    The Golden Cross, Charing Cross, was also a very commodious inn; but none of these hostelries could properly be called Grand Hotels of the Brobdingnagian pattern. There were a few family hotels in Jermyn [-145-] Street and at Albemarle Street; still, save in the way of prices, they were the reverse of Grand. In the provinces you could get good cheer and warm shelter at the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, and the Hen and Chickens, Birmingham. For the rest, the vast majority of English hotels, twoscore years ago, were of the kind described in the Pickwick Parers.
   
Let me just sum up a few of the characteristics of the hotels of the past. Fourpost beds, very comfortable, no doubt, in winter, but horribly stuffy in summer. Rarely an easy-chair, and never a writing- table in your bedroom. A dark coffee room, into which no lady was ever permitted to enter; and no public room for ladies at all. When you travelled with your wife, your sisters, or your daughters, you were obliged to have a private room ; the first charge in connection with which being three shillings and sixpence for a pair of wax candles, generally brought up in battered, plated candlesticks. In hotels of the very first rank, real silver made its appearance on the table; in those of the second rank, the forks and spoons were inferior Sheffield ware in those of the third rank, the forks were steel, and often with only three prongs. If you asked for a bottle of claret, you had to pay eleven shillings for a mysterious vintage heavily laden with loaded hermitage; and a bottle of this stuff sufficed to make you tipsy. Most of the champagne was either gooseberry or rhubarb, and its price was from twelve to fifteen shillings a bottle.
    For dinner you could only get some vile gravy or mock-turtle soup; then came, occasionally, boiled salmon [-146-] or fried soles, and then usually a joint or a badly-roasted fowl. The vegetables were swimming in water; and the only sauces known were tomato, parsley-and-butter, egg, oyster, and melted butter. Your repast closed with strong-tasting cheese, celery, and apple tart or cabinet pudding. There were no entrées, save haricot-mutton, Irish-stew, veal cutlets and bacon, and lamb's fry. For breakfast, fresh fish was scarcely ever served; you had to be content with bloaters, eggs-and-bacon, sausages, or cold meat. If you ventured to smoke in your private room, the people of the house protested. Finally, although there was no fixed charge for attendance, you were beset when you left the hotel by a horde of menials, each and all of whom expected "bakshish." You had to fee waiters, chamber-maids, boots, and ostlers.
    This was the English hotel of the past. Albert Smith tried to reform it, and wrote a pamphlet entitled The Great Hotel Nuisance. About 1855 my master-in-letters, Charles Dickens, was staying in Paris; and I was living at an hotel in the Quartier Latin. Comparatively young, as I then was, I had travelled a good deal on the Continent of Europe, and was tolerably familiar with most of the best hotels abroad. Dickens proposed that I should write a series of papers in Household Words, in amicable reply to Albert Smith, and to this series we gave the title of "The Great Hotel Question." Understand that, at this time, the only Grand Hotel in Paris was the Louvre, which accommodated about six hundred guests. To this succeeded the Grand Hotel on the Boulevard des Capucines, with seven hundred rooms; [-147-] the other leading hotels of Paris were the Hotel Bristol, in the Place Vendome, and Meurice's, in the Rue de Rivoli, then, as now, the favourite resort of English and American travellers.
    Dickens, although a Radical in politics, was curiously Conservative in many social matters, and he was rather opposed than favourable to Grand Hotels; but I sided entirely with Albert Smith, and when I returned in 1856 to London, I drew up a prospectus of a Grand Hotel Company, which prospectus I submitted to Peter Morrison, then the proprietor of the Bank of Deposit, and who was reputed to be a man of vast wealth. But poor Peter soon afterwards came to signal financial grief; and I could not persuade any "parties in the city" with whom I was acquainted to take up my hotel project. You see that those were the days of Joint Stock Companies, and the Act authorising the formation of Companies with Limited Liability had not yet been passed. When that measure did become the law of the land, Grand Hotels in England sprang one after the other into existence, fully armed and equipped like Minerva from the head of Jove, and have been increasing and flourishing ever since.

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source: George Augustus Sala, London Up to Date, 1895