Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XXII - Penny Readings

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WHO has ever penetrated beneath the surface of  clerical society - meaning thereby the sphere of  divinities (mostly female) that doth hedge a curate  of a parish - without being sensible of the eligibility  of Penny Readings for a place in Mystic London?  When the Silly Season is at its very bathos; when  the monster gooseberries have gone to seed and the  showers of frogs ceased to fall; after the matrimonial  efforts of Margate or Scarborough, and before the  more decided business of the Christmas Decorations,  then there is deep mystery in the penetralia of every  parish. The great scheme of Penny Readings is  being concocted, and all the available talent of the  district - all such as is "orthodox" and " correct" - is  laid under contribution.
    It is true to a proverb that we English people have  a knack of doing the best possible things in the worst  possible way; and that not unfrequently when we do  once begin doing them we do them to death. It  takes some time to convince us that the particular  thing is worth doing at all; but, once persuaded, we  go in for it with all our British might and main. [-173-] The beard-and-moustache movement was a case in  point. Some years ago a moustache was looked upon  by serious English people as decidedly reckless and  dissipated. A beard was fit only for a bandit. Nowadays,  the mildest youth in the Young Men's  Christian Association may wear a moustache without  being denounced as "carnal," and paterfamilias revels  in the beard of a sapeur, no misopogon daring to say  him nay. To no "movement," however, does the  adage " Vires acquirit eundo" apply more thoroughly  than to that connected with " Penny Readings."  Originally cropping up timidly in rustic and suburban  parishes, it has of late taken gigantic strides, and  made every parish where it does not exist, rural or  metropolitan, very exceptional indeed. There was a  sound principle lying at the bottom of the movement,  in so far as it was designed to bring about a fusion of  classes ; though, perhaps, it involved too much of an  assumption that the "working man" had to be lectured  to, or read to, by his brother in purple and fine  linen. Still the theory was so far sound. Broad  cloth was to impart to fustian the advantages it possessed  in the way of reading, singing, fiddling, or  what not; and that not gratuitously, which would  have offended the working man's dignity, but for the  modest sum of one penny, which, whilst Lazarus was  not too poor to afford, Dives condescended to accept,  and apply to charitable purposes.
    Such being, in brief, the theory of the Penny [-174-] Reading movement, it may be interesting to see how  it is carried out in practice. Now, in order to ascertain  this, I availed myself of several opportunities  afforded by the commencement of the Penny Reading  season, which may be said to synchronize very nearly  with the advent of London fogs, and attended the  opening of the series in several widely different localities.  In describing my experiences it would perhaps  be invidious to specify the exact locality where they  were gathered. I prefer to collate those experiences  which range from Campden Hill to Camden Town  inclusive. Amid many distinguishing traits there  are common elements traceable in all, which may  enable us to form some estimate of the working of the  scheme, and possibly to offer a few words of advice to  those interested therein.
    In most cases the Penny Readings are organized  by the parochial clergy. We will be orthodox, and  consider them so to be on the present occasion. In  that case, the series would probably be opened by the  incumbent in person. Some ecclesiastical ladies,  young and middle-aged, who, rightly or wrongly,  believe their mission is music, and to whom the  curate is very probably an attraction, aid his efforts.  Serious young men read, and others of a more mundane  turn of mind sing doleful "comic" songs, culled  from the more presentable of the music-hall répertoire.  In many cases skilled amateurs or professionals lend  their valuable assistance; and it is not too much to [-175-] say that many a programme is presented to the audience - ay, and faithfully carried out too -which would do credit to a high-priced concert-room. But,  then, who make up the audience? Gradually the  "penny" people have been retiring into the background,  as slowly but as surely as the old-fashioned  pits at our theatres are coyly withdrawing under  the boxes to make way for the stalls. The Penny  Readings have been found to "draw" a higher class  of audience than those for whom they were originally  intended. The curate himself, if unmarried, secures  the whole spinsterhood of the parish. His rendering  of the lines, "On the receipt of my mother's picture  out of Norfolk," is universally acknowledged to be  "delightful;" and so, in course of time, the Penny  Readings have been found to supply a good parochial  income ; and the incumbent, applying the proceeds  to some local charity, naturally wishes to augment  that income as much as possible. The consequence  is that the penny people are as completely nowhere  at the Penny Readings as they are in the free seats  at their parish church. The whole of the body of  the room is "stalled off," so to say, for sixpenny  people, and the penny folk are stowed away anywhere.  Then, again, in several programmes I have been at  the pains to analyse, it is palpable that, whilst the  bulk of the extracts fire over the heads of the poor  people, one or two are inserted which are as studiously  aimed at them as the parson's remarks in last [-176-] Sunday's sermon against public-house loafing. Still  "naming no names," I attended some readings where  one of the clergy read a long extract from Bailey's  "Festus," whilst he was succeeded by a vulgar fellow,  evidently put in for "the gods," who delivered himself  of a parody on Ingoldsby, full of the coarsest  slang - nay, worse than that, abounding in immoralities  which, I hope, made the parochial clergy sit  on thorns, and place the reader on their "Index  Expurgatorius" from henceforth.
    Excellent in its original design, the movement is  obviously degenerating into something widely different.  First, I would say, Let your Penny Readings  be really Penny Readings, and not the egregious  lucus a non they now are. If there is any distinction,  the penny people should have the stalls, and then, if  there were room, the "swells" (I must use an offensive  term) could come in for sixpence, and stand at the  back. But there should be no difference at all. Dives  and Lazarus should sit together, or Dives stop away  if he were afraid his fine linen may get soiled. Lazarus,  at all events, must not be lost sight of, or treated  to second best. The experiment of thus mingling  them has been tried, I know, and succeeds admirably.  Dives and Lazarus do hobnob ; and though the  former occasionally tenders a silver coin for his  entry, he does not feel that he is thereby entitled to  a better seat. The committee gets the benefit of his  liberality; and when the accounts are audited in the [-177-] spring, Lazarus is immensely pleased at the figure his  pence make. Then, again, as to the quality of the  entertainment. Let us remember Lazarus comes  there to be elevated. That was the theory we set out  with - that we, by our reading, or our singing, or  fiddling, or tootle-tooing on the cornet, could civilize  our friend in fustian. Do not let us fall into the  mistake, then, of descending to his standard. We  want to level him up to ours. Give him the music  we play in our own drawing-rooms; read the choice  bits of fiction or poetry to his wife and daughters  which we should select for our own. Amuse his poor  little children with the same innocent nonsense with  which we treat our young people. Above all, don't  bore him. I do not say, never be serious, because it  is a great mistake to think Lazarus can only guffaw.  Read "The Death of Little Nell" or of Paul Dombey,  and look at Mrs. Lazarus's eyes. Read Tom Hood's  "Song of the Shirt," and see whether the poor seamstress  out in the draughty penny seats at the back  appreciates it or not. I did hear of one parish at the  West End - the very same. by the way, I just now  commended for sticking to the "penny" system where  Hood's "Nelly Gray," proposed to be read by  the son of one of our best known actors, was tabooed  as "unedifying." Lazarus does not come to be  "edified," but to be amused. If he can be at the  same time instructed, so much the better ; but the  bitter pill must be highly gilded, or he will pocket [-178-] his penny and spend it in muddy beer at the public-house. If the Penny Reading can prevent this -and  we see no reason why it should not - it will have had  a mission indeed. Finally, I feel sure that there is in  this movement, and lying only a very little way from  the surface, a wholesome lesson for Dives too; and  that is, how little difference there is, after all, between  himself and Lazarus. I have been surprised to see  how some of the more recherché "bits" of our  genuine humorists have told upon the penny people,  and won applause which the stalest burlesque pun or  the nastiest music-hall inanity would have failed to  elicit. Lazarus must be represented on the platform  then, as well as comfortably located in the audience.  He must be asked to read, or sing, or fiddle, or do  whatever he can. If not, he will feel he is being  read at, or sung to, or fiddled for, and will go off to  the Magpie and Stump, instead of bringing missus  and the little ones to the "pa'son's readings." Let  the Penny Reading teach us the truth - and how true  it is - that we are all "working men." What matters  it whether we work with head or with hand - with.  brain or muscle?