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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?