Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Lurking Literature of London

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LURKING LITERATURE OF LONDON

INDEPENDENTLY of the vast mass of literature which floats or seeks to float upon the stream of popularity in this capital of the world, and very distinct from anything the publishers and their agents are employed in putting before the public; there exists a class, or more classes than one, of printed documents, more or less privately circulated, and to which the denomination of lurking literature may be fairly applied. We speak not now of those flying and ephemeral sheets passed from hand to band among the members of the different commercial professions, with which the general public have nothing to do, and. which are for the most part incomprehensible to all but the parties immediately interested. Nor do we care to include in the category such periodicals as the fine and Hue and Cry, interesting to rogues and vagabonds - to policemen, detectives, and the victims and avengers of crime of every sort - though these are never to be met with in the usual marts for the productions of the press, and may be said in a sense to lurk, rather than to circulate. Again, there are various trades which have periodicals of their own, intended to advocate their own interests - to vindicate their cause, if that should ever stand in need of vindication, but chiefly to serve as a medium for the facilitation of business, and as a check to the victimisation of the subscribers by frauds to which they stand peculiarly exposed. Such a publication is the pawnbrokers' weekly journal we forget by what name it goes - a paper which has done real service in its time, by causing the recovery of much valuable property, [-146-] and the detection of delinquents in the act of committing offences against the law. With such publications as the above, however, we have on the present occasion nothing to do they are all set on foot for legitimate ends, with which we have no right and no wish to interfere those, to which we design briefly to call the reader's attention, are, all but one, of a description considerably different.
    First among the literature that lurks unseen, except by the eyes for whose especial delectation it is prepared, we may mention the prospectuses of numberless bubble-companies. These things, which are generally printed on fly-sheets of super-royal folio, lie snug in the desks or in the pocket-books and breast-pockets of their concoctors - a race of needy men - so long as money is tight in the market ; but let the Bank cut down its rate of discount to two or three per cent. - let speculation set in like an epidemic - and out they come numerous as swallows in summer-time ; and terrible swallows they prove, in engulfing the floating cash, and flying away with it. The shares of the Great Gridiron Company, and the Barbers' Block Association, which were both a month ago considered defunct, are now not only alive, but found to possess astonishing buoyancy, and really promise to become the most profitable investments going. They rush like race-horses up to par, and beyond it - make a tremendous sensation in the market - are bought by hundreds who know perfectly well that the intrinsic value of a waggon-load of them would not amount to a farthing, but who also know that they can sell them at a profit before they begin to tumble down again; and then, after the fussing and shuffling of a few months, weeks, or days, as it may happen, the rage for gridirons and blocks subsides, and shares and speculators in them vanish together. If after all is over, you inquire what has been done, the result is neither more nor less than the simple fact, that some tens or hundreds of thousands have been lied out of time pockets of greedy [-147-] simpletons into the pockets of greedy swindlers. The literature by means of which this transfer of cash is periodically inaugurated abounds in pompous names, which you cannot always find in the Directory, and in paragraphs remarkably technical and official, promising a golden harvest, compared to which twenty per cent, is as nothing, to all and sundry who shall have the discrimination to dabble in the gridirons or the blocks.
    Mr. Bawker is the editor, proprietor, advertising agent, and collector, as well as the entire literary staff, of a monthly magazine. He is a man of considerable substance, with a large balance at his banker's, and. a comfortable leasehold property in one of the suburbs. He started in the literary line many years ago and his first appearance before the public that way was in the character of a "walking sandwich" between two deal-boards placarded with puffs of that now defunct periodical The Tomahawk, whose proprietor kept him in pay. The editor of The Tomahawk threw the hatchet with such success, that he was prosecuted for libel. The Tomahawk, in consequence, sunk out of sight, leaving Bawker high and dry on the strand. But by this time, being a man of observation, and having participated in various functions connected with the printing-office, the editor s closet, and the advertising agents, he had solved a good part of the mystery of the book-producing trade, and resolved, if he could compass it, to have a magazine of his own. How he succeeded, without money, in setting his speculation afloat, it might be difficult to discover ; but the magazine came out, nominally under high sanction, and from the first assumed to have a position second to none of its numerous rivals. Bawker did not go in for a large sale ; he did not care for the sale at all. What he wanted was a good advertising medium-good, that is, for Mr. Bawker. To make sure of this, he stereotyped a paragraph upon the front-page of his wrapper, announcing to all whom it might concern [-148-] that Bawker's Magazine is perused every month by 120,000 readers, and is therefore the best vehicle for advertisements open to the commercial world. A pushing tradesman, who had puffed largely in Bawker's advertising sheets, happened to discover that the impression which promised 120,000 teachers, was actually short of 200 copies ; and he accordingly resisted payment of his account.
    The ingenious publisher's defence of the announced circulation was worth all the money in dispute. "Bless you, this here magazine is lent, and lent, and lent about among the ladies, like anything." It have never done cirkilatin! My calkilation of readers is one hundred and twenty thousand. Of course, I may be mistook.'' This little trouble did not cause any abatement of Bawker's pretensions. He still kept up the game with unflagging success. For the literary substance of his magazine, he is indebted chiefly to American writers, the fashionable columns of the morning paper's, and the obsolete fiction of old periodicals, cut from their columns with the shears, and flung to the printer to arrange according to convenience. Bawker does his own criticisms, and, taking warning from the Tomahawk, to use his own expression, "soaps everybody and everything.'' It is marvellous to think of the odd catalogue of commodities which come for criticism to Bawker. Among them would be found every new perfume in elegant crystals and vases - all the washes for the complexion that were ever devised - numberless new inventions for the toilet, and imaginary bulwarks against the inroads of time, preventatives against baldness and greyness, hair-dyes, charming ringleted fronts and bewitching little wigs, paddings and plumpers, and rouge-pots and powder. Add to these a long list of everything captivating to mothers - darling babies' caps and lace-wrappers, tiny crocheted socks, corals, jumpers, toys without limit, and perambulators to carry single or double. Then there is infinite music in the shape of songs, fantasias, polkas, and quadrilles, amount-[-149-]ing to reams in the course of a month or two and, over and above all this, a complete library of ladies' literature, and a complete museum of the materials and finished performances of those various species of domestic industry in which ladies delight. All these voluntary contributions, as fast as they flow in, are noticed each by a brief laudatory phrase, and, the instant they are "soaped off,'' are transferred new to the shops of the retailers, with whom the careful Bawker does business on liberal terms, and at once transformed into cash ; and, it need not be said, they contribute handsomely to the profits of the concern.
    Another literary work, of a somewhat analogous kind, is the Aristocrat, which for some years has figured as a weekly newspaper, purporting to have an extensive and exclusive circulation among the nobility and landed gentry of the country. Its real sale in any class is a mere trifle, except on some extraordinary occasions. Some obsolete institution, for instance, is dying a natural death because it is no longer wanted, and lacks the sinews of war. The governor or secretary, trembling for his salary, gets up a flaming puff in praise of its benevolence, and an eloquent appeal to the rich and charitable on its behalf. The document is sent to the Aristocrat office, together with an order for a thousand copies of the number in which it shall be printed. The bribe amounts to something considerable, and of course in goes the puff in a front column. The same thing will happen when young Briefless gets his first suit. He reports it himself, and dresses up his speech to the best advantage and at the cost of a few hundred copies has the pleasure of a brief celebrity, at least among his personal friends. But these things happen rarely - not once in six months, on the average. Of the copies printed on ordinary weeks, not more than one-third are sold, the rest being given away ; and the proceeds of the sale are a trifle. But the Aristocrat swarms with advertisements, chiefly of books, and these of the most [-150-] expensive kind, copies of which are sent for review, and before the week is out are turned into cash. If a book of any value is not sent, it is written for, with a request that it may be sent per bearer - a request generally complied with. The entire literary work, including scissor -work and reviewing, and extracting by the yard, is done by contract for some 35s. a week, with the periodicals and stitched stiff-covered books as perquisites.
    Let us turn now to some lurking literature of a different description. Reader, unless you happen to be a stranger to the book-stalls, you must have encountered, among the heterogeneous boxes and ragged, mud-flecked rows of volumes exposed to the weather, a tolerable list of treatises upon medical subjects, or on the medical treatment of real or imaginary disorders of the human frame. There is Stickleback on the Spinal Cord - there is Pumper on Pleurisy - there is Noggins on the Nervous Energy - there is Glauber's Physiology of the Alimentary Canal - there is Renal Records, by Ramsbottom - there are fifty others whose names we might write down from memory and there are at least a hundred and fifty more whose names we have forgotten. Did it ever strike you, good friends, that until these volumes found their way to the book-stall they were never before offered for sale - though some few of them may have been nominally published by men who are unknown as publishers - and never had a name, much less a value, in the market ? No bookseller ever had them in his catalogue - no critic ever commented on their contents ; and the reason is, that they were not intended by their soi-disant authors to run the career of ordinary books. It was the fashion some years ago, and the fashion has not yet died out, for every practitioner in high life to write his volume declaratory of his own views, after the well-known Abernethy plan, and to lay it on the tables of his patients. Men who could not write at all, and who would have betrayed sad ignorance [-151-] in the attempt, were driven to get others to do the business for them. Scores of those volumes were thus written by scribblers who knew nothing of the curative science, under the direction of their medical employers ; and this system of vicarious authorship still goes on.
    Calling the other day on our friend Spiller, who knows everything, for a  little information on an abstruse subject, we found him up to the eyes in heavy volumes handsomely bound, and scribbling away, early in the morning, as if for dear life.
    "Cut it short, my dear fellow," he said ; "I am over the ears in business : the Greeks did eat mustard with ham, if that's all you want to know ; you'll find an allusion to it in Arjstophanes, I think - but I can't stop to look now."
    "Why, what's the matter? You seem quite excited."
    "The matter Why, McStickit has been here - you know I did his Kidneys for him. I'm now going in for the Mucous Membrane, if you know what that is. See what a cart-load of books the fellow has sent, and more are coming. He thinks I'm going to read through the lot, I suppose - know a better trick than that. He wants the book out by the end of the mouth - 300 pages at least - he stumped up like a Trojan (here Spiller showed a handful of notes); and I shall walk into it."
    And Spiller was "walking into it" at the rate of forty pages a day. We don't happen to be in his secret, and cannot therefore testify as to the mode in which he got through with the business ; but the Mucous Membrane is already out, though seven weeks have hardly elapsed since he commenced the attack ; and McStickit, amazingly proud of it, is pushing it right and left among his patients.
    It is not necessary to say that volumes of this peculiar class add little or nothing to the general store of knowledge on medical subjects but, at the same time, it would not be altogether just to infer that their reputed authors are [-152-] mere professional pretenders. There is many a clever practitioner well versed in the treatment of disease, whose skill may snatch a patient from the jaws of death, who yet would be exceedingly puzzled to write a book; and a melancholy experience sometimes shows us, on the other hand, that medical professors of high literary standing will blunder fatally in the practical details of their art. The printing and circulation of these books is one of the expensive vanities for which fashion has to answer.
    The last specimen of lurking literature to which we shall allude is a periodical work, to which we shall give the name of the Black Book. This is a work of portentous importance and signification, of which ninety-nine out of a hundred of our readers have never had a sight, and of which, moreover let them labour to that end as they may, they will never succeed in getting a glimpse. Who are its editor, printer, and publisher, we cannot say the whole business is got through with a secrecy as marvellous as the appearance and clandestine distribution of the work itself are regular. What is the extent of its circulation no man knows, but it must be considerable, for the expense of its production is great ; yet so far are the proprietors from making any attempt to push it with the public, that its very existence is guarded as a secret from all but the subscribers, and if inquiry is made for it by a stranger, it is universally ignored. The reason is, that every line of the book is a libel - all the more offensive and hateful, in that every line is also a truth. The Black Book is, in a word, a comprehensive register, inexorably posted up day by day, of every man and woman in the metropolis who has ever been known to break faith, through either vice, imprudence, or misfortune, in a monetary matter. The register dates, to our own knowledge, to ten years back, and very probably to twice that period. To the merchant, the man of business, and the speculator, it is an invaluable record of commercial character, because it is a [-153-] general directory of defaulters under all the phases in which default is possible. Every bankrupt's commercial history, with all the particulars interesting to a creditor, is down at full length the amount for which he failed - the amount of his assets - the cause of failure, whether extravagance, speculation, decline of business, or the failure of others - the amount of the dividend he paid - whether he got a certificate, if so, whether or not his certificate was opposed, and what class certificate he did get. Then there is a compendious catalogue of names in close columns, with their addresses, of all sham and shuffling and failing securities, whether to loan societies - these alone amounting to many thousands - or to credit transactions in any shape. There is the endless list of all those who have ever dishonoured a bill, with its amount, the date of its notification, and whether it was eventually discharged or not and of all those who have given a bill of sale or a power of attorney upon their property. There is analogous information of every kind respecting the constitution of companies, the cash character of their promoters, agents, and responsible parties, - in short, there is every item and atom of intelligence that can possibly be derived from public documents and the most rigid private investigation, which may prove serviceable to business-houses by enabling them to distinguish, so far as that can be done by the teachings of experience, between men of substance and character and men of straw and no character. The Black Book is thus a book of doom to multitudes who know nothing of its existence, and who would be horror-struck if they were to see after the lapse of years, the figure they cut in its columns. The uses of the book are obvious, and, managed as it is, with a circulation strictly guarded and private - for not a leaf of it is ever exposed to view, even to the most prying eye - it is. in our opinion, a perfectly justifiable document. The knowledge that such a compilation exists need not, [-154-] however, be kept a secret. The trading and speculating world will manage their affairs none the worse for knowing that a watchful eye marks their operations, and will assuredly chronicle their breaches of faith. The consciousness of this fact will be a timely providence to more than a few, and it may explain to some the mystery of that uniform repulse they meet with in their attempts to raise the wind by the most promising schemes. As a commercial people, we have latterly become shamefully insensible to the moral delinquency that too frequently marks commercial failure. The most infamous frauds are practised and, at least legally, countenanced in the way of business-frauds which in other European countries would be punished by exile or condemnation to the galleys. Whole families are reduced to beggary through putting faith in the plausible lies of principled traders - who "smash" suddenly through some desperate attempt to get rich - pay a shilling in the pound - are whitewashed a month or two after in the Bankruptcy Court, and set free to commence the experiment over again. Trade has grown into a gambling game - the chief difference being that the debts are not debts of honour. Why should not the trading gambler know, that if he fails to pay the stakes he will be posted in perpetuity ?

source: Charles Manby Smith, The Little World of London, 1857