Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 18 - Club Chambers for the Married

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    SOME remarks beneath this head have of late been going the round of the newspapers, — circulating from eye to eye not unlike some bright piece of money of a. new coinage, the exact value of which none of us have yet ascertained. The paragraph sets forth the advisability of building under one roof a series of chambers for married people. The bachelor part of the community has long had its wants supplied in the Inns of Court, the Albany, the Adelphi, &c.; and it is now sought to render the associative principle applicable to the desires of families.
    In London, it is well known that the chief expense of a family is the high price of rent. To young housekeepers, of moderate means. (say about £200 per annum; and how vast is the number of respectable couples in the metropolis whose incomes do not exceed this), a good house in any decent neighbourhood in town is quite without their means, and they are driven either to let some of their apartments, by way of assisting them with their rent, or they are obliged to retire to some of those dismal rows of mean little stuccoed houses that we pass sometimes on the tops of omnibuses, and wonder what kind of people 'tis that live in them. Bitter alternative — [-176-]  either to suffer the mortification of being considered lodging-house keepers, or to be driven, like outward barbarians, into those unknown wilds where friends venture not. This unpleasant feature in metropolitan life has so long existed, that we wonder some remedy has not been applied to it. We have only to cross the water to France, and we find how much better they manage things there. Even Auld Reekie can give us a valuable lesson. In their system of  "flats," we see the germ of that new social arrangement which, for a certain class in society, is so much required.
    Let us imagine, then, a handsome building, somewhat similar to our West-end club-houses, only larger in extent; the interior so arranged as to contain on each floor a certain number of suites of apartments fitted up for the accommodation of families. These suites, of course, might be of different sizes and rents, according to the eligibility of the floor on which they are situated. For £30 a year, well-ventilated apartments, of elegant proportions, perfectly suitable to small families, might be obtained, which would be as much insulated from each other as separate houses — the staircase only being common to the whole. In addition to these private apartments, a building of this kind would admit of a library, baths, and, above all, of some central assembly-room, in which those who like society might meet together for the purpose of conversation, or to make up little concerts among themselves. And this is a want which is so much felt, that we take the liberty of enlarging upon it. In English society, everybody feels that some such a neutral ground is required to bring young people more together. Under the present [-177-]  system of perfectly distinct establishments, everybody is boxed off from everybody as effectually as if a vast sea ran between them. . Or if they meet, it is at public or private balls, where young ladies are all smiles and affectation, and the gentlemen all blandness and deceit ; — they meet each other as completely masked, as far as their real .dispositions go, as Fat Jack's tormentors about Herne's oak. Like the pretended fairies, they think they know each other, because the one has wit enough to cry "Budget" to the other's" Mum" — conventionalisms of sentiment being their present passwords; and the consequence is, that she in green is mistaken for she in white, and the Master Slenders of society, when it is too late, find that instead of securing some "sweet Ann Page," that they are locked for life, if not to a "lubberly boy" as in the play, to some temper whose incompatibility with their own is a constant source of unhappiness and regret.
    And those who have the wisdom not to set their happiness upon these hasty unions, or who perhaps want the opportunity to form them, even under present artificial circumstances, what do they too often come to? We will paint a picture  — one in which the lights and shadows appear strong, perhaps, but which every one will recognize as not outraging the truth of Nature. There are two houses built side by side. In the one dwells a widow and her daughter, fair, light-hearted, the sunshine of her mother's declining years, but, alas! not rich. With all the affectionate instincts of a woman's heart, with all the capabilities to create happiness in a man's house, she remains unseen and unchosen. As time passes on, [-178-] she gradually deepens into old maidism. Where once she was heard singing about the home, like Una making a sunshine in the shady place, her voice is now heard shrill in complaint; parrots and cats accumulate, taking the place of a more human love, and her words are those of sharp reproof and spite against those very instincts of maternity which have been so long the master-spirit of her thoughts. Her affections, after in vain throwing themselves out to seek some sympathetic answer, turn in with bitterness upon her own heart, and she remains that most melancholy of an spectacles —a nature with aspirations unfulfilled. In the next house lives a bachelor —young, open-hearted. and-generous. Busied in the struggle of life, he has perhaps no time for parties, he sees little of society, the female portion of it especially; a knowledge of his own brusqueness of manners at first prevents him from coming in contact with womankind, and this shyness in time becomes so strong as not to be overcome. It might seem strange, but we are convinced it is the fact, that some men are much more afraid of women than women are of men, and fearing "to break the ice" is a fruitful cause of old-bachelorism. Gradually age grows upon him, chalk stones gather in his knuckles, gout seizes hold of his toes; served by menials, he is a stranger to the soft and careful hand of affection; and he goes to the grave, his death not only unlamented but absolutely rejoiced over by his heir-at-law. A wall of but six inches thick has all this time divided these two people: English society does not allow them even a chink through which, like Pyramus and Thisbe, they may whisper, although by [-179-] nature they might have been formed to make a happy couple, instead of two miserable units.
    Eugene Sue, in his "Wandering Jew," describes two people as approaching each other from the different continents of the Old and the New World. The woman wanders to the shores of north-western America, the man approaches from the north-eastermost  part of Asia. Behrens' Straits alone seem to divide their destiny. Let us ask how many Behrens' Straits do we not interpose in our social relations between heart and heart? We are by far too exclusive and reserved in our habits. Not to speak of France, even stolid and primitive Germany looks with astonishment at the care with which Englishmen seem to hedge themselves in from intrusion, and to avoid that interchange of ideas which society alone can admit of. For the reasons we have given at such length, then, we wish to see the establishment of assembly-rooms in club chambers. They would admit of a society partaking of the change and freshness of the public soirée and the more open friendliness of the family circle. Let us not for a moment, however, be supposed to wish to supersede that privacy and retirement which many people, and those of the purest natures, can only enjoy in the retirement of their own families. In club chambers of the kind we are advocating, each individual would act according to the bent of his inclination. Those who like society will avail themselves of the place of general meeting; for those, on the contrary, who wish seclusion, their own chambers would be as private as so many distinct houses. It is by such a system as this we are convinced that the selfishness of the present club [-180-] life, from which females are excluded, can alone be corrected.
    And now let us come to one other want, which by our plan would be supplied with great advantage. We admit that what we are about to propose is revolutionary in the highest degree of the existing order of things, but we must out with it — a good general kitchen. We are aware a proposition of this kind will rouse up a whole host of gentle enemies. We can see the dear young wife rebellious at the idea of being defrauded of the pleasure of preparing with her own  hand  "something nice" for her husband — at having a little world of household joys annihilated at a blow by our new-fangled system. Heaven forbid that we should do so — at least to a greater extent than she herself willingly submits to. Let us ask her, does she not entrust the getting up of her ball-suppers to the  pastrycook round the corner? Is it not both better and cheaper to do so? We show her by her own acts that she admits the insidious advances of the very monster she would so loudly oppose. The respected matron, armed with her shining bunch of keys, and backed up with the whole army of pickles and preserves, will do us battle to the death. But let us ask her calmly, did a suspicion never cross her mind that in her own particular department there might not be a saving by buying of the Italian warehouses? Domestic duties are blessed things, but are they not dearly bought by the perpetually bad dinner? O awful shade of scrag of mutton, dread spectre of domestic life! — O bolder leg, with thy natural descent of cold, and hashed, and stewed! — come to our aid, and by the horrors your memories conjure up, strengthen us to hear the [-181-] assaults of the tyranny of domestic cookery, and save our fair wives from faces flushed from the basting! Who that has enjoyed the classic lamb-chop and mint-sauce which the genius of a Soyer provides him with at the Reform Club, would willingly return to the home manufacture? Yet even at the former magnificent establishment they can afford to serve you up this dainty, worthy of the gods, at quite as moderate a price as your own domestic, little, wretched smoked flap of meat costs you. And how is this done? let us ask. By association: by making two or three fires do the duty of fifty, and by making the culinary art an exact science, instead of a continual and often failing experiment.
    A public kitchen, then, with a first-rate cook at its head, should form the material genius of these club chambers, and each inmate should be able to order for his dinner just what he pleased, and when he pleased, as he now does at Verey's, or any other of the great restaurants, the prices being at a minimum instead of a maximum rate, which should be printed in a bill of fare. These club-houses might be built a little way out of town. Indeed, we do not see any reason why they should not be erected along the lines of railway, if companies would provide return tickets at a moderate rate. It might be even worth the while of companies themselves to build clubs of this kind. They erect hotels, and foster places of amusement along their lines, merely for the sake of the casual traffic they bring.  The steady traffic to and fro, caused by a few such communities as this, would be no small item in their receipts. They should be built in good air, and in open ground, so that a public garden might be attached. What [-182-] a blessing! Good light and air! Think of this, ye people who from want of proper combination of your means are forced to put up with confined apartments, whose utmost view is bounded by the chimney-pots of the next row of houses. And let it not be supposed that in proposing these club chambers, we have been consulting the "comfortable classes" only. To the poor they would be even more applicable. The necessities of the wretched, indeed, have forced them to adopt a system of this kind, but of a most vicious character. Every house in the poorer neighbourhoods of the metropolis is let off,  floor by floor, to the families of the working classes; but three or four families, in most instances, can only afford the room and privacy which decency demands for each. To correct the evils attendant upon the crowding of the poor together, "The Society for the Improvement of the Condition of the Labouring Classes" have erected what might be considered as a series of model club chambers for poor families, between the Lower-road, Pentonville, and Gray's inn-road. These chambers contain the rude and half-developed germs of those we have been proposing for the middle classes. Buildings of this kind we should like to see erected in our manufacturing districts — and to these how peculiarly applicable would be a public kitchen, if it could be arranged. In the cotton-spinning districts — alas, that it should be so! — the women labour in the factory as well as the men, and the household duties are necessarily neglected. Dr. Cooke Taylor, in his tour in the manufacturing districts, has testified to the waste and want of knowledge of even the most simple rules of the culinary art, resultant upon this misapplication of female  [-183-] labour. As long, then, as this labour is so perverted, what a blessing it would be to all parties — to the husband, to the children, to the poor women themselves — if the office of preparing the meals was to be performed in one general kitchen, attached to workmen's club chambers.