Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 33 - The "Times" Advertising Sheet

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    IF Dr. Jedlor lived in these days, and I wished to combat his facetious idea that "Life was a capital joke, nothing serious in it," I should put into the goodnatured old gentleman's hand a copy of the Times Newspaper. If there is anything terribly in earnest in the world it is the advertising sheet of this paper. Was anything ever more fearfully alive? Every advertisement seems to fight with its neighbour for pre-eminence and distinction, and each page seems to writhe and wrestle all over like a dish full of maggots. What fleets of vessels are just ready to start for the lands of gold, each one possessing the best accommodation, and boasting the ablest captain. What stalls of horses fill up another column, each one lit greater bargain than the other. What galleries of old masters just ready to fall under the hammer, each picture the most genuine of the lot. What ranks of servants out of place, all ticketed with their respective "wants," What groups of poor young gentlewomen "seeking a comfortable home" in the nurseries of the fortunate. If the spectator for a moment stops to dwell upon such advertisements, the iron enters into his soul, and he must seek relief by a philosophic contemplation of the mass. At the top of the column Love now and .then stands making signs with  [-324-]  finger upon lip — "Florence" gives "a thousand kisses" to her distant and secret lover. A mother implores her darling boy to "return home and all will be forgiven;" or an injured wife, with vehement words, leaps to the first reconciling words of her lord. Above the shouting of chapmen, the puffing of quacks, and the thousand voices of trade we hear these fervid outbursts of the human heart, and solitary cries of anguish, with a strange and startling distinctness.
    Sometimes, like Garrick's face, the pages will appear half in tragedy half in farce. Mark that long list of hospitals, crying out for aid for the maimed and sick — and then beside it the sprightly row of theatres, smilingly displaying its tinsel attractions. Here an economic undertaker calculates for bereaved relatives what he can "do" a gentleman's funeral for, with "hearse and plumes and two coaches and pairs," or for what he can afford to put defunct artisan underground, by means of the Shillibeer 'bus. In the very next advertisement an enterprising stationer boasts the largest assortment of wedding cards, and finds everything (but happiness) for the bride. Then, again, "The original Maison Deuil" draws attention to its "poignant grief mantles and inconsolable trimmings." Every ingredient of life seems mixed in this ever-open book: we laugh, we cry, we pardon, pity, or condemn, as morning after morning it brings before us the swiftly shifting scenes of this mortal life.
    In the ancient Greek theatres, where the actors had to give their recitations in the open air, they made use of a brazen mask which projected the voice to a sufficient distance to be heard by a vast multitude of people.
    The brazen mask of the present age is this advertising [-325-] sheet, behind which all conditions of people, day by day, plead their wants to the entire nation. What a strange crowd, in one continual stream, passes through the doors of the little room in Printing-house Square, where this mask is erected! The poor shrinking girl, who, for the first time, is obliged to come in contact with the hard world, brings her advertisement, offering herself as a governess for the sake of "a comfortable home," — the clever schemer, who makes a living of the postage-stamps he exacts from those to whom he offers some extraordinary advantages, — the enthusiast who brings his five shillings to have the end of the world proclaimed by a certain day,--the poor widow who has come to plead "to the benevolent" for her destitute children, —  and the agent of the millionaire advertising for a loan of millions, —  all shoulder each other in this room. What passages of life might mot the attendant clerk read, to whom this continual throng as it were exposes the secret necessities of the heart. How anxiously next day each individual searches the wet page for the all-important advertisement. How the glossy curls of the young girl ripple over the sheet as she reads her own wants proclaimed aloud. It almost takes her breath away — she, the timid little thing, thus to speak out as boldly as the best of them! The thought arises in her mind, that some good lady who has a daughter like herself, is reading it, and will have pity on her: it might be, that some abandoned wretch has the paragraph at the moment under his eye, and is plotting an answer which will bring her under his clutches. The schemer, ere the boy has come round for the borrowed paper, has succeeeded :  piles of letters from people eager, [-326-] to partake of the wealth he offers them, have found him in postage-stamps enough for the wants of the week. The proclamation of the coming end of the world has raised a laugh or two from the casual reader, and cast a thousand Muggletonians into sackcloth and ashes, and into the hourly expectation of hearing the last trump. The millionaire has sent the funds down a quarter per cent., and so it moves. All these people have cried aloud, yet with closed lips, through this "ever-open book" of the press.
    To the general reader how much is there to amuse; how many, many pictures of the little weaknesses of human nature. of pride and affectation. to be found in these daily announcements! Let us take, for instance. the ample columns apportioned to those who advertise — "Apartments to Let." One is struck with the singular fact. that nearly every other person who desires an inmate. only does so in consequence of having a house larger than is required." One would think. that if this were the case, they would get into smaller ones; no, their sweetness of temper leads them to turn their misfortune to the general good of humanity. Then, amiable ladies, over1lowing with the milk of human kindness. "wish for two or three ladies and gentlemen, or a newly-married couple, for the sake of society!"
    Poverty "disguise thyself as thou wilt, thou art still a bitter portion;" let us not too rudely tear aside the curtain, thin and transparent though it be. with which thou shieldest thyself from the world's contumely.
    Thank goodness, however, every comer of the human heart is not entirely mercenary: there is one individual [-327-] for whom the whole female tribe, from the lady who speaks to you as though you were so much dirt, whilst you are negotiating for her drawing-room floor, to the grubby lodging-house-keeper in er mangy fur tippet, greasy curl papers, and "three-and-sixpence a week for the kitchen fire," determinedly playing round the comers of her mouth — possesses a most deep-seated affection. He is the ideal of a lodger, the individual they sigh for —
    "A quiet gentleman who dines out."
    In the many hunts I have myself had for rooms, how often have I come across this petted specimen of man. Did I ever get a peep of a particularly nice room, 'twas always the apartment of the "Quiet Gentleman." Did I express a wish for a strikingly clean bedroom, I was told with a slight shudder of indignation at the outrageousness of the request, that it belonged to the "Quiet Gentleman." "He has been with me," said one landlady, "sixteen years last Lady Day, and a quieter gentleman never trod the ground."
    Bachelor, a word with you:— Avoid the house that contains a "quiet gentleman." You might not, any more than myself, be a "fast" or a riotous gentleman — but, "comparisons are odious,"  — you cannot, try how you will, give satisfaction to any woman when there is snch an immaculate as he in the front parlour.
    Ah, I can see him now, as he steps on to the 1lagged. pathway of the long slip of garden, out Pentonville way, where he lives: I can see him as he looks up to the sky, and gives a satisfied "Ah!" as though the wind had changed to his favourite quarter, though he knows as much of the North, South, East, and West, as the steeple on  [-328-] which the vane creaks. What a quiet black he wears; down to the gaiters it seems cut in one piece by the shears of a forgotten generation! The 'bus takes him up at the comer, and he has the talk he has had any time the last ten years with the driver (for he rides outside in the summer on principle) about the wonderful times, what with the steamers and the railroads, &c., and the slow coaches they were when he was a boy. He knows where the best chop is to be got in the city (these quiet people do get hold of this sort of information somehow), and the waiter always keeps one place for him most religiously. He always goes straight home after business is over: with a latch-key he is never trusted; if by any chance he were to be, he would doubtless think the bonds of society breaking up, and would go and do something dreadful. His occupation in the evening is not of a more intoxicating nature than the arrangement for the hundredth time of a few botanical specimens which he had gathered in his youth, far, far away from the dingy, sooty London, and the waterings of the flourishing little stand of geraniums, a present from his married sister in the country, which by some process of carefulness he has preserved through five winters. At ten o'clock precisely, the tic-tic of his watch might be heard as he deliberately winds it up, and the next minute his list slippers carefully ascend the stairs towards his bedroom. And such a prim, spruce room it is, you could eat your dinner off any part of it. See how he has wafered a country newspaper against the wall, at the back of his washstand to preserve in all his integrity the blue and yellow mandarin, who, with his fellows, is eternally marching up the wall in all the pomp  [-329-] and glory of stencil work. He is, indeed, an invaluable jewel; once secured, his landlady never lets him depart, except in his coffin, or to be married: it is the same to her which; in either case he is to her for ever lost. But another, and another, still succeeds. If, good reader, you take up the Times to-morrow morning, you will find "the quiet gentleman, who dines out," still lured by the seductive voices of ladies who have "genteel apartments to let."
    The top of the second column of the first page of the Times is the place where the printers "pile the agony." Here we find the different letters of the alphabet addressing each other in terms of the most frantic grief or gentle reproach. A. B. is implored to return to his sorrowing T. T. X. X. wishes to meet L. M., not at Philippi, but at 5 P.M. In a brief paragraph we catch a misfortune so profound as to check at once the laugh with which we greet the more vulgar and curious advertisements that surround it. I remember once reading a line to this effect :— " The assistance came too late —  she died in the night." Who was it that thus passed out of life the moment aid was at hand? who is it that remains to reproach himself with his tardiness? The reader pauses for a moment, and wonders what tragedy lies hidden in this brief space, and then relapses into the contemplation of the fierce struggle for the world's goods which the vast mass of the advertisements represent.
    Sometimes we see an announcement in this column which consists of only two or three letters. A correspondence in cipher is here being carried on. It is reported that the struggle in Portugal. which resulted in the expul-[-330-] sion of Don Miguel and the establishment of Isabella on the throne, was conducted from London through the Times by means of cipher advertisements. What a singular idea — the strings of a revolution pulled through the corner of a newspaper — the most secret and dangerous movements, plots and counter-plots, affecting a whole nation, openly carried on in a space less than Rowland takes to puff his Kalydor. A king pulled down in fewer letters than is required to announce the defeat of a common councilman! When Jones the cheesemonger, with spectacles on nose, read his account of the arrival of his prime ripe Stiltons, he little thought that a queen's wishes had been conveyed through the next advertisement; but misery does indeed make us acquainted with strange bedfellows. Immediately following these cipher announcements, there is another class of advertisements which to us are exceedingly suggestive and rich; such, for instance, as tell of the loss of little articles of jewellery. Many a dramatic sketch glances through one's mind when reading such a one as the following :—
    "LOST — Getting out of a cab at the Haymarket Theatre, a serpent bracelet, with gold heart attached, containing hair."
    "Well, and what can you make of that '" says my lady reader, opening wide her eyes with a pretty air of astonishment.
    A moment, charming creature, whilst I indulge myself in painting a picture.
    "All right — Opera!" says the footman, slamming the cab door.
    "Shall I put the window up?"
    "Do, this dreadful dust makes one look such a fright!"
    "How beautifully your bouquet smells."
    "Oh, yes, my violets! I am so fond of flowers!"
    "Ah, I see there is a serpent under them!"
    "My bracelet! isn't it pretty? Papa gave it me as a birthday present."
    "But the hand is much prettier!" ('Tis so natural to transfer our admiration from dead to living beauties.)
    "Nay, nay, you really must not do so."
    "I will keep my little white prisoner here, were it only to hear you say 'nay' so prettily."
    "Now, Mr. — ; now, Henry, do let go my hand. The man will open the door in a minute."
    A pretty little struggle. How pretty it is to wrestle with a white arm — during which the serpent becomes unclasped, and, like the wily tempter of old, wriggles off and escapes. When the dazzle of the house and the grand crash of the overture has a little toned down, the lady discovers that her bracelet is gone. Oh, my dear little serpent — it is lost. I must have dropped it getting out of the cab.
    How placidly those large blue eyes look at you as she speaks — how collectedly they meet yours. What a calm innocence, a holy truth dwells in their clear depths! A man must be a brute to gainsay her. Yes, it must have dropped off  getting out of the cab.
    The Times next morning has an advertisement to that effect, for which the gentleman is but too happy to pay, and Howell & James's furnishes a fresh serpent, which the lover is but too delighted to be allowed to clasp round the lady's delicate wrist.  
    [-332-]  I detect you, male reader, smiling in your sleeve! You, too, then have bought your experience —Well, I do not know that it could be purchased in a more delightful  manner. And thus ends my little history of an advertisement.