Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen

Casanova In London

The eighteenth century, that extraordinary, admirable, and detestable age, gave us all manner of wonderful things and men, but was, above all, rich in adventurers, in the species which was rightly named chevaliers d’industrie. Rightly, because there was always something of polish, of singularity, of distinction about the eighteenth century rogue. The species, I think, is extinct.

We have swindlers now in plenty, confidence men in abundance. There were some highly ingenious artists in knavery engaged in the case of “Mr. A.” And we have occultists, and occult cranks, and founders of new religions, and initiators in secret rites, enough and more than enough. And again, we have dons, learned men, in profusion. But the type that combined all these types in one has ceased to exist. There is no modern translation of Casanova; swindler, cardsharper, occult quack, profligate, dealer in all the mysteries, man of the world — and LL.D. of the University of Padua at the age of fifteen. There were, as I say, some very clever people who interested themselves in the unfortunate Indian Rajah’s banking account; but not one of them, I feel sure, could have written as a degree thesis: Utrum judaei possint construere novam synagogas: “Should the Jews be allowed to build new synagogues?” Then, on the other hand: Madame Blavatsky told some amazing tales about Mahatmas, and deceived many persons in high official places. But I never understood that she made much money by it, “it” being taken to mean Theosophy, the “ancient wisdom religion.” Casanova, on the other hand, was accused by the nephew of Madame la Duchesse d’Urfê of having swindled his aunt of a million francs, forty thousand pounds or more. The nephew may have exaggerated, for he was in a rage. But it is certain that Venetian Casanova did very handsomely out of Madame d’Urfê‘s Rosicrucian delusions.

This ingenious gentleman, Giovanni Giacomo Casanova, visited our shores in the early ‘sixties of the eighteenth century, soon after the accession of King George III. He had hired a packet at Calais, and was delighted to accommodate the Duke of Bedford on board. The passage took two and a half hours, and at Dover “the custom-house officials made a minute, offensive, and even an impertinent perquisition.” Still:

“England is different in every respect from the rest of Europe; even the country has a different aspect, and the water of the Thames has a taste peculiar to itself. Everything has its own characteristics, and the fish, cattle, horses, men and women are of a type not found in any other land. Their manner of living is totally different from that of other countries, especially their cookery. The most striking feature in their character is their national pride; they exalt themselves above all other nations.”

Casanova had business in London. He had to call on the famous Madame Comely, Cornelis, or Comelys. This lady, an old Venetian friend of our adventurer, had used in her time many names, but had finally and for English use coined a new one out of the name of a Dutch lover, Cornelius Rigerboos. She had settled down in Carlisle House, Soho Square — afterwards in the occupation of Crosse and Blackwell — just opposite to the Venetian Embassy, and here she gave balls, concerts and masquerades to the nobility and gentry on the most splendid scale. But, somehow, she displeased the Grand Jury of the County of Middlesex, who presented her as a public nuisance. Madame was ruined. She became a vendor of asses’ milk at Knightsbridge, and died at last in 1797, a prisoner in the Fleet.

But when Casanova called on her in the early sixties, she was in all the splendour of success. In her own words:

“I give twelve balls and twelve suppers to the nobility, and the same number to the middle-classes in the year. I have often as many as six hundred guests at two guineas a head.”

She had two secretaries, over thirty servants, and her gross receipts were £24,000 per annum. And she felt able to be insolent to her old friend Casanova, who resented her behaviour, and took a furnished house in Pall Mall, china, linen and plate included, for twenty guineas a week. He was in disgrace with his own government, since he had broken prison in a spectacular and amazing manner, and so he was presented at Court by the French ambassador, the Comte de Guerchi. King George III spoke in a low voice, but his Queen seems to have been lively. She spoke of the Venetian Ambassador Extraordinary:

“M. Querini amused me extremely, he called me a little devil.”

“He meant to say,” replied Casanova, “that your highness is as witty as an angel.”

And one seems to hear the voice of a later member of the Royal house remarking severely:

“We are not amused.”

Casanova had managed to get introductions to fine company in England. He called on Lady Harrington and played whist for small stakes, losing fifteen guineas. He was given a lesson in English manners.

“You paid in gold,” said Lady Harrington. “I suppose you had no bank-notes about you?”

“Yes, my lady, I have notes for fifty and a hundred pounds.”

“Then you must change one of them or wait till another time to pay, for, in England, to pay in gold is a solecism only pardonable in a stranger. Perhaps you noticed that the lady smiled.”

Many things struck Casanova as strange. He was invited by a younger son of the Duke of Bedford to oysters and champagne at a tavern. They drank two bottles of champagne, and the Duke’s son made Casanova pay half the cost of the second bottle. And the tavern cooking: they laughed at Casanova when he said that he did not care to dine at taverns, because he could not get soup.

“Are you ill?” said the Englishmen. “Soup is only fit for invalids.”

The English of the day, says Casanova, were wholly carnivorous; they ate neither soup nor dessert: “which circumstance made me remark that an English dinner is like eternity; it has no beginning and no end. Soup is considered very extravagant, as the very servants refuse to eat the meat from which it has been made. They say it is only fit to give to dogs. The salt beef which they use is certainly excellent. I cannot say the same for their beer, which was so bitter that I could not drink it.”

Casanova went to Drury Lane. By some accident the company could not give the piece that had been announced. The house was in an uproar. “Garrick, the celebrated actor, came forward and tried in vain to restore order. He was obliged to retire behind the curtain. Then the King, the Queen, and all the fashionables left the theatre, and in less than an hour the house was gutted, till nothing but the bare walls were left. After this destruction, which went on without any authority interposing, the mad populace rushed to the taverns to consume gin and beer. . . . Such are the English and above all the Londoners. They hoot the King and the royal family when they appear in public, and the consequence is that they are never seen, save on great occasions, when order is kept by hundreds of constables.” Casanova went everywhere; he was to be seen alike in high company and in low. He went to Ranelagh and to Vauxhall, preferring the latter. He strolled into coffee-houses, and now and then caught odd scraps of conversation — when the language used was French or Italian. Thus:

“Tommy has committed suicide, and he was right, for he was in such a state that he could only expect unhappiness for the rest of his life.”

“You are quite mistaken,” said the other, with the greatest composure. “I was one of his creditors myself, and on making an inventory of his effects I feel satisfied that he has done a very foolish and a very childish thing; he might have lived on comfortably, and not killed himself for fully six months.”

And, then, Casanova met Miss Charpillon, of Denmark Street, Soho, and this turned out to be the most unfortunate meeting of his life. Miss Charpillon robbed, swindled, humbugged the experienced old profligate to her heart’s content. She drove him to the point of suicide. She belonged to a Swiss family of hereditary bad character, and a few years later she triumphed almost as completely over another wily old practitioner of bad morals, the famous Jack Wilkes. Jack recovered; but Casanova was never quite the triumphant rascal again. One of the consequences of his entanglement with the terrible Charpillon was an appearance before Sir John Fielding at Bow Street. The woman had sworn an information against him. He was arrested and taken before the magistrate, whom he confused with the illustrious novelist, dead in Lisbon many years before.

“At the end of the room I saw a gentleman sitting in an armchair, and concluded him to be my judge. I was right, and the judge was blind. He wore a broad band round his head, passing over his eyes. A man beside me, guessing I was a foreigner, said in French:

“‘Be of good courage, Mr. Fielding is a just and equitable magistrate.’

“I thanked the kindly unknown, and was delighted to see before me this famous and estimable writer, whose works are an honour to the English nation. . . .

“‘Signor Casanova,’ said he in excellent Italian, ‘be kind enough to step forward. I wish to speak to you.’

“I was delighted to hear the accents of my native tongue, and making my way through the press, I came up to the bar of the court, and said:

“‘Eccomi, Signore.’

“He continued to speak Italian, and said:

“‘Signor de Casanova, citizen of Venice, you are condemned to perpetual confinement in the prisons of his Majesty the King of Great Britain.’”

This was Sir John’s little joke. He explained to Casanova that an information, supported by witnesses, charged him with “intending to do grievous bodily harm to the person of a pretty girl,” and that, in consequence, he must be kept in prison for the rest of his days. Casanova declared that he had no intention of doing harm to the pretty girl, who was, of course, Miss Charpillon of Denmark Street. Then two householders were summoned, and Casanova was bailed out, after a brief visit to Newgate, which struck him as “a hell such as Dante might have conceived.”

He left London and England in a hurry. There was a forged bill of exchange and a talk of hanging, and Casanova wisely posted away with all speed on the Dover Road.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58