Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen

The Gay Victorians

There is a certain fable with which we greatly comfort our hearts in these days. And this is the fable of the mild, the tame, the old-maiden-ladylike Victorians. We know in our inner hearts that we, the Georgians, are the most regulation-ridden people that ever were. If we want a box of chocolates or a packet of cigarettes after eight o’clock at night, we cannot get either without breaking the law. In most parts of London, the greatest city in the world, a glass of beer after ten becomes a penal offence. We have the liberty to go to bed quietly; that is about all. I suppose it is the secret knowledge of all this, the knowledge that we have become a flock of rather pitiful sheep, driven tamely off to our pens by the sheep dog of the law, that makes us puff out our chests and pity the poor, limited, propriety-ridden Victorians, and pretend that we are desperate dogs, indeed. If a man would keep any spirit at all, it is necessary that he should look down on someone; rightly or wrongly. But the mid-Victorian age was not really what we pretend to think it. It was, probably, one of the jolliest ages in our history; and all the better for this, that a great deal of the jollity was above-ground, harmless, hearty mirth. There was the other side, of course; there always is that, and now more than ever, since the coming of cocaine — the nasty, underground, poisonous gaiety that is not gaiety at all, but rather ghastliness. But on the whole, the mid-Victorian who was resolved to “keep it up” and “make a night of it” could make a most tremendous night of it and be rather the better than the worse the morning after. A headache? Possibly. But an occasional headache does not do anyone much harm.

I was talking the other day to a man whose business it is, speaking generally, to know everything. I will not define his occupation more precisely; but I happened to mention to him the “Welcome Guest” and Sala’s “Twice Round the Clock.” He had neither heard of the periodical nor the series of articles. And so, perhaps, I may safely quote this witness of the London world in the year 1858, when Queen Victoria had been reigning twenty-seven years. The period may fairly be called the mid-Victorian; and this was the fashion of it. The time is midnight; the people are coming out of the Haymarket Theatre, still laughing at the drolleries of the inimitable Mr. Buckstone and ——

“Supper is now the great cry, and the abundant eating and drinking resources of the Haymarket are forthwith called into requisition. By the ravenous hunger and thirst displayed by the late patrons of the theatre, you would imagine that they had gone without dinner for a week . . . Are you rich — there is Dubourg’s, the Hotel de Paris, and the upstairs department of the Café de l’Europe. There is no lack of cunning cooks there, I warrant, to send you up pheasants and partridges en papillote; filets with mushrooms or truffles, culinary gew-gaws that shall cost five shillings the dish. Yes, and cellarers shall not be wanting to convey to you the Roederer’s champagne, the fragrant Clos Vougeot, the refreshing Lafitte and the enlivening Chambertin with yellow seal . . . If your taste leads you still towards French cookery — though you wince somewhat at the idea of the claret, burgundy and champagne to follow — there exists a second-class French restaurant or two where excellent suppers may be obtained at moderate prices.” Sala follows on the descending scale: a porkpie and a glass of ale at a bar for a few pence: “trotters,” mysterious but succulent, for a penny; a potato from the can at the Coventry Street end of the Haymarket, with salt and pepper, for a halfpenny: and then reverts to oysters, as the refreshment most proper to the hour and the place.

“I will abide by the Haymarket oyster shop, rude, simple, primitive as it is, with its peaceful concourse of customers taking perpendicular refreshment at the counter, plying the unpretending pepper-castor and the vinegar cruet with the perforated cork, calling cheerfully for crusty bread and pats of butter; and tossing off foaming pints of brownest stout.” But a a few oysters and a little bread-and-butter and stout at midnight were only the beginning of a mid-Victorian’s night out. Refreshed, he strolled on to Evans’s in Covent Garden, where, as Mr. Sala assures him, Captain Costigan is no longer allowed to sing his dubious songs, to the shame of young Clive Newcome and to the rage and indignation of the immortal Colonel, his father.

“We have been to the play, we have consumed a few oysters in the Haymarket; but the principal effect of that refreshment seems to have been to make us ten times hungrier. The delicate bivalves of Colchester”— I am afraid that Sala was the first to call an oyster a “succulent bivalve”—“have failed in appeasing our bucolic stomachs. We require meat. Wherefore we walk till the piazza looms in sight. A low doorway, brilliantly lit with gas, greets our view. We descend a flight of stone steps, pass through a vestibule, and enter the ‘Cave of Harmony.’ The visitor finds himself in a vast music-hall of really noble proportions and decorated not only with admirable taste, but with something nearly akin to splendour. At the northern extremity of the hall is a spacious proscenium and stage, with the grand pianoforte de rigueur, the whole veiled by a curtain in the intervals of performance. As for the huge area stretching from the proscenium to a row of columns which separate it from the ante-chamber café, it is occupied by parallel lines of tables. . . . See the suppers set forth for the strong stomached supporters of Evans’s. See the pyramids of dishes arrive; the steaming succession of red-hot chops, with their brown, frizzling caudal appendages seething hot tears of passionate fat. See the serene kidneys unsubdued, though grilled, smiling though cooked, weltering proudly in their noble gravy. . . . See the yellow lava of the Welsh rabbit stream over and engulf the timid toast. Sniff the fragrant vapour of the corpulent sausage. Mark how the russet leathern-coated baked potato at first defies the knife, then gracefully cedes, and through a lengthened gash yields its farinaceous effervescence to the influence of butter and catsup. The only refreshment present open to even a suspicion of effeminacy are the poached eggs, glistening like suns in a firmament of willow-pattern plate; and those, too, I am willing to believe, are only to be taken by country gentlemen hard-pressed by hunger, just to ‘stay their stomachs,’ while the more important chops and kidneys are being prepared . . . Pints of stout, if you please, no puny half-measures, pints of sparkling pale ale, or brownest Burton moisten these sturdy rations. And when the strong men have supped — or, rather, before they have supped, and while they have supped — and indeed generally during the evening, there bursts out a strong smell of something good to drink; and presently you perceive that the strong men have ordered potent libations of spirituous liquors, hot whiskey and water being the favourite one; and are hastily brewing mighty jorums of punch and grog which they undauntedly quaff.”

There! What a jolly scene it is, and how entirely honest and free from blame. And while people are eating heartily and drinking heartily and smoking heartily, a choir of small boys sing eighteenth century glees to them; or perhaps it is a nigger minstrel, some far-off precursor of poor Chirgwin; or it may be a comic singer who obliges. Perhaps, as I have hinted, there may be a headache to-morrow morning, perhaps a slight distaste for breakfast; but those stout fellows of the ‘fifties care little for such trifles. And all this jollity, all this brown stout and steaming punch at one o’clock in the morning! To us “daring” Georgians it seems well-nigh incredible.

There is one odd note in this tale of Sala’s. It is well-known that Thackeray was a constant visitor at Evans’s. Here is his portrait according to Sala.

“Thersites Theorbo (who is an assiduous frequenter of the Cave at hours when men of not so transcendent a genius are in bed), Thersites Theorbo, down yonder in the café ante-saloon, glowering over his grog, cannot forbear beating time and wagging his august head approvingly when he hears the little boys sing. May their pure harmony do the battered old cynic good!”

Now, I wonder. This was the very year of the famous Dickens–Thackeray-Yates quarrel. Thackeray had called Yates “Young Grub-street” in print; I wonder whether he had called Sala “Young Guttersnipe” in conversation. Sala was a Dickens man; and led-captains fought valiantly for their chiefs in those brave days.


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