Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Age of Scandal

T.H. White:

The atmosphere of the second epoch was different from the Age of Reason’s: so different that the period seems to require a label of its own. One might suggest, the Age of Scandal.

Between the Classical and the Romantic movements, as they are recognized at present, there existed this other age, which was one of peculiar flavour. It filled the hiatus between Pope and Wordsworth with a distinct and unique culture, none the less real because it is seldom recognized now. It could be roughly dated between the death of Pope and the publication of the Lyrical Ballads, except that such dates are confusing. Periods do not exist between fixed years. They have forerunners in the previous age and laggards in the subsequent one. Although the Age of Scandal was at its height in the seventeen-eighties, under its greatest product, Horace Walpole, yet, between forerunner and laggard, it may be said to have stretched from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Croker or to Creevey.

The people of the late eighteenth century and of the Regency were different from the Augustans. They were not cold and formal like a heroic couplet but, on the contrary, eccentric, individual, sentimental, dramatic, tearful, even doggy. For that matter, they were a good deal more ‘romantic’, in the exact sense of that term, than the unsmiling crocodile of Rydal. Their heiresses frequently ran away with the footmen.

Few people seem to realize how charming and peculiar the Age of Scandal was. We have to dismiss
so much from our minds before we can crawl inside theirs: before we can picture the powdered gentlemen in silks and laces, with their jewellery and the swords which they were ready to draw, with their sedan chairs and lap dogs and immense bets and deep potations. One of the commonest words about male clothes, in the letters of the reprobate Duke of Queensberry, was ‘pretty’. One of his presents to the Prince Regent was a muff. Among the commonest reactions from readers and playgoers was that of tears. They adored their dogs and sent them tender messages in their letters. They were emotional about their friends, catty about their enemies, unusual in their hobbies and singular in themselves. They were perhaps the first people in English literature to be real enough for gossip.

Gossip must be about character. It is useless to gossip about an unknown character, impossible to tell a good story about a person without foibles; for it is the foible which gives the story point. These people had characters, were among the first people in England who were sufficiently peculiar, in a modern way, to be apprehended by us as personalities. They did extraordinary things: puffed and blew like Dr. Johnson, or went to executions like the sinister Selwyn, or constructed the astonishing tower of Fonthill like Beckford, or said that they were about to give birth to the Messiah like Joanna Southcott or to a litter of rabbits like Mary Tofts. They fought duels in balloons like M. 1e Pique in 1808 the first human being ever to be shot down in aerial combat -or directed their farm labourers with a megaphone and a telescope like Sydney Smith in his ‘rheumatic armour’. Sometimes they could never be sure whether they were men or women, like the Chevalier d’Eon, and sometimes they dislocated London’s milk supply, as was the case with the fourth Duke of Queensberry -who was supposed to take his early bath in this liquid before it was retailed -with the consequence that for many years nobody in London felt secure about the morning tea.

The Age of Scandal was the reverse of being a pompous one. Gossip is not pompous. It was inevitably an age of intimacy and of nicknames. Creevey was a product of it, and, as Lytton Strachey has pointed out:

There are no great names in his vocabulary only nicknames: George III is ‘old Nobs’, the Regent ‘Prinney’, Wellington ‘the Beau’, Lord John Russell ‘Pie and Thimble’, Brougham, with whom he was on very friendly terms, is sometimes ‘Bruffam’, sometimes ‘Beelzebub’, and sometimes ‘Old Wickedshifts’; and Lord Durham, who once remarked that one could ‘jog along on £40,000 a year’, is ‘King Jog’.

It was because these people were aristocrats. The gossips lived in a small society which scarcely touched the middle classes of Wesley, nor the peasantry, nor the Mob. Literature had for the first time since Elizabeth become the medium instead of the plaything of the gentry. They moved in the tight world of the Drawing-rooms and of the Birthdays, knew each other as well as the boys at a public school in England might know each other today, chatted about the latest scandal, and, because they had learned to be literate, they wrote it down. So they remain in literature.

I'm Lady Montagu's time gentlemen had not been expected to shave daily. Washing had been performed in a hand-basin. Chamber-pots had been kept in the dining-room sideboard, for the use of those who sat after the ladies had retired. Instead of the water-closet, which was re-introduced at the end of the century, there was the chaise percee: sometimes in a separate room, as was the case when George II died upon the stool; sometimes only behind a curtain, as it was when Lord Hervey had a contretemps in 1742.

The fixed bath, except at spas, was almost unknown ---Dr. Johnson observed of baths, ‘I hate immersion’ -and Byron was still quite proud of building a bathroom at Newstead in the nineteenth century. Until the days of Jenner, most people were disfigured by smallpox, and the lack of reliable artificial teeth, though this convenience did exist, produced the Punch-and-Judy profile in old age. . In difficult circumstances, however, the aristocracy did its best. Tooth powder was used, and the choice of scents included Spirit of Ambergris, Otto of Roses, Aqua Mellis and Cordova Water. If a footman touched the sugar for the lemonade with his fingers, even the slovenly Dr. Johnson would throw the glass out of the window. They shifted their clothes frequently, and these were well washed at home. Johnson decided that when he kept a seraglio ‘the ladies should all wear linen gowns -or cotton . . . I would have m; silk; you cannot tell when it is clean . . . Linen detects its mm dirtiness’. In later days Brummell insisted or} 'country washing’. Their soaps were Joppa, Genoa, Irish, Bristol, Windsor, Black and Liquid. They kept up a diligent campaign against fleas, pared their linger-nails with penknives, used scent with powder and paid attention to their hair. The heads were shaved for the wig or the natural hair worn in a queue, the powder being sometimes tinted when en grande toilette.

The Prince de Kaunitz, who wore satin stays, passed a portion of every morning in walking up and down a room in which four valets puffed a cloud of scented powder, but each of a different colour, in order that it might fall and amalgamate into the exact nuance that best suited their master’s taste.
The British Army, in the third George’s reign, used 6500 tons of flour for powdering every year.

One of the earliest recordings is of a speech by Gladstone, who stands half-way between ourselves and the eighteenth century. It sounds already like a music hall imitation of a comic clergyman. In the Age of Scandal itself, it seems reasonably certain that people spoke even more slowly, even more oratorically, with even more pauses for mental punctuation between the concessive clauses. They certainly read more slowly.

Another surprise for the producer would have lain in the matter of attitude. For a gentleman in Walpole’s period was judged not only by his accent but also by his department, as if he were a ballet. It was literally true that a gentleman had to move in a stylized way. George III complained that Lord Liverpool’s ‘motions were never very graceful’. The fat Bubb-Doddington, when created Lord Melcombe, was found ‘before a looking glass in his new robes, practising attitudes and debating with himself upon the most graceful mode of carrying his coronet’. (Unfortunately, on being presented to Queen Charlotte, his breeches ‘in the act of kneeling down, forgot their duty, and broke lose from their moorings in a very indecorous manner’.)

Books like The Dancing Master mentioned by M. Delahaute provided ‘the Rules required for walking, saluting and making bows in all kinds of company’, with a chapter entitled ‘How to take off your Hat and replace it’. Frenilly ‘took a month’s course of instruction from the celebrated Petit, at twelve francs a lesson’, in order to learn how to introduce himself to a ‘circle’. ‘It was by no means an inferior science to know how to enter a drawing-room in which some thirty ladies and gentlemen were sitting in a circle round the fire, with both assurance and grace; to penetrate this circle arm to make a slight inclination as you walked round it; to make your way to your hostess, and to retire with dignity and without riffling your fine clothes, for you were dressed in lace, and your hair was dressed in thirty-six curls, all powdered; you were carrying your hat under your arm, your sword reached to your heels, and you were armed with a huge muff, the smallest being two and a half feet wide!’ They moved, said Gronow, ‘with a studied dignity of posture’. The Marquis of Abercorn, though this was more a matter of etiquette than of posture, was ‘stated to have always gone out shooting in his Blue Ribbon, and to have required his housemaids to wear white kid gloves when they made his bed’.

Food and drink, from the enormous quantity in which they were consumed, would have been another of the surprises for a modern mind, and there would have been a hundred lesser reasons to raise the eyebrows. For instance, the people themselves were smaller than we are. ‘The increase in the height of our countrymen’, wrote Miss Hawkins in 1822, ‘attests the superior good sense with which children are now reared.’ ‘From a study of the dresses that do remain’, writes an authority on clothes, ‘we may form the opinion that men and women were on the whole smaller than they are today, the women slighter in build and the men more stocky.’ A Duchess of Rutland must surely have been very slight, when she could compress her waist into the size of an orange and a half.

For the rest, the eye would be taken by scattered curiosities. Peas were correctly eaten with a knife.

The forks had only three prongs. There were no dessert spoons. The games of ombre, piquet, basset, whisk, brag and lanterloo were played with cards whose Kings, Queens and knaves had feet.

Throughout England [wrote the son of the duc de Liancourt in 1784] it is the custom to breakfast together, the meal resembling a dinner or supper in France. The commonest breakfast hour is 9 o’clock and by that time the ladies are fully dressed with their hair properly done for the day. Breakfast consists of tea and bread and butter in various forms. In the houses of the rich you have coffee, chocolate and so on. The morning newspapers are on the table and those who want to do so, read them during breakfast, so that the conversation is not of a lively nature. At 10 o’clock or 10.30 each member of the party goes off on his own pursuit -hunting, fishing or walking. So the day passes till 4 o’clock but at 4 o’clock precisely you must present yourself in the drawing-room with a great deal more ceremony than we are accustomed to in France. This sudden change of social manners is quite astonishing and I was deeply struck by it. In the morning you come down in riding-boots and a shabby coat, you sit where you like, you behave exactly as if you were by yourself, no one takes any notice of you, and itis all extremely comfortable. But in the evening, unless you have just arrived, you must be well-washed and well-groomed. The standard of politeness is uncomfortably high strangers go first into the dining-room and sit near the hostess and are served in seniority in accordance with a rigid etiquette. In fact for the first few days I was tempted to think that it was done for a joke.

Dinner is one of the most wearisome of English experiences, lasting, as it does, for four or five hours. The first two are spent in eating and you are compelled

to exercise your stomach to the full in order to please your host. He asks you the whole time whether you like the food and presses you to eat more, with the result that, out of pure politeness, I do nothing but eat from the time that I sit down until the time when I get up from the table.

The courses are much the same as in France except that the use of sauce is unknown in the English kitchen and that one seldom sees a ragout. All the dishes consist of various meats either boiled or roasted and of joints weighing about twenty or thirty pounds.

After the sweets, you are given water in small bowls of very clean glass in order to rinse out your mouth -a custom which strikes me as extremely unfortunate. The more fashionable folk do not rinse out their mouths, but that seems to me even worse; for if you use the water to wash your hands, it becomes dirty and quite disgusting. This ceremony over, the cloth is removed and you behold the most beautiful table that it is possible to see. It is indeed remarkable that the English are so much given to the use of mahogany; not only are their tables generally made of it, but also their doors and seats and the handrails of their staircases. Yet it is just as dear in England as in France. It is a matter which I do not pretend to understand, but I am inclined to think that the English must be richer than we are; certainly I have myself observed not only that everything costs twice as much here as in France but that the English seize every opportunity to use things which are expensive in themselves. At all events, their tables are made of the most beautiful wood and always have a brilliant polish like that of the finest glass. After the removal of the cloth, the table is covered with all kinds of wine, for even gentlemen of modest means always keep a large stock of good wine. On the middle of the table there is a small quantity of fruit, a few biscuits (to stimulate thirst) and some butter. for many English people take it at dessert.

No comments: