Eighth Note: G.W.M. Reynolds And Pierce Egan, Casual Reference

November 15, 2020

Eighth Note: G.W.M. Reynolds And Pierce Egan, Casual Reference


R.E. Prindle

In George’s first excursion into the novelist’s art, The Youthful Impostor (1832, 1835) he heads Chapter VI with this poem, that goes:

Houses, churches mix’d together,

Streets unpleasant in all weathers,

Prisons, palaces contiguous,

Gates, a bridge, the Thames irriguous,

Gaudy, cheap enough to tempt ye,

Showy outside, insides empty,

Bubbles, trades, mechanic arts,

Coaches, wheelbarrows, and carts;

This is London, how do ye like it?

George attributes this to Description of London.  Elegant Extracts.

For those thoroughly well read no discussion of Elegant Extracts is needed, but for those of us being regularly exposed to exciting discoveries let me say that George was opening the door to then what was very popular at the time.

Elegant Extracts, is just that, a collection of poems by one Vicesimus Knox first published in 1789.  I was able to acquire an 1826 copy for a very reasonable price.

Pierce Egan also published the full text of Description of London in his very interesting volume, Real Life In London, or, the Rambles and Adventures of Bob Tallyho, Esq. and his Cousin, the Hon. Tom Dashall as a head to chapter VIII 1821-22, unattributed.

Egan would have been a writer after George’s heart as he writes as a Man About Town with the sensibility of The Man Of The World.  George wanted to be thought of as a Man Of The World but doesn’t appear to have too keen on being considered a Man About Town.

I copy the full text of Description Of London from Egan’s Real Life In London.  The original in Elegant Extracts obviously describes the appearance of London in late eighteenth century London.  The description of London also applies with small changes to the London of 1826 when George entered Sandhurst Military Academy and was first acquainted as a country boy with the spectacle of London.  So at twelve or thirteen his mind was blown by what must have been unbelievable to him—the squalor and glory of the big city.

Life in London From Egan’s Real Life

Houses, churches mix’d together,

Streets unpleasant to all weather,

Prisons, palaces contiguous;

Gaudy things, enough to tempt ye,

Showy outsides, insides empty:

Bubbles, trades, mechanic arts:

Warrants, bailiffs, bills unpaid:

Rogues, that nightly rob and shoot men.

Hang men, aldermen, foot men:

Lawyers, poets, priests, physicians,

Noble, simple, all conditions,

Worth beneath a thread bare cover,

Villainy bedaubed all over:

Women, black, red, fair and grey,

Prudes, and such as never pray:

Handsome, ugly, noisy, still;

Some that will not, some that will:

Many a beau without a shilling’

Many a widow not unwilling;

Many a bargain, if you strike it:–

This is London- How do ye like it?

There, the two works Real Life In London and the Mysteries of London in a nutshell.  The whole story.  Real Life as a sort of social treatise but still exciting reading, especially as one’s knowledge of Reynold’s London gives added depth and meaning.

The poem Description of London resonates with my own first view of London c. 1974.  Of course I didn’t come from the provinces being a city boy from the US and having seen both sides of the Big City, East and West Coast.  I’m not bragging, it’s just understood…  London was a far cry from the City of Angels.

Not reading very accurately in my younger days with literary vision I created a dreamland, although Joyce Cary’s two twentieth century trilogies, himself returning from a long residence in Africa, presented a grim image fully justified by my own experience.

I was shocked, dismayed and sickened as my image of London crumbled in my mind.  This was not the Disneyland of my imagination; this was Philadelphia.  Oh my god, the horrors of Philadelphia at eighteen, the South side, one long huge slum and here in London as the taxi rolled slowly along the narrow streets in dense traffic through endless dilapidation.  London was only redeemed by its fabulous book stores.  Searching them out was no easy task either.  If I could afford the books would I be able to afford the shipping.

I can imagine George when he came back from Paris after a five year hiatus.  What horrors he must have experienced, broke, even bankrupt, coming the City of Light to the City of Darkness.  George loved Paris; he loved the French, preferred French sophistication and humanity to that of London.  All of his comparisons of London to Paris are negative and this was before Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann had modernized the city and tore down its endless slums in the 1860s.

Had I never seen life in London, I avoided Real Life in London, I could never have appreciated Reynolds’ writing as I do.  Quite extraordinary stuff and dozens of works to give full expression to his equally extraordinary mind.  Volume by volume he creates a three dimensional picture of the London and England he saw and knew.

In a period of extraordinary writers, and the post-1830 revolution writer both in England and France are truly extra-ordinary.  There is a certain quality of mind that almost universally existed that I have found no where else in literature.

Of course George remained au courant with the writers of his time.  Pierce Egan was a major influence as we will discover as we go on.  The Journey is just begun.

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