CHAPTER XXIX

The English People

1756-89

I. ENGLISH WAYS

SO much for the government; let us now consider the people. First, look at their figures. Doubtless Reynolds idealized them, showing us mostly the titled fortunate, and glorifying their corpulence with the robes and insignia of dignity. But hear Goethe on the Englishmen he saw in Weimar: “What fine, handsome people they are!”—and he worried lest these confident young Britishers, bearing empire in their stride, would disenchant German girls with German men.1 Several of these youths kept their figures into later years, but many of them, as they passed from the playgrounds of their schools to the pleasures of the table, swelled in paunch and jowls, blossomed like a red, red rose, and fought in the still of the night the gout they had fed in the jovial day. Some Elizabethan robustness had been lost in Restoration roistering. English women, by contrast, were more beautiful than ever, at least on the easels: refined features, flowered and ribboned hair, mysteries in silk, poems of stately grace.

Sartorial class distinctions were disappearing on the streets as a new plenty of cotton clothing issued from the multiplying mills, but on formal occasions they remained; Lord Derwentwater rode to his execution in a scarlet coat and waistcoat laced with gold.2Wigs were waning, and they vanished when Pitt II taxed the powder that deodorized them; they survived on doctors, judges, barristers, and Samuel Johnson; most men were now content with their own hair, gathered at the back of the neck in a ribboned queue. About 1785 some men extended their breeches from knees to calves; in 1793, inspired by the triumphant French sans-culottes, they let them reach the ankle, and modern man was born. Women still laced their bosoms to the verge of suffocation, but the hoopskirt was losing fashion and breadth, and dresses were assuming those flowing lines that fascinated our youth.

Cleanliness was next to godliness in rarity, for water was a luxury. Rivers were lovely but usually polluted; the Thames was a drainage canal.3 Most London houses had water piped into them three times a week for three shillings per quarter;4 some had mechanical toilets; a few had bathrooms with running water. Most privies (whose current name was “Jerichos”) were extramural, built over open pits that sent their seepage through the soil to wells from which much of the drinking water came.5 Nevertheless public sanitation was improving; hospitals were multiplying; infantile mortality fell from seventy-four per hundred births in 1749 to forty-one in 1809.6

No one drank water if he could get something safer. Beer was considered a food, necessary for any vigorous work; wine was a favorite medicine, whiskey was a portable stove, and drunkenness was a venial sin, if not a necessary part of social conformity. “I remember,” said Dr. Johnson, “when all the decent people in Lichfield got drunk every night, and were not the worse thought of.”7 Pitt II came drunk to the House of Commons, and Lord Cornwallis went drunk to the opera.8 Some hackney coachmen added to their incomes by cruising the streets at late hours, picking up gentlemen who were “as drunk as a lord,” and delivering them to their homes. Drunkenness declined as the century advanced; tea took up some of the task of warming the vitals and loosing the tongue. Tea imports rose from a hundred pounds in 1668 to fourteen million pounds in 1786.9 The coffeehouses now served more tea than coffee.

Meals were hearty, bloody, and immense. Dinner came about four in the afternoon for the upper classes, and was progressively deferred till six as the century declined. A hurried man might ease his hunger with a sandwich. This contraption took its name from the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who, not to interrupt his gambling with dinner, ate two slices of bread divided by meat. Vegetables were eaten under protest. “Smoking has gone out [of fashion],” Johnson told Boswell in 1773; but tobacco was taken in the form of snuff. Opium was widely used as a sedative or a cure.

At table the Englishman could drink himself into loquacity, and then the conversation might rival that of the Paris salons in wit and excel it in substance. One day (April 9, 1778), as Johnson, Gibbon, Boswell, Allan Ramsay, and other friends gathered in the home of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Doctor remarked: “I question if in Paris such a company as is sitting around this table could be got together in less than half a year.”10 Aristocratic gatherings preferred wit to learning, and Selwyn to Johnson. George Selwyn was the Oscar Wilde of the eighteenth century. He had been expelled from Oxford (1745) because “he did impiously affect to personate the Blessed Saviour, and did ridicule the institution of the Holy Sacrament,”11 but this did not prevent him from getting several lucrative sinecures in the administration, or from sitting and sleeping in the House of Commons from 1747 to 1780. He had a host of friends, but never married. He had a passion for executions, but skipped that of a namesake of Charles James Fox, a political enemy for whom he hopefully awaited a Tyburn elevation—“I make a point of never attending rehearsals.”12 He and Horace Walpole were intimate friends for sixty-three years, without a cloud or a woman between them.

Those who did not enjoy executions could choose among a hundred other amusements, from whist or bird-watching to horse races or prize fights. Cricket was now the national game. The poor squandered their wages in taverns, the rich gambled their fortunes in clubs or in private homes; so Walpole, at Lady Hertford’s, “lost fifty-six guineas before I could say an Ave Maria.”13 James Gillray, in famous caricatures, called such hostesses “Faro’s daughters.”14 To take losses calmly was a prime requisite of an English gentleman, even if he ended by blowing out his brains.

It was a man’s world,“ legally, socially, and morally. Men took most of their social pleasures with other men; not till 1770 was a club organized for bisexual membership. Men discouraged intellect in women, and then complained that women were incapable of intellectual conversation. Some women, nevertheless, managed to develop intellects. Mrs. Elizabeth Carter learned to speak Latin, French, Italian, and German, studied Hebrew, Portuguese, and Arabic, and translated Epictetus with a Greek scholarship that drew Johnson’s praise. She protested against the reluctance of men to discuss ideas with women, and she was one of those ladies who made the “bluestockings” the talk of literate London.

The name was first given to the mixed gatherings at the home of Mrs. Elizabeth Vesey in Hertford Street, Mayfair. At these evening assemblies card playing was banned and discussion of literature was encouraged. Meeting, one day, Benjamin Stillingfleet, who had a momentary reputation as poet, botanist, and philosopher, Mrs. Vesey invited him to her next “rout.” He excused himself on the ground that he had no clothes fit for a party. He was wearing blue hose. “Don’t mind dress,” she told him; “come in your blue stockings.” He came. “Such was the excellence of his conversation,” Boswell relates, “that … it used to be said, ‘we do nothing without the blue stockings’; and thus by degrees the title was established,”15 and Mrs. Vesey’s group came to be called the Bas Bleu Society. There came Garrick and Walpole, and there one evening Johnson awed all with pontifical discourse.

But “the Queen of the Blues,” as Johnson called her, was Elizabeth Robinson Montagu. She was married to Edward Montagu, grandson of the first Earl of Sandwich and relative of Edward Wortley Montagu, husband of the volatile Lady Mary whom we celebrated in pages gone by.16 Elizabeth was a wit, a scholar, an author; her essay The Writings and Genius of Shakespeare (1769) indignantly defended the national bard against the strictures of Voltaire. She was rich, and could afford to entertain in style. She made the Chinese Room in her Berkeley Square home the favorite center of London’s intellect and beauty; there came Reynolds, Johnson, Burke, Goldsmith, Garrick, Horace Walpole, Fanny Burney, Hannah More; there artists met lawyers, prelates met philosophers, poets met ambassadors. Mrs. Montagu’s “excellent cook” put them all in good humor, but no liquor was served, and intoxication was taboo. She played Maecenas to budding authors, and scattered bounty. Other London ladies—Mrs. Thrale, Mrs. Boscawen, Mrs. Monckton—opened their homes to talent and charm. London society became bisexual, and began to rival Paris in the fame and genius of its salons.

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