Piccadilly: A Fragment of Contemporary Biography
A FRAGMENT OF CONTEMPORARY BIOGRAPHY
BY LAURENCE OLIPHANT
WITH EIGHT ILLUSTRATIONS BY RICHARD DOYLE
WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS
EDINBURGH AND LONDON
This Work originally appeared in 'Blackwood's Magazine,'and has been since revised and altered by the Author.
And some in—Piccadilly."
"Faithful.—'I say, then, in answer to what Mr Envy hathspoken, I never said aught but this, That what rule, or laws,or customs, or people, were flat against the Word of God, arediametrically opposed to Christianity. If I have said amiss inthis, convince me of my error, and I am ready here, before youall, to make my recantation.'"—Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress.'
Five years have elapsed since the following pages were penned, andperiodically issued, under an impulse which seemed at the timeirresistible. I found myself unable, by any conscious act of volition,to control either the plot or the style. Nor from my present point ofview do I particularly admire either the one or the other. At the sametime, I have reason to hope that the republication of this sketch now,with all its defects, is calculated to do more good than harm to thesociety it attempts to delineate.
This conviction must be my apology for again forcing upon the public afragment so hostile to it in tone and spirit. I would reiterate theobservation made elsewhere in the work, that none of the characters areintended to represent any members of society who were then, or are now,alive.
In a window, a few doors from Cambridge House, the following placardsome time since invited, apparently without much effect, the notice ofthe passers-by,—"To let, this desirable family mansion," After aconsiderable period the "desirable family" seem to have been given up indespair, and the words vanished from the scene; but the board in thewindow, beginning "to let" remained, while the "mansion" itself wasconverted upon it into "unfurnished chambers."
As, in the words of that "humble companion," whose life was rendered aburden to her by my poor dear mother, "Money was not so much an objectas a comfortable home," I did not hesitate to instal myself in the firstfloor, which possessed the advantage of a bay-window, with a double sashto keep out the noise, together with an extensive view of Green Park,and a sailor without legs perpetually drawing ships upon the oppositepavement, as a foreground. My friend Lord Grandon, who is an Irish peerwith a limited income, took the floor above, as I was desirous ofsecuring myself against thumping overhead; moreover, I am extremely fondof him. When I say that the position which I enjoy socially, is as welladapted for seeing life as the locality I selected for my residence,most of my more fashionable readers will intuitively discover who I am;fortunately, I have no cause to desire to maintain an incognito whichwould be impossible, though, perhaps, I ought to explain the motiveswhich induce me now to bring myself even more prominently before thepublic than I have been in the habit of doing.
Sitting in my bay-window the other evening, and reading the 'History ofCivilisation,' by my late lamented friend Mr Buckle, it occurred to methat I also would write a history of civilisation—after having seen theworld, instead of before doing so, as was the case with that giftedphilosopher. Having for many years past devoted myself to the study ofmy fellow-men in all countries, I thought the time had come when Icould, with profit to myself and the world, give it the benefit of myextended experience and my quick observation. No sooner had I arrived atthis determination, than with characteristic promptitude I proceeded toput it into execution; and singular though it may appear, it was notuntil then that I found myself quite incompetent to carry out the vastproject I had undertaken. The reason was at once apparent—I had seenand thought too much; and was in the position which my predecessor hadfailed to reach, of experimentally discovering that the task was beyondthe human power of accomplishment. Not easily vanquished, I then thoughtof subdividing it, and dealing exclusively with a single branch ofcivilisation. Mr Thomas Taylor Meadows, thought I, has written a veryelaborate chapter upon the progress of civilisation as regarded from aChinese point of view, why should not I look upon it from a purelyPiccadillean?—so I immediately looked at it. The hour 11 P.M.; a longstring of carriages advancing under my windows to Lady Palmerston's;rain pelting; horses with ears pressed back, wincing under the storm;coachmen and footmen presenting the crowns of their hats to it; streamsrunning down their waterproofs, and causing them to glitter in thegaslight; now and then the flash of a jewel inside the carriages;nothing visible of the occupants but flounces surging up at the windows,as if they were made of some delicious creamy substance, and were goingto overflow into the street; policemen in large capes, and if I may beallowed the expression, "helmetically" sealed from the wet, keepingorder; draggled women on foot "moving" rapidly on. The fine ladies intheir carriages moving on too—but not quite so fast.
This Piccadillean view of the progress of civilisation suggested to memany serious reflections; among others, that if I intended to go toCambridge House myself, the sooner I went to dress the better. Which wayare we moving? I mused, as I made the smallest of white bows immediatelyover a pearl stud in my neck. I gave up the "history" of civilisation. Icertainly can't call it "the progress" of civilisation; that does allvery well for Pekin, not for London. Shall I do the Gibbon business, andcall it "the decline and fall" of civilisation?—and I absently thrusttwo right-hand gloves into my pocket by mistake, and scrambling acrossthe wet pavement into my brougham, drove in it the length of the fileand arrived before I had settled this important question.
While Lady Veriphast, having planted me en tÍte-ŗ-tÍte in a remotecorner, was entertaining me with her accustomed vivacity, I am consciousof having gazed into those large swimming eyes with a vacant stare soutterly at variance with my usual animated expression, that she said atlast, rather pettishly, "What are you thinking about?"
"Civilisation," I said, abruptly.
"You mean Conventionalism," she replied; "have you come to theconclusion, as I have, that all conventionalism is vanity?"
"No; only that it is 'vexation of spirit;' that is the part that belongsto us—we leave the 'vanity' to the women."
"Dear me, I never heard you so solemn and profound before. Are you inlove?"
"No," I said; "I am thinking of writing a book, but I don't see my way toit."
"And the subject is the Conventionalism which you call civilisation.Well, I don't wonder at your looking vacant. You are not quite up to it,Lord Frank. Why don't you write a novel?"
"My imagination is too vivid, and would run away with me."
"Nothing else would," she said, laughing; "but if you don't likefiction, you can always fall back upon fact; be the hero of your ownromance, publish your diary, and call it 'The Experiences of a Productof the Highest State of Civilisation.' Thus you will be able to writeabout civilisation and yourself at the same time, which I am sure youwill like. I want some tea, please; do you know you are rather dullto-night?" And Lady Veriphast walked me into the middle of the crowd,and abandoned me abruptly for somebody else, with whom she returned toher corner, and I went and had tea by myself.
But Lady Veriphast had put me on the right track: why, I thought as Iscrambled back again from my brougham across the wet pavement to mybay-window, should I not begin at once to write about the civilisationof the day? 'The Civilisation of the British Isles, as exhibited inPiccadilly, a Fragment of Contemporaneous Biography,' that would not bea bad title; people would think, if I called it a biography, it must betrue; here I squared my elbows before a quantity of foolscap, dipped mypen in the ink, and dashed off the introduction as above.
Next morning I got up and began again as follows: Why should I committhe ridiculous error of supposing that the incidents of my daily lifeare not likely to interest the world at large? Whether I read the diaryof Mr Pepys, or of Lady Morgan—whether I wade through the Journal of MrEvelyn, or pleasantly while away an hour with the memoirs of "a Lady ofQuality," I am equally struck with this traditional practice of thebores and the wits of society, to write at length the records of theirdaily life, bottle them carefully up in a series of MS. volumes, andleave them to their grandchildren to publish, and to posterity tocriticise. Now it has always appeared to me that the whole fun ofwriting was to watch the immediate effect produced by one's own literarygenius. If, in addition to this, it is possible to interest the publicin the current events of one's life, what nobler object of ambitioncould a man propose to himself? Thus, though the circle of my personalacquaintances may not be increased, I shall feel my sympathies arebecoming enlarged with each succeeding mark of confidence I bestow uponthe numerous readers to whom I will recount the most intimate relationsof my life. I will tell them of my aspirations and my failures—of myhopes and fears, of my friends and my enemies. I shall not shrink fromalluding to the state of my affections; and if the still unfulfilledstory of my life becomes involved with the destiny of others, andentangles itself in an inextricable manner, that is no concern of mine.I shall do nothing to be ashamed of, or that I can't tell; and if truthturn out stranger than fiction, so much the better for my readers. Itmay be that I shall become the hero of a sensation episode in real life,for the future looks vague and complicated enough; but it is much betterto make the world my friend before anything serious occurs, than allowposterity to misjudge my conduct when I am no longer alive to explainit. Now, at least, I have the satisfaction of knowing that whateverhappens I shall give my version of the story first. Should the dailytenor of my life be undisturbed, I can always fall back upon theexciting character of my opinions.
As I write, the magnitude of the task I propose to myself assumes stilllarger proportions. I yearn to develop in the world at large thoseorgans of conscientiousness and benevolence which we all possess but sofew exercise. I invoke the cooperation of my readers in this great work:I implore them to accompany me step by step in the crusade which I amabout to preach in favour of the sacrifice of self for the public good.I demand their sympathy in this monthly record of my trials as anuncompromising exponent of the motives of the day, and I claim theirtender solicitude should I writhe, crushed and mangled by the iron handof a social tyranny dexterously concealed in its velvet glove. I willbegin my efforts at reform with the Church; I may then possibly divergeto the Legislature, and I will mix in the highest circles of society inthe spirit of a missionary. I will endeavour to show everybody up toeverybody else in the spirit of love; and if they end by quarrellingwith each other and with me, I shall at least have the satisfaction offeeling myself divested of all further responsibility in the matter. Inmy present frame of mind apathy would be culpable and weakness acrime....
Candour compels me to state that when, as I told Lady Veriphast, myimagination becomes heated, my pen travels with a velocity which failsto convey any adequate impression of the seething thoughts which coursethrough