Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 5, June 1836, 2:???-???


[page 457:]


Watkins Tottle, and other Sketches, illustrative of everyday Life, and every-day People. By Boz. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea and Blanchard.

This book is a re-publication from the English original, and many of its sketches are with us, old and highly esteemed acquaintances. In regard to their author we know nothing more than that he is a far more pungent, more witty, and better disciplined writer of sly articles, than nine-tenths of the Magazine writers in Great Britain — which is saying much, it must be allowed, when we consider the great variety of genuine talent, and earnest application brought to bear upon the periodical literature of the mother country.

The very first passage in the volumes before us, will convince any of our friends who are knowing in the requisites of “a good thing,” that we are doing our friend Boz no more than the simplest species of justice. Hearken to what he says of Matrimony and of Mr. Watkins Tottle.

Matrimony is proverbially a serious undertaking. Like an overweening predilection for brandy and water, it is a misfortune into which a man easily falls, and from which he finds it remarkably difficult to extricate himself. It is no use telling a man who is timorous on these points, that it is but one plunge and all is over. They say the same thing at the Old Bailey, and the unfortunate victims derive about as much comfort from the assurance in the one case as in the other. [page 458:]

Mr. Watkins Tottle was a rather uncommon compound of strong uxorious inclinations, and an unparalleled degree of anti-connubial timidity. He was about fifty years of age ; stood four feet six inches and three quarters in his socks — for he never stood in stockings at all — plump, clean and rosy. He looked something like a vignette to one of Richardson's novels, and had it clean cravatish formality of manner, and kitchen-pokerness of carriage, which Sir Charles Grandison himself might have envied. He lived on an annuity, which was well adapted to the individual who received it in one respect — it was rather small. He received it in periodical payments on every alternate Monday; but he ran himself out about a day after the expiration of the first week, as regularly as an eight-day clock, and then, to make the comparison complete, his landlady wound him up, and he went on with a regular tick.

It is not every one who can put “a good thing” properly together, although, perhaps, when thus properly put together, every tenth person you meet with may be capable of both conceiving and appreciating it. We cannot bring ourselves to believe that less actual ability is required in the composition of a really good “brief article,” than in a fashionable novel of the usual dimensions. The novel certainly requires what is denominated a sustained effort — but this is a matter of mere perseverance, and has but a collateral relation to talent. On the other hand — unity of effect, a quality not easily appreciated or indeed comprehended by an ordinary mind, and a desideratum difficult of attainment, even by those who can conceive it — is indispensable in the “brief article,” and not so in the common novel. The latter, if admired at all, is admired for its detached passages, without reference to the work as a whole — or without reference to any general design — which, if it even exist in some measure, will be found to have occupied but little of the writer's attention, and cannot, from the length of the narrative, be taken in at one view, by the reader.

The Sketches by Boz are all exceedingly well managed, and never fail to tell as the author intended. They are entitled, Passage in the Life of Mr. Watkins Tottle — The Black Veil — Shabby Genteel People — Horatio Sparkins — The Pawnbroker's Shop — The Dancing Academy — Early Coaches — The River — Private Theatres — The Great Winglebury Duel — Omnibuses — Mrs. Joseph Porter — The Steam Excursion — Sentiment — The Parish — Miss Evans and the Eagle — Shops and their Tenants — Thoughts about People — A Visit to Newgate — London Recreations — The Boarding-House — Hackney-Coach Stands — Brokers and Marine Store-Shops — The Bloomsbury Christening — Gin Shops — Public Dinners — Astley's — Greenwich Fair — The Prisoner's Van — and A Christmas Dinner. The reader who has been so fortunate as to have perused any one of these pieces, will be fully aware of how great a fund of racy entertainment is included in the Bill of Fare we have given. There are here some as well conceived and well written papers as can be found in any other collection of the kind — many of them we would especially recommend, as a study, to those who turn their attention to Magazine writing — a department in which, generally, the English as far excel us as Hyperion a Satyr.

The Black Veil, in the present series, is distinct in character from all the rest — an act of stirring tragedy, and evincing lofty powers in the writer. Broad humor is, however, the prevailing feature of the volumes. The Dancing Academy is a vivid sketch of Cockney low life, which may probably be considered as somewhat too outré by those who have no experience in the matter. Watkins Tottle is excellent. We should like very much to copy the whole of the article entitled Pawnbrokers’ Shops, with a view of contrasting its matter and manner with the insipidity of the passage we have just quoted on the same subject from the “Ups and Downs” of Colonel Stone, and by way of illustrate; our remarks on the unity of effect — but this would, perhaps, be giving too much of a good thing. It will u seen by those who peruse both these articles, that in list of the American, two or three anecdotes are told which have merely a relation — a very shadowy relation, to pawn-broking — in short, they are barely elicited by this theme, have no necessary dependence upon it, and might be introduced equally well in connection with art one of a million other subjects. In the sketch of the Enrlishman we have no anecdotes at all — the Pawnbroker's Shop engages and enchains our attention — we are developed in its atmosphere of wretchedness arid eration — we pause at every sentence, not to dwell upon the sentence, but to obtain a fuller view of the gradualiv perfecting picture — which is never at any momentary other matter than the Paicnbroker's Shop. To the illustration of this one end all the groupings and fillings in of the painting are rendered subservient — and when our eyes are taken from the canvass, we remember the personages of the sketch not at all as independent existences, but as essentials of the one subject we hare witnessed — as a part and portion of the Pawnbroker's Shop. So perfect, and never-to-be-forgotten a picture cannot be brought about by any such trumpery exertion, or still more trumpery talent, as we find employed in the ineffective daubing of Colonel Stone. The scratching at a schoolboy with a slate-pencil on a slate might as well be compared to the groupings of Buonarotti.

We conclude by strongly recommending the Sketches of Boz to the attention of American readers, and by copying the whole of his article on Gin Shops.

It is a very remarkable circumstance, that different trades appear to partake of the disease to which elephants and dogs are especially liable; and m run start, staring, raving mad, periodically. The greatdisimelion between the animals and the trades is, that the lornier run mad with a certain degree of propriety — theyart very regular in their irregularities. You know the F.riod at which the emergency will arise, and provide against it accordingly. If an elephant run mad, you are all ready for him — kill or cure — pills or bullets — calomel in conserve of roses, or lead in a musket barrel. If a dog happen to look unpleasantly warm in the summer months, and to trot about the shady side of the streets with a quarter of a yard of tongue hanging out of his mouth, a thick leather muzzle, which has been previously prepared in compliance with the thoughtful injunction of the Legislature, is instantly clapped over his head, by way of making him cooler, and he either looks remarkably unhappy for the next six weeks, or becomes legally insane, and goes mad, as it were, by act of Parliament. But these trades are as eccentric as comets; nay, worse; for no one can calculate on the recurrence of the strange appearances which betokea the disease: moreover, the contagion is general, and the quickness with which it diffuses itself almost incredible

We will cite two or three cases in illustration of our meaning. Six or eight years ago the epidemic leg” to display itself among the linen-drapers and haberdashers The primary symptoms were, an inordinate love of plate-glass, and a passion for gas-lights and gilding. [page 459:] The disease gradually progressed, and at last attained a fearful height. Quiet, dusty old shops, in different parts of town, were pulled down; spacious premises, with stuccoed fronts and gold letters, were erected instead; floors were covered with Turkey carpets, roofs supported by massive pillars, doors knocked into windows, a dozen squares of glass into one, one slwpnun into a dozen, — and there is no knowing what would have been done, if it had not been fortunately discovered, just in time, that the Commissioners of Bankrupts were as competent to decide such cases as the Commissioners of Lunacy, and that a little confinement and gentle examination did wonders. The disease abated; it died away; and a year or two of comparative tranquillity ensued. Suddenly it burst out again among the chemists; the symptoms were the same, witli the addition of a strong desire to stick the royal arms over the shop-door, and a great rage for mahogany, varnish, and expensive floor-cloth: then the hosiers were infected, and began to pull down their shop-fronts with frantic recklessness. The mania again died away, and the public began to congratulate themselves upon its entire disappearance, when it burst forth with ten-fold violence among the publicans and keepers of “wine vaults.” From that moment it has spread among them with unprecedented rapidity, exhibiting a concatenation of all the previous symptoms; and onward it has rushed to every part of town, knocking down all the old public-houses, and depositing splendid mansions, stone balustrades, rosewood fittings, immense lamps, and illuminated clocks, at the corner of every street.

The extensive scale on which these places are established, and the ostentatious manner in which the business of even the smallest among them is divided into branches, is most amusing. A handsome plate of ground glass in one door directs you “To the Counting-house;” another to the “Bottle Department;” a third, to the “Wholesale Department;” a fourth, to “The Wine Promenade,” and so forth, until we are in daily expectation of meeting with a “Brandy Bell,’’ or a “Whiskey E’ trance” Then ingenuity is exhausted in devising attractive titles for the different descriptions of gin; and the dram-drinking portion of the community, as they gaze upon the gigantic white and black announcements, which are only to be equalled in size by the figures beneath them, are left in a state of pleasing hesitation between “The Cream of the Valley,” “The Out and Out,” “The No Mistake,” “The Good for Mixing,” ’’The real knock-me-down,” “The celebrated Butter Gin,” “The regular Flare-up,” and a dozen other equally inviting and wholesome liqueurs. Although places of this description are to be met with in every second street, they are invariably numerous and splendid in precise proportion to the dirt and poverty of the surrounding neighborhood. The gin-shops in and near Drury-lane, Holborn, St. Giles’, Covent Garden, and Clare-market, are the handsomest in London — there is more filth and squalid misery near those great thorough-fares than in my part of this mighty city.

We will endeavor to sketch the bar of a large gin-shop, and its ordinary customers, for the edification of such of our readers as may not have had opportunities of observing such scenes; and on the chance of finding one well suited to our purpose, we will make for Drurylane, through the narrow streets and dirty courts which divide it from Oxford-street, and that classical spot adding the brewery at the bottom of Toltenham-court-road, best known to the initiated as the “Rookery.” The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London can hardly be imagined by those (and there are many such) who have not witnessed it. Wretched houses, with broken windows patched with rags and paper, every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two, or even three: fruit and “sweet on” manufacturers in the cellars; barbers and reding venders in the front parlors; cobblers in the back; a bird-fancier in the first floor, three families on the second; starvation in the attics; Irishmen in the [column ?:] passage; a “musician” in the front kitchen, and a charwoman and five hungry children in the back one — filth every where — a gutter before the houses and a drain behind them — clothes drying at the windows, slops emptying from the ditto; girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walking about bare-footed, and in old white great coats, almost their only covering; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes, and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging about, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.

You turn the corner. What a change! All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosetts, and its profusion of gaslights in richly gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left. The interior is even gayer than the exterior. A bar of French-polished mahogany, elegantly carved, extends the whole width of the place; and there are two side-aisles of great casks, painted green and gold, inclosed within a light brass rail, and bearing such inscriptions as “Old Tom, 549;” “Young Tom, 360;” “Samson, 1421.” Behind the bar is a lofty and spacious saloon, full of the same enticing vessels, with a gallery running round it, equally well furnished. On the counter, in addition to the usual spirit apparatus, are two or three little baskets of cakes and biscuits, which are carefully secured at the top with wicker-work, to prevent their contents being unlawfully abstracted. Behind it are two showily-dressed damsels with large necklaces, dispensing the spirits and “compounds.” They are assisted by the ostensible proprietor of the concern, a stout, coarse fellow in a fur cap, put on very much on one side to give him a knowing air, and display his sandy whiskers to the best advantage.

Look at the groups of customers, and observe the different air with which they call for what they want, as they are more or less struck by the grandeur of the establishment. The two old washerwomen, who are seated on the little bench to the left of the bar, are rather overcome by the head-dresses, and haughty demeanor of the young ladies who officiate; and receive their half quartern of gin-and-pepperminl with considerable deference, prefacing a request for “one of them soft biscuits,” with a “Just be gooil enough, ma’am,” &c. They are quite astonished at the impudent air of the young fellow in the brown coat and white buttons, who, ushering in his two companions, and walking up to the bar in as careless a manner as if he had been used to green and gold ornaments all his life, winks at one of the young ladies with singular coolness, and calls for a “kervorten and a three-out-glass,” just as if the place were his own. “Gin for you, sir,” says the young lady when she has drawn it, carefully looking every way but the right one to show that the wink had no effect upon her. “For me, Mary, my dear,” replies the gentleman in brown. “My name ain’t Mary as it happens,” says she young girl, in a most insinuating manner, as she delivers the change. “Veil, if it an’t, it ought to be,” responds the irresistible one; “all the Marys as ever 1 see was handsome gals.” Here the young lady, not precisely remembering how blushes are managed in such cases, abruptly ends the flirtation by addressing the female in the faded feathers who had just entered, and who, after stating explicitly, to prevent any subsequent misunderstanding that “this gentleman” pays, calls for “a glass of port Wine and a bit of sugar,” the drinking which, and sipping another, accompanied bv sundry whisperings to her companion, and no small quantity of giggling, occupies a considerable time.

Observe the group on the other side: those two old men who came in “just to have a dram,” finished their third quartern a few seconds ago; they have made themselves crying drunk, and the fat, comfortable looking [page 460:] elderly women, who had “a glass of rum-srub” each, having chimed in with their complaints on the hardness of the times, one of the women has agreed to stand a glass round, jocularly observing that “grid never mended no broken bones, and as good people's wery scarce, what I says is, make the most on ’em, and that's all about;”a sentiment which appears to afford unlimited satisfaction to those who have nothing to pay.

It is growing late, and the throng of men, women, and children, who have been constantly going in and out, dwindles down to twp or three occasional stragglers — cold wretched-looking creatures, in the last stage of emaciation and disease. The knot of Irish laborers at the lower end of the place, who have been alternately shaking hands with, and threatening the life of, each other for the last hour, become furious in their disputes; and finding it impossible to silence one man, who is particularly anxious to adjust the difference, they resort to the infallible expedient of knocking him down and jumping on him afterwards. Out rush the man in the fur cap, and the pot-boy: a scene of riot and confusion ensues; half the Irishmen get shut out, and the other half get shut in: the pot-boy is knocked in among the tubs in no time; the landlord hits every body, and every body hits the landlord; the bar-maids scream; in come the police, and the rest is a confused mixture of firms, legs, staves, torn coats, shouting and struggling. Some of the party are borne off to the station-house, and the remainder slink home to beat their wives for complaining, and kick the children for daring to be hungry.

We have sketched this subject very lightly, not only because our limits compel us to do so, but because, if it were pursued further, it would be painful and repulsive. Well-disposed gentlemen and charitable ladies would alike turn with coldness and disgust from a description of the drunken, besotted men, and wretched, brokendown, miserable women, who form no inconsiderable portion of the frequenters of these haunts; forgetting, in the pleasant consciousness of their own high rectitude, the poverty of the one, and the temptation of the other. Gin-drinking is a great vice in England, but poverty is a greater; and until you can cure it, or persuade a half-famished wretch not to seek relief in the temporary oblivion of his own misery, with the pittance which, divided among his family, would just furnish a morsel of bread for each, gin-shops will increase in number and splendor. If Temperance Societies could suggest an antidote against hunger and distress, or establish dispensaries for the gratuitous distribution of bottles of Lethe-water, gin-palaces would be numbered among the things that were. Until then, their decrease may be despaired of.





[S:0 - SLM, 1836] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (June 1836)