One of my prize possessions is a falling-to-pieces copy of Pierce Egan’s Life in London: or, The day and night scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their rambles and sprees through the metropolis. It’s beautifully illustrated by George &Robert Cruikshank. Issued in shilling numbers starting in July 1821, it was hugely popular and remained so into the 20th century.
Basically, it’s a book about Men Behaving Badly.
One of the more famous of its illustrations is TOM GETTING THE BEST OF A CHARLEY. Yes, this was a Regency “gentleman’s” idea of fun:
Tom had the CHARLEY in his box down in an instant. HAWTHORNE laughed immoderately at the dexterity of TOM…Indeed it is totally impossible under such circumstances, for a Charley to extricate himself, without the assistance of some of his brother “guardians of the night.” The noise made by the watchman to get out of his box broke in upon the ears of another old scout, across the road, who, half asleep and without knowing what was the matter, sprang his rattle for assistance. “Let us be off,” said TOM; “it won’t do to remain her any longer.” The two Cyprians,* in the most tender and persuasive manner, now endeavoured to gammon JERRY and the CORINTHIAN up Shire Lane to a place of safety, as they termed it. “No,” replied TOM, “I rather think not! Your house, I am afraid, is not insured; but, I must admit, your policy is not a bad one neither!”
As the excerpt demonstrates, it’s written in the arch style favored at the time, it’s loaded with incomprehensible slang and obscure puns, and there’s no obvious rhyme or reason to the italics.
Yet the picture it offers of men of the era helps us understand why Conan Doyle, in Rodney Stone, described a character thusly: “He was a type and leader of a strange breed of men which has vanished away from England--the full-blooded, virile buck, exquisite in his dress, narrow in his thoughts, coarse in his amusements, and eccentric in his habits.” This isn’t Mr. Darcy by a long shot, and while I don’t doubt that Jane Austen’s hero had his counterparts, I suspect the Corinthian Tom type was easier to find in real life. Certainly the strong Victorian reaction against the type tells us that such men were far from rare.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.