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Thackeray's London

A house in a highly respectable square, where Jeames Yellowplush was in service, had recently the fame of being haunted. No one knew exactly what haunted this desirable mansion, or how, though a novelist was understood to have supplied a satisfactory legend. The young man who "investigated" the ghost rang the bell thrice violently, and then fell down dead, nor could he in any wise satisfy the curiosity of his friends. That fable is exploded. It was what is called an "aetiological myth;" by the learned it was merely a story devised to account for the fact that the house was not occupied. The imagination of man, confronted by so strange a problem as money running to waste, took refuge in the supernatural. Much more truly haunted than the house in "Buckley Square" are the streets of London which are tenanted by the ghosts that genius created. These, having never been born, can never die, and still we may meet them in the roads and squares where they lived and took their pastime. Mr. Rideing, an American author, has published (with Messrs. Jarvis and Son) a little volume called "Thackeray's London," an account of the places which that great novelist made household words, and filled with genial spectres that time can never lay. Mr. Rideing's little book does not strike us as being quite complete. Surely Thackeray, especially in the "Ballads," mentions many places not alluded to by the new topographer. Besides, Mr. Rideing says that Thackeray's readers forget the localities in which his characters appear. Surely this is a calumny on human memory. Who but thinks of Becky Sharp as he trudges down Curzon Street? Has Bryanston Square properly any reason for existence, except that the Hobson Newcomes dwelt there? Are the chambers of Captain Costigan forgotten by the memory of any man, or those of Pen and George Warrington? But Pen took better rooms, not so lofty, when he scored that success with "Walter Lorraine." Where did Mr. Bowes, the hopeless admirer of the Fotheringay, dwell? Every one should know, but that question might puzzle some. Or where was the lair of the Mulligan? Like the grave of Arthur, or of Moliere, it is unknown; the whole of the postal district known as W. is haunted by that tremendous shade. "I live there," says he, pointing down towards Uxbridge with the big stick he carries; so his abode is in that direction, at any rate. No more has been given to man to know.

Many minor reminiscences occur to the mind. In Pump Court we encounter the brisk little spectre of Mr. Frederick Minchin, and who can forget that his club was The Oxford and Cambridge, than which what better could he desire? Mr. Thackeray himself was a member of The Garrick, The Athenaeum, and The Reform, but the clubs of many of his characters, like the "buth" of Jeames Yellowplush, are "wrapped up in a mistry." They are alluded to by fancy names, but the scholiast on Thackeray will probably be able to identify them. Is it not time, by the way, for that scholiast to give his labours to the public? Thackeray's world is passing; the children he knew, the boys he tipped and took to the play, are middle- aged men--fogies, in fact. Tempus edax rerum, Time has an appetite as good as that of a boy at his first club dinner. The meaning of the great writer's contemporary allusions may be lost, like those of Villon and Aristophanes. Such is the fate of comedy. Who knows, if we turn to Dickens, what the "common profeel machine" was, or what were the steps of the dance known as the Fanteag (the spelling is dubious); or what the author meant by a "red-faced Nixon." Was it a nixie? Does the new Professor of the English Language and Literature at Oxford hope to cast the light of Teutonic research on these and similar inquiries? Sam Weller found that oysters always went hand-in-hand with poverty. How this must astonish a generation which finds the oyster nearly as extinct as the ichthyosaurus! The "Book of Snobs" calls aloud for a commentator. Who is the nobleman holding his boots out of the hotel window--an act which the Snob very properly declined to classify as snobbish? Who are the originals of Henry Foker (this, indeed, is known), and of Wagg and Wenham? Or did Wenham's real name rhyme to Foker, as, according to the Mulligan, "Perkins rhymes to Jerkins, my man of firkins"? Posterity will insist on an answer, which will be nothing if not authentic. Posterity, pace Mr. Rideing, will remember very well that George Osborne's father lived in Russell Square, and will hunt in vain for 96. There is no such number, any more than there ever was such a Pope as he to whom the unfortunate old woman in "Candid" attributed her birth. Here once more, as Voltaire justly remarks in a footnote, we observe the discretion of our author.

Colonel Newcome lived, as is well known, in Fitzroy Square, and died in the Charter House. To these shrines the pious go in pilgrimage; the rather dingy quarters are brightened by the memory of his presence, as we think of Scott in Castle Street, Edinburgh, or of Dr. John Brown in Princes Street--Dr. John Brown who was a Colonel Newcome that had gone into medicine instead of the army. Smithfield is hardly more memorable for her martyrs than for the battles fought on neighbouring ground between Biggs and Berry, between Cuff and old Figs. Kentish Town, but little sought for sentimental reasons, is glorified by the memory of Adolphus Larkins; "Islington, Pentonville, Somers Town, were the scenes of many of his exploits." Brompton, again, passionate Brompton, lent her shelter--or rather, sold it, for the poetess lived in a boarding-house--to Miss Bunnion. Cursitor Street might be unknown as the great men before Agamemnon (many of whom, by the way, as Meleager and Pirithous, are known well enough) had not Cursitor Street contained the sponging-house where Rawdon Crawley was incarcerated.

In addition to these scholia on Thackeray so sadly needed, and so little likely to be published, we need novelists' maps and topographies of London and Paris. These will probably be constructed by some American of leisure; they order these things better in America. When we go to Paris we want to know where Balzac's men and women lived, Z. Marcas and Cesar Birotteau, and Le Cousin Pons, and Le Pere Goriot, and all the duchesses, financiers, scoundrels, journalists, and persons of both sexes and no character "Comedie Humaine." London also might be thus spaced out--the London of Richardson, and Fielding, and Miss Burney, as well as the London of Thackeray or Dickens. Already, to speak of to-day, Rupert Street is more interesting, because there, fallen in fortune, but resolute of heart and courtly as ever, Prince Florizel of Bohemia held his cigar divan.


Andrew Lang