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Chapter 10

SHABBY-GENTEEL PEOPLE

There are certain descriptions of people who, oddly enough, appear
to appertain exclusively to the metropolis. You meet them, every
day, in the streets of London, but no one ever encounters them
elsewhere; they seem indigenous to the soil, and to belong as
exclusively to London as its own smoke, or the dingy bricks and
mortar. We could illustrate the remark by a variety of examples,
but, in our present sketch, we will only advert to one class as a
specimen--that class which is so aptly and expressively designated
as 'shabby-genteel.'

Now, shabby people, God knows, may be found anywhere, and genteel
people are not articles of greater scarcity out of London than in
it; but this compound of the two--this shabby-gentility--is as
purely local as the statue at Charing-cross, or the pump at
Aldgate. It is worthy of remark, too, that only men are shabby-
genteel; a woman is always either dirty and slovenly in the
extreme, or neat and respectable, however poverty-stricken in
appearance. A very poor man, 'who has seen better days,' as the
phrase goes, is a strange compound of dirty-slovenliness and
wretched attempts at faded smartness.

We will endeavour to explain our conception of the term which forms
the title of this paper. If you meet a man, lounging up Drury-
Lane, or leaning with his back against a post in Long-acre, with
his hands in the pockets of a pair of drab trousers plentifully
besprinkled with grease-spots: the trousers made very full over
the boots, and ornamented with two cords down the outside of each
leg--wearing, also, what has been a brown coat with bright buttons,
and a hat very much pinched up at the side, cocked over his right
eye--don't pity him. He is not shabby-genteel. The 'harmonic
meetings' at some fourth-rate public-house, or the purlieus of a
private theatre, are his chosen haunts; he entertains a rooted
antipathy to any kind of work, and is on familiar terms with
several pantomime men at the large houses. But, if you see
hurrying along a by-street, keeping as close as he can to the area-
railings, a man of about forty or fifty, clad in an old rusty suit
of threadbare black cloth which shines with constant wear as if it
had been bees-waxed--the trousers tightly strapped down, partly for
the look of the thing and partly to keep his old shoes from
slipping off at the heels,--if you observe, too, that his
yellowish-white neckerchief is carefully pinned up, to conceal the
tattered garment underneath, and that his hands are encased in the
remains of an old pair of beaver gloves, you may set him down as a
shabby-genteel man. A glance at that depressed face, and timorous
air of conscious poverty, will make your heart ache--always
supposing that you are neither a philosopher nor a political
economist.

We were once haunted by a shabby-genteel man; he was bodily present
to our senses all day, and he was in our mind's eye all night. The
man of whom Sir Walter Scott speaks in his Demonology, did not
suffer half the persecution from his imaginary gentleman-usher in
black velvet, that we sustained from our friend in quondam black
cloth. He first attracted our notice, by sitting opposite to us in
the reading-room at the British Museum; and what made the man more
remarkable was, that he always had before him a couple of shabby-
genteel books--two old dog's-eared folios, in mouldy worm-eaten
covers, which had once been smart. He was in his chair, every
morning, just as the clock struck ten; he was always the last to
leave the room in the afternoon; and when he did, he quitted it
with the air of a man who knew not where else to go, for warmth and
quiet. There he used to sit all day, as close to the table as
possible, in order to conceal the lack of buttons on his coat:
with his old hat carefully deposited at his feet, where he
evidently flattered himself it escaped observation.

About two o'clock, you would see him munching a French roll or a
penny loaf; not taking it boldly out of his pocket at once, like a
man who knew he was only making a lunch; but breaking off little
bits in his pocket, and eating them by stealth. He knew too well
it was his dinner.

When we first saw this poor object, we thought it quite impossible
that his attire could ever become worse. We even went so far, as
to speculate on the possibility of his shortly appearing in a
decent second-hand suit. We knew nothing about the matter; he grew
more and more shabby-genteel every day. The buttons dropped off
his waistcoat, one by one; then, he buttoned his coat; and when one
side of the coat was reduced to the same condition as the
waistcoat, he buttoned it over--on the other side. He looked
somewhat better at the beginning of the week than at the
conclusion, because the neckerchief, though yellow, was not quite
so dingy; and, in the midst of all this wretchedness, he never
appeared without gloves and straps. He remained in this state for
a week or two. At length, one of the buttons on the back of the
coat fell off, and then the man himself disappeared, and we thought
he was dead.

We were sitting at the same table about a week after his
disappearance, and as our eyes rested on his vacant chair, we
insensibly fell into a train of meditation on the subject of his
retirement from public life. We were wondering whether he had hung
himself, or thrown himself off a bridge--whether he really was dead
or had only been arrested--when our conjectures were suddenly set
at rest by the entry of the man himself. He had undergone some
strange metamorphosis, and walked up the centre of the room with an
air which showed he was fully conscious of the improvement in his
appearance. It was very odd. His clothes were a fine, deep,
glossy black; and yet they looked like the same suit; nay, there
were the very darns with which old acquaintance had made us
familiar. The hat, too--nobody could mistake the shape of that
hat, with its high crown gradually increasing in circumference
towards the top. Long service had imparted to it a reddish-brown
tint; but, now, it was as black as the coat. The truth flashed
suddenly upon us--they had been 'revived.' It is a deceitful
liquid that black and blue reviver; we have watched its effects on
many a shabby-genteel man. It betrays its victims into a temporary
assumption of importance: possibly into the purchase of a new pair
of gloves, or a cheap stock, or some other trifling article of
dress. It elevates their spirits for a week, only to depress them,
if possible, below their original level. It was so in this case;
the transient dignity of the unhappy man decreased, in exact
proportion as the 'reviver' wore off. The knees of the
unmentionables, and the elbows of the coat, and the seams
generally, soon began to get alarmingly white. The hat was once
more deposited under the table, and its owner crept into his seat
as quietly as ever.

There was a week of incessant small rain and mist. At its
expiration the 'reviver' had entirely vanished, and the shabby-
genteel man never afterwards attempted to effect any improvement in
his outward appearance.

It would be difficult to name any particular part of town as the
principal resort of shabby-genteel men. We have met a great many
persons of this description in the neighbourhood of the inns of
court. They may be met with, in Holborn, between eight and ten any
morning; and whoever has the curiosity to enter the Insolvent
Debtors' Court will observe, both among spectators and
practitioners, a great variety of them. We never went on 'Change,
by any chance, without seeing some shabby-genteel men, and we have
often wondered what earthly business they can have there. They
will sit there, for hours, leaning on great, dropsical, mildewed
umbrellas, or eating Abernethy biscuits. Nobody speaks to them,
nor they to any one. On consideration, we remember to have
occasionally seen two shabby-genteel men conversing together on
'Change, but our experience assures us that this is an uncommon
circumstance, occasioned by the offer of a pinch of snuff, or some
such civility.

It would be a task of equal difficulty, either to assign any
particular spot for the residence of these beings, or to endeavour
to enumerate their general occupations. We were never engaged in
business with more than one shabby-genteel man; and he was a
drunken engraver, and lived in a damp back-parlour in a new row of
houses at Camden-town, half street, half brick-field, somewhere
near the canal. A shabby-genteel man may have no occupation, or he
may be a corn agent, or a coal agent, or a wine merchant, or a
collector of debts, or a broker's assistant, or a broken-down
attorney. He may be a clerk of the lowest description, or a
contributor to the press of the same grade. Whether our readers
have noticed these men, in their walks, as often as we have, we
know not; this we know--that the miserably poor man (no matter
whether he owes his distresses to his own conduct, or that of
others) who feels his poverty and vainly strives to conceal it, is
one of the most pitiable objects in human nature. Such objects,
with few exceptions, are shabby-genteel people.

Charles Dickens