A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 19

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Circa 1702—1714


"Great voices of great lovers of their land
 All have departed, all return no more."


UNLIKE her famous predecessor, Elizabeth, and her famous successor, Victoria, Queen Anne was a wife and mother long before she ascended the throne of England. A woman of thirty-seven, childless though the mother of seventeen children, she had lived through momentous changes in her country's history. In the course of seventeen years her uncle, Charles II., had died, her father, James II., had fled from his kingdom, her sister Mary had reigned and died, and she herself had just lost her last child, the pathetic little Duke of Gloucester, but two years before the death of her brother-in-law, William III. And yet such was her apathetic disposition that she was collected, placid, and calm as she mounted the throne of her ancestors amid the shouts and rejoicings of her loyal subjects. But if these subjects added to the prestige of England's arms, increased her trade, and created a literature famous enough to earn the title of the Augustan Age, it was not thanks to the encouragement or enlightened recognition of Queen Anne. A good enough woman herself, she influenced the morals of the Court; she refused to attend theatres or other places of amusement, but occupied a good deal of time in writing letters to her favourite women friends.

Of immense size, no one was fonder of a good dinner than the Queen. Indeed, she was immoderate in her appetite: she was known to eat a whole fowl at a sitting; she made herself ill over black-hearted cherries, and did herself serious injury by constantly sipping large quantities of rich chocolate. Most of our ancestors of this period began the day by a cup of chocolate, followed a few hours later by some green tea or ale, with some brawn to eat with it. But dinner, whether at two or three o'clock, was the meal of the day.

"The English eat a great deal at dinner," says a famous French traveller of these days. "Their supper is moderate: gluttons at noon and abstinent at night. I always heard they were great flesh-eaters, and I found it true. I have known several people in England that never eat any bread; they nibble a few crumbs, while they chew Meat by whole Mouthfuls. Generally speaking the English tables are not delicately served: the middling sort of people have ten or twelve sorts of common Meats which infallibly take their Turns at their Tables, and two dishes are their dinners; a Pudding, for instance, and a piece of Roast Beef; another time they will have a piece of Boil'd Beef, and then they salt it some days beforehand and besiege it with five or six heaps of Cabbage, Carrots, Turnips, or some other Herbs or Roots, well pepper'd and salted and swimming in Butter: A leg of roast or boil'd mutton, dished up with the same dainties. Fowls, Pigs, Ox Tripes and Tongues, Rabbits, Pigeons, all well moistened with Butter. Two of these dishes, always served up one after the other, made the usual Dinner of a Substantial Gentleman or wealthy Citizen." But the French traveller becomes enthusiastic over the English pudding. "The pudding is a dish very difficult to be described. Flour, milk, eggs, butter, sugar, suet, marrow, raisins, &c., are the most common ingredients of a pudding. They bake them in an oven, they boil them with meat, they make them fifty different ways. Blessed be he that invented Pudding. Ah, what an excellent thing is an English Pudding!" We recognise our mince-pies and plum-pudding in another of his observations. "Every family against Christmas makes a famous pye which they call Christmas pye. It is a great nostrum, the composition of this pasty: it is a most learned mixture of neat's tongues, chicken, eggs, sugar, raisins, lemon and orange peel, various kinds of spicery." This Christmas or minced pie was originally made in the shape of the manger wherein the Holy Infant was laid. "They also make," continues the astonished traveller, "a sort of soup with plums, which is in their language call'd plum-porridge."

But there was still a great want of refinement in the food of these days. We find numerous receipts for marrow-puddings, mixtures of cocks' combs and hedgehog, and blood puddings were not uncommon.

"Blood stuff' d in Skins is British Christian food,
And France robs Marshes of the croaking Brood;
Spongy Morells in strong Ragousts are found
And in the Soupe the slimy Snail is drown'd."

Founded on the principle of eating and drinking were the clubs of Queen Anne's reign. The origin of these is quaintly put in an early number of the Spectator, written by Addison. "Man is said to be a Sociable Animal," he says, "and we may observe that we take all occasions and Pretences of forming ourselves into those little Nocturnal Assemblies, which are commonly known by the name of Clubs. When a Sett of Men find themselves in any Particular, tho' never so trivial, they establish themselves into a kind of Fraternity and meet once or twice a week upon the Account of such a Fantastick Ressemblance." In this way started the club of Fat Men, in a room with two doors. If a candidate could make his way through the small door he was unqualified for membership, but if he stuck, folding doors were immediately thrown open and he was saluted as a brother! In opposition to this, sprang up a club of Scarecrows and Skeletons, but a more serious undertaking was the famous Kit-Cat Club, which met at a mutton-pie house near Temple Bar, kept by one Christopher Cat, whose pies were humorously termed "kit-cats." It became the rendezvous of Whig chiefs, men favourable to the succession of the House of Hanover. Each member presented the founder with his own portrait painted by Kneller. This interesting collection still exists at Bayfordbury near Hertford. Special canvasses were made (36 in. by 28), still called to-day the Kit-Cat size. Other clubs soon arose; among the most famous were the October Club, the Beef Steak Club, and the Calves' Head Club, Though these were confined to the gentlemen and wealthy tradesmen of the day, the little taverns had their own fraternities. Here are some rules in the Twopenny Club, for the poorer classes of Queen Anne's day:—

"Every member shall fill his pipe out of his own box.

"If any member swears or curses, his neighbour may give him a kick upon the shins.

"If any member tell stories in the Club that are not true, he shall forfeit for every third Lie one Half-Penny.

"If any member brings his wife into the club, he shall pay for whatever she drinks or smokes."

It is difficult to remember that women and children smoked as a matter of course in these days. It is even asserted that children were sent to school with pipes in their satchels and that the schoolmaster made a pause in the course of lessons for all to smoke. In 1702 we get a glimpse of a "sickly child of three years old filling its pipe of Tobacco and smoking it as a man of threescore years, and after that a second and third pipe, without the least concern, as it had done for the past year." Tobacco was kept in brass boxes, often beautifully engraved and embossed. But the snuff-boxes of this period testify to the increasing popularity of snuff-taking. Here again women played their part.

"I have writ to you three or four times to desire you would take notice of an important custom the Women have lately fallen into, of taking Snuff. This silly Trick is attended by such a coquet air in some Ladies and such a sedate masculine air in others that I cannot tell which to complain of most, but they are to me equally disagreeable." So writes the editor of the Spectator, a paper which reflects the manners and fashions of the latter part of Queen Anne's reign with truth and humour. The first number came out on Thursday, March 1, 1711. It consisted of a little single sheet headed by a couple of Latin lines and written by Addison. The whole first number is taken up with an account of himself and his venture, while the second, issued on the following day and written by Richard Steele, contains an account of those concerned in the work and the famous Sir Roger de Coverley. These little dally sheets appeared with the morning coffee in every fashionable household, and their influence on the society of the day was enormous, though already a daily newspaper was in circulation.

When Queen Anne came to the throne there were some nine or ten newspapers issued three times a week, the chief among them being the London Post, Flying Post, English Post, and Dyer's News Letter. Three days after her accession the first daily newspaper in England came out, under the name of the Daily Courant, a forerunner of that mighty press which is such a marked feature of our own day. Its size was fourteen inches by eight, a single sheet printed on one side only. It contained news from Naples, Rome, Vienna, Frankfort, Liége and Paris, and at the end in small print it justified its existence thus: "This Courant will be publish'd daily, being designed to give all the Material news as soon as every Post arrives, and is confin'd to half the Compass to save the Publick at least half the Impertinences of ordinary News Papers."

The circulation of these daily papers was greatly helped by the penny post, which had been in existence in London since 1683. "Every two Hours," says the observant French traveller, "you may write to any Part of the City or Suburbs; he that receives it pays a Penny and you give nothing when you put it into the Post; but when you write into the Country, both he that writes and he that receives pays each a Penny." In 1709 distance still regulated the price of letters; thus, to send a single sheet 80 miles cost 2d., a letter to Dublin was 6d., to the West Indies, 1s. 3d. Other means of communication were also increasing. Hackney carriages had increased till there were now some 800 plying in London and the suburbs. They had no glass and no springs, and it is hardly to be wondered at if people preferred the sedan chair for short distances. Here they could see and be seen. By this means they were carried to the At Homes or "Days," as they were called, kept by every fashionable woman, when she received a formal circle of her acquaintances of both sexes. It is curious to remember that at this time the formal salutation between men and women of every class was still the kiss. "The other day, entering a room adorned with the fair Sex," says a contemporary, "I offered, after the usual manner, to each of them a kiss, but one more scornful than the rest turned her Cheek." By means of the sedan chair the fine ladies and gentlemen of Queen Anne's time were carried to church, as much to show off their clothes as anything else. "All ladies who come to church in the New-fashioned Hoods are desired to be there before Divine Service begins, lest they divert the Attention of the Congregation," runs an advertisement in the Spectator of January, 1712. These many-coloured hoods were supplanting the old commode, which was the favourite headgear of the early eighteenth century. The idea originated in a hunting party attended by Louis XIV. in France, at which the hair of Mademoiselle Fontange, a favourite of the King's, became loose. She hastily tied her lace handkerchief round her head, and the effect produced was so pretty that the King begged her to keep it thus. Next day all the Court ladies appeared "coiffée à la Fontange." The head-dress soon became elaborate. The hair was piled up high in front, and a wire frame covered with silk and trimmed with rows of lace and ribbons stood on the top. From each side hung broad ends of lace. It was very expensive, for all lace was real in those days, and enough for a cap of this kind cost £40 at the very least. It also varied considerably. "There is no such variable thing in Nature as a Lady's head-dress," says Addison. "Within my own memory I have known it rise and fall above 30 degrees. About ten years ago it shot up to a very great height, insomuch that the Female Part of our Species were much taller than men."

Bodices were laced open in front, showing tight stays made of "Black Tabby Stitched lined with Flannel," and worn very low, with "tuckers" or "modesty pieces" round the top. They had elbow sleeves and frilled skirts, at the back of which a piece of drapery was bunched into panniers, while in front hung an apron. These skirts grew wider and wider at the hips, till the ever-observant Spectator felt bound to draw attention to them: "The petticoats, which began to heave and swell before you left us, are now blown up into a most enormous concave and rise every day more and more." False hips in 1709 soon gave way to a hoop or mild compressible whalebone frame-work under the skirt or petticoat. These petticoats were numerous and variable, made of rich material; we hear of black Russell petticoats flowered, of ash colour silk quilted petticoats, of scarlet and gold Atlas petticoats edged with silver, of yellow chintz petticoats, black velvet petticoats, &c. But if women were thus fanciful over their hoop petticoats, men were quite as particular over their wigs. The wig dominated all good dressing, and was to be found on men and even boys of every class of society. Extravagant sums of money were expended on them. Though three guineas was a fair price, as much as forty guineas was frequently spent. While the full-bottomed wig was most usual at this time, the tie wig and the bob wig were both coming into fashion, though not approved of by the Queen. "I suppose his lordship will come to Court next time in his nightcap," she was heard to exclaim when one of her Ministers appeared before her in one of the new tie wigs, so familiar in the Georgian epoch. To be in perfect curl was the essential point, and numerous advertisements of hair-curling fluids appear in the current papers, in case the wig "be out of curl by the pressing of the hat or riding in windy and rainy weather." Such was the effeminacy of some of the men at this time that they used to carry ivory or tortoiseshell combs, and comb their wigs while sitting in the Park or in the theatre. Quaint enough, too, were their long coats, with skirts stiffly held out with whalebone. "The skirt of your fashionable coats forms as large a circumference as our petticoats; as these are set out with whalebone, so are those with wire," says the Spectator. Add to this the new cravat or neck-cloth, the cocked hat, the fine holland shirt with ruffles, the silk stockings, the high-heeled shoes with buckles, the gloves, the silk handkerchief for snuff-taking and the indispensable sword, and the gentleman of Queen Anne's time is complete. It is a relief to find that they despised the newly-introduced umbrella, which was growing in popularity with women, in order to shade them from the sun and rain. Up to this time their only screen had been a fan, and in bad weather they had stayed within doors. Heavy, clumsy contrivances were these early umbrellas. They were used to hold over bare-headed clergy at funerals; sometimes it was possible to borrow one at a coffee-house, but it was some time before they became ordinary and indispensable possessions to every one, as they are to-day.

The manners of the early eighteenth century may have improved since the days when Queen Elizabeth thought it no indignity to spit at the courtier who annoyed her, but Queen Anne's manners were not of the best She would sit and gnaw the end of her fan when bored with her subjects; she would frequently over-eat herself, though warned of the consequences. Etiquette-books of the period warn people not to wipe their knife and fork on the tablecloth, but rather on the newly-invented napkin or Doiley, made by a linen-draper of that name, as also to abstain from picking their teeth with their forks. But if these were the manners and customs of our ancestors at home, they were behaving with all the old strength and courage of their stalwart forefathers abroad. Queen Anne's soldiers and Queen Anne's sailors are famous to-day, and such victories as Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet had not been seen since the days of Henry V. England was rising to her position as the leading commercial country of her day, while in the world of letters she was no whit behind. It was a period of energy, wit, and genius, an age of vast enterprise crowned with success, in the midst of which "it is half ludicrous, half pathetic to turn to the central figure of all, Anne Stuart, a fat, placid, middle-aged woman, full of infirmities, with little about her of the picturesque yet artificial brightness of her time or of her race, and no gleam of reflection in her to answer to the wit and genius which have made her age so illustrious.