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   Chapter 9 ROUND ABOUT SOHO AGAIN

Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century By Virginia Tatnall Peacock Characters: 18633

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


As a general thing the literary man is not to be found living in the aristocratic quarters of the town until after he has done his best work and has begun to make money out of his inferior books. I don't think any man of letters has ever rented a house in Park Lane, except Disraeli, and he went there as a successful politician; such glorious thoroughfares are reserved to more respectable stock-brokers and company-promoters, whilst those whom the gods love are driven to seek refuge in the cheap and shabby houses of meaner streets. Half the squalid squares and byways of Soho are in reality vestibules and aisles of the Temple of Fame. Blake, as we have seen in a former chapter, lived in Poland Street; and in the same street lived Flaxman, and, later, Shelley. Dryden lived in Gerrard Street, a century before Burke made his home there; Hazlitt died in Frith Street; Mulready the painter had his studio in Broad Street; and the sculptor, James Northcote, resided for over thirty years in Argyll Place. When Madame de Stael was in England she stayed at 30 (now 29) Argyll Street, and Byron speaks of visiting her there. I have already referred to Sir James Thornhill's house in Dean Street; near by, in Soho Square, lived the actor, Kemble; and this square has pathetic memories of De Quincey, who lodged for a time, under strange circumstances, at the Greek Street corner of it.

Left an orphan to the care of guardians who seem to have treated him with some harshness, De Quincey ran away from the Manchester Grammar School in 1802, when he was only seventeen, and after wandering through Wales made his way to London. Here for two months he was houseless, and seldom slept under a roof, and for upwards of sixteen weeks suffered "the physical anguish of hunger in various degrees of intensity." He tells you in his Confessions how he used to pace "the never-ending terraces" of Oxford Street, and at night sleep on some doorstep, and dream, "and wake to the captivity of hunger." In Oxford Street he fell in with that most innocent and tender-hearted of street-walkers, Ann, whose surname he never knew, and to whose compassion and charity he always felt that he owed his life: "For many weeks I had walked at nights with this poor friendless girl up and down Oxford Street, or had rested with her on steps and under the shelter of porticoes. She could not be so old as myself; she told me, indeed, that she had not completed her sixteenth year.... One night when we were pacing slowly along Oxford Street, and after a day when I had felt more than usually ill and faint, I requested her to turn off with me into Soho Square. Thither we went, and we sat down on the steps of a house which to this hour I never pass without a pang of grief and an inner act of homage to the spirit of that unhappy girl, in memory of the noble action which she there performed. Suddenly, as we sate, I grew much worse. I had been leaning my head against her bosom, and all at once I sank from her arms and fell backwards on the steps." He was so utterly exhausted that he felt he must have died, but with a cry of terror she ran off into Oxford Street and returned with port wine and spices which she had paid for out of her own pocket, at a time when "she had scarcely the wherewithal to purchase the bare necessaries of life;" and this timely stimulant served to restore him.

By-and-by, meeting a friend who lent him ten pounds, he travelled down to Windsor to see if he could get a certain friend of his family there to assist him; but before going he paid Ann something of his debt to her, and arranged that three nights from then, and every night after until they should meet, she would be at the corner of Titchfield Street, Soho. On his return to London he was at the appointed place night after night, but Ann never appeared, and though he inquired everywhere and searched the neighbourhood for her he was never able to see or hear of her again.

Earlier than this, however, and before he had succeeded in borrowing that ten pounds, the coming on of a bitterly inclement winter drove him to seek a wretched lodging at 61 (then 38) Greek Street, Soho Square. The house was a dirty, neglected, cheerless place, tenanted by a disreputable attorney named Brunell-Brown, who had a curious clerk named Pyment, and only came and went to and from his office by stealth because he was deep in debts and continually dodging the bailiffs. A few weeks of lodging miserably here nearly exhausted the little cash De Quincey had brought to London with him, and he had to give up his room. But he explained his position frankly to Brunell-Brown, and this kindly, reckless rascal, who had a genuine knowledge and love of literature, and was interested in the young lodger who could talk to him intelligently on such matters, readily gave him permission to come to the house nightly and sleep gratis in one of its empty rooms, and allowed him, moreover, to eat the scraps from his breakfast-table.

The house had an unoccupied look, especially of nights, when the lawyer himself was usually absent. "There was no household or establishment in it; nor any furniture, indeed, except a table and a few chairs. But I found, on taking possession of my new quarters, that the house already contained one single inmate, a poor friendless child, apparently ten years old; but she seemed hunger-bitten, and sufferings of that sort often make children look older than they are. From this forlorn child I learned that she had lived and slept there for some time before I came; and great joy the poor creature expressed when she found that I was in future to be her companion through the hours of darkness. The house was large, and from the want of furniture the noise of the rats made a prodigious echoing on the spacious staircase and hall; and amidst the real fleshly ills of cold and, I fear, hunger, the forsaken child had found leisure to suffer still more (it appeared) from the self-created one of ghosts. I promised her protection against all ghosts whatsoever, but, alas! I could offer her no other assistance. We lay upon the floor, with a bundle of cursed law papers for a pillow, but no other covering than a sort of large horseman's cloak; afterwards, however, we discovered in a garret an old sofa-cover, a small piece of rug, and some fragments of other articles, which added a little to our warmth. The poor child crept close to me for warmth and for security against her ghostly enemies. When I was not more than usually ill I took her into my arms, so that in general she was tolerably warm, and often slept when I could not....

DE QUINCEY'S HOUSE. SOHO.

"Meantime, the master of the house sometimes came in upon us suddenly, and very early; sometimes not till ten o'clock; sometimes not at all. He was in constant fear of bailiffs. Improving on the plan of Cromwell, every night he slept in a different quarter of London; and I observed that he never failed to examine through a private window the appearance of those who knocked at the door before he would allow it to be opened. He breakfasted alone; indeed, his tea equipage would hardly have admitted of his hazarding an invitation to a second person, any more than the quantity of esculent matériel, which for the most part was little more than a roll or a few biscuits which he had bought on his road from the place where he had slept. During his breakfast I generally contrived a reason for lounging in, and with an air of as much indifference as I could assume, took up such fragments as he had left; sometimes, indeed, there were none at all.... As to the poor child, she was never admitted into his study (if I may give that name to his chief depository of parchments, law writings, &c.); that room was to her the Bluebeard room of the house, being regularly locked on his departure to dinner, about six o'clock, which usually was his final departure for the night. Whether the child were an illegitimate daughter of Mr. Brunell-Brown, or only a servant, I could not ascertain; she did not herself know; but certainly she was treated altogether as a menial servant. No sooner did Mr. Brunell-Brown make his appearance than she went below stairs, brushed his shoes, coat, &c.; and, except when she was summoned to run an errand, she never emerged from the dismal Tartarus of the kitchen, &c. to the upper air until my welcome knock at night called up her little trembling footsteps to the front door. Of her life during the daytime, however, I knew little but what I gathered from her own account at night, for as soon as the hours of business commenced I saw that my absence would be acceptable, and in general, therefore, I went off and sate in the parks or elsewhere until nightfall."

SHELLEY'S HOUSE. POLAND STREET W.

I have always thought that in all this there is something oddly reminiscent of Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness; the poor, half-starved little household drudge fits her part almost exactly, but De Quincey makes but a depressed and dismal Dick Swiveller; and Mr. Brunell-Brown seems to have been a lower type of the rascally lawyer than Sampson Brass was; but rascal as he was, one warms to him because of his kindness to his forlorn guest. "I must forget everything but that towards me," says De Quincey, "he was obliging and

, to the extent of his power, generous." He goes on to say that in after years, whenever he was in London, he never failed to visit that house in Greek Street, and "about ten o'clock this very night, August 15, 1821-being my birthday-I turned aside from my evening walk down Oxford Street, purposely to take a glance at it; it is now occupied by a respectable family, and by the lights in the front drawing-room I observed a domestic party assembled, perhaps at tea, and apparently cheerful and gay. Marvellous contrast, in my eyes, to the darkness, cold, silence and desolation of that same house eighteen years ago, when its nightly occupants were one famishing scholar and a neglected child. Her, by-the-by, in after years I vainly endeavoured to trace. Apart from her situation, she was not what would be called an interesting child; she was neither pretty nor quick in understanding, nor remarkably pleasing in manners."

THOMAS DE QUINCEY

His London privations ended with a reconciliation between himself and his guardians, and he was sent to Oxford-his quarrel with them being that they would not allow him to go there.

De Quincey quitted Soho to go to Oxford, and Shelley, when he was expelled from Oxford in 1811, came to Soho. He travelled up to London on the coach with his friend Hogg. His cousin and sometime schoolfellow, Medwin, relates how before dawn on a March morning Shelley and Hogg knocked at his door in Garden Court, Temple, and he heard Shelley's cracked voice cry, in his well-known pipe, "Medwin, let me in. I am expelled," and after a loud sort of half-hysterical laugh repeat, "I am expelled," and add "for atheism." After breakfast they went out to look for lodgings, and, says Hogg, "never was a young beauty so capricious, so hard to please" as Shelley; but the name of Poland Street attracted him because it suggested recollections of Thaddeus of Warsaw and freedom, and he declared "we must lodge here, should we sleep on the step of a door." A bill advertising lodgings to let hung in the window of No. 15, so they knocked and entered and inspected them-"a quiet sitting-room, its walls papered with trellised vine-leaves and clustering grapes," with a similarly decorated bedroom opening out of it, and Shelley whispered, "We must stay here for ever."

"For ever" dwindled to something less than a year; but here for that time Shelley lived and resumed his interrupted studies, as far as might be, and was secretly supported by his sisters, who sent their pocket-money round to him by the hand of their schoolfellow, Harriett Westbrook, daughter of the retired tavern-keeper, John Westbrook, who was living near Park Lane, at 23 Chapel Street (now Aldford Street).

In April 1811 Shelley's father wrote insisting that he should break off all relations with Hogg and place himself under a tutor of his father's selection, and Shelley replied, from his Poland Street lodgings:-

"My dear Father,-As you do me the honour of requesting to hear the determination of my mind, as the basis of your future actions, I feel it my duty, although it gives me pain to wound 'the sense of duty to your own character, to that of your family, and feelings as a Christian,' decidedly to refuse my assent to both the proposals in your letter, and to affirm that similar refusals will always be the fate of similar requests. With many thanks for your great kindness,-I remain your affectionate, dutiful son,

"Percy B. Shelley."

His father presently relented so far as to make him an allowance of two hundred pounds a year. One evening in August, having arranged a hasty elopement with Harriett Westbrook, Shelley walked from Poland Street to a small coffee-house in Mount Street, and as Dr. Dowden sets forth in his Life of the poet, dispatched a letter thence to Harriett, her father's house in Aldford Street being close handy, telling her at what hour he would have a hackney coach waiting for her at the door of the coffee-house. At the appointed time the coach was there in readiness, and a little behind time "Harriett was seen tripping round the corner from Chapel Street, and the coach wheels rattled towards the City inn from which the northern mails departed."

SHELLEY. MARCHMONT STREET.

They travelled post-haste to the North, and were married in Edinburgh; and in another three years the deserted Harriett had ended her life in the Serpentine, and Shelley had gone off with Mary Godwin. Meanwhile, however, returning to London after his marriage to Harriett, Shelley stayed for a few days at the house of his father-in-law, and then at Cooke's Hotel, in Albemarle Street. On another occasion he lodged for a short time at a house still standing in Marchmont Street (No. 26), a drab and dingy thoroughfare in the neighbourhood of Russell Square.

Hazlitt was a Soho resident for no longer than about six months. In 1830 he came from his lodgings in Bouverie Street to occupy rooms at No. 6 Frith Street. He was then already failing in health, separated from his wife, harassed financially through the failure of his publishers, altogether broken and dispirited. Much disappointment, the thwarting of many of his highest personal ambitions, had soured and embittered him. Haydon calls him a "singular mixture of friend and fiend, radical and critic, metaphysician, poet and painter, on whose word no one could rely, on whose heart no one could calculate." A critic of genius, a brilliant essayist; with not so great a heart as Lamb's but a finer intellect; he has never to this day received his full meed of recognition. He moves in spirit among the immortals as apart and unsociable as he moved among them in the body. "We are told," wrote P. G. Patmore, "that on the summit of one of those columns which form the magnificent ruins of Hadrian's Temple, in the plain of Athens, there used to dwell a hermit who scarcely ever descended from this strangely-chosen abode, owing his scanty food and support to the mingled admiration and curiosity of the peasants who inhabited the plain below. Something like this was the position of William Hazlitt. Self-banished from the social world, no less by the violence of his own passions than by those petty regards of custom and society which could not or would not tolerate the trifling aberrations from external form and usage engendered by a mind like his, ... he became, as regarded himself, personally heedless of all things but the immediate gratification of his momentary wishes, careless of personal character, indifferent to literary fame, forgetful of the past, reckless of the future, and yet so exquisitely alive to the claims and the virtues of all these that the abandonment of his birthright in every one of them opened a separate canker in his heart, and made his life a living emblem of the early death which it foretokened."

Patmore, too, has given a good sketch of his personal appearance. "The forehead," he says, "was magnificent; the nose precisely that which physiognomists have assigned as evidence of a fine and highly cultivated taste; though there was a peculiar character about the nostrils like that observable in those of a fiery and unruly horse. His eyes were not good. They were never brilliant, and there was a furtive and at times a sinister look about them as they glanced suspiciously from under their overhanging brows." Other contemporaries have described him as a grave man, diffident, almost awkward in manner, of middle size, and with eager, expressive eyes. S. C. Hall considered him mean-looking and unprepossessing; but though Talfourd speaks of him as slouching, awkward, and neglectful in his dress, he credits him with "a handsome, eager countenance, worn by sickness and thought."

HAZLITT'S HOUSE. FRITH STREET.

But he was nearing the end of it all when he came to Frith Street. In August he was attacked with a violent sort of cholera, and never rallied from it. What was probably his last essay, one on "The Sick Chamber," appeared that same month in the New Monthly, picturing his own invalid condition and touching gratefully on the consolation and enjoyment he could still derive from books. Nearing the close, he begged that his mother might be sent for, but she was an old lady of eighty-four living in Devonshire and was unable to go to him. "He died so quietly," in the words of his grandson, "that his son, who was sitting by his bedside, did not know that he was gone till the vital breath had been extinct a moment or two. His last words were, 'Well, I've had a happy life.'" The same authority adds that he found the following memorandum, in the handwriting of his grandmother: "Saturday, 18th September 1830, at about half-past four in the afternoon, died at his lodgings, No. 6 Frith Street, Soho, William Hazlitt, aged fifty-two years five months and eight days. Mr. Lamb, Mr. White, Mr. Hersey, and his own son were with him at the time."

He was buried within a minute's walk of his house, in the churchyard of St. Anne's, Soho, and his tombstone removed from its first position, stands back against the wall of the church: the stone originally bore a curious, somewhat militant inscription, but this has recently been obliterated, and replaced by one that offers nothing but his name and a record of the dates of his birth and death.

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