Context in Humphry Clinker

Humphry Clinker

My uncle proposes to make a circuit of all the remarkable scenes of this metropolis, for the entertainment of his pupils; but as both you and I are already acquainted with most of those he will visit, and with some others he little dreams of, I shall only communicate what will be in some measure new to your observation. Remember me to our jesuitical friends, and believe me ever,

Dear knight, yours affectionately

J. Melford.

London, May 24.



To Dr. Lewis.



LONDON is literally new to me; new in its streets, houses, and even in its situation; as the Irishman said, "London is now gone out of town." What I left open fields, producing hay and corn, I now find covered with streets, and squares, and palaces, and churches. I am credibly informed that in the space of seven years, eleven thousand new houses have been built in one quarter of Westminster, exclusive of what is daily added to other parts of this unweildy metropolis. Pimlico and Knightsbridge are now almost joined to Chelsea and Kensington; and if this infatuation continues for half a century, I suppose the whole county of Middlesex will be covered with brick.

It must be allowed, indeed for the credit of the present age, that London and Westminster are much better paved and lighted than they were formerly. The new streets are spacious, regular and airy; and the houses generally convenient. The bridge at Blackfriars is a noble monument of taste and public spirit---

I wonder how they stumbled upon a work of such magnificence and utility. But, notwithstanding these improvements, the capital is become an overgrown monster; which, like a dropsical head, will in time leave the body and extremities without nourishment and support. The absurdity will appear in its full force, when we consider, that one sixth part of the natives of this whole extensive kingdom, is crowded within the bills of Mortality. What wonder that our villages are depopulated, and our farms in want of day-labourers? The abolition of small farms, is but one cause of the decrease of population. Indeed the incredible increase of horses and black cattle, to answer the purposes of luxury, requires a prodigious quantity of hay and grass, which are raised and managed without much labour; but a number of hands will always be wanted for the different branches of agriculture, whether the farms be large or small. The tide of luxury has swept all the inhabitants from the open country---

The poorest ’squire, as well as the richest peer, must have his house in town, and make a figure with an extraordinary number of domestics. The plough-boys, cow-herds, and lower hinds, are debauched and seduced by the appearance and discourse of those coxcombs in livery, when they make their summer excursions. They desert their dirt and drudgery, and swarm up to London, in hopes of getting into service, where they can live luxuriously and wear fine clothes, without being obliged to work; for idleness is natural to man---

Great numbers of these, being disappointed in their expectation, become thieves and sharpers; and London being an immense wilderness, in which there is neither watch nor ward of any signification, nor any order or police, affords them lurking-places as well as prey.

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There are many causes that contribute to the daily increase of this enormous mass; but they may be all resolved into the grand source of luxury and corruption---

About five and twenty years ago, very few, even of the most opulent citizens of London, kept any equipage, or even any servants in livery. Their tables produced nothing but plain boiled and roasted, with a bottle of port and a tankard of beer. At present, every trader in any degree of credit, every broker and attorney, maintains a couple of footmen, a coachman and postillion.

He has his town-house, and his country-house, his coach, and his postchaise. His wife and daughters appear in the richest stuffs, bespangled with diamonds. They frequent the court, the opera, the theatre, and the masquerade. They hold assemblies at their own houses: they make sumptuous entertainments, and treat with the richest wines of Bourdeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne. The substantial tradesman, who wont to pass his evenings at the ale-house for four-pence half penny, now spends three shillings at the tavern, while his wife keeps card-tables at home; she must likewise have fine clothes, her chaise, or pad, with country lodgings, and go three times a week to public diversions. Every clerk, apprentice, and even waiter of tavern or Coffee-house, maintains a gelding by himself, or in partnership, and assumes the air and apparel of a petit maitre---

The gayest places of public entertainment are filled with fashionable figures; which, upon enquiry, will be found to be journeymen taylors, servingmen, and abigails, disguised like their betters.

In short, there is no distinction or subordination lest---

The different departments of life are jumbled together---

The hod-carrier, the low mechanic, the tapster, the publican, the shop-keeper, the pettisogger, the citizen, and courtier, all tread upon the kibes of one another: actuated by the demons of profligacy and licentiousness, they are seen every where, rambling, riding, rolling, rushing, justling, mixing, bouncing, cracking, and crashing in one vile ferment of stupidity and corruption---

All is tumult and hurry; one would imagine they were impelled by some disorder of the brain, that will not suffer them to be at rest. The foot-passengers run along as if they were pursued by bailiffs. The porters and chairmen trot with their burdens. People, who keep their own equipages, drive through the streets at full speed. Even citizens, physicians, and apothecaries, glide in their chariots like lightning.

The hackney-coachmen make their horses smoke, and the pavement shakes under them; and I have actually seen a waggon pass through Piccadilly at the hand-gallop. In a word, the whole nation seems to be running out of their wits.

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The diversions of the times are not ill-suited to the genius of this incongruous monster, called the public. Give it noise, confusion, glare, and glitter; it has no idea of elegance and propriety---

What are the amusements at Ranelagh? One half of the company are following one another’s tails, in an eternal circle; like so many blind asses in an olive-mill; where they can neither discourse, distinguish, nor be distinguished; while the other half are drinking hot water, under the denomination of tea, till nine or ten o’clock at night, to keep them awake for the rest of the evening. As for the orchestra, the vocal musick especially, it is well for the performers that they cannot be heard distinctly.

Vauxhall is a composition of baubles, overcharged with paltry ornaments, ill-conceived, and poorly executed; without any unity of design, or propriety of disposition. It is an unnatural assembly of objects, fantastically illuminated in broken masses; seemingly contrived to dazzle the eyes and divert the imagination of the vulgar---

Here a wooden lion, there a stone statue; in one place, a range of things like coffee-house boxes, covered atop; in another, a parcel of ale-house benches; in a third, a puppet shew representation of a tin cascade; in a fourth, a gloomy cave of a circular form, like a sepulchral vault half-lighted; in a fifth, a scanty slip of grass-plat, that would not afford pasture sufficient for an ass’s colt. The walks, which nature seems to have intended for solitude, shade, and silence, are filled with crowds of noisy people, sucking up the nocturnal rheums of an aguish climate; and through these gay scenes, a few lamps glimmer like so many farthing candles.

When I see a number of well-dressed people, of both sexes, sitting on the covered benches, exposed to the eyes of the mob; and, which is worse, to the cold, raw, night-air, devouring sliced beef, and swilling port, and punch, and cider, I can’t help compassionating their temerity, while I despise their want of taste and decorum; but, when they course along those damp and gloomy walks, or crowd together upon the wet gravel, without any other cover than the cope of Heaven, listening to a song, which one half of them cannot possibly hear, how can I help supposing they are actually possessed by a spirit more absurd and pernicious than any thing we meet with in the precincts of Bedlam? In all probability, the proprietors of this, and other public gardens of inferior note, in the skirts of the metropolis, are, in some shape, connected with the faculty of physic, and the company of undertakers; for, considering that eagerness in the pursuit of what is called pleasure, which now predominates through every rank and denomination of life, I am persuaded, that more gouts, rheumatisms, catarrhs, and consumptions are caught in these nocturnal pastimes, sub die, than from all the risques and accidents to which a life of toil and danger is exposed.

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These and other observations, which I have made in this excursion, will shorten my stay at London, and send me back with a double relish to my solitude and mountains; but I shall return by a different route from that which brought me to town. .............

But I must, in the mean time, for the benefit and amusement of my pupils, explore the depths of this chaos; this misshapen and monstrous capital, without head or tail, members or proportion.


yours always,

Matt. Bramble.

London, May 29.



To Miss Lætitia Willis, at Gloucester.


About five days ago we arrived in London, after an easy journey from Bath; during which, however, we were overturned, and met with some other little incidents, which had like to have occasioned a misunderstanding betwixt my uncle and aunt; but now, thank God, they are happily reconciled: we live in harmony together, and every day make parties to see the wonders of this vast metropolis, which, however, I cannot pretend to describe; for I have not as yet seen one hundredth part of its curiosities, and I am quite in a maze of admiration.

The cities of London and Westminster are spread out into an incredible extent. The streets, squares, rows, lanes, and alleys, are innumerable. Palaces, public buildings, and churches, rise in every quarter; and among these last, St. Paul’s appears with the most astonishing preeminence. They say it is not so large as St. Peter’s at Rome; but, for my own part, I can have no idea of any earthly temple more grand and magnificent.

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But even these superb objects are not so striking as the crowds of people that swarm in the streets. I at first imagined, that some great assembly was just dismissed, and wanted to stand aside till the multitude should pass; but this human tide continues to slow, without interruption or abatement, from morn till night. Then there is such an infinity of gay equipages, coaches, chariots, chaises, and other carriages, continually rolling and shifting before your eyes, that one’s head grows giddy looking at them; and the imagination is quite confounded with splendour and variety. Nor is the prospect by water less grand, and astonishing than that by land: you see three stupendous bridges, joining the opposite banks of a broad, deep, and rapid river; so vast, so stately, so elegant, that they seem to be the work of giants: betwixt them, the whole surface of the Thames is covered with small vessels, barges, boats, and wherries, passing to and fro; and below the three bridges, such a prodigious forest of masts, for miles together, that you would think all the ships in the universe were here assembled. All that you read of wealth and grandeur in the Arabian Night’s Entertainment, and the Persian Tales, concerning Bagdad, Dialbekir, Damascus, Ispahan, and Samarkand, is here realized.

Ranelagh looks like the inchanted palace of a genie, adorned with the most exquisite performances of painting, carving, and gilding, enlightened with a thousand golden lamps, that emulate the noon-day sun; crowded with the great, the rich, the gay, the happy, and the fair; glittering with cloth of gold and silver, lace, embroidery, and precious stones. While these exulting sons and daughters of felicity tread this round of pleasure, or regale in different parties, and separate lodges, with fine imperial tea and other delicious refreshments, their ears are entertained with the most ravishing delights of musick, both instrumental and vocal. There I heard the famous Tenducci, a thing from Italy---It looks for all the world like a man, though they say it is not. ---The voice, to be sure, is neither man’s nor woman’s; but it is more melodious than either; and it warbled so divinely, that, while I listened, I really thought myself in paradise.

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At nine o’clock, in a charming moon-light evening, we embarked at Ranelagh for Vauxhall, in a wherry, so light and slender, that we looked like so many fairies sailing in a nut-shell. My uncle, being apprehensive of catching cold upon the water, went round in the coach, and my aunt would have accompanied him, but he would not suffer me to go by water if she went by land; and therefore she favoured us with her company, as she perceived I had a curiosity to make this agreeable voyage---

After all, the vessel was sufficiently loaded; for, besides the watermen, there was my brother Jery, and a friend of his, one Mr. Parton, a country gentleman, of a good fortune, who had dined at our house---

The pleasure of this little excursion was, however, damped, by my being sadly frighted at our landing; where there was a terrible confusion of wherries, and a crowd of people hawling, and swearing, and quarrelling: nay, a parcel of ugly-looking fellows came running into the water, and laid hold on our boat with great violence, to pull it ashore; nor would they quit their hold till my brother struck one of them over the head with his cane. But this flutter was fully recompensed by the pleasures of Vauxhall; which I no sooner entered, than I was dazzled and confounded with the variety of beauties that rushed all at once upon my eye. Image to yourself, my dear Letty, a spacious garden, part laid out in delightful walks, bounded with high hedges and trees, and paved with gravel; part exhibiting a wonderful assemblage of the most picturesque and striking objects, pavilions, lodges, groves, grottoes, lawns, temples, and cascades; porticoes, colonades, and rotundos; adorned with pillars, statues, and painting: the whole illuminated with an infinite number of lamps, disposed in different figures of suns, stars, and constellations; the place crowded with the gayest company, ranging thro’ those blissful shades, or supping in different lodges, on cold collations, enlivened with mirth, freedom, and good humour, and animated by an excellent band of musick. Among the vocal performers I had the happiness to hear the celebrated Mrs.---, whose voice was so loud and so shrill, that it made my head ake through excess of pleasure.

In about half an hour after we arrived we were joined by my uncle, who did not seem to relish the place. People of experience and infirmity, my dear Letty, see with very different eyes from those that such as you and I make use of---...........................

Besides Ranelagh and Vauxhall, I have been at Mrs. Cornely’s assembly, which, for the rooms, the company, the dresses, and decorations, surpasses all description; but as I have no great turn for card-playing, I have not yet entered thoroughly into the spirit of the place: Indeed I am still such a country hoyden, that I could hardly find patience to be put in a condition to appear, yet I was not above six hours under the hands of the hair-dresser, who stuffed my head with as much black wool as would have made a quilted petticoat; and, after all, it was the smallest head in the assembly, except my aunt’s---

She, to be sure, was so particular with her rumpt gown and petticoat, her scanty curls, her lappet-head, deep triple ruffles, and high stays, that every body looked at her with surprise; some whispered, and some tittered; and lady Griskin, by whom we were introduced, flatly told her, she was twenty good years behind the fashion.

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Lady Griskin is a person of fashion, to whom we have the honour to be related. She keeps a small rout at her own house, never exceeding ten or a dozen card-tables, but these are frequented by the best company in town---

She has been so obliging as to introduce my aunt and me to some of her particular friends of quality, who treat us with the most familiar good humour: we have once dined with her, and she takes the trouble to direct us in all our motions. I am so happy as to have gained her good will to such a degree, that she sometimes adjusts my cap with her own hands; and she has given me a kind invitation to stay with her all the winter. This, however, has been cruelly declined by my uncle, who seems to be (I know not how) prejudiced against the good lady; for, whenever my aunt happens to speak in her commendation, I observe that he makes wry faces, though he says nothing---

Perhaps, indeed, these grimaces may be the effect of pain arising from the gout and rheumatism, with which he is sadly distressed---To me, however, he is always good natured and generous,
even beyond my wish...............................

ever affectionate,

Lydia Melford.

London, May 31.