BRANTWOOD, April 2, 1873.
IT is a bright morning, the first entirely clear one I have seen for months; such, indeed, as one used to see, before England was civilized into a blacksmith’s shop, often enough in the sweet spring-time; and as, perhaps, our children’s children may see often enough again, when their coals are burnt out, and they begin to understand that coals are not the source of all power Divine and human. In the meantime, as I say, it is months since I saw the sky, except through smoke, or the strange darkness brought by blighting wind (VIII. 23,) and if such weather as this is to last, I shall begin to congratulate myself, as the “Daily News” does its readers, on the “exceptionally high price of coal,” indicating a most satisfactory state of things, it appears, for the general wealth of the country, for, says that well-informed journal, on March 3rd, 1873, “The net result of the exceptionally high price of coal is in substance this, that the coal owners and workers obtain an unusually large share in the distribution of the gross produce of the community, and the real capital of the community is increased!”
This great and beautiful principle must of course apply to a rise in price in all other articles, as well as in coals. Accordingly, whenever you see the announcement in any shops, or by any advertising firm, that you can get something there cheaper than usual, remember the capital of the community is being diminished; and whenever you have reason to think that anybody has charged you threepence for a twopenny article, remember that, according to the “Daily News,” “the real capital of the community is increased.” And as I believe you may be generally certain, in the present state of trade, of being charged even as much as twenty-seven pence for a twopenny article, the capital of the community must be increasing very fast indeed. Holding these enlightened views on the subject of the prices of things, the “Daily News” cannot be expected to stoop to any consideration of their uses. But there is another “net result” of the high price of coal, besides the increase of the capital of the community, and a result which is more immediately your affair, namely, that a good many of you will die of cold. It may console you to reflect that a great many rich people will at least feel chilly, in economical drawing-rooms of state, and in ill-aired houses, rawly built on raw ground, and already mouldy for want of fires, though under a blackened sky.
What a pestilence of them, and unseemly plague of builders’ work — as if the bricks of Egypt had multiplied like its lice, and alighted like its locusts — has fallen on the suburbs of loathsome London!
The road from the village of Shirley, near Addington, where my father and mother are buried, to the house they lived in when I was four years old, lay, at that time, through a quite secluded district of field and wood, traversed here and there by winding lanes, and by one or two smooth mail-coach roads, beside which, at intervals of a mile or two, stood some gentleman’s house, with its lawn, gardens, offices, and attached fields, indicating a country life of long continuance and quiet respectability. Except such an one here and there, one saw no dwellings above the size of cottages or small farmsteads; these, wood-built usually, and thatched, their porches embroidered with honeysuckle, and their gardens with daisies, their doors mostly ajar, or with a half one shut to keep in the children, and a bricked or tiled footway from it to the wicket gate,— all neatly kept, and vivid with a sense of the quiet energies of their contented tenants, made the lane-turnings cheerful, and gleamed in half-hidden clusters beneath the slopes of the woodlands at Sydenham and Penge. There were no signs of distress, of effort, or of change; many of enjoyment, and not a few of wealth beyond the daily needs of life. That same district is now covered by, literally, many thousands, of houses built within the last ten years, of rotten brick, with various iron devices to hold it together. They, every one, have a drawing-room and dining, room, transparent from back to front, so that from the road one sees the people’s heads inside, clear against the light. They have a second story of bedrooms, and an underground one of kitchen. They are fastened in a Siamese-twin manner together by their sides, and each couple has a Greek or Gothic portico shared between them, with magnificent steps, and highly ornamented capitals. Attached to every double block are exactly similar double parallelograms of garden, laid out in new gravel and scanty turf, on the model of the pleasure grounds in the Crystal Palace, and enclosed by high, thin, and pale brick walls. The gardens in front are fenced from the road with an immense weight of cast iron, and entered between two square gate-posts, with projecting stucco cornices, bearing the information that the eligible residence within is Mortimer House or Montague Villa. On the other side of the road, which is laid freshly down with large flints, and is deep at the sides in ruts of yellow mud, one sees Burleigh House, or Devonshire Villa, still to let, and getting leprous in patches all over the fronts. Think what the real state of life is, for the people who are content to pass it in such places; and what the people themselves must be. Of the men, their wives, and children, who live in any of those houses, probably not the fifth part are possessed of one common manly or womanly skill, knowledge, or means of happiness. The men can indeed write, and cast accounts, and go to town every day to get their living by doing so; the women and children can perhaps read story-books, dance in a vulgar manner, and play on the piano with dull dexterities for exhibition; but not a member of the whole family can, in general, cook, sweep, knock in a nail, drive a stake, or spin a thread. They are still less capable of finer work. They know nothing of painting, sculpture, or architecture; of science, inaccurately, as much as may more or less account to them for Mr. Pepper’s ghost, and make them disbelieve in the existence of any other ghost but that, particularly the Holy One: of books, they read “Macmillan’s Magazine” on week days, and “Good Words” on Sundays, and are entirely ignorant of all the standard literature belonging to their own country, or to any other. They never think of taking a walk, and, the roads for six miles round them being ancle deep in mud and flints, they could not if they would. They cannot enjoy their gardens, for they have neither sense nor strength enough to work in them. The women and girls have no pleasures but in calling on each other in false hair, cheap dresses of gaudy stuffs, machine made, and high-heeled boots, of which the pattern was set to them by Parisian prostitutes of the lowest order: the men have no faculty, beyond that of cheating in business; no pleasures but in smoking or eating; and no ideas, nor any capacity of forming ideas, of anything that has yet been done of great, or seen of good, in this world.
That is the typical condition of five-sixths, at least, of the “rising” middle classes about London — the lodgers in those damp shells of brick, which one cannot say they inhabit, nor call their “houses;” nor “their’s” indeed, in any sense; but packing-cases in which they are temporarily stored, for bad use. Put the things on wheels (it is already done in America, but you must build them stronger first), and they are mere railway vans of brick, thrust in rows on the siding; vans full of monkeys that have lost the use of their legs. The baboons in Regent’s Park — with Mr. Darwin’s pardon — are of another species; a less passive, and infinitely wittier one. Here, behold, you have a group of gregarious creatures that cannot climb, and are entirely imitative, not as the apes, occasionally, for the humour of it, but all their lives long; the builders trying to build as Christians did once, though now swindling on every brick they lay; and the lodgers to live like the Duke of Devonshire, on the salaries of railroad clerks. Lodgers, do I say! Scarcely even that. Many a cottage, lodged in but for a year or two, has been made a true home, for that span of the owner’s life. In my next letter but one, I hope to give you some abstract of the man’s life whose testimony I want you to compare with that of Dickens, as to the positions of Master and Servant: meantime compare with what you may see of these railroad homes, this incidental notice by him of his first one.