Tea, gossip and The London Mob
MRS RAWNSLEY : Did you mention the Edsops were there ?
MRS GLASS : Only the vicar, as Mrs Edsop was away.
MRS RAWNSLEY : She has been absent on other occasions, I believe.
MRS GLASS : That now puts me in mind of a rather singular incident. Sir Morton mentioned his not having seen the lady in church the previous two Sundays, and the vicar then said she had gone to stay with a relative in Fradley.
MRS RAWNSLEY : I never knew she had family there.
MRS GLASS : Nor did I. Nor did anyone there. Then young Mr Warren pipes up, and recalls stopping over at Armitage on his way home from ‘Varsity, and swears he saw a lady very like Mrs Edsop, in walk and manner of dress, stepping across the town square. He did not finish, and Mr Edsop supposes he imagined it, but the young man is most insistent about it – is all set to quarrel on the matter, even to the point of suggesting that she was on the arm of an unknown gentleman – after which Mr Edsop grows very heated, and asks whether the young man is not trying to put a slur on a lady’s honour. Then young Mr Crewe joins in, even more heated, and as good as challenges young Mr Warren outright – though why he should want to involve himself, I cannot imagine . . .
(stirs tea vehemently).
MRS RAWNSLEY : He always seems a very upright, honest sort of young man to me –
MRS GLASS : That may be : I would not presume to judge; in any case, just as all seemed set to burst out, Sir Morton and the Italian gentleman intervened, and we finished the game almost amicably . . . and Sir Morton was so good as to hand me into the carriage himself.
MRS RAWNSLEY : I find it very shocking.
MRS GLASS : I can assure you, Mrs Rawnsley, that had any of the other ladies been unaccompanied, he would have done as much for them – he is the very soul of propriety . . .
MRS RAWNSLEY : What are you talking about, Mrs Glass ?
MRS GLASS : What are YOU talking about, Mrs Rawnsley ?
MRS RAWNSLEY : Why, young Mr Warren. To be so very definite, and on such a delicate matter –
MRS GLASS : I do not know that I am so much surprised myself. A close creature always, ever since Mr Edsop brought her from wherever he found her ; I always suspected he would rue the day. With such a young woman, of such mysterious background . .well, one never knows . . .
(taps teaspoon knowingly against cup).
MRS RAWNSLEY : Your Fanny would have made such a proper matron for the place. How is she, by the bye ?
MRS GLASS : Perfectly well; I do not think she ever gave him a second thought, such a plain man he was. . . no, the thought was all mine. . . but he would not have done – my Fanny needs a more lively and elegant companion to suit her ways . . .
MRS RAWNSLEY : Doubtless she will find such a one at the next ball, Mrs Glass.
MRS GLASS : More tea, Mrs Rawnsley?
The two ladies’ chatter is not perhaps quite on a level to cause real damage – but had the contents of their gossip been repeated in a public place some twenty or so years earlier, those involved might well have ended up in court for defamation.
Reputation in the 18th century was everything, an essential requisite for business, trade, the finding of a good match in marriage; slander and loose tongues could wreak mayhem in families and communities – yet the Georgian era bore witness to a change of social language and attitude, and saw a steady decline in defamation lawsuits over the 18th century.
All of this and much more is gone into with great detail by Robert Shoemaker (Professor of History at Sheffield University) in his book ‘The London Mob’ ; from Defamation to Gossip, from Riots and Mobs to Duels and Boxing Matches, he covers a wide range of social interaction and rebellion, the attendant changes in law and the evolution of a civic code.
On the question of gossip for instance, in chapter 3 (Public Insults) he observes that defamation suits in early 18th century London played a large part in court business, although interestingly, the gentry tended to be less involved. Despite the popular conception that slander was the domain of women, a great many perpetrators are shown to be men of fashion, usually indulging in casting slurs as some form of entertainment, although up to 1780 women still outnumbered men by 65%. He then demonstrates how public and social behaviour and attitudes towards the business of defamation changed over the succeeding years by focussing on the conversion of the dangerous scold to the less harmful gossip. According to an account from 1750 of a typical Sunday evening, between four and ten in the evening the local poor women in London suburbs would bring their chairs out into the street and “sit with their constant gossips, and pass verdicts on people . . .”
A further illustration of how domesticated gossip had become is by the fact that it was “exchanged primarily over the tea table (rather than on the streets)”; there was even a pamphlet was issued in 1760, ‘The New Art & Mystery of Gossiping’, apparently offering a list of women’s gossip clubs.
Shoemaker also points out how much blander gossip had become in drama since Restoration times; all in all, he suggests, Gossip had lost its power to damage Reputation.
Street life, punishment, riots, violence and the process of law: Professor Shoemaker shows, in clear and accessible language, the various changes in perception and behaviour, the transition from public to private in these various areas – whereby insults in the street declined, outdoor crimes became private homicides, and violence was progressively hidden behind closed doors.
‘The London Mob’ is a lively, informative book, offering a vivid picture of life in London across the 18th century. It contains excellent reference material and is well-illustrated with contemporary prints, including works by Gillray, Rowlandson and Hogarth; indeed, few works on 18th century social life would feel complete without Hogarth’s Gin Lane.
Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction requiring a background to Georgian England, whether you are boning up for a social history thesis, or whether you love anything pertaining to the Age of Enlightenment, this is a highly entertaining read.
Thoroughly recommended; more on this anon . . .
(Robert Shoemaker is also co-director of The Old Bailey Proceedings : http://www.oldbaileyonline.org, database of all printed trial accounts 1674-1834)
Other links which might be of interest : Smuggled tea