Richard Altick

Richard Altick wrote about the Victorian freaks in The shows of London (1978). His other books include The English Common Reader, a social history of the 19th-century reading public and Victorian People and Ideas. He is Regents’ Professor of English at Ohio State University.


Richard Altick, 29 October 1987

Whether by happy accident or design, the publication of Peter Jackson’s George Scharf’s London coincided with the opening of a notable exhibition at the Museum of London called simply ‘Londoners’. Although Scharf’s oeuvre is most readily classified as topographical art, his sketches are as descriptive of the everyday Londoners who went about their lawful pursuits in the decades between 1820 and 1850 as they are of sides of the emerging metropolis which down to that time were largely neglected by the best-known London iconographers. Canaletto’s scores of panoramic scenes with their minutely sharp lines and Venetian brightness constitute an 18th-century version of London which it is hard to believe existed in all its radiant immaculacy. Hogarth’s London scenes foreshadowed Doré’s, more than a century later, in their depiction of a dark purgatory peopled with prostitutes, pimps, rakes, gin-drinkers, beggars and all the other members of a seamy or downright criminal underclass. The most ample previously known visual accounts of the late Regency and early Victorian London that Scharf knew were left by artists, notably Thomas Hosmer Shepherd and Thomas Shotter Boys, whose eyes were fixed on the city’s architectural splendours, old and new. As with Canaletto’s paintings, one has the feeling that Shepherd and Boys ignored the people normally present in the vicinity and subsequently introduced a few scattered figures as an afterthought, an unconvincing affectation of realism that was not allowed to distract attention from the buildings themselves.

Possibility throbs

Richard Altick, 23 July 1987

By 1828, the courtyard of the Palais-Royal in Paris, once a fashionable bazaar, had degenerated into the commercial slum Balzac would later describe in Les Illusions Perdues: three rows of badly lit and leaky shops and sheds, the squalid premises of trades-persons ranging from booksellers to prostitutes. At that moment, the landowner, the Duc d’Orléans, decided to restore the valuable property to its former use by pulling down the ramshackle structures and erecting in their stead a pair of shining, spacious arcades with iron frameworks and roofs and walls of glass. London’s Burlington Arcade, opened a dozen years earlier, was the partial model for the new Galerie d’Orléans, but this enterprise was far to outdo it in innovative boldness and size.

All in pawn

Richard Altick, 19 June 1986

Of the thousands of men and women whose pens turned words into (someone’s) wealth in 19th-century England, only a few are remembered today – the novelists, poets and essayists preserved in the amber of literary histories, reprint series and school syllabi. Not that these writers were necessarily the superstars of their own day. Some of them were, but the majority of the authors who were most widely read and respected by their contemporaries have all but disappeared from critical view. Often assisted by income from other professions or from inheritances, some made good livings. At a great economic and social distance from them were the wretched hacks who sought to keep starvation at bay by composing doggerel advertisements for E. Moses and Sons’ ready-made clothing and Warren’s boot blacking, and their equally shabby colleagues who ground out urban ballads, sensational broadsides and last dying speeches of executed criminals for the street trade described in the pages of Henry Mayhew.’

Behind the Veil

Richard Altick, 6 March 1986

The need was pressing, and the answer promptly came, trailing clouds of ectoplasm. Tennyson’s In Memoriam, an instant best-seller in 1850, won him the laureateship largely because its long sequence of troubled, plaintive lyrics, written over a span of 17 years, told a story and described a situation that struck home to countless readers: the sudden death of a beloved friend and the questions it raised about the immortality of the soul and the possibility of spiritual communion now and physical reunion in the hereafter. ‘O for thy voice to soothe and bless!’ cried Tennyson, addressing the deceased Arthur Hallam. ‘What hope of answer, or redress? Behind the veil, behind the veil.’


Richard Altick, 19 July 1984

Most conscientious biographers are aware of their subjects’ shades vigilantly or solicitously hovering over their shoulders as they write. The biographer of Thomas Carlyle is supervised more severely than most: the irritable, brooding Scotsman, the would-be redeemer, and, failing that, the scourge of Victorian England, seems to breathe flame down his neck. To write about Carlyle with both authority and imagination is a daunting enterprise. For one thing, Dr Johnson apart, no English man of letters has ever held a higher opinion of the dignity of biography as a literary form, or inferentially expected more from its practitioners. Carlyle’s most famous dictum, ‘History is the essence of innumerable biographies,’ may have been meant only metaphorically, but another is specific enough: ‘Biography is by nature the most universally profitable, universally pleasant of all things: especially biography of distinguished individuals.’

Trollope’s Delight

Richard Altick, 3 May 1984

Anthony Trollope was a self-confessed workaholic. ‘If my success were equal to my energy,’ he remarked at the age of 55, ‘I should be a great man.’ He was also a compulsive writer. Ten years later, aware of advancing age, he told his son: ‘I finished on Thursday the novel I was writing, and on Friday I began another. Nothing really frightens me but the idea of enforced idleness. As long as I can write books, even though they may not be published, I think that I can be happy.’ He had retired 13 years earlier from the responsible position of travelling Post Office surveyor which he had held during most of his wage-earning life. The only complaint he voiced about this and his other money-making occupation was that they left insufficient time for his true passion, which was hunting. ‘I have been trying to hunt three days a week,’ he wrote his friend and publisher George Smith. ‘I find it must be only two. Mortal man cannot write novels, do the Post Office, and go out three days.’ ‘In some coming perfect world,’ he said on another occasion, ‘there will be hunting 12 months in the year.’

Mutual Friend

Richard Altick, 22 December 1983

The celebrated Victorian solicitor George Lewis began his career of more than half a century in the law shop of his father, whose waiting-room was constantly crowded with supplicants for his services. As John Juxon suggests, the elder Lewis could have served as a model for the abrasive Mr Jaggers in Great Expectations, who suspended his moral judgment when dealing with his greasy, grimy riffraff of clients – cracksmen, fences, thieves – and then, in revulsion, went to a washbasin and scrubbed his hands with water and scented soap and even, in extreme cases, gargled. But in the course of time his son was transformed into the type of lawyer who occupies the other end of the Dickensian gamut: a gentleman ‘surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences, of which he is known to be the silent depository. There are noble Mausoleums … which perhaps hold fewer noble secrets than walk abroad among men shut up in the breast’ of such a person. This is Dickens, introducing the solicitor Tulkinghorn in Bleak House. But it might equally well be John Juxon, describing George Lewis.–

Dearest Papa

Richard Altick, 1 September 1983

Toward the end of their correspondence, which spanned years 1851-79, John Ruskin, who hitherto had addressed Thomas Carlyle more or less in terms of deferential formality (‘Dear Mr Carlyle’), suddenly shifted to ‘Dearest Papa’, signing himself ‘Ever your loving disciple-son’. Whatever the immediate reasons for the change, it simply made explicit Ruskin’s steady conception of his relation to Carlyle, the older man by 24 years. In 1866, indeed, as if he were not busy enough, he had offered to become Carlyle’s amanuensis. ‘I have a notion it would be very wholesome work for me, & it would be very proud & dear for me.’

The Old Corrector

Richard Altick, 4 November 1982

Once convicted, the greatest forgers of English literary documents have stayed convicted. In two famous cases, those of the 17-year-old Thomas Chatterton, who fabricated poems he attributed to a mythical 15th-century Bristol monk, and the equally immature William Henry Ireland, who forged manuscripts by Shakespeare before which Boswell knelt in adoration, apologists have found a degree of extenuation in claiming that theirs were the follies of ambitious but misguided youth. Still, their guilt remains unquestioned, as does that of the monarch of them all, the diabolically clever Thomas J. Wise. When the Wise scandal erupted in 1934, only two or three quavering voices were raised in his defence and then were heard no more. John Payne Collier also had a few defenders at the outset of his ordeal, but after his presumed exposure was complete, no one publicly doubted his guilt, or that his purposes in committing his sensational hoax were an unforgivable breach of scholarly integrity.

Faces of the People

Richard Altick, 19 August 1982

‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,’ said King Duncan in the fourth scene of Macbeth. But there was, and Shakespeare knew this. Almost at the moment he was writing the play, a new law required that anybody who professed ‘a knowledge of phisnognomie’ – one version of the name by which the practice of reading character in facial features was known to the learned – was to be ‘openly whipped untill his body be bloudye’. Obviously, physiognomy was then regarded with some scepticism. But Francis Bacon, the harbinger of modern science, was not among the doubters. He thought physiognomy had ‘a solide ground in nature’ so long as it was not ‘coupled with superstitious and fantasticall arts’ such as astrology and even sorcery, with which, as the Elizabethan prohibition implies, it was often associated.

Saint John Henry

Richard Altick, 5 August 1982

The unseen spectator who was most involved in Pope John Paul’s progress through Britain, formerly in partibus infidelium, was the spirit of John Henry Newman, dead these 92 years, who doubtless observed the proceedings with mixed feelings. Surely Newman, a man of retiring temperament, would have been horrified by the crowds and the publicity which for the moment turned the search for a Via Media into a media event. Newman, as it happens, was one of the first public figures ever to complain of unwelcome attention from the press. In his Apologia pro Vita Sua he describes how he was hounded by newspapers when he left Oxford on what proved to be his way to Rome:


Richard Altick, 3 December 1981

It was the muddiest fiasco since the flooding Avon put paid, just seventy years earlier, to Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee extravaganza at Stratford. In 1839 the 26-year-old Earl of Eglinton held at his Scottish estate a magnificent chivalric entertainment, complete with chain-mailed jousters on caparisoned horses, a court of noble women attending the Queen of Beauty, and all the pageantry and bloodless combat proper to Medieval entertainment. The cream of society was invited and spent a huge sum outfitting itself. On the opening day the road to Eglinton was clogged for thirty miles as 100,000 commoners (it was said) gathered to watch Scott’s romances brought to life. But within a few hours a raging storm sent them slogging homeward through morasses of mud, and the blue-blooded cast and audience, their Medieval hair-dos now sodden and lank, retreated into marquees that leaked water at every crevice. The next day, the torrent continuing, the knights tilted with mops and broomsticks in the waterlogged ballroom. The press had a field day of its own. In that year of severe depression, with the clouds of Chartism steadily darkening, the nation could do with a spot of comic relief, especially in the form of the aristocracy making expensive fools of themselves.

Out of the Closet

Richard Altick, 20 August 1981

Erotica are the non-books of the bibliographical world. In most, if not all, of the standard records of book production and book possession their existence has gone unnoticed. They have seldom been recorded in the lists of books entered for copyright at the British Library or the Library of Congress, for the understandable reason that their secret publishers did not wish to bring them to any form of official attention. Historically, in nearly all libraries they have not only been segregated from other books but kept in limbo, their catalogues, if any, withheld from the public as resolutely as the collections themselves. The fact that, in British and American libraries, ‘curiosa’ (another euphemism for sex books) were kept under lock and key in the head librarian’s office gave rise to the perennial fancy in the profession – a gossipy morsel that must already have been making the rounds in the staff canteen at Alexandria – that he sometimes sequestered himself in order to have a furtive go at some choice item in the closet. In Victorian times, this might have been interpreted as an indulgence he allowed himself after having performed another service incumbent on him as a guardian of public morality, the daily scissoring of racing news from the papers before they were put on the reading-room racks.

Pity the monsters

Richard Altick, 18 December 1980

The thing arose slowly and let the blanket that covered its head and back fall to the ground. There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen. In the course of my profession I had come upon lamentable deformities of the face due to injury or disease, as well as mutilations and contortions of the body depending upon like causes; but at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed. He was naked to the waist, his feet were bare, he wore a pair of threadbare trousers that had once belonged to some fat gentleman’s dress suit.

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