The title tells you that London is the real subject of the novel; that is, the vortex of dissipation that is Regency London. "Anecdotes of living characters in high life" tells us the story portrays the upper classes behaving badly, so the readers from the growing middle classes could tut-tut over baronets who were boobies, and silly knights who were selfish gourmands, and duchesses who gambled their fortunes away. Even the Prince of Wales (that is, George just before he became Prince Regent), makes an appearance and is upbraided for his faults.
So this is one of those novels that purports to combat vice by describing vice. Since gambling strikes me as being, as one wag put it, a tax on the mathematically incompetent, I am not titillated by descriptions of it. I'm just alternately bored and disgusted.
The author also commits poetry--he includes a long and tragic poem about a young man who ruins others and ruins himself by gaming. The poem provides the strong moral lesson which is missing from the main storyline; serious moral lessons were essential to getting a good review in those days. With so many people opposing novel-reading, defenders of the novel countered that that a well -told story could effectively convey a moral lesson.
But Metropolis's plot provides, at best, a morally ambiguous tale.
Brian Bonnycastle is the son of an impoverished vicar with a large family. “A rich merchant, a Mr. Hewson, of St. MaryAxe, London, an old acquaintance of the vicar, had offered to ease him of part of his heavy family, by taking Brian, the eldest son, into his counting-house, which offer of disinterested friendship Mr. Bonnycastle had joyfully accepted.” Mr. Hewson is portrayed as intelligent, upright, kind, and humane, unlike so many portraits of vulgar merchants of the time. Brian lives with the family and naturally, he falls in love with the beautiful Charlotte Hewson, and she with him. He feels his love is hopeless, given that she’s a wealthy heiress and he’s a clerk, but he is startled into confessing his love for her after coming to her defense at the opera.
Almost any time the heroine of a sentimental novel goes to the opera or theatre, something unpleasant happens, usually involving some boorish and drunken “gentleman” who takes liberties with her. In this case, the boorish gentlemen somehow know that Charlotte is a merchant’s daughter and one of them insults her thus: “As she turned away to avoid their impertinent gaze, one of them raised the edge of her hat,” praises her beauty, and asks her to become his mistress: “Will you be my chere amie, and exchange a shop for elegant apartments?”
Brian punches the cad in the face, whereupon our hero is challenged to a duel, which he accepts. An army captain, overhearing the confrontation, offers himself as Brian’s second. Both combatants are wounded. Luckily for the naïve Brian, his new friend Captain Fascine finds him an excellent surgeon to remove the bullet and heal the wound. Fascine will become the secondary hero and fall in love with Charlotte’s best friend, the saucy Miss Thrum.
The uproar over the duel means that Brian’s love for Charlotte, and her love for him, are out in the open and (to my surprise) the wealth disparity is not an impediment. Mr. Hewson blesses the engagement, in recognition of Brian's many virtues and his great promise. So what does Brian do? He immediately throws it all away, through the bad influence of Charlotte’s brother, who has returned from the Grand Tour. He takes Brian along to his favorite London brothels and gaming dens. From this point in the novel, we spend a lot of time in Covent Garden and other spots. The narrative is never explicit or graphic, but we learn that our hero sleeps with prostitutes and acquires a mistress, named Mrs. Fisher.
As the story progresses, more characters are introduced; a duchess who is a gambling addict, a girl sold into a loveless marriage, a baronet’s widow who is an Amazon, a gluttonous knight, and a clever servant who speaks with a strong West Country accent: (Wull ye take me up or no, Zur? I hopes I ben’t rude, but I don’t like to hear my mare run down").
Brian is rescued from his downward course when he’s taken up by a reformed gambler named Verjuice. Well, reformed in a very particular sense. Verjuice opens Brian’s eyes to the fact that he’s being fleeced by his Covent Garden friends. He teaches Brian how to out-sharp the sharpers; and instead of losing money, he and Verjuice start building up a handsome stake.
Brian wants to win Charlotte back but he knows he'll never be allowed to marry her so long as he is nothing more than a professional gambler. He proposes that he should “bestow my money [i.e. bribe] any person possessed of sufficient interest to procure me a genteel post under Government.” Although nothing comes of this, his mistress Mrs. Fisher uses her “interest” to get a promotion for Brian’s friend Captain Fascine. This is all related in a matter-of-fact way because this is how you get ahead in Regency England. No-one condemns it. I think Austen, likewise, treats the question of interest and promotion as a fact of life in Mansfield Park, though some have claimed to find hidden hints that she criticized the status quo. We might note that Jane’s father applied to anyone of influence in his personal network to help advance the naval careers of his sons and the family rejoiced whenever they did advance. A fact of life.
Nothing come of that scheme. Brian continues to gamble and he becomes entangled with a duchess behind Charlotte's back. Is this an attempt at creating a Tom Jones-like scenario? He is also shown as a kind-hearted person who performs acts of generosity and heroism. Rewards, in the form of useful coincidences, arise from Brian's actions. He helps a poor widow and the lodger at her house turns out to be a helpful ally. And no prize for guessing that the two young ladies Brian rescues from a runaway carriage are Charlotte and her friend Miss Thrum. Through various clumsy plot contrivances, Brian gains back the good will of the Hewsons and his own father, while he accumulates enough money through gambling to launch a respectable career as a banker.
So Brian is redeemed without having to go through much suffering. Any redeeming features to this novel? Academics might find it interesting as an example of a novel where the main characters (Brian and especially Verjuice) are of humble birth, and the merchant class is treated with respect while the high-born are mostly foolish or venal and where the parents of the two loving couples let their daughters marry for love. Charlotte's brother, who reforms himself and apologizes for drawing Brian “into the vortex of his dissipation,” comes back to England with a Spanish heiress. The fact that she is Roman Catholic is not an issue. Therefore you could argue that this novel champions social equality, companionate marriage, and an end to religious bigotry. However, I don't think we can credit Barrett with trying to inject liberalism into the sentimental novel. I think his aim was to write a whimsical, picaresque tale with more realistic moral ambiguity than one finds in most English novels of the period.
I always take note of any references to slavery and there are none in this novel. Two West Indians are mentioned only in connection "with the idea of rum, sugar, indigo, cotton, [which in turn] begets that of wealth, [therefore] the new comers instantly attracted the side-glances of the [other gamesters].” They turn out to be not West Indians at all but disguised professional sharpers.
If you are interested in Regency slang, this novel abounds with it. Mrs. Fisher suggests that Brian “take a ride,” meaning, that he turn highwayman. “Have you not been a gamester? And that, I am sure, is the worst calling of the two.” She also dismissively calls her former lover, the one she rejected for Brian, a “scrub.” She don’t want no scrubs. Mrs. Fisher is not punished by the author for being a fallen woman. She does not die of remorse. In fact she moves up in the world, becoming the mistress of H___ R______ H______. Some attention is paid to the Napoleonic wars and the disruption it caused to merchants.
"Cervantes Hogg" is the pseudonym of Eaton Stannard Barrett (1786–1820), an Irishman whose writing career focused on political satire in prose and verse. Though Metropolis didn't draw any notice, some of his other publications did. The Rising Sun (1808) drew a scathing review from The Satirist, or Monthly Meteor: “This wholesale dealer in scandalous anecdotes… presents himself to the world as a Satirist, armed in the cause of virtue, and ready to combat the monster vice, in all its horrid forms. If to display vice, in her most disgusting undress, be to serve the cause of virtue, he might indeed boast of being her champion…[b]ut indeed, to enumerate all the gross depravity which fills up the first volume, would be to make ourselves accomplices in this outrage against decency.” An old book catalogue describes The Rising Sun as "A severe satire on George IV, when Prince of Wales, and most of the leading characters of the period.” The Royal Collection Trust has a copy, perhaps thumbed by George himself. Novels like Metropolis which excoriated the upper classes and even included satirical portraits of real people were a popular sub-genre, after the runaway success of the novel A Winter in London (1806).
Barrett had one best-seller: The Heroine, or: Adventures of a Fair Romance Reader (1813), based on the trope of girls thinking that novels are just like real life. See also Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752). Jane Austen loved both of these books and Northanger Abbey is her entry into this sub-genre.
Wikipedia states, "little is known of Barrett's life. He appears to have died of tuberculosis in 1820, and yet he is mentioned as an author in a publication called The American Farmer, printed in Baltimore and dated 1823. Given his reported financial difficulties, it is possible, though unproven, that he fled to America to escape his debtors. His death was recorded in The Ladies' Monthly Museum, as having taken place in Glamorgan." There exists as well an official signed burial record, which I thin puts paid to the tantalizing theory that he escaped to America. Barrett was 35.
Hogg/Barrett explicitly editorializes against gambling for women: “The disgusting influence of this sordid vice is so pernicious to female minds, that they lose their fairest distinctions and privileges, together with the blushing honours of modesty and delicacy: a female mind deprived of these jewels, is one of the most desolate scenes in the world; and the ruinous consequences of gaming have already materially affected the character and deportment of the gentler sex; already the finest qualities of womanhood are perishing under its blast…”
This is a question sometimes discussed in Austen circles: are we supposed to believe that Mr. Knightley, Mr. Darcy, and all the other heroes, are virgins? If they are not virgins, then their choice of sexual partners would be limited to willing women of their own station (adultery or perhaps a merry widow), servants and girls from the lower classes (abuse of power), prostitutes or kept mistresses.
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