Friday, 8 April 2011

Laurelia, or The Two Nations -- A Penny Dreadful

One fair spring evening, as the slowly sinking sun cast its benign rays over the whole shimmering, pulsating, still bustling city, the brightest and most fashionable of the capital's inhabitants repaired to a grand house in Fitzroy Square. It was a dazzling assembly, but by common consent none among them dazzled so brightly as the young and celebrated Lady Laurelia Penworthy. In her diminutive yet comely person were united the liveliest of minds and the tenderest of social consciences. Her only fault - if it was indeed a fault - was a tendency to view the world as a story of which she was the heroine. Perhaps that was the key to her success. On this evening she was indeed the cynosure of all those present; and yet while she was fully in the company she was not fully of it; or so it seemed to the gentleman taking the air with her on the balcony. He pressed her for some explanation; and she, after hesitating for a moment or two, condescended to answer.

"I have always desired," she began, "to experience life as it is lived by the common run of people. To know its joys and sorrows. To inhale cheap tobacco and dance in uncouth taverns. To dwell awhile in a garret above some dingy emporium. Even -- "

She paused, overcome for the moment by a kind of giddy excitement.

"Even to lose myself in amorous dalliance with some peddlar or coachman."

Sebastian Dullbore raised his eyebrows. He had always cultivated an air of nonchalance, even of nonconformity, as befits the editor of a radical literary journal. This, though, was too much. He dragged on his cigar.

"My dear Laurelia," he resumed. "I swear you mean to provoke me."

"No indeed," returned the maid (for she still bore the aspect of a maid, and I thus suppose we must accord her the presumption of an uncorrupted youth), "I consider myself to be in truth one with the downtrodden masses. Why only last week I espied a beggar, cadging potatoes in Covent Garden, set upon by the constable of police. Heedless of my own safety I remonstrated with the constable until he desisted; after which I cast a closer eye upon the vagrant. There was something noble in his bearing, notwithstanding the mighty blow he had received, and I determined upon a bold experiment. I took him to my house; I had the servants bathe him and dress him in a tailcoat; and that evening I brought him to a grand reception at the Duke of Omnium's."

Sebastian laughed. It was the supreme earnestness with which Lady Laurelia indulged her foibles that made her so endearing; although he was painfully conscious that not all his acquaintanceship shared this opinion.

"I suppose he was a great success," he ventured.

"He was indeed. I put it about that he was my cousin, returned from the Colonies having made a vast fortune but having lost, alas, the finer points of etiquette. The disguise was perfect; and my new friend was possessed of natural wits and an untutored loquacity that made him able to converse on equal terms with lords and members of Parliament. Yet there was something painful about the gathering."

"How so? His Grace is famous for his liberality. There are a thousand people in this city who would pay fifteen guineas for such an invitation."

"And a hundred thousand for whom the Duke of Omnium is as inconceivable a creature as a mastodon or a brontosaurus," Lady Laurelia rejoindered. "A hundred thousand in this very city who struggle each day for bread, who lead lives of squalor and mental impoverishment not fifty yards from this very spot. What is the Duke of Omnium to a dustman, or a dustman to the Duke of Omnium?"

"Or what is Lady Laurelia Penworthy, for that matter?" interjected her companion.

"Mr Dullbore, you mistake me," Laurelia responded with redoubled passion. "I am indeed a dweller in two worlds. For when I could no more bear with His Lordship's tedious guests I suffered my new friend to take me with him for a walk along the riverbank, the place of resort of the labouring poor; and there with unpretentious spontaneity he lit me a cigarette; and Mr Dullbore, I condescended to accept it. Truly I did so; and as I inhaled, each breath was like a new epiphany. This is truth; this is reality; this is the world as it is, not as fine persons who congregate in great houses will have it so. A world of men and women - yes, women too. Yet it remains unregarded, ignored, unknown. Well, it will unknown no longer; for I Laurelia Penworthy shall be its Voice. Yes indeed, Sebastian, I shall be its voice, and you will carry my voice throughout the land."

"A splendid notion indeed," said he. "But have you seen what has become of our circulation?"