Critical Articles by Jenny Marx

2. The London Season

Source: Marx Engels On Literature and Art, Progress Publishers, 1976;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

London, end of March 1876

The London season has begun. Parliament is in session and “in” and “out” quarrel with each other. In opposition the supple Gladstone attacks the sophistic Disraeli in government, as once the latter attacked him; the Times thunders against the Prime Minister’s anti-Russian policies. The Queen has become Empress and is going to Germany, and John Bull huffs and puffs and is peeved because there is no one to rule him apart from the 12-year-old Prince of Wales. Bertchen Ulysses is returning home, heavily laden with the treasure; of India, to his Penelope and the “youngsters,” to recuperate from riding elephants and to the honours in the drawing rooms and at the levées of the Padisha-Mother. The shops have put on their best spring and summer finery and the huge display windows are resplendent with the latest fashions. Light blue and dark blue, that is Cambridge and Oxford, will take each other’s measure in the art of rowing on April 1 in the annual boat-race (there is no contest of minds). On this festive day the whole of London splits into two camps; elegant ladies sail forth in violet-blue silk, schoolchildren pin on Cambridge or Oxford bows and even the coachmen and horses are adorned with light- or dark-blue rosettes. It is a real holiday for the Cockneys.

The Italian Opera has opened the season with Wilhelm Tell. The Italian singers arrive with the swallows, most of them honest Germans, French, Hungarians and Russians, to whose names some kind of Italian final syllable is attached in order to lend them cachet. In their popular Monday concerts, Joachim and Clara Schumann are delighting, for the most part musical philistines. Admirers of Shakespeare are, as before, making pilgrimages to see Irving’s Othello at the Lyceum Theatre, where morning performances of Othello, Hamlet and Macbeth have been announced. High society, not excluding princes and princesses of the royal blood (conspicuous by its absence at Shakespeare performances), are streaming into the tiny Prince of Wales Theatre to see Marie Wilton as Peg Woffington in a mediocre drama by Tom Taylor. With her charm and naturalness, the originality of her acting and the unique personal magic with which she endows all her characters, Marie Wilton is reminiscent of Aimée Declée, too early departed from this life, and often, too, of the tiny and spirited Céline Chamont. Sardou’s “pattes de mouche” are being presented at the Court Theatre in a limp and mutilated translation. A dramatised version of Dickens Bleak House is on at the Globe Theatre, the little beggar-boy Jo being played with deeply affecting pathos by Jenny Lee.

The other thirty theatres are making great preparations to give a worthy reception to the foreigners who will be flocking here from all parts of the world, as well as to our own country cousins. Drawing rooms, levées, concerts, balls, gala performances, garden parties and flower, dog, cat and rabbit shows all come round every year with the spring. This season our good John Bull is the richer by two national institutions — the skating rink and the spelling bee. Your London correspondent has already described both of these and I will therefore limit myself to a few supplementary observations.

The largest possible arena is sought out for use as a skating rink. The floor is either of asphalt or polished wood. The skates, which are intended for this slippery terrain, are furnished with four small wheels. The English petits crevés [young men about town] who tread on “thin ice” here appear in long ulsters like nightshirts, with a buttonhole of violets or a camellia; the young “bread and butter misses” [teen-age girls] and more mature beauties, trembling with fright, parade in high-heeled boots, concealed springs in which lend an artificial aristocratic lift to flat English feet.

Spelling bees have sprung up in recent months like mushrooms and there are already more than three hundred. A committee, president, referees, examiners and prize-givers are chosen for these spelling tournaments and prizes of from £50 to five shillings are awarded. Last week a big spelling bee took place in St. James Hall. Well-known men of letters, lawyers and military gentlemen were on the committee; the examiner was a clergyman and the president a “nobleman valiant and bold, but his face and his family were wonderfully old.” Two hundred ladies plunged into this spelling battle, armed with heavy cannon in the shape of enormous dictionaries.

The prize was £50.

The competition began with easy Anglo-Saxon words and all went splendidly and in great good humour. Then followed difficult, outlandish, words of Greek origin and the heroines of the fray shrank to thirty-nine. By the time technical terms came up no more than nineteen champions of the ABC stood in the breach. Finally only two Richmonds remained on the battlefield, one of whom won the prize. A discussion then developed over this, quarrels arose over formal details, the method of examination was attacked and people grew heated arguing “for” and “against.” The tumult, shouting and noise grew, the nobleman was obliged to place the “hat” on his noble head and the gathering broke up amid violent argument and the greatest confusion.

Old merry England — “why skating rink and spelling bee, what on earth are they to thee?”

And we are asking — what next?