Earlier this year, Huffington Post writer Candace Davis asked whether ‘people-watching’ – sitting in the window of a café and analyzing passers-by – was an entirely harmless exercise. In an age of camera phones, youtube uploads, and Google Glass, it seems that the idea of what is acceptable behaviour towards strangers in public is being reconfigured. People-watching itself, though, isn’t – as Davis noted – a new phenomenon, and the desire to people-watch is certainly noticeable in the nineteenth century. The activity of promenading – taking a leisurely walk through a scenic or popular area – was more than simple physical activity, being a way for ladies and gentlemen turned out in their finest clothes to both see and be seen. Judith Walkowitz has highlighted how participating in public space had its darker side too, with street harassment an increasingly common occurrence for urban women in late Victorian London.
This awareness of public space as an arena in which one’s behaviour and appearance were on show is beautifully captured by a series of mid nineteenth-century works by Albert Richard Smith, whose comic writing provides a fascinating window onto social attitudes of the day. Born in 1816, Smith followed in his father’s footsteps to become a surgeon. His literary endeavours rather seem to have eclipsed the medical, however: he contributed to Punch, set up his own magazine titled The Man in the Moon, and penned a popular account of his ascent of Mont Blanc that was turned into a stage show. His medical background showed through in many of his works. The humorous ‘Confessions of a Dissecting Room Porter’ series in the Medical Times and Gazette followed the fortunes of porter Jasper Buddle, whilst he transformed modern society into a kind of scientific space for observation in The Physiology of Evening Parties (1846) and The Natural History of the Gent (1847).
The Natural History of the Gent was one of a series of 'social zoologies' (as they were described by Smith) that could be scathing in their lampooning of contemporary social groups. Smith reserved his most furious contempt for the Gents, a group ‘of comparatively late creation’. ‘Social naturalists had overlooked [them]’, he said, yet they could be seen all over London. ‘[T]he finest specimens may be seen in the coloured “fashions”, with which certain comically-disposed tailors adorn their windows’, he wrote. The Gent thinks he is ‘rather the thing’, strutting around town like a peacock making useless loud remarks and harassing passing women. He emerges after dusk when his day’s work is completed, and his natural habitat is the theatre – though at certain times of the year he can be seen migrating, with other Gents, to Gravesend or Ramsgate.
Subtly different to the Gent was the ‘Idler upon Town’, who was meticulously sub-divided into further categories in The Natural History of the Idler upon Town (1848). Here we meet the ‘West-End loungers’ and ‘Mooners’, who – like magpies – are captivated by the shiny displays of London shop windows, standing ‘riveted by the lollipops, oyster-shells, [and] rashers of saccharine bacon’. The ‘Street Boys’ were more troublesome, like mosquitoes ‘who sting and buzz about you, but are never to be caught’, shouting rude remarks to passing gentlemen and begging for coppers.
Smith was rather more complimentary about the female of the species in The Natural History of the Ballet-Girl (1847). ‘We have disposed of The Vermin in the Gents. Let us hope in the Ballet-girl we may now take up a more agreeable subject – The Butterflies.’ The ballet-girl, like the butterfly, passes through several phases to become a ‘flying fairy’, working arduous hours and carrying out menial household tasks before reaching the glory of the stage. She is fond of finery and flowers, but also more basic delights: she ‘prefers stout to champagne’ and has ‘a great notion of coffee’.
Whilst the classification or ‘typing’ of people in the nineteenth century often takes on a sinister aspect – Alphonse Bertillon’s attempts to codify the criminal body, for example – Smith’s series is a light-hearted endeavour, comparing human and animal social groups for comic effect. Like The Telegraph’s ‘Social Stereotypes’ series – The Party Blonde, The Embarrassing Parents, etc. – Smith’s pieces, in their biting satire, could be read with amusement by the self-confessed Gent as well as his critics. I like to think that Smith himself was too much of a gentleman (decidedly not a Gent) that, had he found himself in the digital age, he wouldn’t have channelled his wit into People of Walmart-style blogs or Reddit threads, but I’ve no doubt he would have spent many an hour reading them…