Oceans of Naughtiness

The Victorian period witnessed a massive expansion of local government and the centralized state, providing occupations for a vast number of civil administrators, teachers, doctors, lawyers and civil servants. In the process, small towns turned into cities. Ports like Bristol and Liverpool expanded dramatically, while London remained the country’s greatest trading magnet. Rapid urban growth produced new hardships, because housing stock and sanitary facilities could not keep pace. Houses were built cheaply and large parts of cities turned into dirty slums which were breeding grounds for diseases. Industrialization brought pollution and an increase in harmful waste. Smoke blocked out most of the light. A layer of dust produced by factories using coal-generated steam to power their machines covered the streets like a black blanket. Improvements were made only gradually. Urban renovation was not necessarily motivated by a willingness to combat social ills, but by the fear of popular unrest. Deprivation was associated above all with London’s East End. It was outside the Blind Beggar public house on Whitechapel Road that William Booth founded the Salvation Army; journalist and social investigator Henry Mayhew undertook his unique research here around the middle of the century that would lead to his four-volume survey of London Labour and the London Poor; Dickens drew throughout his work on his experiences of hardship in East London where his godfather had a sail making business in Limehouse; and Arthur Morrison was a native Cockney who, in A Child of the Jago, gave a moving fictional account of the extreme poverty encountered in the Old Nichols Street Rookery (a rookery is a colony of breeding birds: the term was borrowed as a name for dense slum housing). The East End of London was a social nightmare, a gothic tale of contemporary suffering.

This however was one of the more bizarre aspects of London’s deprivation. By the 1890s the idea of ‘slumming it’ in the dark and ‘forbidden’ East End had become a favourite pastime of the urban wealthy. Oscar Wilde’s hedonistic Dorian Gray gave the idea a literary status. The hero of the novel travels into the dark streets and alleys of Whitechapel to sample the delights of entertainment on offer there. Music halls, cellars, and caves had begun in the 1790s as so-called Glee and Catch Clubs that were formed in public houses allowing men to sing, drink, eat, smoke, and drop all outward signs of respectability and restraint. Singing was the main attraction in these halls, caves, and holes. Songs were based on the adverse social conditions of the time, focusing on sex, crime, overcrowding, slum life, etc. Music halls offered songs with catchy and preferably rude choruses. These songs were condemned by moralists as the entertainment of an uncultured audience. The halls frequently gave rise to fears concerning public morality. Sometimes, the problems involved prostitution in or around the halls; at other times, it might be the rude content of a song or dance.

Some contemporary books on London’s deprivation provided both an image of dreadful social conditions and vivid descriptions of the entertainment on offer in various clubs and caves. The most outstanding work in that category was published in 1872 by London-born playwright and journalist (William) Blanchard Jerrold. The book is called London: a Pilgrimage. The word ‘pilgrimage’ is a reminder of the fact that such a journey was considered to be one of great moral significance. An important meeting preceded this publication. Gustave Doré was a prolific (book) illustrator who, during his lifetime, was highly appreciated both in Britain and in his native France. He worked as much for London as for Paris publishers. From 1868, the ‘Doré Gallery’ in New Bond Street displayed examples of his work in every genre. He also contributed regularly to the ‘Illustrated London News’. The meeting between Jerrold and Doré took place in 1869 when the latter was in London having talks with his English publisher. Jerrold suggested to the French artist that they worked together to produce a comprehensive portrait of London life. They signed a lucrative contract with their publishers. Doré was paid a vast sum for the production of 180 engravings. The book is a hellish vision of East End poverty. Doré’s London, with its telling contrasts between affluence and apocalyptic misery, perfectly captured the public mood at the time. Of the many social investigations undertaken by writers and graphic artists in the Victorian era, the Pilgrimage had the most enduring appeal for both the public and for later artists. Vincent van Gogh’s admiration for these London illustrations led him to paint a version of Doré’s haunting image of dehumanized convicts circling a bleak exercise yard.

Doré included a picture of a music hall in his set of images to accompany Jerrold’s reflections on ‘London at Play’. London leisure for the author did not mean a survey of the treasures at the British Museum, nor a journey through the schools of painting at the National Gallery, or in the Bethnal Green Museum. Overworked Londoners required more ‘violent delights’. In the Pilgrimage (chapter 20), Jerrold refers to a cellar which enjoyed a notorious reputation at the time, the so-called Cave of Harmony. Male members of all social classes, parliamentarians, academics, members of the fashionable elite, and those yearning for a wild night out, they all gathered in the Cave to enjoy the rough entertainment:

The Cave of Harmony was a cellar for shameful song-singing, where members of both Houses, the pick of the Universities, and the bucks of the Row, were content to dwell in indecencies forever. When there was a burst of unwonted enthusiasm, you might be certain that some genius of the place had soared to a happy combination of indecency with blasphemy.

In many ways, the London cellars and caves represented the manners of the time – food, alcohol, and licentiousness, set against the gloomy background of poverty and crime. The relative freedom with which ‘immoral’ songs were performed was due to the fact that the audience and the actors were composed of men only.

The name Cave of Harmony was not lost forever and would re-appear during the 1920s. This time however it was a single woman who played the lead role. Actress Elsa Lanchester is remembered for her role as the monster’s wife in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Born in London as Elizabeth Sullivan, she came of a Bohemian background. Her parents James (Shamus) Sullivan and Edith (Biddy) Lanchester were active socialists who rejected the institution of marriage. Biddy had been committed to an asylum in 1895 by her father and older brothers because of her unmarried state with James. The incident received worldwide press as the ‘Lanchester Kidnapping Case’. Her cause was taken up by fellow members of the Social Democratic Federation (she had been secretary to Eleanor Marx) and her release was secured when she was declared not to be insane. Unsurprisingly, Elsa was brought up in a family environment that preached nonconformity. She wanted to become a classical dancer and in 1912, at age of ten, was enrolled by her mother at Isadora Duncan’s ‘Bellevue School’ in Paris. In 1920 she made her London debut in a music hall act as an Egyptian dancer. In 1924 she and her partner, Harold Scott, opened a nightclub called the Cave of Harmony. They performed one-act plays of Pirandello and Chekhov and sang cabaret songs. Their establishment became a meeting place for London artists and intellectuals, including H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, and James Whale (who would direct The Bride of Frankenstein). A local journalist was the first to immortalize the ‘naughty lady’ in song, fatally struck by her bronze hair and brassy behaviour. His words make one wish to have known her:

I may be fast, I may be loose,
I may be easy to seduce.
I may not be particular
To keep the perpendicular.
But all my horizontal friends
Are Princes, Peers and Reverends.
When Tom or Dick or Bertie call,
You’ll find me strictly vertical!

Simultaneously, Elsa Lanchester joined a group of radical socialists called the ‘1917 Club’ and became something of their mascot. It fixed her image: a bohemian socialist with loose morals, outrageous behaviour, and brightly coloured unmentionables (the famous pink drawers she claimed never to have owned).

Elsa closed her nightclub in 1928 as her film career took off. She later noted that art was a word that ‘cloaked oceans of naughtiness’. She herself of course had enjoyed her fair share of it, working as a nude model by day and a theatrical impresario by night. Her biography is a long discourse of London exuberance and wildness during the Roaring Twenties. Years later, when she was married to Charles Laughton – he revealed his homosexuality to her after they were wed – and had established herself as a formidable presence in Hollywood, she would once again be singing the bawdy lyrics she had always loved so much. Among her favourites were songs with such unforgettable titles as ‘If You Peek in My Gazebo’ and ‘Fiji Fanny’.