“In a set of pictures illustrative of Greek customs, it was quite impossible to leave out the hetæræ who gave such a peculiar colouring to Grecian levity, and exercised so potent a sway over the life of the younger members of the community. Abundant materials for such a sketch exist, for the Greeks made no secret of matters of this kind; the difficulty has been not to sacrifice the vividness of the picture of the ordinary intercourse with these women to the demands of our modern sense of propriety,” says Professor Becker, in his truly admirable work on the Private Life of the Ancient Greeks. In the same manner, and for the same reason, the modern sense of propriety is supposed to be in the way of any very graphic description of Cremorne; yet we have hetæræ almost as bewitching as Aspasia or the Corinthian Lais; and if our students, and learned clergy, and holy bishops write long articles about the Athenian Dionysia only held once a year, why should we not speak of ours which last all the summer, and the scene of which is Cremorne? At the Dionysia the most unbridled merriment and drunkenness were the order of the day, and were held quite blameless. For a while the most sober-minded bade adieu to the stringency of habit, following the well-known Greek maxim—
“Ne’er blush with drink to spice the feast’s gay hour,
And, reeling, own the mighty wine-god’s power.”
So it is in Cremorne. If Corinth had her groves sacred to Aphrodite, so has Cremorne. It offends our modern sense of propriety to speak of such matters. English people only see what they wish to see. If you are true—if you look at real life and say what you think of it, you shock our modern sense of propriety. We may talk about drainage and ventilation, and the advantages of soap, but there we must stop. Keep the outside clean, but don’t look within. Thus is it our writers make such blunders. For instance, good-meaning Mrs Stowe, after she had written Uncle Tom, came here to be lionized, and to write a book about us. She did so, and a very poor book it was. But I must quote one passage from “Sunny Memories.” In writing of a visit she paid to the Jardin Mobile in Paris, she writes, “Entrance to this Paradise can be had, for gentlemen a dollar, ladies free; this tells the whole story. Nevertheless, do not infer that there are not respectable ladies there; it is a place so remarkable that very few strangers stay long in Paris without taking a look at it. And though young ladies residing in Paris never go, and matrons very seldom, yet occasionally it is the case that some ladies of respectability look in. Nevertheless, aside from the impropriety inherent in the very nature of the waltzing, there was not a word, look, or gesture of immorality or impropriety. The dresses were all decent, and, if there was vice, it was vice masked under the guise of polite propriety. How different, I could not but reflect, is all this from the gin-palaces of London! There, there is indeed a dazzling splendour of gas-lights, but there is nothing artistic, nothing refined, nothing appealing to the imagination. There are only hogsheads and barrels, and the appliances for serving out strong drink; and there for one sole end—the swallowing of the fiery stimulant—come the nightly thousands, from the gay and well-dressed to the haggard and tattered, in the last stage of debasement. The end is the same, by how different paths! Here they dance along the path to ruin with flowers and music—there they cast themselves bodily, as it were, into the lake of fire.” A more unfair comparison, I think, was never drawn; a drinking-shop is much the same everywhere, and in Paris as well as in London, people, to use Mrs Stowe’s own words, cast themselves bodily into the lake of fire. We have our Jardin Mobile, but of course Mrs Stowe never went there—as we have known good people confessing to entering theatres in Germany or France who on no account would have gone near one at home. If Mrs Stowe had confessed to going to Cremorne, she would have been cut, and so she went to the Paris Cremorne instead; but to write a true book on England, she should have gone to Cremorne. Look at Cremorne; is it not one, as Disraeli is reported to have said, of the institutions of the country? The gardens are beautiful, are kept in fine order, are adorned with really fine trees, and are watered by the Thames, here almost a silver stream. Though near London, on a summer evening the air is fresh and balmy, the amusements are varied, the company are genteel in appearance, and here, as in Paris, they dance along the path to ruin with flowers and music. If Mrs Stowe gives the preference to the Parisians, she may be right, but I am inclined to dispute the grounds of that preference. The gin-palaces are filled with our sots, with our utter wrecks, with all that is loathsome and low in man or woman. Your son, fresh from home and its sacred influences, is shy of entering a gin-palace at first. He goes there with a blush upon his cheek, and a sense of shame at his heart. He shrinks from its foul companionship, and when he has come out he resolves never to be what he has seen under those accursed roofs. But you take him to Cremorne, or you send him to the Lowther Arcade, or the Holborn Casino, and he is surrounded by temptation that speaks to him with almost irresistible power. The women are well-dressed and well-behaved. The drink does not repel but merely stimulates the hot passions of youth, and lulls the conscience. For one man that is ruined in a gin-shop there are twenty that are ruined at Cremorne.
As to the morality of such places, that is not to be settled dogmatically by me or by any one else. Tennyson talks of men fighting their doubts, and gathering strength; in the same manner, men may fight temptation and gather strength, and one man may merely spend a pleasant evening where another may in the same interval of time ruin himself for life. The tares and the wheat, in this confused world of ours, grow side by side. Unnaturally, we bring up our sons only to pluck what we deem the wheat; and immediately they are left to themselves, they begin gathering the tares, which we have not taught them are such, and have for them at least the charm of novelty. It does not do to say there is no pleasure in the world; there is a great deal. The grass is green, though, it may be, sad sinners tread it. The sun shines as sweetly on carrion as on the Koh-i-noor. The lark high up at heaven’s gate sings as loud a song of praise, whether villains or lovers listen to its lays. Places are what we make them. I fear there are many blackguards at Cremorne; the women most of them are undoubtedly hetæræ, and yet what a place it is for fun! How jolly are all you meet! How innocent are all the amusements,—the ascent of the balloon—the dancing—the equestrian performances—the comic song—the illuminations—the fire-works—the promenade on the grass lawn or in the gas-lit paths; the impulses that come to us in the warm breath of the summer eve, how grateful are they all, and what a change from Cheap-side or from noisy manufactories still more confined! By this light the scene is almost a fairy one. Can there be danger here? Is there here nothing artistic—nothing refined—nothing appealing to the imagination? Come here, Mrs Stowe, and judge. You will scandalize, I know, that portion of the religious public that never yet has looked at man and society honestly in the face, but you will better understand the frightful hypocrisies of our domestic life; you will better understand how it is that a religion which we pay so much for, and to which we render so much outward homage, has so little hold upon the heart and life. There is no harm in Cremorne, if man is born merely to enjoy himself—to eat, drink, be merry, and die. I grant, it is rather inconvenient for a young man who has his way to fight in life to indulge a taste for pleasure, to launch out into expenses beyond his means, to mix with company that is more amusing than moral, and to keep late hours; and young fellows who go to Cremorne must run all these risks. It may do you, my good sir, no harm to go there. You have arrived at an age when the gaieties of life have ceased to be dangerous. You come up by one of the Citizen boats to Chelsea after business hours, and stroll into the garden and view the balloon, or sit out the ballet, or gaze with a leaden eye upon the riders, and the clowns, and the dancing, or the fireworks, and return home in decent time to bed; and if you waste a pound or two, you can afford it. But it is otherwise with inflammable youth—a clerk, it may be, in a merchant’s warehouse on 30s. a-week, and it is really alarming to think what excitements are thus held out to the passions, at all times so difficult to control. There are the North Woolwich Gardens—there is Highbury Barn—all rivalling Cremorne, and all capable of containing some thousands of idle pleasure-seekers. Vauxhall, with its drunken orgies, is gone never to return—the place that knows it now will know it no more for ever—but such places are what thoughtless people call respectable, are frequented by respectable people; and amidst mirth and music, foaming up in the sparkling wine, looking out of dark blue eyes, reddening the freshest cheeks, and nestling in the richest curls, there lurks the great enemy of God and man. Young man, such an enemy you cannot resist; your only refuge is in flight. Ah, you think that face fair as you ask its owner to drink with you; it would have been fairer had it never gone to Cremorne. A father loved her as the apple of his eye; she was the sole daughter of his home and heart, and here she comes night after night to drink and dance; a few years hence and you shall meet her drinking and cursing in the lowest gin-palaces of St Giles’s, and the gay fast fellows around you now will be digging gold in Australia, or it may be walking the streets in rags, or it may be dying in London hospitals of lingering disease, or, which is worse than all, it may be living on year after year with all that is divine in man utterly blotted out and destroyed. The path that leads to life is strait and narrow, and few there be who find it.