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Charles Dickens London - Covent Garden Market

( Originally Published 1915 )



COVENT GARDEN MARKET, ONE OF THE HAUNTS OF TOM PINCH AND HIS SISTER RUTH; LITTLE DORRIT; MISS WREN, AND THE "BAD CHILD," AS DESCRIBED IN "OUR MUTUAL FRIEND"

One must be up bright and early to enjoy Covent Garden Market.

At five o'clock, the open space surrounding the stalls fronting St. Paul's is almost impassable, so thickly massed are the carts and wagons. At eight o'clock one can get through with a little patience and the assistance of the police; at ten o'clock you can drive along at a trot; at noon the wide highway is swept clean, with here and there a van backed up to the sidewalk reloading the unsold truck.

I had, the year before, in seeking shelter from a driving rain, opened my stool and set up my easel under the portico of St. Paul's Church and from this coign of vantage had caught the vista ending in the Sporting Club known in Mr. Thackeray's time as Evan's Chop House, in which he read the last chapter of "The Newcomes" to Mr. Lowell and cried over the colonel's death.

Today, a June sun making it possible for me to get a wider range, I had with the permission of a gold-laced and bebuttoned porter (2 shillings and 6) placed my stool on the top step of the club's entrance, my back braced this time against a panel framing the door.

I could now see over the heads of the crowd which was rapidly thinning out too rapidly, for the carts in my fore-ground were disappearing one after another, uncovering a space far too open for effective composition in black and white. So I hired a grocer's wagon to stand still, one with supplies for the club. I began negotiations by suggesting that it was about feeding time for man and beast; that my sketch would finish in half an hour; that the Bobby (I had, as usual, made friends with the authorities before I started to work) would take care that no one raided his stock; and wound up by stating that I had the price of a beer, with the necessary additions either a chop or a dish of tripe at his good pleasure somewhere about my clothes, if I could find it and I could. All of which worked like a charm, no one of us being better pleased than the rickety, knock-kneed, spiral-spring-fed beast rooting for the last grain of oats hidden away in the bottom of his nose-bag.

With a strong dark now against my strongest light, I could indicate space and aerial perspective. I could also bring into their proper plane the rows of stalls fringing the market buildings from which Tom Pinch and his sister Ruth bought their vegetables when the two went to house-keeping.

" In most of these morning excursions Ruth accompanied him. As their landlord was always up and away at his business (whatever that might be, no one seemed to know) at a very early hour, the habits of the people of the house in which they lodged corresponded with their own. Thus, they had often finished their breakfast, and were out in the summer-air, by seven o'clock. After a two hours' stroll they parted at some convenient point : Tom going to the Temple, and his sister returning home, as methodically as you please.

"Many and many a pleasant stroll they had in Covent Garden Market: snuffing up the perfume of the fruits and flowers, wondering at the magnificence of the pineapples and melons; catching glimpses down side avenues, of rows and rows of old women, seated on inverted baskets shelling peas; looking unutterable things at the fat bundles of asparagus with which the dainty shops were fortified as with a breastwork; and, at the herbalists' doors, gratefully in-haling scents as of veal-stuffing yet uncooked, dreamily mixed up with capsicums, brown-paper, seeds: even with hints of lusty snails and fine young curly leeches. Many and many a pleasant stroll they had among the poultry markets, where ducks and fowls, with necks unnaturally long, lay stretched out in pairs, ready for cooking; where there were speckled eggs in mossy baskets; white country sausages beyond impeachment by surviving cat or dog, or horse or donkey; new cheeses to any wild extent; live birds in coops and cages, looking much too big to be natural, in consequence of those receptacles being much too little; rabbits, alive and dead, innumerable. Many a pleasant stroll they had among the cool, refreshing, silvery fish-stalls, with a kind of moonlight effect about their stock in trade, excepting always for the ruddy lobsters. Many a pleasant stroll among the waggon-loads of fragrant hay, beneath which dogs and tired waggoners lay fast asleep, oblivious of the pieman and the public house."

Quite another side of Covent Garden Market is given in "Our Mutual Friend," written some twenty years later. The market may have lost its pristine freshness since the days of Ruth and Tom's economics, or Mr. Dickens might have come upon it at dawn after one of his nightly prowls and have utilised the more forbidding impressions thus gained, in this later work :

"'Where are you going to seek your fortune?' asked Miss Wren.

"The old man smiled, but looked about him with a look of having lost his way in life, which did not escape the dolls' dressmaker.

"`Verily, Jenny,' said he, `the question is to the purpose, and more easily asked than answered. But as I have experience of the ready good will and good help of those who have given occupation to Lizzie, I think I will seek them out for myself.'

"'On foot?' asked Miss Wren, with a chop.

"`Ay!' said the old man. `Have I not my staff?'

"It was exactly because he had his staff, and presented so quaint an aspect, that she mistrusted his making the journey.

"'The best thing you can do,' said Jenny, `for the time being, at all events, is to come home with me, godmother. Nobody's there but my bad child, and Lizzie's lodging stands empty.' . . .

"Now the bad child having been strictly charged by his parent to remain at home in her absence, of course went out; and, being in the very last stage of mental decrepitude, ... the degraded creature staggered into Covent Garden Market and there bivouacked, to have an attack of the trembles succeeded by an attack of the horrors, in a doorway.

"This Market of Covent Garden was quite out of the creature's line of road, but it had the attraction for him which it has for the worst of the solitary members of the drunken tribe. It may be the companionship of the nightly stir, or it may be the companionship of the gin and beer that slop about among carters and hucksters, or it may be the companionship of the trodden vegetable refuse, which is so like their own dress that perhaps they take the Market for a great wardrobe; but be it what it may, you shall see no such individual drunkards on doorsteps anywhere, as there. Of dozing women-drunkards especially, you . shall come upon such specimens there, in the morning sunlight, as you might seek out of doors in vain through London. Such stale vapid rejected cabbage-leaf and cabbage-stalk dress, such damaged-orange countenance, such squashed pulp of humanity, are open to the day nowhere else. So the attraction of the Market drew Mr. Dolls to it, and he had out his two fits of trembles and horrors in a doorway on which a woman had had out her sodden nap a few hours before."

Still another phase of Covent Garden is given in " Little Dorrit" a childish vision:

"Courtly ideas of Covent Garden, as a place with famous coffee-houses, where gentlemen wearing gold-laced coats and swords had quarrelled and fought duels; costly ideas of Covent Garden as a place where there were flowers in winter at guineas a-piece, pineapples at guineas a pound, and peas at guineas a pint; picturesque ideas of Covent Garden, as a place where there was a mighty theatre, showing wonderful and beautiful sights to richly-dressed ladies and gentlemen, and which was for ever far beyond the reach of poor Fanny or poor uncle." ...

The pineapples made a lasting impression on Dickens, for he says, in "Forster":

"When I had no money (for a meal) I took a turn in Covent Garden and stared at the pineapples."

And again in "The Uncommercial Traveller":

"Figuratively speaking, I travel for the house of Human Interest Brothers, and have rather a large connection in the fancy goods way. Literally speaking, I am always wandering here and there from my rooms in Covent Garden, London now about the city streets, now about the country by-roads seeing many little things, and some great things, which, because they interest me, I think may interest others."

Within a stone-throw of where I sat was the Tavistock Coffee Room, where the "Finches of the Grove" a club of high rollers described in "Great Expectations," met, the end and aim of the institution being "that the members should dine expensively once a fortnight to quarrel among themselves as much as possible after dinner, and to cause six waiters to get drunk on the stairs."

I myself could not dine expensively not unless it should be once a fortnight nor had I any intention of leading any waiter astray, but I, too, had reached my " feeding time," and so, the sketch being finished, I thanked Bobby for his courtesy, added another coin of the realm to the grocer's hoard, restrapped my easel, and made my way to the "Tavistock," where I was regaled with a mug and a chop, and under the same roof and perhaps on the very seat once occupied by Sir Peter Lely, Kneller, and Thornhill, in the days when:

"Priests sipped coffee and sparks and poets tea."

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