Read Murder by Candlelight Online
Authors: Michael Knox Beran
Thurtell himself traded jests with Hunt about their being “Turpins” and “Turpin lads.” Like Turpin, who had been born, in 1705, near Saffron Walden in Essex, Thurtell, too, was a young man from the provinces: he had forsaken his provincial Norwich to make his fortune in London. Such transplantations were one of the great social facts of the age. With the consolidation of the nation states which in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries replaced the more loosely organized kingdoms of Christendom, cities like London and Paris acquired an ever-greater importance. Provincial towns like Dijon and Prague, Aix and Salamanca, with their high proud traditions, suffered a corresponding decline. The provinces, HonorÃ© de Balzac wrote in one of his novels, became as stale as stagnant water.
The metropolises of Europeâand none more so than Londonâbecame a magnet for young men seduced by tales of the riches that were (in theory) to be easily won there. The adventures of the most gifted of these young men have been told, not only by Balzac himself, but by Stendhal and Flaubert, Henry James and Lionel Trilling. These writers were, not unnaturally, drawn to the highest specimens of the type, which they brought to life in such characters as Hyacinth Robinson, the hero of James's
The Princess Casamassima
, and Julien Sorel, the hero of Stendhal's
Le Rouge et le Noir
. They had no desire to chronicle the misdeeds of young provincials molded out of coarser stuff:
histories were left to the journeymen of letters, to the Grub Street hacks whose lives of the ne'er-do-wells fill the pages of the
, that dark companion-volume and obverse mirror of the
Lives of the Saints
No one would mistake Jack Thurtell for Balzac's Lucien de RubemprÃ© or James's Hyacinth Robinson: he had nothing of their delicate idealism, their instinct for form, or their personal beauty. And yet Thurtell was, in his own way, quite as much a provincial ingÃ©nu as either of them: and his own metropolitan pilgrimage was to come to quite as dark an end.
A little before eight o'clock, a laborer was coming out of a field near Gill's Hill Lane, the road beside which Probert's cottage stood. The moon was not yet up: there was only starlight. In the dimness, he saw a gig come down the lane. There were two men in it.
Had Jack Thurtell chanced to have been born in an earlier age, he might never have felt the lure of London. Under different stars, he might have been content to have remained a Norwich man, for the city in its prime was one of the sweetest of provincial nectaries. It is difficult for us today to form a just conception, not merely of the beauty, but of the vitality of the old provincial towns as they were in the days before the West was metropolized and all eyes became engrossed in the drama of the megalopolis. “A charming and sometimes forgotten feature of the world as it used to be,” Lytton Strachey wrote in his essay on Voltaire and the PrÃ©sident de Brosses, “was the provincial capital. When Edinburgh was as far from London as Vienna is today, it was naturalâit was inevitableâthat it should be the centre of a local civilization, which, while it remained politically and linguistically British, developed a colour and a character of its own. In France there was the same pleasant phenomenon. Bordeaux, Toulouse, Aix-en-Provenceâup to the end of the eighteenth century each of these was in truth a capital, where a peculiar culture had grown up that was at once French and idiosyncratic. An impossibility today!” Norwich, too, had once been such a provincial center, with its own distinct and creative culture; and although in Thurtell's time it was but a pale shadow of its former self, it retained enough of its old enchantment to draw from George Borrow, in his novel
, a memorable tribute to its faded beauty. But Thurtell, who had taught young Borrow to box, was not such a sentimentalist as his pupil; he wanted action, and it was in London, not Norwich, that action was to be had.
Balzac in his novels invariably makes the story of the young man from the provinces into a melodrama: it is obvious from the start that the ingÃ©nu will be corrupted by the metropolis whose prizes he covets. But Balzac had got hold of a real problem: the fact is that the ingÃ©nu very often
corrupted by the metropolis. The life he knew in his hometown was on a human scale: everyone knew everyone else. In
, Balzac describes how, in provincial AngoulÃªme, even those who despised Lucien de RubemprÃ© “took him for a human being.” In Paris, by contrast, the young man found that he “did not even exist” in the eyes of those among whom he was obliged to make his way. The lesson was clear, and Vautrin, the demonic figure who initiates Lucien in the corrupting arts of the capital, was quick to draw it: one must, he said, “look upon men, and women particularly, as mere tools, but without letting them realize it.” It was a lesson Thurtell himself had by this time learned all too well.
The moon rose, and the trees and hedgerows showed white in the moonshine. A farmer named Smith was going with his wife and children to Battlers Green, the farm of his friend Mr. Nicholls. Smith himself was on foot; his wife and children were in an ass chaise. Their road ran roughly parallel to Gill's Hill Lane, which lay a few hundred yards to the east. About a quarter past eight, Smith was startled by the report of a pistol. “I then heard groans which lasted a minute or two.” He did not, however, investigate. “I had my wife and children with me; I did not go up because my wife was alarmed.”
Dinner in those days was a midday or early-afternoonish meal; the last meal of the day was supper.
During the first half of the eighteenth century, London had no regular police force. In December 1748, Henry Fielding, the author of
, became Magistrate and Justice of the Peace for the county of Middlesex and the City and Liberties of Westminster; and he soon thereafter recruited a number of constables to assist him in the detection of criminals.
Sure some malignant planet
Rules o'er this night.
oung Tom Carlyle knew as much as Balzac or Flaubert of the ways in which the young provincial, threading his way through the labyrinths of the metropolis, is gradually demoralized. The son of a mason in Ecclefechan, in Scotland's southern uplands, Carlyle was himself a young man from the provinces. His genius had early discovered itself, and those who took an interest in his prospects were continually urging him to go to London, in much the way Madame de Bargeton, in
, urges Lucien de RubemprÃ© to go to Paris, “the capital of the intellectual world,” the stage on which the young man was sure to find success. “You must leap quickly over the gap which separates you from it,” she tells him. “Don't let your ideas grow rancid in
the provinces. . . . Neither distinction nor high position go looking for talent wilting away in a small town.”
Two days before the Friday afternoon on which Thurtell and Weare set out for Hertfordshire, Carlyle, in a letter to Jane Baillie Welsh, told her how their mutual friend, the preacher Edward Irving, had implored him to go up to London. “He seemed to think,” Carlyle wrote, “that if set down on London streets some strange development of genius would take place in me, that by conversing with Coleridge and the Opium-eater, I should find out new channels of speculation, and soon learn to speak with tongues. There is but very small degree of truth in all this.”
The Calvinist in Carlyle sniffed danger in London, which figured to him as “a loud, roaring, big, pretentious, and intrinsically barren sphere” in which good men lost their way. His friend Irving was already resident there, basking in the sunshine of a brilliant but soon-to-be-eclipsed metropolitan celebrity. Irving had won fame as a pulpit orator and was much petted by society ladies and “right honourable” gentlemen. But the novelty of his preaching soon faded, and his fall from favor was followed, in short order, by disintegration and an early grave.
A common enough fate: young men from the provinces regularly went to the devil. Carlyle found the root of the problem to be the particular kind of honor to which the young men aspiredâ“respectability.” Whatever the outward form of the young man's aspiration, inwardly he wanted to be a gentleman. Irving himself, with all his Christian idealism, was not free of the demon. He was delighted when, in the first flush of London popularity, the most respectable characters in the kingdom came to hear him preach; and he was cast down when, at length, they tired of him and sought a new trifle with which to beguile their boredom. There was, Carlyle saw, a double tragedy in such a fate. The gentlemanly ideal to which the provincial ingÃ©nu aspired was, in the nineteenth century, mostly sham-hollow, the relic of a feudalism that had long since lost its
. The medieval gentleman was exempted
from work because he was obliged to fight; the modern gentleman accepted the leisure without the obligation to risk his life for it. The gentlemen of old, the Victorian moralist John Ruskin wrote, “not only did more, but in proportion to their doings,
less than other people,” whereas today “superior persons” generally did less and got more than anyone else. In seeking to join the ranks of the respectable, the young man from the provinces was selling his soul for a thing essentially empty, the vacuous life of the gilded layabout. But even if the coveted thing had been really substantial, the young man could not, Carlyle saw, have attained it, for he had been bred to a different tradition, was not to the manner born. For however fastidiously a man like Thurtell aped the fashions of gentlemen, he never became a gentleman himself: at most, he became a burlesque of one.
Carlyle had not yet found an image that exactly conveyed both the pathos and the folly of the pseudo-gentility which his contemporaries craved, but Thurtell himself would soon supply him with one. “What sort of person was Mr. Weare?” asked the lawyer for the Crown at Thurtell's trial. “
. Mr. Weare was respectable.
. What do you mean by respectability?
. He kept a gig.”
Carlyle had his image. The corrupted provincial became not a gentleman but a gig-man, who rode about in a fashionable two-wheeled chaise, a Tilbury, perhaps, or a Stanhope. “The gig of respectability again!” Carlyle would exclaim to himself whenever he encountered some vulgar, gaudy, or otherwise barren form of pretension.