Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Blondin




Have you seen Blondin?” is a question which the bill-stickers have propounded to the students of mural literature throughout the metropolitan police district, and at every considerable railway station in the kingdom. Well, we have seen Blondin—something of him, that is to say. By the time that these remarks are public property he will, very probably, have performed feats which will put those we saw entirely in the shade. It would not do, you see, to dish up the terrible all at once. The pleasing feat of placing the life of a little child in deadly peril, for example, was in reserve. Horror! For ourselves we desire no second portion. We have seen enough—enough (we are not ashamed to own it) to set our pulses thumping painfully, to send a cold sickening terror crawling along our veins, to make us very glad to look anywhere but at the figure on the rope, when the fascination which rivetted our gaze upon it had a little died away. When this happened, and we looked around, we beheld a more curious spectacle than Blondin will ever present, reflected in the sea of upturned faces that were watching him. Desiring faithfully to represent this performance, we then divided our attention equally between the rope-dancer and his audience, until we could see what was going on above reflected upon the faces below, and observing the performer could tell exactly how each feat was received by the crowd which surrounded us.

From the first, our object had been to observe the effect of this sort of amusement. We, therefore, carefully avoided the two first exhibitions which took place upon special half-crown days, knowing that your special half-crown visitor is of the class which habitually conceals its feelings, and educates its countenance to assume, under all circumstances, the expression of a well-to-do caterpillar of inferior intellect. We, therefore, chose a one-shilling day for our visit to the Crystal Palace, and it so happened that it was the seventh anniversary of its opening. Remembering certain sports and pastimes which certain small but lively children had witnessed there, perched upon our shoulders at Christmas time, and reflecting upon what we were going to see; we could not help moralising a little as we rolled along in the train, upon the career of the famous Sydenham Glass House—the great things it was intended to do, and the small ones which necessity had declared should be done by it instead. Poor Albert Smith’s prophecy, delivered at a time when the wise of the land had made up their minds that Alhambra courts, Pompeian houses, and models from the Vatican were sufficient attractions to fill the building and enrich its proprietors, came to our remembrance, and lo! we were to be present at its fulfilment to the last particular. There had been dancing, there had been catch-penny spectacles, there had been conjurors and fireworks and clowns—and here was the acrobat! And very natural too. The gentlemen who compose the company are speculators who require interest for their money, not philanthropists who devote it to opening a school for the public which the public would not attend.

It is perhaps indispensable that the language of the circus should be used to announce its peculiar feats, otherwise it would be difficult to explain why M. Blondin is styled the “Hero of Niagara,” and his transit from one end of a level rope to the other over the boarded transept of the Crystal Palace be announced as a “great cataract ascension!” Arrangements are now being made for him to perform upon a rope stretched over the fountains in the garden which are to play upon and around him; of course with an object of giving the untravelled British public the best possible idea of the Falls of Niagara!

The rope upon which M. Blondin performs at present is two inches in diameter, and 240 yards long. This is stretched from the level of the hand-rail of the highest gallery in the transept, right across to the other side, and kept from swinging laterally by fifteen pairs of guy-lines, each line having one end secured to the sides of the roof, and the other passing through pulleys attached to the rope and weighted with heavy lumps of lead. The hawser is thus made steady without being rigid, at a height of 170 feet from the ground, and M. Blondin disports himself upon it as though it were as broad and safe as the pavement of Waterloo Place. He walks along it, dances along it, runs along it, throws (what is called but which is not) a somersault upon it, stands upon his head upon it, traverses it blindfold, enveloped in a sack, trots merrily along it with his feet fastened in waste paper baskets, takes a cooking stove upon his back, and having fastened that in the centre of it, cooks an omelette there, which the spectators may eat if they please. The ease and apparent certainty with which all this is done takes off something of the terror which the performer’s situation inspires; but quite enough is left to make the spectacle a most painful and, to many minds, revolting one. It cannot be pretended that M. Blondin’s movements are graceful. There is nothing novel or elegant in the performance from beginning to end. We have seen equally good rope-dancing at a country fair, and as for the gymnastic feats they could be surpassed by the pupils of many a gymnasium in London.

As rope-dancing and gymnastics they gain nothing in quality from being performed at so great a height, and if they pass as wonderful because they are done under circumstances which should make the performer lose his head, the same interest would be produced if he were to drink two bottles of champagne, and then attempt them on the ground. If the rope were stretched at a height of only ten feet, so that a fall from it would not signify, or if—placed as it is—a net were suspended beneath it to secure M. Blondin against a fatal accident, his performance would instantly cease to attract. Danger and nothing else is its charm. Abstract this, and nothing remains that any one would care to go a hundred yards to see. The more apparently dangerous the exhibition is made, the greater its attraction. So, mere walking and posturing upon the rope having become vapid, the sack and the wicker baskets are brought out, and M. Blondin pretends to slip, that the spectators may not become hardened into the belief that his skill is all-sufficient to sustain him, and that there is no chance of their beholding a mangled crimson mass writhing in the midst of that ghastly space which is kept clear 170 feet below.

It was when M. Blondin—blindfold and enveloped in a sack—pretended to slip, that we turned away our eyes and saw his audience. Just then, the sun streamed through the glass roof, lighting up thousands of upturned faces, and revealing to us that we were not the only persons who could not brave the sight. Two ladies in our immediate vicinity fainted. Several others had their faces in their hands, and many a strong man averted his gaze from the sight. Upon the countenances of those who endured, and watched it, many feelings were expressed. There was pity, and terror, and suspense, and admiration, and horror, but not one particle of pleasure. There were dilated eyes, quivering lips, clenched hands, loudly beating hearts,—but not one smile until the performer passed from that dreadful line to the firm floor, and then followed a gasp of relief. We write of what passed around us, and what we saw, looking down from a corner of the great orchestra with a good glass as far as we could see. There was one—and only one—person who appeared to enjoy what he saw. He was dressed like a farm labourer of the better sort, and sat in a front row with his mouth upon the broad grin, and his eyes running over with delight. How he banged his great red hands together after each feat! How he rolled about and stamped with glee!

An hour afterwards we saw him again in the refreshment room, and thought he was drunk, but were undeceived by a policeman, who informed us that he was quite harmless—merely idiotic from his birth, nothing more. We can safely say that no one looked as though he enjoyed the sight, and that the applause which followed a clever solo upon the cornopean in an interval of rest was as hearty as any that Blondin received after his most dangerous feats.

We are afraid that the “hero of Niagara” is not a good sign of the times. Do we blame him for giving these entertainments? Not we! He can make one hundred pounds a day by them, and as that is the price at which he estimates his own neck, he is entitled to risk it as often as he pleases. Do we blame the managers of the Crystal Palace for engaging M. Blondin? Not we! He draws—at present, and his performance is not more vulgar or inconsistent with the place than many which have preceded it. Do we blame the British public for tolerating such exhibitions, and rendering it possible that they can be profitable? Most assuredly we do! It is a sign of the worst possible taste, of a craving for excitement of the worst possible order, or of a blind and servile obedience to fashion.

Blondin is fashionable! It is “the thing” to see persons in deadly peril of their lives. Perhaps there is some one who attends every one of these performances, so that he may not be absent when the crash comes, just as the old gentleman followed the Lion Queen all over the country in hopes of seeing her head bitten off by the lion into whose mouth she placed it for the amusement (?) of the public. We are told to have no fears for Blondin, that he has practised catching the rope in case of a stumble, and that he is sure to save himself. Of course! Everything and everybody is quite safe until—. That poor Lion Queen was quite safe, but the old gentleman had his wish. Scott, the American diver, was quite safe. He went through the merry performance of being hanged on Waterloo Bridge. How well he did it, how he writhed and jerked! Bravo, Scott! Why does he not get down and bow his thanks to an admiring audience? There is a little mistake—he has hanged himself in earnest, he is dead! The poor wretch who is now a helpless cripple living in an iron cage to support his broken back, but who only a few weeks ago delighted the votaries of the Alhambra in Leicester Square with his daring feats on the flying trapeze, was quite safe. Bless your heart, he had practised the thing till he could not fail!—only somehow or other he did fail. The public in its stupid craze for perilous amusements has led these and scores of others to their deaths, or to accidents which make life one long fit of pain. We wish M. Blondin no sort of harm; but if his audiences were to dwindle down to nothing, so as to cause him to retire upon his savings, we should congratulate him upon having escaped a great danger, and the country upon getting rid of a disgrace to the intelligence of the age.

June 15.
Albany Fonblanque, Jun.