Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The literature of the shop



It was just three months since; indeed, to speak with preciseness, it was Saturday, the 4th of May. Sophonisba, who is at once the joy and better half of my existence, was breakfasting with me in the dining-room of my pleasant country rectory. Within the room everything (including our two selves), looked agreeable, bright, and warm; out of doors it was cold and cheerless, and anything but agreeable. Although the almanacks assured us that we had entered upon the genial month of May, yet, the east wind was howling, biting, and cutting, and was altogether behaving itself with a rude severity that no panegyric of Mr. Kingsley could mitigate, while a driving hail-storm rattled against the window-panes with a sound like the dropping fire at a Volunteer Review.

“Sophonisba!” I exclaimed to the joy of my existence, as I turned from the kippered salmon to the devilled kidneys (my tastes are proverbially simple), “Sophonisba, it is well that we have not sacrificed our winter garments upon the altar of our fickle climate, but have relied upon the truth of our village adage, ‘Till May be out, Ne’er change a clout.’ If my singing Curate, Motet, were with us, we could perform that pretty old glee, ‘Hail, all hail, thou merry month of May!’ it would be appropriate.”

“Think of the blossoms, my dear Alphonso!” was the response, as a fresh feu de joie of hail rattled against the window. “The wall-fruit is gone; and, now, the apples will be caught.”

Between mouthfulls, I was cutting the leaves of that morning’s “Saturday Review,” and was dipping into their article on “Negroes, and Negro Slavery;” so, instead of vouchsafing any other intelligent reply than a grunt, I shortly called Sophonisba’s attention to the Review. It so happened that, during the previous fortnight, the greater portions of my evenings had been occupied by new books by Consuls Petherick and Hutchinson, on Ethiopia and the Soudan, and by Reid’s “Sketches in North America;” and these works, and the present crisis in America, had made me more than ordinarily impressible on the subject of the slave-trade. I presume that it arose from this combination of circumstances, that I suddenly uttered the Archimedean cry of Eureka! when, after laying aside the “Saturday Review,” I had turned to glance over the various printed and lithographed communications that formed a part of the contents of that morning’s letter-bag.

Now, parsons are peculiarly liable to other visitations than those of an archidiaconal character, and they are notably exposed to the literary attacks of puffing tradesmen. The chief assailants (apart from clerical subjects, appeals from Church Defence Associations, and Insurance Companies), are hatters, grocers, tailors, and wine merchants. They are particularly attentive to me; and, unlike the generality of my brethren, I always glance over their epistolary commendations of their own wares—not with the thought of giving any order to these mercantile anglers (for I never once have risen to their most alluring flies), but solely for the enjoyment that I derived from a perusal of their literary efforts. For, it appears to me, that the literature of the shop is an astonishing evidence of the progress of education, and a distinguishing characteristic of the Victorian era. To me the development of this peculiar branch of literature seems to be a feature of the age—an useful one, probably, and remunerative, or our nation of shopkeepers would not bestow so much care or money upon it. They are no longer content to call a spade, a spade. They send it forth in mountebank disguise, with a nomenclature which is neither English, French, Greek, nor Latin, but perhaps, a base mixture of all four; and, through the aid of literature, this wonderful article is recommended to notice, and puffed into a pseudo fame, by the most ingenious artifices.

De tea fabula narratur.—I might tell you a tale of a tea-merchant in our county-town, or I might cite the cases of the butcher and the two rival tailors, who, every week, in the pages of our “Slowshire Independent,” puff their respective goods through the medium of mortal verse. I am not ashamed to confess that if I do not use or consume their wares, I devour the verses. To my mind, their lyrics form one of the chief attractions of the “Independent,” whose articles, it must be confessed, are not equal in ability to those in the “Saturday Review,” and it is often a subject of curious speculation to me—Who writes their verses? There was the butcher’s poem, last week, on the subject of Garibaldi: I vow that it had all the fire and grace of Tupper! the delightfully easy way in which it turned from Italy and Garibaldi to “Giblett’s juicy chops,” and the delicate yet forcible manner in which it pointed out that Giblett was no less a patriot than Garibaldi in his endeavours to serve his countrymen, was, to my mind, not unworthy of our great Proverbial Philosopher. While, in the same newspaper, there was another poem on the subject of the British Volunteers marching to glory in Aaron’s guinea pants, which Miss Euphemia Gushington might have owned.

“Yes, Sophonisba!” I cried; “I never throw these advertising circulars into the waste-paper basket without having first extracted the honey of their style, and made myself master of their eloquent rhetoric. Here is another circular from the Great East Indian Brandisherri Wine Company, enclosing quite a pretty pamphlet on the wine trade and prospects of the vintage, and a confidential (lithographed) letter, stating their possession, under very peculiar circumstances, of a pipe of a fine fruity port, which they have not thrown into their general stock, but which they have thoughtfully reserved for their own immediate friends, who will be privileged to purchase it for a mere bagatelle. Now, I wonder what the bagatelle may be when translated into the simple letters £ s. d.; and also, whether or no, they include me among their immediate friends; and, if so, why? But, here, Sophonisba, is the circular over which I cried an Eureka; for it cuts the Gordian knot—it provides us with a solution of the Sphinx’s enigma—it gives us the recipe for throwing the old man of the sea from off our shoulders; in short, it tells us how to put an end to the slave trade. So you see, Sophonisba, that, despite your occasional surprise at what you deem my waste of time in glancing over these trade puffs—which are meant to swell into a trade wind to blow custom to the advertiser—yet that I am able to pick up nuggets of knowledge in these literary diggings. In harmonious and elegant prose, the circular thus commences: it is from the Cosmopolitan Composite and Translucent Candle Company: ‘It is but seldom that any really great improvement in manufactures is achieved. To speak comparatively, it was but yesterday, when cotton dipped in tallow formed the chief candle for general use. But, at this day, products imported from tropical climates, aided by Science, give forth crystallised material from which the beautiful candles now offered are obtained.’ Then follow statistics, treated with Gladstonian skill, and remarks on the palm-oil trade, and then comes my Eureka. ‘The development of this branch of their manufactures will promote the extinction of the slave trade.’ A sufficient reason, of course, why all these Britons who never will be slaves, should patronise the Cosmopolitan Candle Company. By the way, what a useful fact this would be for an Exeter Hall orator, for 1 suppose the May Meetings extend their sympathies to the Man and the Brother, I remember hearing a speech on the subject, and very proper sentiments being expressed, and I certainly thought with the speaker, that we had no longer a right to expect a continuance of those blessings which we have so long enjoyed, if we in the slightest degree encouraged that unhallowed and cruel traffic in man, against which England, for more than fifty years, has been working by the efforts of her greatest statesmen, and her best and bravest sailors. Aye, Sophonisba, but there’s the rub. Look at these circulars, and all the varied literature of the shop, and see how eloquently and ingeniously they commend commodities, our very use of which arises from and assists the development of the slave trade. This puff from the candle company is, in shop-language, a startling novelty. Supposing their statement to be correct, they need not fear that it will be basely plagiarised in this circular of Carraways, the tea-dealers. If we do not wish to encourage, in the slightest degree that unhallowed and cruel traffic in man, we must make up our minds to deprive ourselves of a tithe (to speak rectorially) of those articles of necessity on which the literature of the shop so eloquently descants. You, Sophonisba, will have to reply to Mr. Carraway when he addresses you on the subject of sugar, that you are determined not to lend any support to the slave trade; and I must bear the same testimony when he speaks to me of coffee. Mr. Carraway would probably think us mere Bedlamites. But we might reply to fifty other tradesmen in similar terms, and yet be in our right minds. For use has dulled our senses to facts, and if our comforts and appetites are ministered to, we are content to shut our eyes to the means employed. Take the case of Jones (let us say), who, on the subject of the slave trade, is a very Wilberforce. Well, then, Jones sips his slave-grown chocolate, sweetened with slave grown sugar, wipes his mouth with a cotton pocket handkerchief, and, rising from his bamboo chair, playfully rubs the head of Mrs. Jones’s Jamaica parrot. Jones then gets into his gig with its lance-wood shafts, and drives to a meeting of the Anglo-Mexican Mining Company, where he pays up his instalments, and from thence goes to the sale of American produce, where he makes purchases of Carolina rice. He accompanies one of the directors to the City of London Tavern, where he finds an excellent dinner set out upon a table of mahogany. He eats his turtle with a silver spoon, drinks iced punch flavoured with sugar and rum, sprinkles his turbot with cayenne pepper, bedews his cucumber with Chili vinegar, and winds up with curry and hot pickles, preserved ginger, a glass of noyeau, and a cup of coffee. He then puts down ten pieces of gold as a contribution to the Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade—whose eloquent circular has brought the literature of the shop home to his very heart; and then goes back to Ms. Jones with the honest conviction that he would sooner cut off his right hand than do anything that would in the remotest degree encourage that pernicious traffic in human souls. I wonder if Jones has received one of those circulars from the candle company! I have quite done now, Sophonisba; and am going into the study to write my sermon.”

“My dear Alphonso,” said the joy of my existence, “I think you have been preaching one to me.”

Cuthbert Bede.