Charles Dickens at The Eagle
Only last week, I was day-dreaming about taking a trip to the Eagle Theatre in the City Rd, so it was my great delight to come across this fictional account of a visit to the Eagle by Charles Dickens in a story entitled “Miss Evans and the Eagle,” written under his penname “Boz.” It sent me back to the Bishopsgate Institute to examine the precious scrapbook of playbills from the Eagle that are contemporary with Dickens’ story, first published as one of his “Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Everyday Life and Everyday People” in “Bell’s Life in London,” 4th October 1835.
Old playbills have a charisma all their own, combining bravura typography with hyperbolic promises designed to send your imagination racing. Once you start envisaging the reality of these extraordinary shows you are spellbound. Yet Dickens was a visitor to the Eagle Theatre and the characters in his story are not especially impressed by the performance, so maybe the enigmatic hype of these posters surpassed the reality of what actually happened at the Eagle.
I take this as my consolation for never being able to visit the Eagle in person, that I can enjoy the sublime poetry of these magnificent posters without ever taking the risk of having my illusions shattered – unlike Charles Dickens’ characters Mr Samuel Wilkins and Miss J’mima Ivins in his account of their night out at the Eagle on a disastrous double date.
“How ev’nly!” said Miss J’mima Ivins, and Miss J’mima Ivins’s friend, both at once, when they had passed the gate and were fairly inside the gardens. There were the walks, beautifully gravelled and planted – and the refreshment-boxes, painted and ornamented like so many snuff-boxes – and the variegated lamps shedding their rich light upon the company’s feet – and a Moorish band playing at one end of the gardens – and an opposition military band playing away at the other. Then, the waiters were rushing to and fro with glasses of negus, and glasses of shrub, and bottles of ale, and people were crowding to the door of the Rotunda, and in short the whole scene was, as Miss J’mima Ivins, inspired by the novelty, or the shrub, or both, observed, ”one of dazzling excitement.”
As to the concert room, never was anything half so splendid. There was an orchestra for the singers, all paint, gilding, and plate-glass, and such an organ! Miss J’mima Ivins’s friend’s young man whispered it had cost “four hundred pound,” which Mr. Samuel Wilkins said was “not dear neither,” an opinion in which the ladies perfectly coincided. The audience were seated on elevated benches round the room and crowded into every part of it, and everybody was eating and drinking as comfortably as possible.
Just before the concert commenced, Mr. Samuel Wilkins ordered two glasses of rum-and-water and two slices of lemon for himself and the other young man, together with “a pint o’ sherry wine for the ladies, and some sweet carraway-seed biscuits,” and they would have been quite comfortable and happy, only a strange gentleman with large whiskers WOULD stare at Miss J’mima Ivins, and another gentleman in a plaid waistcoat WOULD wink at Miss J’mima Ivins’s friend. On which Miss J’mima Ivins’s friend’s young man exhibited symptoms of boiling over and began to mutter about “swells out o’luck,” and to intimate, in oblique terms, a vague intention of knocking somebody’s head off, which he was only prevented from announcing more emphatically, by both Miss J’mima Ivins and her friend threatening to faint away on the spot if he said another word.
The concert commenced – overture on the organ, “How solemn!” exclaimed Miss J’mima Ivins, glancing, perhaps unconsciously, at the gentleman with the whiskers. Mr. Samuel Wilkins, who had been muttering apart for some time past, as if he were holding a confidential conversation with the gilt knob of his dress cane, breathed hard – breathing vengeance perhaps – but said nothing. “The soldier tired,” performed by Miss Somebody in white satin. “Ancore!” cried Miss J’mima Ivins’s friend. “Ancore!” shouted the gentleman in the plaid waistcoat immediately, hammering the table with a stout-bottle. Comic song, accompanied on the organ. Miss J’mima Ivins was convulsed with laughter – so was the man with the whiskers. Everything the ladies did, the plaid waistcoat and whiskers did, by way of expressing unity of sentiment and congeniality of soul, and Miss J’mima Ivins, and Miss J’mima Ivins’s friend, grew lively and talkative, as Mr. Samuel Wilkins, and Miss J’mima Ivins’s friend’s young man, grew morose and surly in inverse proportion.
Now, if the matter had ended here, the little party might soon have recovered their former equanimity, but Mr. Samuel Wilkins and his friend began to throw looks of defiance upon the waistcoat and whiskers. And the waistcoat and whiskers, by way of intimating the slight degree in which they were affected by the looks aforesaid, bestowed glances of increased admiration upon Miss J’mima Ivins and friend. The concert and vaudeville concluded, they promenaded the gardens. The waistcoat and whiskers did the same, and made divers remarks complimentary to the ankles of Miss J’mima Ivins and friend in an audible tone.
At length, not satisfied with these numerous atrocities, they actually came up and asked Miss J’mima Ivins, and Miss J’mima Ivins’s friend, to dance, without taking no more notice of Mr. Samuel Wilkins, and Miss J’mima Ivins’s friend’s young man than if they was nobody!
“What do you mean by that, scoundrel?” exclaimed Mr. Samuel Wilkins, grasping his gilt-knobbed dress-cane firmly in his right hand. “What’s the matter with you, you little humbug?” replied the whiskers. “How dare you insult me and my friend?” inquired the friend’s young man. “You and your friend be hanged!” responded the waistcoat. “Take that,” exclaimed Mr. Samuel Wilkins. The gilt-knob of his dress cane was visible for an instant, and then the light of the variegated lamps shone brightly upon it as it whirled into the air. “Give it to him,” said the waistcoat.“Horficer!” screamed the ladies. Miss J’mima Ivins’s beau and the friend’s young man lay gasping on the gravel, and the waistcoat and whiskers were seen no more.
Miss J’mima Ivins and friend being conscious that the affray was in no slight degree attributable to themselves, of course went into hysterics forthwith, declared themselves the most injured of women, exclaimed, in incoherent ravings, that they had been suspected – wrongly suspected – Oh! that they should ever have lived to see the day – and so forth, suffered a relapse every time they opened their eyes and saw their unfortunate little admirers, and were carried to their respective abodes in a hackney-coach, and a state of insensibility compounded of shrub, sherry, and excitement.
Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute