Who has not heard tell of that famous Northern watering-place which I shall call Sulphurwell — of its baths for the gouty, and its balls for the goutless — its old-world hotels and tables d’hote — its bracing air and lovely environs; above all, of its celebrated marriages— the punster has no doubt already christened them sulphur-matches — with which the very name of the place has come to be identified, to the extent of making the insertion of a single gentleman’s name among the list of arrivals almost tantamount to an advertisement for a partner in life?
We have all of us, I say, heard of Sulphurwell; and yet in the eyes of us, the modern generation of Londoners, the place exists perhaps rather as a relic of the past. Cecilia and Evelina very likely spent a summer there. Gilbert Gurney, without doubt, must have paid it a visit, having run down there on the top of the Highflyer coach. Or the Pickwickians may have met there with some of their most startling, though unrecorded adventures.
But modern heroes of romance no more than modern gentlemen out for a long vacation throng the Sulphurwell of the present day. The steam-engine has whistled them all off. The tourist, not content with overrunning Europe, has of late years discovered America, and at Saratoga, or Newport, or West Point, very likely, will our “grandsons furnish us with granddaughters-in-law. Who goes to Sulphurwell now? Perhaps a few foreigners, a few Manchester and Leeds and Sheffield people, a few Irish — perhaps nobody at all! It may be that the mineral water is all used up in turning mill-wheels, and the vast saloons in which our ancestors strutted and minuetted are converted into ragged-school-rooms, or re-echo to the voice, addressing itself to monster meetings, of Mr. Cobden or Mr. Bright!
Such were my thoughts some two months ago, when circumstances — of which it is only necessary to say that they were not of a matrimonial character — took me to Sulphurwell for a few days. Instead of a few days, my stay protracted itself into as many weeks, and even now, the season closed and the place really deserted, I sit writing these pages in my quaint old bedroom at the George Hotel.
The fact is that Sulphurwell is a rich mine for the observer, a spot the counterpart to which does not exist in Great Britain or, as far as my experience goes, in any portion of the habitable globe. And now that we are all of us so familiar with the globe aforesaid, knowing the Alps a great deal better than the Surrey Hills, and visiting Rome a good deal more often than the Tower Hamlets, perhaps a short account of the life at this out-of-the-way place, lying as it were neglected at our own doors, may come with a certain smack of novelty.
The town is divided into two parts, High and Low, situated about half a mile from each other; but it is of the former that I have principally to ‘treat. Here we have three hotels, each with a distinctive character, or, as the French would say, a clientele peculiar to itself.
There is the Marlborough (named after that celebrated general, and built during the period of his triumphs), which goes by the name of “The House of Lords,” being the resort of such few fashionables as continue to visit the place. “The House of Commons” is represented by the George (built, and apparently furnished, in the reign of the First George), the head-quarters of fun, flirtation, and Irish aspirants. The William and Mary (whose structure and internal arrangements date from that double reign) is, again, the rendezvous of the Manchester and Leeds aristocracies — a terribly select house, turning away lords from its doors, and shielding as much as possible its cotton-spinning heiresses from the profane southern or Milesian gaze.
One of the most curious features about Sulphurwell life is the hereditary feud which is kept up between these three chief hotels, sometimes flaming high, sometimes smouldering low, sometimes to all appearance dying out in an entente cordiale, yet always ready to spring up again, like the feuds between neighbouring peoples.
How the tradition manages to keep afloat with an annually changing population, is the mysterious part of the affair. Now and then the Marlborough, it may be, offended at something done or left undone by the George, starts an opposition dance right on the evening of the George ball, and the other two hotels uniting, put the Marlborough into Coventry.
The Marlburnians, when they appear at our balls, pass hostile criticisms on the fair Georgians, and express audibly their astonishment at our shockingly mixed society. We, on our part, on going to them are lost in amazement, every Friday evening, at their stiffness, their formality, the indifferent quality of their negus, and their other social deficiencies. Not to do this on one side and the other would be to run the risk of being treated as a lukewarm patriot, if not a traitor to one’s own signboard.
But the point in which the three hotels — or at least two out of the three — entirely resemble each other, is that of their internal economy and arrangements. You seem to yourself to be transported back to the eighteenth century, as you sit eating your Yorkshire cake in the vast breakfast room. That, like the still vaster and more dismal dining-room, is innocent of a carpet. The walls are painted with obsolete patterns and impossible flowers, the colours of which have gone off into a kind of faint chalkiness, like the colours of some of the pictures by Sir Joshua.
In both rooms there is a musicians’ gallery; a lyre, tragic and comic masks, crown, and G. R., the whole surrounded by a garland of flowers, are, I need hardly say, its pictorial decorations, the approach to which is by a rickety ladder, borrowed from the stable. The chairs are, I confess, a mystery to me. An antiquarian from Wardour Street should be brought down to sit in judgment upon them. I should not be in the least surprised to hear that they were bought a bargain at the London residences of the seven bishops, when those prelates, as we may well suppose, “declined housekeeping” on being committed to the Tower.
The bedrooms are destitute of bells and fireplaces. But a blazing coal and wood fire illuminates the snugly carpeted bar, shining through its red curtains and bringing into relief the steeplechasers and stage-coaches upon its walls, the portraits of great local Nimrods, and of the wonderful inhabitants of Sulphurwell taken at the age of one hundred and ten, by command of her Majesty, Queen Charlotte.
Seated in this bar, it becomes possible to conceive the idea of some one being left in charge of the house during the winter, a supposition which would otherwise give one a kind of cold shudder. For in those vast halls, and long re-echoing corridors, there must be, I take it, a winter season for ghosts — ghosts with three-cornered hats and gold-headed canes, ghosts in hoops and patches, marvelling each successive year at the little change which has come over the place since their days of a century ago. Why does not the gentleman who lately advertised in the papers for a haunted house come and spend a winter at Sulphurwell?
These are no spectres, however, the one hundred or so of male and female guests who are waked up to a sensation of appetite, or recalled from their dreadful potations at the well, by the sound of the eight o’clock breakfast gong. A glance at the side-tables will show the anticipated presence of flesh and blood. Legs of mutton, shoulders of mutton, haunch of mutton, saddle of mutton, ribs of mutton, other portions of mutton, if anatomy permit of their existence (we have slaughtered a sheep lately), form the staple of our fare. A huge tea-urn, something of the shape of the leaning tower of Pisa, furnishes the supply of hot water, which each guest causes to dribble out into his or her little antique tea-pot.
Our fare at Sulphurwell is of the heaviest, and our appetites, as in the case of travellers on a long sea voyage, Cambridge and Oxford undergraduates, country parsons, and other unemployed personages, of the most severe kind. The legs of mutton and rounds of beef reappear cold at the one o’clock luncheon, and are succeeded by hot and ponderous joints at the half-past five o’clock dinner. At eight, the digestion is astonished by the exhibition of muffins, Sally-luns, and Yorkshire cakes, under the name of ” tea,” and is finally quite prostrated by the sandwiches and negus, or punch, peculiar to the place (having been much approved of on one of her visits by the Duchess of Marlborough), which terminate the day.
But amidst all this Homeric feasting, woe to the unhappy bachelor unattended (as literary bachelors are, for obvious reasons, wont to be) by a servant of his own. The four waiters attached to the establishment are to him not so much as spectral appearances, or indeed appearances of any kind. The meat, if he wish for any, must consist of the dish most nearly contiguous to him: his drink, like that of the Americans, must be taken after the repast, standing at the bar.
Perhaps this is only one of the deep-laid traditional schemes of the place, to lure the single men into matrimony by cutting off the supplies, starving out, so to speak, the garrison which refuses to be taken by storm. Certain it is, that families who are habitues of the spot, bring down not only their own servants, but their own wines, their tea, sometimes their plate and table-linen, as travellers from St. Petersburgh to Moscow were in the habit of doing till within the last few years. There is one elderly Scotch gentleman near me at table, whom I have never yet ventured to ask for a slice of the salmon which stands, twice in the week, before him. I imagine it to be his private property, and to be directed to him for the use of himself and his family, from the shores of his native Tweed.
And yet, in the midst of this confusion, scarcely any one complains. Like Eothen, when he first sat down to his cup of coffee in a real desert, we are all of us glad to escape for awhile from the well-appointed tables of civilised life. The very scramble produces sociability.
Strangers are more likely to become acquainted with each other at a pic-nic, than at a stately dinner of eight courses. Hence it is that a new comer, of gentlemanly address, finds himself almost immediately naturalised, and falls easily into one of the three or four family circles or clans which subdivide the hotel. Either he joins the Smith and Robinson families, in visiting the ruins and other points of attraction in the neighbourhood, or he attaches himself, in the same way, to the Browns, Joneses, and Jenkinsons.
At the nightly balls — and surely there is no place in the world where there is so much dancing going on — the result of all this is to be seen in a greater degree of entrain than can perhaps be found in any other congregation of holiday-seeking Britons. Instead of sitting moodily in his private room, meditating a letter to the “Times ” on the shortcomings of the hotel, Paterfamilias, armed with a gigantic white bow, perspires to and fro, as a master of the ceremonies, forms the sets in the Lancers, hunts up, and captures the shirking waltzer in the remotest corner of the room.
Manchester and Leeds go up and down the country-dance hand-in-hand with Wimpole Street and Tavistock Square. Young Ireland is here in force, and in the demeanour of its representatives there are certainly no traces of an oppressed nationality. People actually talk to people whom they have never seen before and may never see again, and that without any sense of wounded dignity, any forboding of being bound at some future period by this fleeting intimacy.
I say that it is pleasant to see Britons enjoying themselves in this continental fashion, and that the unusual spectacle is cheaply purchased, even at the expense of brushing one’s own tail-coat, and polishing one’s own patent-leather boots — processes with which the succession of festivities here has rendered me by degrees exceedingly familiar. Let any one who doubts the truth of these remarks go for a trip next year to Sulphur well .
Of course every medal has its reverse. And I sometimes wonder if all this be enjoyment in the continental fashion — whether certain other features of Sulphurwell society are continental likewise. Do Ems, and Hamburg, and Saratoga contain types of female character such as my friends, Mrs. White, Mrs. Black, Mrs. O’Shaughnessy, and a score of others whom I could name?
Of these ladies scarcely any have marriageable daughters. They are most of them provided with husbands, and nearly all with false fronts. They don’t drink the waters. What in the world do they come here, year after year, to do? They come here, I think, to observe and to invent; and to charm listening circles with the mixed fiction and fact. They are the oral, historical novelists of those who don’t read books or subscribe to the circulating library, as the minstrels in an unlettered age were the earliest poets.
They can even improvise as they go on, like the Italians. Before you have been a week in the house your past and present — nay, your future life is all patent to these terrible sorceresses. I imagine that they must travel about with Burke’s “Landed Gentry and Commoners” (the peerage we have, of course, at the hotel), Boyle’s “Court Guide,” all the local directories and county histories, perhaps all the back numbers of the “Times” following them in a waggon. How else can they acquire their stupendous knowledge? If, in the wild exuberance of youth and the year ’37, you chanced to wrench off a knocker, and were fined by the late Mr. Ballantine, Mrs. Black knows all about it.
She knows that there are only a couple of consumptive lives between yourself and your uncle’s thirty thousand pounds, made by licensed-victualling. But their functions, as I have already said, are not limited to those of the simple historian. They know how everybody is engaged to everybody else — Mr. Smith to Miss Brown; Mr. Brown to Miss Jones ; how you yourself came down expressly to court Miss Robinson (you danced with her twice the first night — the fact is conclusive), how you proposed in the private sitting-room, and in pressing her lovely person and cherry-coloured dress (with the blue bows) to your heart, pricked the second joint of your middle finger with the pin of her turquoise and cornelian brooch, &c. &c.
One is unavoidably reminded of the “postman coming round the corner with a double letter from Northamptonshire,” in the Sdwolfor Scandal. Sheridan before writing that play must of necessity have come to Sulphurwell. Nowhere else is the article exhibited in the same condensed form. Novelists and play-wrights should come here to study it, as painters go to an exhibition, or agriculturists to a prize-show.
Then, another of our types, the Irishman, I mean the Thackerayan Irishman, will be found here in perfection. I wonder whether in any other race is to be found the same mixture of bombast and good-nature, impudence and arch humour, kingly descent and questionable linen? How openly they avow what every one else would do all in his power to conceal: how boldly they stalk in without knocking where the least timid of any other nation stands hesitating at the door. Miss X. the great Sheffield heiress, had not been above a fortnight at the George when seven Irish gentlemen revealed to me in the strictest confidence, and of course separately, that each one had proposed to, and been accepted by, her.
Shortly afterwards Miss X. departed home, ignorant, as I am perfectly sure, of the polygamic engagements in which she had become involved: and my seven friends separated quite naturally and unconcernedly into groups, in quest of the persons and purses of Miss Y. and Miss Z. Perhaps one of the most remarkable features about these people is their mutual distrust of one another. “Dog won’t eat dog,” and it seems that one Irishman refuses to swallow another Irishman’s stories. Thus my right-hand neighbour at dinner is a descendant of Brian Born, a near heir to a peerage, and (adds my left-hand neighbour) the son of a retired linen-draper at Wicklow. And, so the gentleman on my left is a first cousin, not only to the Duke of Leinster, but also to the postmaster at Enniscorthy.
But the Irishman, as exhibited at my favourite Sulphurwell, is an inexhaustible — some may perhaps think an exhausted — subject. Time fails me to speak of his better varieties, as also of other Sulphurwell types of character, scenes, incidents, adventures, and what not, which would swell into the size of a local hand-book. To know Sulphurwell thoroughly, you must go to Sulphurwell yourselves.