Today on Project Gutenberg we have…
The Checquers by James Runciman
The full title of this book is The Chequers, being the Natural History of a Public House set forth in a Loafer’s Diary. I’m going to cut right to the chase and refer to it as “Drinking Sucks And So Does Being Poor.”
It’s not clear to me whether this is meant to be a work of fiction, a work of journalism or some combination of the two. I looked up the author, James Runciman, and found that he was an English teacher and journalist who was most active during the 1870s and 1880s. This specific book was published in 1888, towards the end of his life. The Chequers of the title appears to be the name of a London pub, and the book is a series of vivid, Dickensian tales about the patrons of said pub and how wretched their lives are. Which is very.
The sort-of framing device here is that Runciman is editing the diaries of an unnamed narrator known only as the Loafer, a sadsack of a man who (the editor thinks) had a really bad breakup at one point and then just hung around pubs until he died. He seems to think of it as going undercover among the lower classes, which is how he’s able to get real knowledge of them as opposed to a gentleman who might “step casually into a bar, and then turn out a flashy article” (pages 1-2). Because of that, our narrator is able to give us portraits of many different characters and tell us about their horrible lives in excruciating detail. There’s the Wanderer, a former actor who belts out Shakespeare monologues while hammered. There’s Teddy, a precocious young boy who is inevitably too good for this sinful world and dies of diptheria. There’s Merry Jerry, a professional hedonist (my words, not the book’s) who wastes his money betting on horse races and dog fights. You get the idea.
When I called this book Dickensian, that wasn’t just because of how it’s all about the never-ending horror that is being poor in Victorian London. Runciman’s writing here is also reminiscent of Dickens because of its focus on character. I found it most entertaining as a series of examples on how to describe people. Here’s how Runciman introduces the Wanderer, for example:
His blood was charged with bile, and he could not prevent the sudden muscular twitchings of his hands. His knuckles were swollen, and his fingers were twisted slightly. Evidently he was diseased to the very bone through alcoholic excesses. He was dressed in a shiny overcoat, and his bony shanks threatened to pierce his trousers. When he pushed back his rakish greasy hat, he showed a remarkably fine forehead—well filled, strong, square—but he had the weakest and most sensual mouth I ever saw. There was scarcely a sign of a lower jaw, and the chin retreated sharply from the lip to the emaciated neck.
The majestic roll of his speech was very funny, and he poured forth his resonant periods as though I had been standing at a distance of twenty yards. As the gin stirred his sluggish blood he became more and more declamatory, and when at last he fairly yelled, “I am a gambler. I could not brook life if I had no excitement. It is my very blood. Yet, think not my words are false as dicers’ oaths,” and waved his right hand with a lordly gesture, I thought, “An old actor, for certain.” So long as his senses remained he talked shrewdly about betting, and his remarks were free from the mingled superstition and rascality which make ordinary racing talk so odious; but when he began to drink rapidly he soon became violent, and finished by carrying on like a madman. He shouted passages from “Hamlet” and “Coriolanus” with ear-splitting fervour, and at last he drew a universal protest from the rest of our crew, who are certainly not sensitive.Pages 11, 13
And here’s a description of a woman from a few chapters later.
One tall, broad-shouldered dame, who boasts of having six sons serving in the Guards, made a great commotion. Her weight is considerable. She had been drinking for four hours, and, when she attempted to illustrate her theory of the waltz, she sent drinkers and drink flying as though her offspring’s battalion had charged. She had disabled one sporting coster who tried to guide her, and the landlord was preparing for practical remonstrance, when she sailed down upon me, yawing all the way as though she were running before a hard breeze.Page 50
The whole book has the feel of a William Hogarth engraving come to life, even though it was written over a century after Hogarth’s death. The times may be far apart, but they share the same basic ingredients: morbidity, moralizing and caricatures of the worst sort of people. The main difference is that Hogarth was punching at all walks of life in his pictures, while Runciman is mainly punching down.
I found this to be an interesting little find, although I can’t say I would read it cover to cover. The stories themselves get fairly repetitive after a while, and there’s some pretty nasty racism in there along with a graphic scene of animal cruelty. Its main value isn’t really in the central message, but in its descriptive style and its outlandish cast of characters. They wouldn’t make good drinking partners, but they’re entertaining nonetheless.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!