Chapter 11. Astley’s

by Charles Dickens

We never see any very large, staring, black Roman capitals, in a book, or shop-window, or placarded on a wall, without their immediately recalling to our mind an indistinct and confused recollection of the time when we were first initiated in the mysteries of the alphabet.  We almost fancy we see the pin’s point following the letter, to impress its form more strongly on our bewildered imagination; and wince involuntarily, as we remember the hard knuckles with which the reverend old lady who instilled into our mind the first principles of education for ninepence per week, or ten and sixpence per quarter, was wont to poke our juvenile head occasionally, by way of adjusting the confusion of ideas in which we were generally involved.  The same kind of feeling pursues us in many other instances, but there is no place which recalls so strongly our recollections of childhood as Astley’s.  It was not a ‘Royal Amphitheatre’ in those days, nor had Ducrow arisen to shed the light of classic taste and portable gas over the sawdust of the circus; but the whole character of the place was the same, the pieces were the same, the clown’s jokes were the same, the riding-masters were equally grand, the comic performers equally witty, the tragedians equally hoarse, and the ‘highly-trained chargers’ equally spirited.  Astley’s has altered for the better—we have changed for the worse.  Our histrionic taste is gone, and with shame we confess, that we are far more delighted and amused with the audience, than with the pageantry we once so highly appreciated.

We like to watch a regular Astley’s party in the Easter or Midsummer holidays—pa and ma, and nine or ten children, varying from five foot six to two foot eleven: from fourteen years of age to four.  We had just taken our seat in one of the boxes, in the centre of the house, the other night, when the next was occupied by just such a party as we should have attempted to describe, had we depicted our beau idéal of a group of Astley’s visitors.

First of all, there came three little boys and a little girl, who, in pursuance of pa’s directions, issued in a very audible voice from the box-door, occupied the front row; then two more little girls were ushered in by a young lady, evidently the governess.  Then came three more little boys, dressed like the first, in blue jackets and trousers, with lay-down shirt-collars: then a child in a braided frock and high state of astonishment, with very large round eyes, opened to their utmost width, was lifted over the seats—a process which occasioned a considerable display of little pink legs—then came ma and pa, and then the eldest son, a boy of fourteen years old, who was evidently trying to look as if he did not belong to the family.

The first five minutes were occupied in taking the shawls off the little girls, and adjusting the bows which ornamented their hair; then it was providentially discovered that one of the little boys was seated behind a pillar and could not see, so the governess was stuck behind the pillar, and the boy lifted into her place.  Then pa drilled the boys, and directed the stowing away of their pocket-handkerchiefs, and ma having first nodded and winked to the governess to pull the girls’ frocks a little more off their shoulders, stood up to review the little troop—an inspection which appeared to terminate much to her own satisfaction, for she looked with a complacent air at pa, who was standing up at the further end of the seat.  Pa returned the glance, and blew his nose very emphatically; and the poor governess peeped out from behind the pillar, and timidly tried to catch ma’s eye, with a look expressive of her high admiration of the whole family.  Then two of the little boys who had been discussing the point whether Astley’s was more than twice as large as Drury Lane, agreed to refer it to ‘George’ for his decision; at which ‘George,’ who was no other than the young gentleman before noticed, waxed indignant, and remonstrated in no very gentle terms on the gross impropriety of having his name repeated in so loud a voice at a public place, on which all the children laughed very heartily, and one of the little boys wound up by expressing his opinion, that ‘George began to think himself quite a man now,’ whereupon both pa and ma laughed too; and George (who carried a dress cane and was cultivating whiskers) muttered that ‘William always was encouraged in his impertinence;’ and assumed a look of profound contempt, which lasted the whole evening.

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