Seeing the pleasure gardens


The delights and dangers of London’s pleasure gardens were well-known to 18th and 19th-century audiences; so much so that they were used as a setting for many of the best-known British novels of the period. Encompassing the very best and the very worst of London life, their potent mix of fashion, culture, food and sex made the pleasure gardens a literary backdrop that dripped with symbolism.

Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, 1771

The Scottish satirist Tobias Smollett used the pleasure gardens to demonstrate the very different ways in which London could appear to different types of visitors. In his 1771 novel The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, the character Matthew Bramble describes the exclusive and fashionable Ranelagh Gardens as a place where ‘the company are following another’s tails, in an eternal circle; like so many asses in an olive mill […] As for the orchestra, the vocal musick especially, it is well for the performers that they cannot be heard’.

He describes Vauxhall Gardens as ‘a composition of baubles, overcharged with paltry ornaments […] contrived to dazzle the eyes and divert the imagination of the vulgar’. Bramble, a kind-hearted but curmudgeonly country squire, detests London, which he calls ‘this mis-shapen and monstrous capital’, and to him the pleasure gardens are a place where all the irritations and inconveniences of the city are concentrated.

By contrast, Bramble’s niece Liddy, who accompanies him to London, is enchanted with the pleasure gardens. Young and inexperienced, her raptures suggest the magical impression the gardens could leave: ‘Ranelagh looks like the inchanted palace of a genie, adorned with the more exquisite performances of painting, carving and gilding, enlightened with a thousand golden lamps, that emulate the noonday sun; crowded with the great, the rich, the gay, the happy and the fair; glittering with cloth of gold and silver lace, embroidery and precious stones’. Vauxhall is just as impressive: ‘a wonderful assemblage of the most picturesque and striking objects, pavilions, lodges, groves, grottoes, lawns, temples and cascades; porticoes, colonades and rotundos […] the whole illuminated with an infinite number of lamps’. We can imagine how the gardens, brightly lit and filled with well-dressed people, must have contrasted with the dark streets of the eighteenth-century city by night, undrained by any sewer and occupied with the unfortunate and criminal.

Henry Fielding, Amelia, 1751

The pleasure gardens were also a place of real danger, especially for young women. The dark corners and secluded walkways were ideal for lovers, but risky for young women to venture alone, in an age where respectable women were guarded and chaperoned by family or friends. In Henry Fielding’s novel Amelia, published in 1751, the heroine is attacked by two men while walking through Vauxhall. When confronted by Captain Trent, Amelia’s rescuer, the men claim that they did not realise her to be ‘a woman of Fashion’ (i.e. of wealth and status). The implication, of course, is that women of no wealth and status were to found in the gardens, and considered fair game by predatory young men.

Frances Burney, Or, the History of a Young Lady’s Entry into the World, 1778

Evelina: Or, the History of a Young Lady’s Entry into the World, sees the heroine taken unwillingly to Vauxhall by her vulgar city cousins. Initially, Evelina admits that ‘the trees, the numerous lights, and the company in the circle round the orchestra make a most brilliant and gay appearance; and had I been with a party less disagreeable to me, I should have thought it a place formed for animation and pleasure’. Her cousins and their friends embarrass her by insisting upon eating their supper in a conspicuous place, drinking too much, and loudly complaining about the food. Worse is to come, however, for she is forced to accompany her cousins into the dark alleyways, where a group of drunk young men surround them and begin to grab at them – only to be ‘rescued’ by Sir Clement Willoughby, the very gentleman whose attentions she has been trying to avoid for some weeks. Written by a young woman, who would have well known the physical and reputational risks involved in wandering around Vauxhall alone, Burney’s account of Evelina’s terror is a believable one.

William Makepeace, Vanity Fair, 1848

Of course, some mishaps in the pleasure gardens were entirely self-inflicted, and these risks would likewise have been understood by the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel reader. William Makepeace Thackeray used Vauxhall as the backdrop for an important early scene in his novel Vanity Fair – written in 1848 but set initially in 1813.

The heroine Becky Sharp, staying with her wealthy friend Amelia Sedley and family, is taken to Vauxhall by Amelia’s elder brother Joseph Sedley, and Amelia’s fiancé George Osborne. By this date, Vauxhall was beginning to be perceived as somewhat downmarket, a venue for ‘vulgar’ merchants rather than the height of fashion. Thackeray, who knew the gardens as a boy, describes ‘the fiddlers in cocked hats, who played ravishing melodies under the gilded cockle-shell in the midst of the gardens; the singers, both of comic and sentimental ballads, who charmed the ears there; the country dances, formed by bouncing cockneys and cockneyesses, and executed amidst jumping, thumping and laughter; the signal which announced that Madame Saqui was about to mount skyward on a slack-rope ascending to the stars; the hermit that always sat in the illuminated hermitage; the dark walks, so favourable to the interviews of young lovers; the pots of stout handed about by the people in the shabby old liveries; and the twinkling boxes, in which the happy feasters made-believe to eat slices of almost invisible ham’.

The impression is one of faded glamour, rather than elegant fashion. In the course of the evening, Joseph gets exceptionally drunk on Vauxhall punch, and leads the company to believe that he is about to propose marriage to Becky… only to remember everything the next morning, in one of literature’s finest hangover scenes. As Thackeray’s narrator recalls, ‘there is no headache in the world like that caused by Vauxhall punch. Through the lapse of twenty years, I can remember the consequence of two glasses! two wine-glasses! but two, upon the honour of a gentleman; and Joseph Sedley, who had a liver complaint, had swallowed at least a quart of the abominable mixture.’

By the time Vanity Fair was published, London’s pleasure gardens were dying out as new types of entertainment took over, and Vauxhall – the best and the last – closed in 1859. Through works of literature, we can see how they must have appeared to earlier Londoners: a heady combination of glamour and danger.

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