Sunday 28 July 2019

A Postmodern Cut-Up Text from 1860: 'A Strange Composition' in The Brighton Examiner

Old volumes of The Brighton Examiner are held only by the British Library.  Most are 'restricted access' - their bindings are too fragile for readers to handle.  None are yet digitised.  Through persevering applications, I was recently able to view some 1860s volumes in person.  The newspaper of January 3rd 1860 happens to contain a startlingly postmodern emission, constituting a deliberately mangled text-palimpsest that seemed interesting enough to present here (see below).  But first, I should explain why I was leafing through this restricted newspaper in the first place...

An ongoing project of mine involves close-reading anonymous autobiographies to uncover authors' identities using search macros within digital archives.  Systematically inputting details - dates and places - into databases can triangulate identities in ways scarcely imaginable to those anonymous writers of old.  Sometimes however, progress is scuppered by brick walls: authors may deliberately fabricate biographical details, or, more problematically, the resources that may contain the necessary data might not even be digitised yet.

Roundabout Gossip (1862)
One difficult book beset by both these issues is 'Roundabout Gossip' (1862) published by J. F. Eyles in Brighton.  It contains 158 pages of barbed gossip, featuring thinly veiled references to literary figures, such as travel writer Lady Sydney Morgan, and proto-sociologist Harriet Martineau.  Its narrator calls himself/herself "Timothy Fitzwiggins" of the fictitious "Blackberry Park" in Gloucestershire.  Much like if Frederick Marryat decided to remain anonymous after publishing his fictitious 1829 first-person story 'Frank Mildmay', the red herrings amidst the rich detail leave future researchers lost at sea.  Searching with doubtful data yields only noise and confusion.

A more sensible person would give up at this point, but the book roused curiosity, so I continued digging around.  One possible way of shedding light upon the author of 'Roundabout Gossip' might be through investigating its curious publisher, John Frederick Eyles of 77 North Street, Brighton.  J. F. Eyles was a printer who also published The Brighton Examiner newspaper.  It appears to be the only newspaper in the world to have mentioned 'Roundabout Gossip', appraising it as "a most amusing and agreeable contribution to the light literature of the day".  In business since 1844, J. F. Eyles was suddenly declared bankrupt in July 1860.  'Roundabout Gossip' appeared in the summer of 1862, and though it's unlikely that Eyles wrote the book himself, it's plausible that one of his creditors devised it as a vanity project in lieu of payment (particularly as it was reported that Eyles had secured an amicable arrangement with his creditors in September 1860).

Cheap-paper Literature... (1861)
Throughout this troubled period, Eyles continued to publish The Brighton Examiner, but the only other recorded publication with Eyles' imprint from around this time is a 12-page pamphlet titled 'Cheap-paper Literature at the Hammer' (1861): an auction-room dialogue satirising modern literary trends.  I believe the 'Roundabout Gossip' author also wrote this anonymous pamphlet - some phrases are identical.  Both this pamphlet and 'Roundabout Gossip' are characterised by a grappling with modernity: the elderly author is cynical of mass-market literature, the rise of public lecturing, evolutionary theory, progressive religious "Neology", etc.  Both publications actually hover in a satirisation feedback loop, not least because they are both themselves products of modern media (for the 1860s).  'Cheap-paper Literature...' is published on cheap paper.

No libraries hold 'Roundabout Gossip'.  The British Library is the only institution holding both 'Cheap-paper Literature at the Hammer' and copies of The Brighton Examiner (which began circulation in 1853).  For the past year, I've been pestering the library and the British Newspaper Archive to digitise the 1860s issues of The Brighton Examiner.  A special request to view the physical volumes was generously granted by the library a few months ago.  I had hoped that by looking at them, familiar Gossipy phrases might leap out the page, or recurring names might provide a lead, but the mystery of 'Roundabout Gossip' was not solved.

Physically searching newspapers reveals unexpected things.  With modernity in mind, and by way of stressing the interestingness of The Brighton Examiner, I present this highly unusual column that caught the eye: the first issue of 1860 contains a text described tongue-in-cheekly as a tipsy New Year's Eve reveller's "wild bit of writing" found on the pavement "in a wet and dirty condition" on the morning of New Years Day.  It is actually a string of garbled adverts and news items from previous issues - it prefigures the 'cheap paper literature' cut-ups of the next century.

Journalistic Jumbles (1884)
This is not the earliest pre-postmodern anachronism - E.T.A Hoffmann's 1820 satirical novel 'The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr' is often cited in this respect (in which two autobiographies are supposedly merged by accident) - but this Brighton Examiner editorial nugget is a curio, and certainly of a more artistic, laboured origin than examples in the typo-celebrating 'Journalistic Jumbles, or Trippings in Type' of 1884 (which it reminded me of).  The Brighton Examiner's 'Strange Composition' column reads thus:


The following wild bit of writing is said to have formed part of the contents of a bundle of papers picked up on the pave, on Tuesday last, in a wet and dirty condition, by an early matutinal stroller.  The writer, whoever he may be, had rather evidently been "dining out," which, as Monday was a holiday, may to a certain extent be excusable, and hence apparently the general obscurity as to meaning or intention which pervades the composition.  The intelligent reader is invited to make what he can out of it, and so no more of preface.

- Good dinner - Nice wine - read Brighton Examiner - write to the Editor - second bottle - on Monday the powder mills at Hounslow blew up - being St. Patrick's day - Lord Palmerston enquired - if you really want pure gin - aged 76, married to a young girl of 18 - Holloway's pills - gratis to sufferers - Benson's watches - pains in the back - deposit and discount bank - a quantity of new sovereigns were issued at - five shillings a bushel to the poor - selling off at cost price - a railway truck accident - was convicted for keeping a disorderly house - mayor and principal resident gentry took - Kaye's Worsdell's pills - Thorley's food for cattle - committed for trial - Abraham's 16s 6d trousers - a saving of 7d to 1s per pound - to the great joy of the noble family - extra Christmas Holiday - now lying at the London Docks, copper-bottomed - Soup for the Poor - the Borough Improvement Bill - last seen in company with - Mary, alias Moll Hacket, alias Black Moll - Mr Nye Chart played the part to perfection, in fact - Reuben Cherriman, the Dentist - J. F. Eyles, General Printer - Allano, the Clown - Canterbury Hall - Absalom Dell - Maynard's Cough Lozenges - will keep good for 10 years, even in the Indies - try a box of - Garlick's best Wall's End - Can produce a good character from his last place - Dr. King's Liver Pills - Rents! Rents!! Rents!!! - Mr L. Christian - An Act of Deep Gratitude, given away, 2,000 - no use to any one but the owner - The Brighton Sauce - N.B. be careful to have the right sort - Brighton Rifle Corps - Sudden Death - Lewes Cattle Show - Two Grand Concerts - taken up for defrauding a Countryman at hussel-cap - A. Bigge - the Mayor - J. Allfree - Assault and Robbery - Drunken Attempt at Suicide - Parish of Brighton - removed to Bath for the benefit of the air - afterwards tossed and gored several persons - A Bull in a China Shop - made a Freemason at the Grand Lodge - Mr Saunders (Blacksmith's Alms), Mr R. Cherriman - Mr Burn, jun., Mr Measor - Mr Willard - and several other highly respectable inhabitants - Remember the Poor at Christmas - A fine turtle, weighing the - creditors of Mary Jones - to be sold to the highest bidder - warranted sound wind and limb - Mr Nye Chart's Christmas Pantomime - An agreeable Young Lady with a fortune of £10,000 - fell down in St. Gile's - a total wreck, but her crew saved - The Pope's Bull - Mr Dewar - Mr R. Marston - Mr Wilson - Mr English - Mr Wheeler - universally respected - roast goose - pork chops - potatoes and greens - mild ale - gin and cloves - Dublin stout - rum and milk - cod liver oil, - Tamplin's mild - Catt's old - Parsons' good chap - out and out Cavendish - none are genuine but such as have - Brighton Examiner - evening concluded with the utmost festivity - jolly companions - won't go home till morning - now number 999 - move on - George Wight - all right - not tight - not a bit - no - no - - report - you - in - the - morn - ing - - bed quite wet - candle top of the gas light - I - sa - y - - - -.

[The remaining portion, occupying 20 sheets of large-sized letter paper, quite unintelligible at present, but when dry, we may be enabled to make out some more.]

Adverts in The Brighton Examiner, 1860, published by J. F. Eyles