John McDonnell has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web his website with the electronic text, including scanned images, of the anonymous London Characters and the Humourous Side of London Life. With Upwards of 70 Illustrations apparently by a "Mr. Jones," which the London firm Stanley Rivers & Co. published in 1871. Brackets indicate explanatory material, such as interpretations of contemporary slang, by Mr. McDonnell. [Decorated initial "A" by Thackeray from Vanity Fair — George P. Landow.]
very class or order in nature has its species or varieties, and there is no large class of men which has not at once its common character and its numerous varieties---its general type and its special variations. This is eminently so of the order of the Bar, which includes perhaps a greater number of varieties than any other. Every individual of eminence has distinguishing traits and characteristics, which would require individual portraiture---and perhaps we may some day essay a series of such portraitures of eminent men at the Bar. But at present our idea is a description of certain varieties of the class---the individuals of which may not be of sufficient importance to require a more particular portraiture.
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In this attempt we have been aided by the pencil as well as the pen. The first is a rather rare and very obscure variety---very little seen or known, as the individuals who belong to it lurk in chambers, and seldom show in court. When they do come down---perhaps, like old Preston, to argue a nice point of real property law, or revel in the technical subtleties of conveyancing---they have the aspect of pundits, and evince an unbounded contempt for the court, whose ignorance they condescend to enlighten. They will consume a whole day in a dull, dry, dreary argument, stuffed full of citations from "Coke upon Littleton," and "Fearne on Contingent Remainders," and "Saunders on Uses," all of which they read out in a calm unceasing drawl, without once changing their tone, or ever being betrayed into a spark of energy or show of earnestness. They generally send one or two of the judges to sleep, and inflict upon the others the cruel torture of trying for hours to keep awake. When they have done, the judges thank Heaven that they have ended, and depart with beclouded minds but grateful hearts; knowing, perhaps, rather less of the matter than they did before, but feeling like men who have been sorely misused. The whole air of this manner of men while arguing is that of a professor or tutor reading a lecture to a "class" of pupils or students. They believe themselves the keepers of the species of recondite knowledge they profess, and which without them would be lost to mankind. They are a kind of legal Brahmins, who despise all the other orders of their brethren, and think that all law is wrapped up in conveyancing and titles. They are never happier than when engaged in picking holes in a title, except when they have found one.
This, also, is a rare and almost extinct variety. They flourished in the Ecclesiastical Courts under the old system; but when the Probate Court and Divorce Court were established and their "doctors" were made counsel of, they fell under the lash of Cresswell, who nearly extinguished them as a class. The brethren used to crowd into the Probate Court to hear Sir Cresswell scoff and joke at "the doctors." They were a dull, scholastic class, crammed full of recondite learning, gleaned from the books of the jurists of the middle ages, and the dark records of Doctors' Commons. When called out into the general practice of the new system, they were like owls brought suddenly into open day. They were so bedevilled by Sir Cresswell, that some of them fell into despair. And the worst of it was, it was all done so politely that they could not complain. He flouted them so calmly, and with such a refined sarcasm, that often they did not perceive it; and while all around were smiling, they thought they were doing it well. By degrees it dawned upon them that they were just a little too slow; some of them brightened up and did better, others simply died out: they disappeared. A new race arose by degrees fitted for the new system; but still the old variety lingers, and can sometimes be seen. The rare specimen we may now and then see will straggle into a court of common law to argue on a church-rate question, or a matter of a tithe "modus," or a "faculty to have a pew, or to build upon a graveyard," and the like. And then they revel in "Gibson's Codex," and "Burn's Ecclesiastical Law," and the like, and read whole pages of Latin with infinite relish. They are exceedingly clerical in look and style, are pedantic, and sometimes priggish.
There is a species of barrister whose forte is argument, and whose style is the plausible. They "put things" so cleverly, as to put the case quite in the right light---for their clients. They are calm and dispassionate in their manner, and are great in banco---before the judges. They profess a contempt for juries, except, perhaps, in heavy and important special jury cases, when sometimes they condescend to convince them. They are often chancery men, and so in the habit of addressing judges, that, though they may be sophistical, they are never rhetorical. They would be ashamed of it, even if they could do it---which most of them could not. They are eminently argumentative, or affect to be so, which is the same thing as to style.
This is a species of the class of which there are several varieties; but they have all common characteristics. There is the Nisi Prius variety, and the Criminal Court variety; and these, again, are sub-divided; there is the special jury variety and the common jury variety; and then, again, there is the Old Bailey variety, and the Sessions variety, and the Assize Court variety; and these differ greatly in style, as may be conceived. Still they all have a common character which abundantly distinguishes them from the preceding classes. They have all this in common, that they are in the habit of addressing twelve men at least to say nothing of the audience, of which several varieties always think more than of the jury. The twelve men may be small traders or farmers, or they may be gentlemen-merchants, hawkers, and the like; but still they are twelve men, and twelve laymen who know nothing of the law, and have seldom much logical acumen, or very serious taste. Hence the style of the Jury Counsel is always more or less popular and ad captandum. The main distinction between the different varieties is in the amount of noise they make. The common jury variety are always more noisy than the special jury; and the sessions variety more so still. The criminal counsel, who has so often to defend men who have had the misfortune to get into mischief, as the facts are generally against him, has of course to appeal a good deal to the feelings. He denounces policemen in tones of thunder, and tries to make out that the real rogue is the prosecutor. All this requires exertion, and the less he is in earnest the more anxious is he to appear to be. Hence he is always noisy, and sometimes stentorian. One of the class was lately complimented at sessions, by one of his facetious brethren, upon his having reduced most of the magistrates to entire deafness. He is pathetic at times, and then generally quotes some lines from Shakspeare (which he has carefully got up); but his usual characteristic is noise. The specimen delineated on the preceding page appears to belong to this variety; he is evidently "going to the jury."
This species---not generally much encumbered with business---affect the gentlemanly, and are, above all, anxious to look the character. They are usually handsome, are carefully well dressed, and their whiskers are almost always luxurious, cultivated and curled. The wig is always in fine order; it is never put on in a hurry; the linen collar, "choker," and "bands" are always pure and spotless, and without a crumple: they are always put on carefully and slowly. In short, everything about the man is nice; his whole air, aspect, and appearance are studiously proper and becoming. And there is the quiet consciousness of this, which completes the character. There is the complacent smirk of self-satisfied success in appearance. It is confined to appearance, for he is never---or hardly ever---heard; and when he is, he usually makes an ass of himself---for there is nothing in him; and he has so long been in the habit of devoting unlimited leisure to his outward guise and appearance, that his mind is poor. Nevertheless, it often happens that he has good "connections" and a patron; and thus there is a chance that he will get a place; a post in some department, or perhaps even a seat upon the bench at a police-court, where he will make an ass of himself in public, unless he has sense enough to be as silent as possible, and let his chief clerk do the work, and direct him (in a whisper) what to say. Perhaps he gets an appointment in the colonies; or perhaps he succeeds to an estate, and disappears; or perhaps, upon the faith of his being at the bar, and the credit of his gentlemanly appearance, he marries a wealthy widow, and then also disappears.
This variety betrays and portrays itself. To use a legal phrase, "It is bad on the face of it." You observe the eyeglass---an unfailing trait of this class---which is noted for its great powers of observation, exercised continually upon everything and every one in court; but with a constant eye to the facetious. Anything---in judge or jury, witness or audience, but above all in a brother barrister---on which a joke can be hung, is sure to be noted by that acute ear, and that unfailing eye. He is always a man without business; and his great delight is to be sarcastic on his brethren who have it. He comes into court very late, and he goes very early, for he sits up at nights---not studying, but playing; and the probability is that he had much more wine than was good for him; for which reason he has a craving for soda water and other cooling drinks; he has no mind for work, or anything but fun. He is generally very full of spirits, and when men have nothing to do he helps to beguile the tedium of the day; but when they are busy, he is a bore. He has no mind but for the comical side of things; and if there is a comical side to a case, he is sure to see it. He has often a taste for drawing, and if so, it always tends to caricature; and his ample leisure is spent chiefly in noting and portraying the little peculiarities of his brethren. He is a contributor sometimes to the lighter order of literature; and one of the species has obliged us with the foregoing sketches of "the brethren."
Last modified 24 November 2012