Our London Letter

Source: ‘Our London Letter’, The Star, St. Peter Port, Guernsey, 19 March 1896, p. 2

Text: The season has begun in good earnest, and promises to be a most interesting one, with its kaleidoscopic developments in dress, new discoveries, and dissipation generally. As we grow older, does life become more interesting? or less interesting? I am one of those who would have nothing in the past undone, and nothing repeated — on the whole. People say, one never wants to return to a house that one has once left: a wise old lady (of women the crossest, ugliest, and least life-enjoying, I thought as a fool, but now I know better, and I agree with her) told me that she wished nothing back, not her youth, not her belles années, not the brightest moments of her life. I hope, and think, that we shall feel the same when we are “on the other side”. That means that the interest of existence grows, and this year, certainly in science, new excitements are constantly unfolding.

What has chiefly electrified me — hardly delighted — it is too gravely suggestive — this month is the little Cinematograph at the old Polytechnic rooms, it is also going on at the Empire. Under this unpronounceable and unrememberable name M. Lumière transfers an elaborate form of the well-known Edison’s Kinetoscope by lantern slides to a sheet on which the picture suddenly springs into life, the men and women start walking, hustling each other, crossing each other, interrupting each other just as it happens — as did happen that moment — in life. The photographs I hear were taken at the rate of eighty to the minute, and, whilst the principle is not new, the representation of life-sized figures close to you, acting as human nature does act, the trivial and the significant all mixed up together, is totally new, and it is startling to see these congealed moments, as I may call them, suddenly become irrified at the turning of some Pygmalionic handle, the trees and bushes moving in the wind, the workpeople rushing out for dinner, mixed up with bicycles, carriages, dogs, and horses, you only miss the prattle and the argot. When the railway train flies at you, you feel quite nervous. One scene came up, “Papa, maman, et bébé.” As this is not everyone’s ideal of life, we expected little from a pair of proud parents at tea. But when with a sort of start the French mother began to pour out tea, and the French father to feed the French baby, and the baby to sputter over his food after the time-honoured fashion of babies not only in France, it was really too funny for anything. Every parent present knew the process, the bits of bread and milk that would not be rammed down by the spoon, the baby’s supreme indifference to the disgraceful mess on his nose, as he laughed up at his laughing parents — one got a glimpse of a scene as old as the hills, ever new, ever interesting to the principals — and the unconsciousness was the charm. Science now and then is quite terrifying with its hints: we have had ere this, theological, not to speak of other intimations, that something of the same sort on a larger scale is always going on, that not an action is forgotten, not an emotion lost, but once generated continues for ever along lines of etheric vibrations! If the dread Recording Angel with his Cinematograph is for ever and ever beside us, about our paths and about our beds, and spying out all our ways. If the secret blow, the small revenge, the shabby return, is to come out before our eyes some day with a horrible faithfulness, and the instant’s betrayal of “Mr. Hyde” is to condemn “Mr. Jekyll” as long as ever the Divine handle is turned, what is to become of us? Where in the world is turning over a new leaf, decent privacy, etiquette, and the rest of it? It is not at all a nice thought. And yet I was glad that the past never dies, and if it condemns us will justify us also, when I looked at the fascinating scenes of human nature that M. Lumière meant simply for our frolic! So the porter shouldered the bag, the youth waved his hat to his beloved, the lady shook out her dress, the irate gardener kicked the saucy boy who put his foot on the hose and stopped the flow, and we saw France as clearly as if we had gone there with a Cook’s ticket.

Comments: The piece comes from a Guernsey newspaper but reports on happenings in London. The Lumière Cinématographe projector premiered at the Polytechnic Institute in Regent Street on 20 February, and began its main engagement at the Empire, Leicester Square on 9 March 1896. Along the films described are Repas de bébé (1895), L’Arroseur arrosé (1895) and one of the L’arrivée d’un train films (1896). Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published in 1886. My thanks to Deac Rossell for bringing this remarkable account to my attention.

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