The Victorian Omnium-Gatherum
It happened that quite a few years ago I was lodging in the Avenue des Gobelins, in the house of a Professor at the Lycée. One evening my landlord said if I liked to accompany him he would take me to a very interesting entertainment. I did like; and so we made our way into the Boulevard d'ltalie, and from thence to a small street running off it, where we entered a buvette. After passing through a very dirty room, where a number of hideously ugly, half-drunken, and half-naked girls were seated playing cards and dominoes, we found ourselves in a yard that was roofed over with a canvas awning. In the centre of the yard was a ring formed by boards about three feet high. The floor of the ring was covered with a layer of sawdust. Every inch of ground outside of the ring was filled with a drunken, leering crowd of men and women, with frightful and repulsive countenances. Several of the women had young children in their arms, and sips of absinthe, and what the French call eau-de-vie, were frequently given to these infants. The air of the place was thick with foul tobacco smoke, and reeked with effluvia arising from this unwashed crowd; while the babble of their voices was deafening, their conversation for the most part being coarse, lewd, and blasphemous. Up to this moment I had not the remotest idea what I had come to see; but I was soon to learn. A humpbacked man with a bloated face suddenly called out, "Attention, Messieurs et Mesdames! La Femme des Rats." At the same moment a tall, herculean woman entered the sawdust ring from a doorway in the wall of the yard. At the first glance I thought she was a man in disguise, for she had a coarse, masculine type of face, that was scarred all over, and about her mouth was a thin growth of scraggy hair. The glaring oil-lamps enabled me, however, to discover that she was unmistakably of the female sex.
She was dressed in flesh-coloured stockings, and wore high-heeled shoes. A loose, flowing petticoat of grey flannel came down to her knees, and the upper part of her body was clothed in a loosely-fitting bodice without sleeves ; so that, save for tanned leather gloves coming up to the elbows, her arms were bare to the shoulders, the armpits and the breast being visible. Round her waist she had a broad "Champion belt," with a massive silver, or imitation silver, buckle, while pinned to her breast were three or four medals. She brought into the ring with her a large wire cage, containing a dozen big and ferocious looking rats. This cage she deposited on the floor, and then addressing the audience, described herself as the champion rat-killer of the world. She said that the half-franc we had paid to come in went for the good of the house, and therefore she hoped that, when her performance was over, we should be liberal in our givings.
"Her performance" consisted in killing the dozen rats with her teeth in ten minutes, as timed by the humpbacked man, who was the landlord, or possibly "her agent".
The conditions were, "La Femme des Rats" was not to touch the vermin with her hands, but going down on all fours she was to seize them with her teeth as they issued from the small doorway of the cage.
The humpbacked man opened the door of the cage by means of a hooked stick, and instantly "La Femme des Rats" dropped on to all fours. In a few moments a big rat ventured to come forth from the cage, and with a quick, sudden, agile movement, evidently the result of long practice, the woman dashed at it, seized the animal with her powerful teeth, then shook it off as would a terrier, and it lay writhing in the agonies of death in the sawdust. The cheering of the brutal and excited audience evidently frightened the rats, so that they huddled in a mass in one corner of the cage, and it became necessary for the humpbacked man to poke them out with his stick. The second that ventured to come out was seized and killed instantly. Then two came out together. One was seized and disabled, and the other for the moment escaped, though the boards were too high to enable it to get out of the ring. The cage was now lifted up by the hooked stick, and the rest of the rats shaken out. Then, with all the snaps and snarls and movements of a dog, the woman darted at the terrified animals, many of which flew at the bare parts of her arms and at her face, inflicting wounds from which the blood streamed. I sickened with horror at the revolting sight, for anything more hideously indecent it had never been my lot to behold. With half a minute to spare the creature accomplished her disgusting task, and every one of the twelve rats was stretched in the sawdust. Then, panting, bleeding, covered with dust and sawdust, the woman rose, and the drunken, brutal crowd cheered and shouted themselves hoarse. When "La Femme des Rats" had somewhat recovered her breath, she handed round a little tin plate, and collected about ten francs.
The "entertainment" I have here described did not take place, remember, amongst the brutal Saxons, but in the midst of the gentle Gauls; and I think I may venture to remark that all the brutality is not quite on our side. But here is another picture :-
A little more than a year ago a bull-fight was advertised to take place at Aix-en-Provence, eighteen miles from Marseilles.
The entertainment was under the patronage and presence of the Mayor and Municipal Council. It was a fête-day, and a tremendous crowd of men, women, and children assembled to witness the edifying and refining spectacle. The man who opposed himself to the animal was an old, grey-headed Frenchman, and after he had gored and tortured the animal into fury, it made a furious onslaught upon him, and nearly trampled him to death. The Mayor hereupon rose in his seat, and ordered the exhibition to be stopped; but the gentle, lamb-like Gauls had come to enjoy themselves, and what mattered it though an old, grey-haired man was butchered to make them a holiday? They had brought their wives and children, their sweethearts and relations, out for pleasure, and they were not going to be baulked. So they demanded that the entertainment should proceed. The Mayor objected, and this objection aroused the lurking tiger. Men and women rose en masse, and shouted, screamed, gesticulated frantically, and swore horribly, threatening, if the show was not continued, that they would burn the place down. So the mangled old man was dragged out of the ring by means of ropes, and his son continued the fight, and succeeded at last in slaying the bull.
This revolting spectacle did not take place in Spain, nor even in London, but in La Belle France. Suppose we could read for "France" England. What would our dear neighbours say of us? They might feel that their language was too poor in condemnatory phrases to enable them to express their full measure of disgust and contempt. Really we ought to be very thankful that our country so far has been satisfied with man-and-dog fights and Amazonian encounters between half-naked females, and has not yet aspired to such displays as the mangling of an old man and the fiendish torturing of a bull.
Extracted from John Bull's Neighbour in her True Light. Being an Answer to Some Recent French Criticisms by A "Brutal Saxon", published by Wyman & Sons, London 1884.
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Book Review: Victorian Political Thought on France and the French