|Giacomo Casanova by Anton Raphael Mengs|
“I will begin with this confession; whatever I have done in the course of my life, whether it be good or evil, has been done freely: I am a free agent” Giacomo Casanova
Upon reading the excellent pieces by Tachybaptus concerning the Saints, I thought for the sake of balance that a piece about a sinner would not go amiss. Enter Giacomo Casanova, born in Venice in 1725, died in Bohemia in 1798, two years before the fin de siecle; his life therefore spanning a good three quarters of the 18th century. There have probably been quite a few men like him, and probably more to come, but not many who have chronicled their lives as thoroughly has he has done in his “Story Of My life.” Fortunate for us that he was bored out of his skull working as the librarian to Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein in a remote castle in Bohemia in his latter years.
As our European culture and identity are being threatened and challenged, perhaps as never before, it might be instructive to review the life of a true pan European, who travelled thousands of miles across the continent, mostly on the run it must be said, and who visited most of the great European cities.
There have been many works based on his life story, books, plays, films, TV series etc, some good, some atrocious, and I just mention these in passing for those who want to delve further. I myself acquired an abridged version of his memoirs some years ago. Therein he writes about his infamous escape from The Leads prison, his pioneering of a state lottery, from which he made, and lost, a lot of money, his meetings with the great and the good and his various escapades with women and the resultant fallout with their husbands in some cases.
For the purposes of this little piece, I just want to concentrate on his visit to England in 1763-4. He came ostensibly to sell the idea of a state lottery to the relevant authorities, but I want to concentrate on the observations he made at the time about the English and how he thought they differed from their European counterparts.
He observes,”The average Englishman (is) strong in the rights the law affords him, and careful not to do anything the law forbids him. The main characteristic of these proud islanders is their national pride, which puts them in their estimation far ahead of all the other races. It is only fair, however, to say that this fault is not confined to them; each country places itself in the first rank.” He goes on to say that the country is well cultivated, clean and beautiful, with good roads, and that he admired, “the perfect ease with which one could pay for everything with a mere scrap of paper.”
It was typical of him that on his first day, after being disgusted by the lodgings offered to him by a former mistress, he visits the most ill famed coffee house in London, the Orange Coffee House, and immediately falls on his feet by meeting someone he knows by reputation. He subscribes to the tune of four guineas for four editions of the Decameron which the fellow is working on, who then immediately helps him find suitable digs in Pall Mall. He could play the rich man with money swindled from an old dear he had promised to turn into a young man. Within a short space of time he had found himself a multi-lingual, Negro man servant, an excellent English cook who could speak French, and had discovered all the local watering holes which provided high class hookers.
He describes a visit to the Drury Lane Theatre where a production starring the famed actor Garrick is running. That night’s performance could not be put on for some reason, and Garrick had to come on stage to apologise, “They pelted him with apples and dirt. There was a cry of, ‘Clear the Theatre!’ The King, the Queen and the respectable portion of the audience made off in a hurry; in less than an hour everything inside the building was wrecked, only the four walls were left standing. The sovereign people destroyed everything it could lay it’s hands on, just to show it’s sovereign power; then, satisfied with it’s work, went off to swill beer and gin.” Makes you proud to be English.
He goes on. “About a fortnight later, when the theatre was reopened, Garrick appeared before the curtain to beg the indulgence of the spectators. Before he could utter a word, a voice from the pit cried out, ‘On your knees!” A thousand voices took up the cry, ‘On your knees!’ and the famous actor was obliged to ask the pardon in this humiliating position of the scum of the London slums. Thunders of applause told him the pardon was granted, and there was an end of the matter. The English people are like this, they scoff and hoot at King, Queen and Princes when the fancy takes them, and for this very reason royal personages are careful not to show themselves except on great occasions surrounded by hundreds of constables.”
One more excerpt illuminates his thoughts about the English and their freethinking ways. After a few weeks he starts to get lonely, missing the permanent company of a female in his domicile, so he decides to advertise for a lodger, with the permission of his landlady. “Second or third story to be let furnished, cheap, to a young lady, alone without encumbrances, speaking English and French, and receiving no visitors.” He wonders why his landlady starts cracking up at this suggestion. He soon finds out when crowds start to gather outside his lodgings having a good laugh at the ad he had put up. His man servant subsequently informs him that his notice has been reproduced in the St James’s Chronicle with satirical comments. He says, with good humour, “English news-sheets are the most entertaining in the world. Everything that goes on is freely discussed. The journalists here have a knack of making the simplest things interesting. Happy the people in whose country one can say everything and write everything!” He goes on to have a happy time with his new lodger called Pauline, but that’s another story.
We’ve since had the Leverson Report ending centuries of the free press, and now the internet is under pressure. It’s time to fight for our heritage as Englishmen, and to fight for it here and now.