The Norwood Society

Fanny by Gaslight

Michael Sadleir was born in 18988 of an educated Oxford family – his father was Sir Michael Sadler, a scholar – and Michael altered the spelling of the surname to avoid confusion with his father’s name. He went to Rugby and Balliol College, Oxford and in 1912 he joined Constable, the publishing firm, of which he became a Director in 1920. Michael Sadleir and his family lived in an 18th century farmhouse with a dairy farm attached near Windsor, and later moved to a 16th century house in Gloucestershire. He died in 1957.

He was very interested in 19th Century literature and amassed a large collection of Victorian novels including less well-known authors. He catalogued all his collection and eventually the library was bought by the University of California in 1951. He wrote biographical works and several novels of which the best known was ‘Fanny by Gaslight’ written in 1940 and was based on his knowledge of Victorian life. He wrote a scene in it about the Crystal Palace, with which he may have been familiar, perhaps visiting the Palace as a child or when a young man. Certainly some of the descriptions seem very authentic even from what I can remember of the Palace.

The story was made into a film in 1944 by Gainsborough Films in black and white. According to Halliwell’s Film Guide the film, directed by A. Asquith, was considered at the time to be the best made and most convincing of the Gainsborough melodramas, though containing little of the details of the Victorian underworld London that were in Michael Sadleir’s novel. Phyllis Calvert is Fanny, the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman and living with a jolly publican played by Wilf Lawson. Stewart Granger is her father’s secretary who falls in love with her. Jean Kent is a childhood friend who goes to the bad, James Mason having a field day as the  Mi’Lord, whose villainy affects all of them.

The following extract from ‘Fanny by Gaslight, kindly remembered and searched out by Jerry Savage of the Upper Norwood Library, describes the scene set in the Crystal Palace when Fanny was a child:-

“I was I suppose about 7 years old when I was taken by my parents to the Crystal Palace. The expedition entailed much preparatory discussion, as well as general provision by William Hopwood for clothes for my mother and myself. Outings of this kind were very very rare, and this was so clearly a super-outing that by the time the day arrived I was in such a flutter of anticipation as to be almost sick in advance with excitement and worry about the weather.

But the appointed day was bright and mild, and after an early breakfast we set off in company with Mrs Beckett and Lucy for the Victoria Terminus of the Crystal Palace Railway.

My mother carried a large string-bag full of sandwiches, cake and needlework; Mrs Beckett carried a satchel of plaited straw with similar bulges. William Hopwood, Lucy and I carried nothing at all save, in his case, a Malacca cane with a fine ivory knob; in ours, tiny parasols in careful harmony with our frocks. At the age of seven a girl-child hardly notices the clothes of her contemporaries and how poor Lucy was dressed, I have completely forgotten. But my own tartan frock, broad sash, white cotton stocks and gloves, shiny black boots and tiny saucer hat are still as vivid as ever, while the crowning embellishment – the silk parasol of a tartan identical with my frock – actually survives to this day.

We traveled by omnibus to the terminus, caught the desired train and reached the grounds of the fabulous Palace about eleven o’clock. Hardly had we passed the turnstile when a man hailed William Hopwood – a tall, fresh-faced man in a check suit, who wore his Billycock hat at a jaunty angle. ‘Hey there, Duke!’ he shouted. ‘Who’d a thought of seeing you here?’ Hopwood shook the stranger by the hand and, turning to my mother and to Mrs Beckett, said in the mock ceremonious manner he loved to adopt, ‘Permit me to present Mr Mark Cunningham, who – not being blest as I am with the delights of domesticity – does not know a family outing when he sees one. Mark, my boy – my wife and Mrs Beckett’.

Mr Cunningham bowed and showed his teeth. ‘Your servant, Duchess. And yours, Ma’am. And these young ladies are, I suppose, the reason for my friend Hopwood’s truancy’. He pinched my cheek (a familiarity I have never ceased to resent) patted Lucy on the shoulder and strolled alongside of us up the broad pebbly path. Before long he dropped behind with Hopwood and the two men left us to go into a bar.

‘Why did he call you Duchess, mamma?’ I asked as soon as they had disappeared. ‘Some of your father’s friends call him Duke’ she replied. Why!, is he?’ She laughed. ‘Not quite, darling, but he has a gentlemanly way with him, I suppose that is why’. The day wore on. We bought ginger-pop at a stall and ate our sandwiches in the sunshine. We wandered under the vast arcading of the Palace, staring at statues and costumes in glass cases and models of engines and triumphs of ornament in porcelain, gilt and ormolu. We went on the tiny railway and fed the ducks on the pond, and stared at the crowds.

During the afternoon Hopwood reappeared and gave Lucy and me a shilling each for sweets or what we would, settled his wife and her friend on a comfortable seat, and wandered off again. In one part of the Palace grounds was a children’s play-park with swings and see-saws, and sand-heaps, a maypole with ropes and rings, a ‘bumble-puppy’ and even an asphalt space for roller-skating.

Lucy and I found our way there and soon made friends with a family two boys and a girl who were playing about under the eye of a nurse-maid. One of the boys seized a chance to occupy the bumble-puppy and proceeded to instruct me in the unfamiliar game. It was great fun hitting the ball in its string bag so that it wound tightly round the pole, but not such fun when – rashly looking away – I failed to remark the counter-hit and was struck smartly on the head by the swinging ball. It knocked my hat off and bruised my ear and the game ended in tears and some confusion. But when composure returned there remained with it a memory of what had so fatally distracted my attention; I had seen our new friends’ nurse-maid walking away with a young man, and sure enough, now that her charges were ready to return to her, she was nowhere to be seen. So far from being dismayed, the two boys leapt at the opportunity for adventure. They told us that, living in Sydenham, they had often been to the Palace and knew a back way into the organ-loft which dominated the smaller of the two concert halls that were used at night. True they had been caught the first time and forbidden to go there again; but Ada had vanished and we should have plenty of time to make the expedition and rejoin her at an agreed rendezvous by the time she was likely to reappear. ‘Ada has been off before with a young man’, the older boy explained, ‘when we were here alone with her. And they stayed away – oh – a long time, and she fixed a meeting place. Usually mamma is coming to find us, and then Ada stays with us. But mamma is out calling, so do come on’.

Rather apprehensive, but unwilling to seem lacking in enterprise (in particular unwilling to be less daring than the boys’ little sister), we scuttled across the grounds to the Palace, and followed our guides to a region of passages and closed doors which even to the mind of a child had the flavour of ‘out of bounds’. The boys tiptoed along, peeping around corners and behaving with the extravagant secrecy of a game of Indians. At last they stopped at a narrow doorway, from which a steep spiral stair-case led upward into darkness. I was now frankly scared; but it was too late to retreat, nor could I ever have found my way back through the maze of corridors. So, clutching Lucy’s hand, I crept up the stairs and, a few seconds later, was leaning on a balustrade looking down on the projecting platform used by the orchestra with, beyond it, the gloom of the concert hall.

The afternoon light was dimming; and the silent place, with its rows of empty seats and distant corners full of crouching shadows, was eerie and menacing. I felt the beginnings of fear and was only a little consoled to see that both Lucy and our new girl-acquaintance were in the same plight. Meanwhile the boys were clambering silently about the steps and bench of the organ itself, which towered horribly above us, the tall pipes rising to what seemed a vast height before they were lost in darkness. I stared at them fascinated. The vents, curving in a wavy arch from left to right, looked like mouths, and as I crouched against the balustrade, I seemed to see them leer at me, as though the pipes were a regiment of elongated and malevolent hobgoblins, only waiting a signal to bend downwards from above and seize upon me with their hideous tentacles.

Wrenching my eyes away I turned towards the hall. I was staring downward, trying to master the fright which threatened to choke me, when I fancied that somewhere underneath the loft there came a sound. It was a cautious, scratching sound, and curiosity for the moment made me forget my fear. The orchestra platform did not stretch the whole breadth of the hall, but left a space to either side which ran under the organ loft to (presumably) the passage from which we climbed the spiral stair. Something was afoot below me, in the invisible space to the left of the platform.

Immediately afterward there was sharp click, and the darkness below the loft changed from black to grey. Instinctively I realized that a door had been opened and that a faint light from the passage was filtering into the hall. The grey faded to black again. The door had closed, but silently and with no sound of a latch. A man’s figure (it was now too dark to see more than the moving shape) was slipping soundlessly down the gangway to the left of the hall. Almost too frightened to breathe I watched him disappear into the gloom at the far end. In a few moments, to my even greater alarm, he came into dim sight again, creeping back the way he had come. By chance the others in the loft were making no noise – the girls they were too scared to move, the boys as part of a private game of their own which required silent progress between two given points. It struck me that the man in the hall would not be very pleased if he discovered us, and that to prevent his doing so, I must warn my companions.

By good fortune one of the boys was within reach. I caught him by the arm and, with a finger on my lips, jerked my head toward the hall. He was quick to understand and, attracting the notice of his brother (who had crawled silently on to the organist’s seat) repeated the gesture. The second boy slipped carefully to the floor between the bench and the console. But unluckily he alighted on one of the pedals, and the next moment from above our heads an unearthly sound – half-shriek, half-groan – tore the silence. I saw a momentary blur of white as the stealthy intruder raised his head towards the loft; then he ducked and scurried out of sight into the passageway by which we had entered.

As for us, we fled in wild panic down the spiral stairs, colliding at the bottom with a man who cam running along the passage from the right. He dashed through us and raced onward round the corner. But I saw his face and recognised Mr Mark Cunningham.

Betty Griffin

The Norwood Review Edition #122.