Of the enormous quantities of popular fiction the Victorians produced, the comic material has faded out of critical consciousness more than other genres, such as sensation and crime fiction. Humour dates fast, as we know, but from a historical perspective, it is precisely this twinned topicality-cum-obsolescence that makes it a valuable resource for understanding what made a culture tick. One very successful run of comic novels that also had a life as Dickensian public readings by the author was George Rose’s Mrs Brown series, published under the pseudonym Arthur Sketchley, between 1866 and 1882. In these books, Rose adopts the voice of an illiterate elderly woman, Martha Brown, (not unlike Sairey Gamp, from Martin Chuzzlewit), setting the character on course to visit various places on the contemporary tourist trail, such as the Paris Exhibition (1867), the Highlands (1869), the Nile (1869), South Kensington (1872), and the Crystal Palace (1875) (but also having her encounter social-political scenarios, such as ‘the new Liquor Law’ (1872), ‘the Alabama Claims’ (1872), Woman’s Rights (1872), and ‘the Shah’s Visit’ (1873)). The conjunction of the crude gender and class satire embodied in the condescending use of ventriloquism, and the topical commentary on subjects readers would know something about via more serious genres, such as newspaper editorials, proved a winner.
One of the novels, written at the height of the series, in the mid 1870s, narrated a trip to Margate. Mrs Brown at Margate (1874) has Martha and some of her pals determine on going to the town they know as ‘Margit’ in order to get a better view of the ‘Comit’ the papers have been predicting will pass over Britain. Mrs Brown has been there many times before, and on arriving, she can’t help casting her mind back to the days before 1856, when the jetty then standing was built by one Eugenius Birch, days when the town was not so swollen with quite so many ‘new ‘ouses’:
Later, Martha gets into the spirit of the place and goes for a donkey ride along the sands. When she sees the slight beast, she has some reservations:
As it happens, it is not the donkey’s ability to hold her weight that she should have worried about. After ambling around on its back for a while, she finds herself far away from any of the boys that should have been supervising her ride, a position of isolation that suddenly seems rather ominous after the donkey starts hurtling headlong into the sea on what appears to be a suicide mission:
All’s well that ends well. Mrs Brown escapes the ‘watery grave’ to which for a moment she felt bound, not that the rest of the trip is plain sailing. Falsely accused of stealing another family’s things, Martha has to go through the indignity of defending herself to a ‘perliceman’, after which she resolves to ‘drop’ Margate for good. In her valedictory address to us readers, she admits she will always have a soft spot for the place, however. Whereas Ramsgate is a bit too ‘genteel’ for her, Margate is the ‘land of liberty’. If she were the Queen, she would build her palace there, ‘as no doubt [Victoria] would, poor dear, if she could do what she liked, and knowed what real enjoyment means’: