A Restaurant (and a Journal) Fin de Siècle – April 11, 1891 (Page 316)
In constructing an understanding of Black and White’s success, I’ve argued that the journal adopted the magisterial voice of mainstream Britain, imagining itself as a safeguard of traditional, established reason. As England crept towards the end of the century – the end of Victorianism, the end of the world as it had been known – such authoritative confidence became increasingly valuable. Indeed the very phrase “Fin de Siècle” evokes fatalistic uncertainty: when Lord Henry famously mutters the expression in Oscar Wilde’s 1890 The Picture of Dorian Gray, he is curtly told: “Fin du globe” (Wilde 191). Such anxiety is evoked when the phrase appears in the title of a full-page cartoon, A. Guillaume’s “A Restaurant Fin de Siècle.” Yet the image itself is disarmingly funny: it shows a man entering an eatery whose “tariff (is) fixed by (the) weight of (the) customer on quitting the establishment.” He loads his pockets with bricks before feasting on chicken and four bottles of wine, and then removes the bricks before being weighed once again. Afterwards, the frowning waiter must pay his customer, who unleashes a ferocious grin.
The title imagines this hilarious swindle as typifying all restaurants – or, perhaps, commercial exchange – at the end of the century. To quote from the cartoon itself, the image rouses unease about the threat to the British “establishment” posed by changing times. Potential menaces can be found in diverse ethnicity (the man’s enormous nose and thriftiness imply Judaism), in decadence (alcohol appears in the three central panels), and even in newfangled mechanisms like the strange scale. The later fear of shifting technology is echoed in the journal’s “Note About Ourselves,” where angst is self-servingly couched in haughty assurances of increasing greatness: “We can promise that the second number shall be better, the third better still… The first issue is produced under conditions which make shortcoming inevitable… the work has to be produced with novel machines and special plant” (6 Feb).
Guillaume’s anxious but humorous depiction predicts the “immoral” fin de siècle restaurant of Conrad’s The Secret Agent, described as lacking the proper British “respectability… professionally, socially, or racially” (Conrad 149). This portrayal is a perfect fit for Conrad’s perpetually fretful novel: likewise, Black and White’s comic allows for convenient apprehension and self-assertion. After all, the young journal imagines itself the force that might save “the establishment” from post-Victorian menaces.