Wednesday 1 September 2010

To Let

More continuities between past and present. There's a great 1859 article from George Sala called 'Houses to Let' which, although rather hard to read, due to Sala's love of fussy language, contains the following on the activities of the 'house agent'. Most Victorian Londoners would rent their homes, via an agent. The language of the estate agent, however, has always been slippery. Perhaps your modern property is 'enviably located' or 'stunningly proportioned'? Well, nothing changes ...

A House to Let may be a mansion, a noble mansion, a family mansion, a residence, a desirable residence, a genteel residence, a family residence, a bachelor’s residence, a distinguished residence, an elegant house, a substantial house, a detached house, a desirable villa, a semi-detached villa, a villa standing in its own grounds, an Italian villa, a villa-residence, a small villa, a compact detached cottage, a cottage ornĂ©e, and so on, almost  ad infinitum.  Rarely do the advertisements bear reference only to a house, a villa, or a cottage: we must call the spade something in addition to its simply agrarian title.
    Now, are all these infinitesimal subdivisions of Houses to Let merely intended as ingenious devices to charm the house hirer by variety, in the manner of’ Mr. Nicoll, with regard to his overcoats, and Messrs. Swan and Edgar with reference to ladies’ cloaks and shawls; or do there really exist subtle distinctions, minute, yet decidedly perceptible, between every differently named house? Can it be that the desirable residence has points calculated to satisfy desire in a different degree to the elegant predilections to be gratified by the elegant residence? Can it be that a residence, after all, isn’t a house, nor a house a residence? It may be so. People, in the innocence of their hearts, and unaccustomed to letting or hiring houses, may imagine that there can be no very material difference between a villa, a genteel villa, and a compact villa; but in the mind of the astute house-agent, and equally intelligent house-hirer, differences, varieties of size, aspect, and convenience, immediately suggest themselves; and to their experienced eyes there are as many points of distinction between the genteel and the compact, the desirable and the distinguished, as to the visual organs of those learned in horses between a cob and a hack, a racer and a screw; or to the initiated in dog-lore, between a greyhound and a setter.
    I do not pretend to any peculiarly nice perception as to things in general. I cannot tell to this day a hawk from a falcon (between the former bird and a handsaw I might be able to guess). It was a long time before I could distinguish between a leveret and a rabbit, or tell very high venison from decomposed shoulder of mutton; and I will not be certain, even now, if I could tell from the odour (being blindfolded). which was pitch and which tar. So, the immense variety of houses to let has always been to me a mystery, the subtle distinctions in their nomenclature sources of perplexed speculation.

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