By Emily Hope Westfield.
Society is a difficult word to define. The feat has often been attempted, out rarely has the proposed definition, however lucid and comprehensive, been found acceptable to all parties. Naturally, to those on the outside of the wall, it presents an appearance entirely different from what it does to those within the sanctuary. A London beau described society with satisfaction to himself as "the people we know," and though many quarreled with this epigram, there was no one brave enough to define it as "the people we don't know."
The elements that combine to make up the society of London today are so various that the wittiest might rack his brain in vain to comprehend them in a polished aphorism. In Walpole's day society, both in London and in Paris, consisted of three or four hundred people at the most, and was extraordinary for its brilliance. The excluded contemplated its splendor from a respectful distance, his vulgar breast untroubled by aspirations to break the invidious barriers that kept him on the outside. Indeed, any such ambition on his part would have been regarded as outrageous. There was no entrance to the circle of society. You had to Le born within it. And it might almost be said that there was no exit either, for one who was a member of the charmed circle could do almost anything that he pleased without in any way affecting his social standing. With the increased power of money, each generation has seen the rigor of the exclusiveness relaxed.
Mere riches, however, are by no means a certain passport to London society. Nor is this true of the New York smart set, although it is commonly supposed to be the case. Both New York and London are full of wealthy people who from a social point of view may be accounted nonentities. They have never transgressed society's laws; they are probably influential in the commercial and industrial activity of the city: and yet society never even hears their names, until a black line in the papers chronicles their deaths. Explore the West Side of New York or walk through the far West End of London and you will pass beautiful residences, the mere possession of which implies considerable wealth, and you will meet with elaborate turn-outs conveying gorgeously arrayed matrons to afternoon teas. Who are these people? you will ask, and there will be no one to enlighten you. Society knows as little of them as it does of the inhabitants of Mars. A social life as exclusive in its way as that of any other set they may have, but it is not "society."
Though there are many pleasures of life that can come only with the pomp and circumstance of royalty, there are also many inconveniences that follow in its train. No matter how far in advance a hostess may have planned a dinner and what elaborate preparations she may have made for its success, a summons from Marlborough House may call away all the guests of consequence and turn it, through no fault of her own, into a dismal failure. Such invitations go in the name of the proper official of the royal household and it is he who is by his Royal Highness to invite the guest to dinner. Their Royal Highnesses also retain the privilege of inviting themselves to any private function it pleases them to attend, and in the event of such an occurrence it is customary to submit the list of guests for the royal person's approval. These summons, as they are called, often occasion some comment on the want of consideration shown by royalty for the feelings of others. One of the most amiable of the present reigning family once remarked, "If you only knew how we had been brought up, you would wonder we behave as well as we do," and this indeed is a just view of the other side of the question. After all, the observance of the conventionalities demanded by royalty is not compulsory. It is a tribute gladly yielded to tradition.
So long as your Englishman is merely asked to yield these ancient privileges and to grant empty social distinctions to royalty, all goes well. By this homage his sense of the fitness of things is satisfied; the blood of ancestors who knelt to the divine right of kings still flows in his veins. Use and wont are powerful factors in this world. But once let royalty try to exact from him a single privilege, be it the most inconsiderable, and he is up in arms. Infringe by a hairbreadth on his constitutional rights, offend his sense of justice by one jot, and his passion for independence is aroused, his exaggerated egotism becomes blatant. He learns that the Queen Dowager, wishing to build a coach way that shall shorten her daily drive to the avenue, is pressing a claim to move her park paling a matter of a rod into his own private property. This is obviously a gross violation of his rights and to prove his independence he makes haste to turn his frail paling into a great wall of solid masonry. He quotes the law and then he takes his stand. Queen or no Queen, he will defend his constitutional rights. All England is powerless to move him an inch.
There are frequent examples of graciousness on the part of royalty to people so unfortunate as to transgress this code of unwritten laws. The prettiest instance of this kind is the well known story of Queen Victoria and Carlyle at Lady Stanley's tea party at Westminster Abbey, when the eminent Scot sat in the royal presence. The company was shocked and gazed at him aghast, but the Queen, with rare tact and consideration, by a simple gesture motioned the entire company to be seated. No story better illustrates the lovable character of the late Queen.
On another occasion the King saw his tailor in the paddock at an important race and greeted him with the remark that it was an enjoyable occasion. The tailor, puffed up at the royal notice, remarked with a drawl, "Oh, yes, but one meets so many odd people at a place of this sort."
"To be sure," replied the King quietly; "we can't all be tailors." Society is pretty much the same throughout the civilized world. It is a thing of circles within circles, and society in one country may differ from that in another according as it takes for its highest ideal and standard an aristocracy of title or of wealth; but in its essential make-up, aims, and methods of amusement, it is strikingly the same the world over. Of late, society in England has undergone the same changes which have been manifest in New York society for the past ten or fifteen years. Almost any American can remember the time when the old families that had lived in New York for many generations - mostly of Dutch descent - were looked to as the models of fashion and deportment and their doings chronicled in the papers. Recently these older families have almost entirely dropped from the public eye, and society, or "the smart set," as it is now called, is based more largely on wealth than on ancient lineage. In England this same struggle between the old and the new has been observed. The older families during the reign of Queen Victoria were entirely secure in their haughty position. They refused to recognize the actress, wife of a nobleman, no matter how high her title. Not only did they refrain from inviting her to their own houses, but they were not likely even to lay eyes on her except perhaps at church or driving in Hyde Park, where a glance through lorgnettes poised haughtily was the only recognition she obtained. The beginning of the change was marked by King Edward's accession to the throne. A man of democratic tendencies and of a genial, pleasure loving disposition, he encouraged wit and brightness and admitted, at least partially, to smart functions which had the sanction of royalty some of the newer lords and ladies against whom the only charge was that their families did not go back to William the Conqueror.
After all, the admission to society of one who bears, what some people consider the fearful taint of trade a couple of generations back, is not, illogical; for a little mathematics will illustrate the absurdity of taking great pride in a single illustrious ancestor sixteen or seventeen generations removed and at the same time omitting to mention the many characters of bad repute or no repute whatever who must necessarily occur in a list of ancestors which runs up into the thousands. And yet the widow who takes a grim satisfaction in the thought that an ancestor of hers received a favor from Charles I., and almost starves rather than permit her sons to soil their hands in trade, is not so rare. The army is always open to these young hopefuls.
Some years ago, society in England was either not understood at all in this country or viewed as a holy of holies beyond whose outer portals it was impossible for an untitled person to enter. But this has largely been done away with by the marriages between beautiful and wealthy American girls and British nobles. Relations between members of society in the two cities are becoming yearly more close. Comic papers and cynical writers often comment upon these marriages slightingly, but for the most part they turn out very happily. In many cases they are, no doubt, love matches; but where they are not matches of the heart, love of title and the power and position that it brings is often a counterfeit which is mistaken for the genuine article.
The Newport set, which may be said to constitute the inner circle of American society, has long modeled its manners and adopted its usages from the Marlborough House set, the coterie led by Edward VII. when he was Prince of Wales, and from a purely fashionable standpoint, the pinnacle of England's society life. Much might be found worthy of emulation in the life of this brilliant circle, but, perversely enough, American society has seen fit to imitate only its least desirable qualities. The Anglomania which manifests itself in aping harmless eccentricities of intonation, dress and manner is quite innocuous. If an American woman chooses to refer to her trunks as "boxes" and to dub her checks "brasses, " it is surely a harmless amusement; and if our young men of wealth adopt a time honored British custom and tool public coaches to and fro about the suburbs, they doubtless afford a number of people gratification while injuring no one. One merely wonders at the absence of a saving sense of the ridiculous. The importation of a freedom of speech which borders on the vulgar, is hardly so harmless. In the smart sets of New York and Philadelphia topics which a few years ago were tacitly omitted from discussion in polite society, are commented on with a frankness shocking to the uninitiated. In the horsy sets, the breeding of horses and of dogs, and similar subjects formerly relegated to the stable yard and the kennel, are enlarged upon without restraint. American smart society calls a spade a spade and defends its disdain of euphemism by citing the example of the Marlborough House set.
One difference between British and American society which is evident to every observer is the strong influence of society on government and politics in Great Britain and its almost total lack of such influence in America. In England the King, while practically stripped of constitutional dictatorship in even the smallest governmental matters, exercises a great influence through his position as the leader of society. The Cabinet minister who is so unfortunate as to displease him or set himself directly against his will may always be visited with social ostracism, and there are very few men in public life today to whom this would not be a serious matter. For social ostracism has a way of descending even to the third and fourth generation, and the man who is able to rise above such seemingly petty considerations when applied only to himself, can hardly be willing to see his wife and daughters, to whom society necessarily means more, suffer. In the United States, on the other hand, the Presidents have, as a rule, been men who either cared not at all for society or were entirely happy in their own circle of friends and disliked the display and worries entailed by what the daily press calls "social position."
The American lady of the smart set rather prides herself on her ignorance of political conditions and shows a complete indifference even at the time of a presidential election. In Great Britain society and politics are allied and topics connected with the government are discussed in many of the drawing rooms in winter and on the terrace of the House of Commons in the spring.
The terrace is an open, stone paved walk which runs along the side of the Parliament buildings, fronting on the Thames. High walls and the river hem it in, and it is entered only from the inner parts of the buildings. Here tea is served in the afternoons and great ladies may pull wires for some favorite or the charming wife of a young politician with a future may ingratiate herself with an influential member.
An anecdote of Lady Tweedmouth illustrates the method of this sort of thing and its results. Her husband, before his succession to the Tweedmouth title and estates, was Liberal whip - that is, it was his duty to see that straggling members of Gladstone's party should be on hand in their seats when a division was called for on an important question.
At the time of the well known Irish Home Rule Bill, the party began to split. Many members remained away, in the country, at home - anywhere to escape the bill. The whip was busy day and night gathering in doubtful and dissenting members. A member representing a northern provincial district was especially obdurate, and unfortunately controlled several votes besides his own. The day before the bill came up for a final vote, Lady Tweedmouth, then Lady Fanny Marjoribanks, was seen driving in Hyde Park with the wife of the stubborn member, at the fashionable hour. The whip's efforts were no longer required. Social ambition had done the trick and the member and his friends were in solid line.
It has been observed by a penetrating essayist that snobbishness, a quality popularly supposed to flourish among the aristocratic, in reality has its roots in the lower circles of society, Its seed is pretension; it is cultured and pampered by toadyism. The truth of this observation is most clearly demonstrated in London society.
People who rail against the present rottenness of English society and lament the virtuous past, should dip into Grammont, Pepys and Evelyn and learn of the kennels to which the court went in quest of pleasure, and the revels indulged in by the King and his companions, of the general low tone of morality that prevailed in those days. The Selwyn letters give posterity a disgusting insight into the social life of the aristocracy during the reign of George III. There were lewdness, gaming and general debauchery undisguised by a cloak of hypocrisy; a condition of affairs little bettered by the succession of the fourth George. The reign of the late Queen established a standard of virtuous conduct, and her example did much to chasten the aristocracy. Fast English society of today may be if measured by puritanical standards, but judge it by Continental society or English society of other periods and it appears, if not snow white, at least not so black as it is the fashion to paint it.
Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. August 1902.