Society in London, by a Foreign Resident

Smalley, George W.


CHAPTER III: Cosmopolitanism of London Society


CHAPTER III: Cosmopolitanism of London Society




ENGLAND is the country, and London is the capital, of the unexpected. Nothing is exactly like what you were told you would find it. The climate of Great Britain is always caricatured. The society of the British metropolis is always misrepresented-by foreigners because they never mix in it long enough to understand it as a whole, by English writers because they are only acquainted with one or two aspects of it, while the genius of the nation does not enable them to generalize. Society in London-and when you have seen that you have seen everything-may be compared to a piece of patchwork: you look at it from one point of view, and it is all very familiar; from another, and it is strange. Something here reminds you of Paris, something a little farther on of Vienna, something next of any other capital you like. But the interspaces between these apparently familiar experiences are new; in other words, they are English. What you gaze upon is the foreign pattern worked upon a native ground. The character of the polite Anglo-Saxon is tricked out with so much which is entirely novel to him that at first it is impossible to distinguish between the original object and its superficial or accidental ornament.

For these reasons people feel both more at home and more strange in London society than in any other society in the world. The explanation is that London society is the most cosmopolitan of any in existence. I shall not err if I say that London is the only city in Europe which possesses a society upon anything like its own scale. Its organization, the care with which its fabric is built up and tended, the effort and ingenuity expended upon it, its tolerance, its credulity, its mixture of shrewdness and folly, of common-sense


and conceit, its alternate subservience to and defiance of the proprieties-all these, believe me, are unique.

Before I illustrate what I mean let me define my general position. There is, one is told, no waste in nature, and what Paris, since the fall of the Empire, has lost, London has gained. I do not say that every one goes to London now as all the world went to Paris once; but the British capital to-day approaches nearer to the Paris of fifteen or twenty years ago than any other capital of the world. London is not the most beautiful, the most splendid, or even the most convenient city; but it is pre-eminently the smart metropolis of Europe. And the Americans have found it out. Formerly good Americans were said to go to Paris after they died; depend upon it their souls now migrate to London.

Now when I say that London is above all things cosmopolitan, I do not mean that those who are about to make their bow to London society for the first time must be prepared for any pentecostal variety of tongues. Less French is spoken on the banks of the Thames than on the banks of any other great navigable river in the western hemisphere. British cosmopolitanism shows itself in its rapid assimilation of the social ideas of other countries and in its heroic struggle to rise superior to the hampering restrictions of insular respectability. True it still possesses its own excellent common-sense, but even this immense virtue is beguiled by the desire of those who possess it to prove that they are without its prejudices.

London society is thus a society in a state of solution. Some day its different elements may crystallize themselves into a definite shape, but not yet. If it is partially ruled by the traditions it fights against, its very impatience of discipline carries it into the most extravagant, the most ludicrous excesses. The more it is contemplated, the more instructive and amusing it becomes. It is, in a word, with English society as it is with English politics. The principles of tradition and discipline are in perpetual conflict with those of liberty and the right of private judgment.

I have said that London alone of modern capitals possesses a regular system of society. This is because London alone has what one may call a social citadel, around which rally those who are interested, or wish to affect an interest, in supporting it. There are in London Whig houses and Tory houses, Radical and Conservative hosts and hostesses. But be not led astray by names.

The division is unnatural and forced. Society, as society, is the common possession in London of all who are admitted into it. It is more than a phrase-more than an idea. It is an actuality. It has a real existence, and its votaries are animated by a common principle. The same men and women who, when they are compelled to assume a political role, say, "How can we help our party?" say in their social character, which is the real one, "How can we keep ourselves together?" Society is conscious of an identity of interest which compacts, with the force of cement, its members into a single corporation. In Paris we have never had and never shall have anything of the kind. Successive revolutions have robbed us of a common social centre. Political differences assert themselves as social distinctions, but in England, or rather in London, this is unknown.

Since, then, there exists a genuine stronghold to defend, it is worth taking considerable trouble to defend it. Thus you have an explanation of the elaborate scheme of dinner hospitalities unknown elsewhere, to say nothing of those less serious entertainments which the English share with the society of other European capitals. Some people may think when they have heard a legislative proposal discussed in the House of Commons that the only point at issue is, how will it affect political parties? But society is above parties, and what society asks itself is how it will affect its order. It is this organic unity which is one of the characteristics of the polite world on the English side of La Manche.

However well introduced a person may be, however well personally supported, society in London will not immediately welcome him or her with open arms. Contrast with the Frenchman's first visit to London the first visit of the Englishman to Paris. For his Parisian friend to take the British stranger to the salon of the Marquise D., to present him to the Marquise herself, and to obtain his presentation by her to the great ladies whom she had assembled about her, is, or in happier days was, the effort of an evening, nay, of an hour, but it made his career. He knew almost in an instant every one. There was not a house worth visiting in Paris which was not open to him forthwith. He was a gentleman. His credentials were good. His presence was agreeable. He knew the right people; and whether he began with knowing fifty or a hundred of them was immaterial. Some of these advantages the foreigner who is exceptionally well situated may enjoy in visiting


England. Once the new-comer has fairly established his footing, he will be passed on from house to house and, when September comes, from country mansion to country mansion. But he must not expect his letter of introduction to produce any instantaneous or magical effect. He will leave with his card a letter of recommendation at the house of a gentleman in Piccadilly, who will casually observe to his wife, " My dear, here is M. So-and-so with a letter from old - . I suppose," and here he will heave a little sigh, " we must ask him to dinner. Shall we say the 9th?"

"Impossible," his good lady will reply, "we have no place vacant then. The earliest day would be the 23d, and, if you think it necessary, I suppose he must come."

The upshot is that the visitor will receive an invitation to dinner on the 23d, that he will present himself at the house of his entertainer at a quarter past eight, that he will be one of a company of eighteen guests, whose faces are unknown to him and whose language he imperfectly understands, and that he will quit the premises of his new acquaintances about midnight without, unless circumstances are exceptionally favorable, knowing anything more of a single individual he has met than before he met them. This, I admit, may be a discouraging commencement; but the stranger must not be cast down, and if the impression he has created is fairly favorable his opportunity will come. He will not, as is frequently done in Paris, make the acquaintance of the society of London by attending the evening receptions of fine ladies in their drawing-rooms, simply because the crushes which were once called kettle-drums, and are now known merely as parties, present no opportunities of this kind. He will go, of course, to receptions, to show that he is asked, to put himself in evidence, and, when he has ceased to be a stranger, to meet his friends. But he will not go to them to make friends. The crowd is too great, the movement too rapid, the attendance too brief, to render anything of this sort possible.

And yet there exists in England a sort of parallel or analogy, so far as some of its social uses are concerned, to the old Parisian salon. It is the afternoon call about the hour of five-o'clock tea. Then is the time when, if there is anything worth recognizing in the social recruit, his friends will find it out. He may be fortunate enough to light upon his hostess and her daughter when they are alone. The conversation will range round many subjects, and


come to a head in some proposals. If the days are still short and the weather wintry, he may be invited to make one of a party to the play. As summer draws near, there will be a suggestion of picnics on the Thames; and he will be able to develop mere acquaintance into friendship within the picturesque precincts of Hyde Park. Thus, by degrees, he will find himself fairly launched. It is of some importance that he should have his entree into the St. James's Club. Mr. Gillett will receive him with open arms into the Bachelors', and if he thinks he is worth cultivating he will ask him to one of his little dinners, at which he seldom entertains less than eight-and-twenty guests.

London society, which is in some respects the most fastidious, is in others the most credulous, the most composite, or the most mixed upon the surface of our planet. It is the most fastidious because it is the least tolerant of an obtrusive personality. English society can pardon anything but egotism and blague. There are many clever and amusing men who have been social failures, who have made irretrievable shipwreck, because they have been irrepressible. There are individuals who may enjoy a special license, but they must be very sure of their ground before they begin to presume upon it. Society in London hates for the most part aman who insists upon having his presence felt. The reason is that it recognizes in such an one the egotist, and that in the egotist it scents unerringly the bore.

Lay, then, this golden rule to heart: Never attempt to be amusing; never venture into an anecdote; watch how anecdotes are received; hear the comment of your next-door neighbor at dinner upon them, and note how he invariably whispers confidentially in your ear that he has heard the story a thousand times before. When you are a personage in society, then you may affect to be one; then, but not before; and let any one who is ever tempted to violate this rudimentary maxim of good conduct be sure that it is only the members of a coterie, held together by the ties of an invisible freemasonry, who can safely indulge their antics before each other. The social genius of the English race is solemn. Look at the exquisites whom one will encounter in London theatres and clubs, known till recently as "mashers." They are ripe for any folly or dissipation, but their physiognomy is severity itself. The austerity of their manner is relieved by no gleam of fun. Their countenance wears a settled look of sullen melancholy. They


might, when they are not interchanging improper innuendoes with each other, be mutes at a funeral; yet, their absurdities notwithstanding, they are true to the traditions of their race.

Strange, it may well seem, that this society, so self-contained, so impatient of certain forms of folly, is duped with the most extraordinary facility. It is impossible to enter the most irreproachable drawing-rooms in London without meeting these foreigners, of both sexes, whose presence is well known to be tabooed in the secondrate salons of republican Paris. Madame Denise and her daughter are droll phenomena to men who know something of Madame Denise's antecedents. What is one to say? Is it the simplicity or the hospitality of the Anglo-Saxon race which finds its expression in this truly catholic comprehensiveness? Kindly and unsuspecting though the English are, they would not, I believe, welcome, as they do, the odd foreigners I am now speaking of unless they could boast the very highest authority for doing so. England is the chosen home of freedom, but not of independence; and society in London, in all it does, or abstains from doing, is, as I have already shown, absolutely dependent on the initiative of royalty. It is indeed so large, so overgrown, that it is conscious it would, unless it were to accept the guidance of royalty, be without any controlling principle. It does, therefore, precisely what royalty, or even those who are somewhat remotely connected with royalty, bids it to do. If august personages in commanding positions receive ladies such as Madame Denise, and improvised husbands such as M. Denise, society follows suit. And yet there are fools who say that the monarchy in England is in danger!

Let me give another instance of this sort of thing, which one must be prepared indefinitely to meet with in London society. One of the first persons to whom the stranger is likely to be presented is a lady, famous for her beauty, whose career has been, to say the least, interesting. A few years ago she was unknown in London. But she went to a theatre by herself. In the next stall to her sat a nobleman, the Marquis of ---, accompanied by the Marchioness. His keen eye was immediately arrested by the loveliness of his neighbor. He offered her his play-bill or his opera-glass, entered into conversation with her, discovered that her husband was yachting in the Polar Seas, and that her father was, say, a colonial prelate. The beauteous stranger was staying at an hotel, and had intended rejoining her husband, I think at Spitzbergen, the next


day. The kindly and courteous peer expressed a hope that as she was in the capital she would stay to see a little more of its society. In eighteen hours afterwards the Marquis and Marchioness of had called upon her. Four-and-twenty hours later she was their guest at dinner, and before the week was out she was a personage in London society.

It is inevitable that a society assorted upon these loose and fortuitous principles should be curiously miscellaneous. It is miscellaneous, however, in an orthodox manner. The word of command must first be given in the highest quarters. The adventurer or the adventuress is not admitted into houses really worth entering, unless those whose word is law have set the precedent. When that is done the rest is easy. Society in London will never judge for itself if its rulers will relieve it of the responsibility. Whatever these do is right. The doctrine of passive obedience which was once the foundation of loyalty to the throne is now illustrated with unswerving allegiance in the social sphere. The subordination of Englishmen to the monarchical principle shows itself on a new plane, but is in reality as rigid as ever. Paradox though it may seem, the two chief characteristics of society in London are its simplicity and its heartlessness. The former quality is shown in other ways than I have just described. Society is amused with marvellous ease. The smallest of practical jokes are enough to set it in a roar. The slightest eccentricity of demeanor plunges it in a paroxysm of laughter. Gossip that is perfectly puerile delights it. Any trivial scandal, the tale of which is told without point, epigram, or even antithesis, is welcomed as the best thing in the world. In Paris a certain flavor of wit or humor is expected. There is no necessity of anything of the kind in London. These grown-up men and women who laugh at the recital of imbecilities and ineptitudes are as easily entertained as children. Like children, too, they love to parade their own vices, and to make themselves out a thousand times more wicked than they are. No society could exist if it was half as corrupt as the members of London society, to judge from their casual talk or from the significance which their comments and allusions are intended to convey. But it is talk only-the lax garrulity of a race which is still laboriously endeavoring to emancipate itself from the fetters of Puritanism. It is Puritanism, it is morality, it is religion, it is the sense of duty, wedded to and regulating the fever of enterprise, which have made the English the race


they are. Yet it is these obligations which society in London affects to ridicule.

In what does that which I have called the heartlessness of society exhibit itself? Partly in its cynicism, which is, to a large extent, an affectation; partly and far more conspicuously in its disrespect of those conventionalities-in its violation of that unwritten law of decency and family obligations which is sacro sanct in France. Here, then, one may see the latent barbarism of the English character betraying itself. A smart lady in London society will dine out and enjoy herself in any fashion-a perfectly harmless fashion, no doubt-that pleases her when her brother or her sister, perhaps even her father or her mother, is stricken with a mortal illness, or is actually at the point of death. I will give a more definite instance. Some few months ago a nobleman leased his shooting-box in the country to another nobleman of his own kindred. The eldest son of the proprietor of the estate happened to die, and the lad's funeral was fixed for the same day as that on which a party of fashionable guests was to assemble at the house which, had he lived, he would have inherited. Nevertheless the party was not put off, and the same train that conveyed the corpse of the young man to the family vault, which was in the church of the estate, then let to his kinsman, conveyed also his father, the owner of the property, and all the guests who were to enjoy themselves on his moors. The party had been arranged beforehand, and in England the pace at which they live is so quick that the sorrows of the sepulchre must yield to the convenience of society.

Society in London has the recommendation of supplying some gentlemen with a career exactly appropriate for the display of activities that might otherwise languish for want of employment. Mr. Gillett, whose name has been already mentioned, is one of these; Mr. Dalison is another. But the most puissant of the group is Mr. Kenneth Howard, who has succeeded Mr. Augustus Lumley as an organizer-in-chief of society's entertainments. Each of these gentlemen was designed by nature, with a special view to the ornamental needs of society, as a master of ceremonies. Mr. Lumley, young now no longer, wealthy, and the lord of a fine estate, continues to take a benevolent interest in society's doings, would doubtless give a favorite dowager the benefit of his counsel upon any critical occasion, and might even, at a pinch, superintend the arrangement of a cotillon-a species of enterprise in which erewhile


he achieved greater successes than any other European arbiter of elegance. Mr. Howard fills Mr. Lumley's place to perfection, and the most anxious and nervous of hostesses has learned from experience that she may place as implicit confidence in the list of dancing men he draws up at short notice for a ball as in the famous catalogues of his predecessor. Mr. Alfred Montgomery, the very picture of an elderly beau, has also rendered substantial service to society's hostesses. In some respects he is a more noticeable man than he might at first be taken for. One might easily suppose him to be nothing more than a dandy in his decadence. After a very little conversation one discovers that he combines with a thorough knowledge of the world a comprehensive acquaintance with English literature as well as a vast repertory of stories. His career has been eventful. He has known domestic trouble, and has been rewarded for his sufferings by non-domestic success.