Society in London, by a Foreign Resident
Smalley, George W.
CHAPTER VI: Society in Town and Country
SOCIETY IN TOWN AND COUNTRY.
CHAPTER VI: Society in Town and Country
SOCIETY IN TOWN AND COUNTRY.
THE reader will now be in a position to form a fair general idea, to take a bird's-eye view, of London society. Wherever it may be -whether the scene shifts from Mayfair and Hyde Park to the country houses of the provinces or to the spas of the Continentthat society is always the same. There are thousands and tens of thousands of well-dressed, decently bred, and more or less highly educated persons outside, but for our present purpose no account need be taken of these.
Unless one develops a taste for sport or a grand passion one finds few inducements to study or mix with the society of London except in London. Not, indeed, that one is able to dispense with making its acquaintance in its rural aspects. However much you may detest the country and its occupations, the country-house visit is an occasional necessity, and, if you shoot or hunt, a very agreeable rite. But you will encounter no variety save of venue and surroundings. The company will be the same, and there will be no departure by a hair's-breadth from the stock topics of conversation. If your host thinks it his duty, he will ask a few of the local gentry to meet his fine friends from London. But the aborigines of the district are instantly eclipsed by the brilliant strangers. Moreover, it is impossible for hosts and hostesses when they entertain their friends at the family seats in the English shires to do anything else. They must observe in the case of these gatherings the same principle that they do at their dinner-parties in town. Country-house hospitalities are, in fact, London dinner-parties prolonged over two or three days. The fruition of all which the resources of the establishment of the domain can yield is packed into
|that limited space. As the function is numerously attended, so it is exceedingly costly. The host has to find accommodation, not merely for his friends, but for a multitude of servants. His visitors will not care to come unless they can meet their friends, and when that particular visit is over there are similar appointments in other parts of the United Kingdom to be kept.|
You will thus see that the instinct for novelty and change, which, as I have already explained, is one of the most pronounced attributes of society, is compensated equally in the country and in London by the infinite sufferance of the familiar and the stereotyped. Unless, indeed, this element preponderates in the composition of any of the parties to which you are invited, you will at once know that the establishment is one of a second-rate order. After a very little experience you will be able to predict with accuracy whom you will find at a dinner-table or in a drawing-room upon any given occasion; and if when you enter the apartments of your hosts the majority of the names and faces are strange, you will be right in concluding that your entertainers are not so well placed as to entitle them to a continuance of your attentions.
A small sprinkling of unknowns is indeed permissible, and may be contemplated without apprehension. Famous travellers recently returned from the East, relatives of the household who have been serving with their regiments in India, in Canada, or elsewhere, even obscure cousins, are to be expected. But society, as it is represented by its representatives at these select reunions, invariably looks with something of astonishment and distrust at the unknowns, and wonders as the English king wondered of the apples in the dumplings how the deuce they ever got inside. Yet the society in which you will see no one whom after a time you have not seen before is less tedious on the whole than the society in which new faces abound. It is not merely the best, but perhaps the only, the sole society which it is worth taking the trouble to enter. When an English wit was once asked to dine in Bloomsbury in the old coaching days he replied, "Delighted; but pray tell me where we change horses." The impertinence and affectation were abominable. The assumption, however, on which they rested, that it was not worth while dining outside the limited circumference of fashion, was justified by facts. What Bloomsbury was, South Kensington is; and though there are many persons who have a recognized position in London society, and who live in Queen's Gate
|and its neighborhood, you will do well to hesitate before you accept the ordinary invitations which emanate to you from their quarter.|
What are the ties or principles of union which hold the various sections of London society, and the individuals constituting these sections, together? Except for special purposes it is not similarity of interests or tastes. It is not the link of political sympathy. Least of all is it resemblance of antecedents. Probably I shall not be wrong if I say that there is no bond of social union so subtle and far-reaching as that of sport-sport in its various branches- shooting, hunting, the card-table, and, above all, the turf. It is a common English saying that "on the turf and under it all men are equal." For art and literature it is not incumbent on Englishmen to profess any regard. Towards politics their attitude may be, and usually is, one of scepticism, indifference, and pessimism. If they are members of the House of Lords or the House of Commons they will vote upon a particular side and will be attached to a particular leader. But they are not pervaded by any cohesive spirit of political loyalty, and it is not considered to their discredit that they should often avow they are sick to death of politics and of everything appertaining to them.
But in sport, employing that word in the comprehensive sense just indicated, I find a pastime or a business-call it what you will -that really constitutes a centre round which the social atoms, each in their own orbit, revolve. All Englishmen, and a good many Englishwomen, if they have no vested interest in horses, bet, gamble, or speculate in some way. When it is not the turf, it is the Stock Exchange, and perhaps this is the reason that the City plays so large a part in the arrangements of the West End. Duch esses and other ladies of rank, I may parenthetically observe, would scarcely be so demonstrative in their affection for the wirepullers of the London money market, to say nothing of a crowd of stockjobbers and stock-brokers, but for the speculative impulse within them.
I pronounce, without hesitation, that the turf and the operations essential or subsidiary to it possess more of a universal power in society and exercise a greater attractive force in society than anything else. It is the ruling passion, and in virtue of its predominance it does in effect group society round itself. The Prince of Wales, as society's king, is a patron of the turf; seldom misses an
|important race-meeting, and is reported to have a share in the proprietorship of some race-horses. The Duke of Richmond celebrates the Goodwood meeting, held in his park, with a brilliant countryhouse party, of not less than thirty or forty in number, containing the cream of London society, and every one of them interested, or making a show of being interested, in racing. Many other mansions in the neighborhood are filled in the same fashion, though upon a less splendid scale. What takes place in and about Goodwood in August has been previously witnessed in the neighborhood of Ascot in June. A fortnight before Ascot the Derby has been run at Epsom, and the week between Epsom and Ascot traditionally marked the zenith and the apogee of the London season. Nor are the other great hippic festivals of the year at Doncaster, at Stockbridge, and at Chester of less local importance. Rightly, therefore, will you learn to look upon the turf as one of the great rallying centres of London society-as the embodiment of the principle which unites society the most.|
I will now proceed to say a few words about the more prominent of those ranged round and on the turf, who, if they are not actively its patrons, associate with each other more or less directly under its auspices. I do not exaggerate the charms of the pastime-all I say is that it is one which serves as a social focus. One of its presidents is the largest and wealthiest of London landlords, the Duke of Westminster, an altogether exemplary peer in every relation of life, with a clean-made figure, spare, and even thin, good features, of a somewhat rigid type, looking perhaps generally less like the ideal of an English noble than of a man of business. His manner is reserved, his hospitalities are judiciously dispensed. He is Whig or Liberal in politics, zealous to promote anything which may conduce to the social benefit of the masses.
The Duke of Beaufort is a peer of a different sort. The possessor of a racing stud, he is more largely interested in hunting and in four-in-hand driving than the Duke of Westminster. He has no town residence, living in apartments hard by St. James's Park. At Badminton, his country seat in Gloucestershire, he keeps open house. He is the elderly Alcibiades of the theatrical profession, and he is not unknown at the coulisses of the burlesque theatres. A genial, open-handed representative of the English country squire, with the titles of a great peer and the top-dressing of a man about town.
The Duke of Portland is not yet thirty years of age. Before he succeeded, six years ago, to his title, he was a captain in the Foot Guards, with only the ordinary allowance of a young English gentleman in that position.
Among others who belong to this category are also most or all of those of whom I have said something in treating of the Prince of Wales and his friends-Lord Rosebery, Lord Rosslyn, Mr. Henry Chaplin, Mr. Henry Calcraft, Lord Alington, Sir George Chetwynd, and Sir Frederick Johnstone. The last two are sportsmen pure and simple. Without their stables and their race-meeting they would have no occupation. Each has figured in well-known passages of English social history. Sir Frederick Johnstone has won and lost heavily; Sir George Chetwynd has been on the whole successful. These are each of them Englishmen of the type whom you may admire at Monte Carlo, not necessarily playing high, but enjoying life exceedingly, and always in smart company.
Lord Rosebery is much more than an owner of race-horses. He is now a Cabinet Minister. He seldom sees his stud, and will perhaps soon cease to take more than a theoretical interest in its doings. Yet he is, while never speculating, a capital judge of a horse. His purchases have been judicious, and some years ago, after having seen one of his stable, in which he had always believed, victorious in a match on Newmarket Heath, he made, a little later in the same day, a telling and eloquent speech in the House of Lords. Lord Rosebery possesses everything which can make existence happy and distinguished.
His alliance with the house of Rothschild by marriage placed at his disposal a fortune which if not colossal-and in England all men having anything are popularly credited with three times as much as they have-is sufficient. He is young as age is now computed, and looks younger than he is. He has excellent health and a capital appetite. He is endowed with abilities which are not merely great, but of a kind which is exceptional in England, and yet which is peculiarly acceptable to those amid whom his career is passed. At Eton, to which he was devoted, as at Oxford, he never displayed great proficiency in the studies of the place; but he had no sooner shaken the dust of school and college off his feet than he applied himself to the learning without which public men in England never make an enduring mark. When he was little more than five-and-twenty he had become sufficiently encyclopaedic
|to deliver the opening address at that meeting of British savants known as the Social Science Association.|
But it is not study which has made Lord Rosebery what he is. He is by the happy gift of nature witty and singularly light in hand. He can instruct his hearers, but he never bores them. He never proses. His sense of fun is exceedingly quick and happy, but there is nothing uproarious in his merriment. It is indeed chastened even to the point of severity. The cause of laughter in others, he rarely laughs himself. His faculty of suppressing any emotion of fun makes his fun funnier. His drollery is the more irresistible because his droll things are said with a countenance of gravity and in tones almost solemn and austere. Then, too, though his presence is not imposing, it abounds in dignity. He might and occasionally does venture to enunciate sentiments, and even to crack jokes, which his company appreciate the better because of the calm and serious manner in which they are uttered.
Lord Rosslyn is a nobleman of a different kind. Older, not of keener intellect, but of sharper and more habitually exercised business powers, distingue in appearance, with something of the vieille moustache in his face and presence, a certain swagger or insolence of manner compatible with perfect dignity; with the aristocratic affectation of voice, and an expression of the eye which, when it is directed at a stranger, says as plainly as words, "Who the devil are you?" Lord Rosslyn is by taste sportsman and poet, but his views of life are less those of the poet than of the sportsman. The impression which he conveys to his acquaintances and friends is that of being perpetually on the lookout for the main chance. He has as good an eye for a bargain as he has for a horse. He has always something to suit some special requirement of your own, or he knows of somebody else who is in that position.
Here is a specimen of his pleasant insinuating and thoughtful manner.
"Ah! my dear fellow, so glad to see you. Staying in town a bit?"
"Think you asked me to dine with you last week? No? A mistake, then. Perhaps you have not a cook; perhaps you want a cook: if so, I can send you the best cook in the world."
And so on. Lord Rosslyn is or would be a universal provider, like a London tradesman in a bourgeois quarter. Whether it is a chef
|or a secretary, a stud or a perambulator, Lord Rosslyn can assist you to get the very thing you want on the most advantageous terms. To those whom he meets on a footing of equality Lord Rosslyn is amusing, the best fun in the world. To his inferiors he is arrogant. Yet he means no evil; it is simply his idiosyncrasy. He is a kind-hearted, chivalrous, and cultivated gentleman, with a wide acquaintance of the world, and with liberal ideas of comfort and grandeur.|
Mr. Henry Chaplin is another personage of importance in London society, a connecting link between the worlds of society, politics, and sport. He appears to take as his model the late Lord George Bentinck, who was the champion of the Protectionist party in Parliament when Free Trade was being pressed forward, and who was also a mighty patron of the turf. There is a mixture in Mr. Chaplin's bearing of geniality and pomposity which will be found by no means unpleasant. He has had his crosses, vexations, even his serious troubles in life. But his disappointments and his suffering, deep as they have been, have not permanently embittered him. He denounces his political opponents in Parliament, but there is no malignity in his invective. His oratorical manner is heavy, his voice sonorous, his sentences rotund. He reminds one alternately of a school-boy declaiming his theme, and an evangelical clergyman proclaiming the doom of the scarlet lady of Babylon from his pulpit. He has all the instincts and takes interest in all the avocations of the country gentleman. Of practical politics he is ignorant; he calls himself a Tory.
I now pass to a character perhaps the most ubiquitous in the polite life of the United Kingdom. Mr. Henry Calcraft is no connection of the eminent hangman of that name recently deceased. In society, indeed, you will often hear him spoken of as the hangman, but then that is only society's fun. It is difficult to say for what nature intended this gentleman-detective agent or squire of dames, mentor or minister, ambassador or clerk, director-in chief of a nation's destinies or a commission agent. He has now been some thirty years in London society, knows every one, goes everywhere, and is at home everywhere. He may be bracketed with Mr. Philip Currie as a professional and indefatigable diner-out. His face wears a perpetual smile, which often breaks into a not very musical laugh. His manner is beamingly abrupt and fidgety; his body is in a constant state of spasmodic motion, and his shirts are not made as well as his friends might desire. He jerks out his comments in a ragged sort of fashion, and, unless he has a particular reason for being interested in what his companion, man or woman, may be saying to him, he never seems to be paying any attention to you, but to be grudging you the time which the talk takes, as if he might be more profitably employed with some one else. Mr. Calcraft, however, is a favorite and a privileged one. He has received the imprimatur of society, and he passes current everywhere. He is received by the very highest, by society's chosen king, the Prince of Wales, and by all the lesser luminaries of the English social constellation.
The fashionable world in England may be accused of fickleness, but it is really loyalty personified. It no more dismisses an old favorite than it hoots the actor whom it has been its habit to applaud from the stage. Knowledge is power; and Mr. Calcraft is courted and powerful because, knowing so much, lie is reputed to know even more than he actually does. It was this credit for social omniscience which some years ago caused him to be selected seriously by several competent social judges as the probable editor, when the post was vacant, of the greatest of English newspapers. Perhaps fully to explain this circumstance, I should say that lie has not only his finger always on the pulse of the upper classes, but that he has much official experience, and is reckoned one of the most sagacious servants of the Crown among English civilians. It may be that he is now engaged in writing his memoirs; but if they are as truthful as doubtless they will be comprehensive, their publication will assuredly be posthumous.
I pass on now to a gentleman who for the purposes of society is in much the same category as Mr. Calcraft-Sir Henry James. His profession is that of a lawyer. His ambitions and his aptitudes are those of a statesman. Technically he is accounted the head of the common-law bar of England, and by precedent and tradition he would, unless some special arrangement were made, be appointed to the Lord Chancellorship should that august post fall vacant while his party is in power. He is clever in his calling, with a penetrating intellect, and a manner not more dogmatic than it is, I suppose, inevitable for lawyers in a position of authority to develop. He has, too, no mean eye to statesmanlike effects, and occasionally, either in the House of Commons or in the country,
|he delivers a speech on some political question of the hour which sets people talking and thinking-which makes its mark.|
But on the occasions that you will encounter him, Sir Henry James is above everything the man of society and of the world. His deportment is not wanting in a certain forensic flavor. He seems to be conscious of the presence of a judge and a jury, even though the latter should be only a jury of matrons and maids. Wherever you find Mr. Calcraft, there you may expect to see Sir Henry James. There is, too, a kind of personal resemblance between them. Each has the same square-cut head, each the same vigilant eye, each the same capacity for mastering at a glance the general character of the company in which he is placed. Sir Henry James, however, shrewd and profound jurisconsult as he is, is more than Mr. Henry Calcraft, whose heart is not, I should think, his most vulnerable point, a creature of impulse. His manner is apt to be uneasy and restive. That is not so much because his intellect is overburdened with cares as because he is torn with emotions, some professional and some social, which he is anxious to suppress. These are his little peculiarities, and they endear him to society. The finest and most fashionable of ladies will tell you he is a "dear creature." He is equally popular with men. Perhaps that is because he is so general a favorite with their wives and sisters.
But that is only a partial explanation. He is himself no mean sportsman, and he provides excellent sport for others. He manages to devote several weeks in every year to shooting in the Scotch Highlands. He can bring down his due allowance of grouse, and occasionally does considerable execution among the deer. Then he is the proprietor of some very capital coverts within easy distance of London, and when his legal duties compel him to be in town during the late weeks of autumn he organizes shootingparties with great success, and royalty itself slaughters his pheasants with its breech-loader.