Society in London, by a Foreign Resident

Smalley, George W.


CHAPTER VIII: London Society, Politics and Politicians


CHAPTER VIII: London Society, Politics and Politicians




IF there is no society in England which can be called distinctly political, politics are themselves as a department of society. Just as society in London is, as I have previously explained, a conditional guarantee of political union; so even among politicians the claims of society are equal to, or paramount over, the duties of statesmanship.

With very few exceptions, most of the public men in England who, whether in or out of office, direct its affairs, lead a dual existence-half devoted to the business of the country, the other half to the pastimes and functions of fashion. It may be said that this is true of public men in any other European State, but it is not true to the same extent. Mr. Gladstone and Lord Granville each of them attach infinitely more importance to the ordinances of society than Prince Bismarck or M. Jules Ferry. They both dine out and entertain regularly; and if Mr. Gladstone is, as he is universally declared to be, one of the hardest workers of his century, he contrives to reserve a marvellous amount of energy for the small-talk of the dinner-table and the drawing-room. The London season is coincident with the parliamentary session, and from February to July the dinner-parties and other entertainments arranged for the amusement of the politicians and their belongings exceed the sum of those given in all the other European capitals. Sometimes it happens that Cabinet ministers who are expected at dinner, and who have been long waited for, are prevented by stress of parliamentary business from appearing; but that is the rare exception; and in a general way the dinner-party and the evening reception are institutions not less stereotyped and sacred in the London spring and summer than the sittings of the commons or the peers.

The leaders and rulers of parties only set an example which is faithfully followed by their inferiors and subordinates. Politics and society in London thus go hand in hand; and if the public business of the British Empire does not much suffer from the arrangement, its influence is still discernible. English ministers and their opponents may protest that relief from work is a necessity, which no one denies. But do they take their relief in the most efficacious form? One hears periodically that Lord Granville is laid up with the gout, or that Mr. Gladstone is suffering from nervous exhaustion. I cannot think that these ailments are invariably due to the fatigues of office. Lord Beaconsfield was not in office when he died, but the physicians, I believe, were of opinion that it was the multitude of dinner-givers who hastened his end.

It seems inevitable that statesmen who insist on crowding so much work and enjoyment into their existences must sometimes be placed at a disadvantage with the foreign States, whose officials, when they are not occupied with the routine of their departments, are reinvigorating themselves by rest taken in the way that their taste suggests, and are not merely exchanging the excitements and exhaustions of office for those of society. The more I have watched English ministers, the more have I become convinced that many of their worst errors of omission or commission come from the fact that they do not pass their time wisely; that they attempt to do too much; and that the regard they feel bound to pay to the ceremonials and distractions of society diminishes their energies for business, causes their vigilance to relax, and betrays them into those slips of which an astute adversary like the German Chancellor is not slow to take advantage. After all, it is impossible for any one, peer or commoner, in or out of office, to live the pleasant, luxurious, yet exciting life of London society without having in some shape or other to pay the price for it.

One word more by way of preliminary explanation. While all the best society in London is in some degree political-contains, that is to say, men who belong to the legislature, have been or are ministers, and are keenly interested in the fate of parties; women whose titles, if they are of the nobility, are charged with political associations, or who are indebted for such social position as they have to the political influence of their husbands-there is no section of society which will be found political in the sense in which the stranger may expect. Upon ordinary occasions, that is to say,


though every person present may be a politician, politics are seldom talked, and it is deemed a breach against the law of good taste, the unwritten decalogue of society's etiquette, to touch upon partisan matters in mixed assemblies. This rule is sometimes relaxed among men, but the feeling is unfavorable to its relaxation even then.

The reason is simple. First, Englishmen hear so much of politics, which they cannot avoid, that they humbly pray for and welcome a respite from them whenever possible. Secondly, heated discussions on political topics might prove instrumental in destroying the harmony of the gathering. They are therefore dangerous. Thirdly, to talk politics, to proclaim one's own political faith and argue against one's opponents when politicians are off duty, is looked upon as a mark of the enthusiast, and in London society the enthusiast is considered to be only one degree less intolerable, if even that, than the bore. Of course one must be prepared to find great houses in London labelled with the epithet Whig or Tory, Conservative or Liberal. The mansion of the Marquis and Marchioness of Salisbury, in Arlington Street, is a Tory establishment, the mistress of which has been known to pique herself on never crossing a Whig threshold, and is conscious of the mission, imposed on her by circumstances, of a grande dame of Toryism. The Salisbury dinners may be compared to Conservative tables-d'hote. They are entertainments of the most orthodox constitutional kind. Not perhaps very vivacious, but distinguished.

Sir Stafford and Lady Northcote also discharge, though upon a more modest scale, their social and hospitable duties to the Conservative party; and there are several other hosts and hostesses who endeavor so to regulate their hospitable rites that they shall redound to the credit and advantage of the constitutional cause. With scarce an exception, however, the first idea in their minds is the purely social, and the political object is subordinated to that just as the wife of the average member of Parliament, or of the gentleman who thinks he ought to be a member of Parliament, thinks more of the attention paid her by the peers and peeresses on whose side she is politically ranged than of the vote given by her husband in the House of Commons.

Lady Stanhope and Lady Ridley, the wives respectively of Earl Stanhope and Sir Matthew Whyte Ridley, have both of them made praiseworthy attempts at creating Conservative salons. The ladies LONDON SOCIETY, POLITICS AND POLITICIANS.


of the Liberal party have been more assiduous and successful in their attempts in this direction. Lady Hayter, the wife of Sir Arthur Hayter, has made her beautiful house in Grosvenor Square the social head-quarters of Liberalism. Her husband is a pleasant, amiable man, though his normal blandness is sometimes agitated by a curious petulance. His father was the most laborious and peremptory of Whigs whom the Liberals have ever known, and his son has himself served in that capacity. But the old Adam of the heavy dragoon has a large part in his nature, and almost eclipses the Liberal official. Lady Hayter is the fair embodiment of the genius of Liberal partisanship, one of the best dressed women in London, and gifted with all the graces of a born hostess. She is connected by ties of birth and personal friendship with one or two powerful Conservative families, and one may see the two parties in the State, with their various subsections, represented in almost equal proportions, not, indeed, in her dining-room, but in her reception salons.

Lady Rosebery will, perhaps, now that her husband has been gazetted a Cabinet minister, make Lansdowne House the focus of social Liberalism. But one may be quite sure that almost as many Conservatives as Liberals will be welcomed by her ladyship and her lord.

Lady Aberdeen and Lady Breadalbane both respond with admirable alacrity to the appeal, periodically made to them, to invite the wives and daughters of the gentlemen who support Mr. Gladstone with their vote to their houses. It is a difficult and a somewhat graceless task. The cards of invitation are practically issued, as they must necessarily be, by the official understrappers of the party. These are acquainted with the husbands, but know nothing of their womankind, and are apt consequently to be betrayed into absurd mistakes-supplementing the name of Mr. Smith with those of Mrs., Misses and the Miss Smiths, when the former may be dead and the latter either in the nursery or else have long since changed their names.

It is difficult to restrain an emotion of pity when one sees the hostesses, who thus patriotically exert themselves for the good of their party, standing for hour after hour at the door of their drawing-rooms and welcoming with all possible show of cordiality guests whom they have never seen before, whom they pray they may never see again, and whose names they have failed distinctly to catch.

In no respect is the difference between the two English political


parties more marked than in that of social machinery. London is without any society proportionate to the magnitude of the Liberal party as a whole. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have a social organization adequate to all their wants. It is to be found first in their clubs, where all sections of Conservatism, leaders and followers, associate upon equal terms. Among the Liberals the chiefs go to one set of clubs, and those who owe allegiance to them to another. Again, there are many energetic spirits among the ladies of the Conservative party who spare no effort to make the wives and daughters of the parvenus, actually in Parliament, or anxious to get into Parliament, on the Tory side, at home. The wives and daughters of Liberal M.P.'s on the same social level are neglected or cold-shouldered, or treated only with frigid and conventional civility by the grandes dames of Whiggism or the smart ladies of Liberalism. Consequently those who enter political life, as many do, at the promptings of social ambition-to gratify, for instance, the ladies of their family-can count upon a more definite social reward by joining the Conservatives.

If the great Conservative ladies are exclusive, they still take more trouble to please those whom it is politic to conciliate than the great Whig ladies; and there are also among the Conservatives many hostesses who, while not being perhaps of the first calibre, are still energetic and patriotic. Hence discontent, heart-burnings, and jealousies, purely social in their origin, abound among the Liberals. This, so far as I have been able to judge, will continue to be the case until the Whig clique which dominates the councils of Liberalism is broken up. When a Liberal Government is in power it is the old Whig families-the Cavendishes, the Spencers, and the Russells-who are first consulted in the economy and the arrangements of the party. Even Mr. Gladstone, popular force as undeniably he is, has made and has tried to make no alteration in this respect, his social sympathies being in the main with the opulent and cultured Whigs. And the Whigs generally, be it said, are cultured in the best sense to a far greater degree than the Tories. There is better talk to be heard, and there are more interesting persons to be met, at their tables than at Conservative houses of corresponding distinction.

The most superficial study of London society suffices to convince one that there exists among its ladies a considerable capacity for playing the role of political host which has yet to be utilized.


Gladys, Countess of Lonsdale, might, under proper auspices, become a social centre of real political power. She has, and in the days of Lord Beaconsfield often displayed, the gift of receiving guests with grace, dignity, and ease. But her attention and interest are difficult to fix, and her perseverance is not equal to her natural ability. The tendency she illustrates is common enough. When ladies, and especially young ladies, have the intelligence and esprit which qualify them to take an interest in political matters, there are sure to be many other things which have an equal attraction for them: either they make amusement of every kind their first object, or they are animated with a desire to enthrone themselves as the idol of a little coterie of votaries. I could mention half a dozen wives of Liberal politicians whose political tastes find their gratification in gathering round them at their dinner-table, or at some other place, politicians of distinction or of promise. This is a perfectly intelligible feminine instinct. But it is the very opposite of that which organizes a society round itself, and establishes a salon.

Thus much by way of introduction. Let me now approach the individuals who have a place in the political system of England. Of Mr. Gladstone so much has been written and said that it is almost hopeless to add anything at once fresh and true. I may perhaps venture to predict that when in years to come his character and career are impartially estimated, it will be deemed a wonder that a statesman whose greatest achievements are of a strictly official kind, and confined to the department of finance, should have acquired so unchallenged a power over his countrymen.

Perhaps he would not have succeeded in doing this but for the institution of the penny press. Some thirty years ago the paper duties were taken off, and an impulse was given to cheap journalism in England, the like of which can be found in the history of no other country in the world. The Daily Telegraph led the way. It appealed to the emotions of the multitude. Like Byron when he sat down to write "Don Juan," it wanted a hero; without such an object of adoration, concrete and visible, how could the enthusiasm of the nation be worked up to a fever-heat? It discovered what it wanted in Mr. Gladstone. He was the depositary of the financial traditions of Peel. Unlike Peel, he possessed attributes calculated to stimulate and fire the popular imagination. He was not only, as


was Peel, an accomplished scholar and a man of unblemished character; he had done what Peel never did--he had made fervid speeches on the beauty of freedom, and had identified himself with the cause of liberty in every part of Europe. His name was full of meaning to Greeks and to Italians.

All this, combined with Mr. Gladstone's unbounded fluency of speech and fertility of rhetorical resource, presented fine scope for journalistic treatment. The Daily Telegraph not only made itself by acting as the apostle of Mr. Gladstone, but made Mr. Gladstone as well.

Gradually the strain of jubilant panegyric was echoed. Even the Standard, though opposed to Mr. Gladstone's politics, had no sooner become a penny morning newspaper than it hymned in a minor key, with frequent variations of censure and condemnation, Mr. Gladstone's glories. The penny press was springing up everywhere in the provinces. It was in the main Gladstonian.

I do not doubt for one moment that, had this remarkable personage lived in an age in which there was no press at all, he would, by dint of his prowess as a debater, his mental grasp, and his other magnificent qualities, have risen to a high place, perhaps the highest. But if the press in England has any influence, Mr. Gladstone himself must admit that the penny press was the foundation of the unprecedented ascendency he eventually acquired.

The position of Mr. Gladstone, as his career draws to a close, will be always remembered as an instance of the irony of fate, malignant beyond precedent. Purely a domestic administrator and financier, he has been called upon to deal with affairs of which he has no knowledge, and for the treatment of which he is totally without aptitude. He may be compared to a nineteenth-century Falkland. "Non-intervention" was the cry with which he came into office in . The European concert was to be the guarantee of unbroken peace. What has actually been witnessed? The history of his government has been that of a series of interventions; England has been once more dragged into the vortex of foreign politics; and under Mr. Gladstone's auspices his country has been committed to wars more sanguinary and costly, less profitable and honorable, than during any other period of the century. In comparison with the foreign policy and enterprises of the English Premier, M. Ferry's Chinese enterprises have been an unqualified and a cheap triumph.

But because his achievements have fallen so much below the


standard of his expectations, because destiny has fought against him and proved too much for him, is Mr. Gladstone on that account dejected ? On the contrary, although he may experience some passing emotions of chagrin and a pious resentment against circumstances, he cherishes the comfortable conviction that both what he has done and has abstained from doing are right. Facts may be against him, but then so much the worse for the facts. His view of foreign politics is that every male child born into the world, whether Indian or African Mussulman, Egyptian fellah or Zulu Kaffir, Aztec or Esquimau, is capable of being educated into a free and independent elector for an English borough. Parliamentary institutions and representative government are to him not only the supreme end at which to aim, but the regime to which all nationalities are instinctively capable of adapting themselves. He makes no allowance for differences of race or climate, historical antecedents, national peculiarities. Herein he displays a lack of imagination, which is more strange seeing that he possesses a large allowance of the imaginative faculty in other respects, and that he is really poet first and statistician afterwards.

Particular causes have combined to confirm this defect. Mr. Gladstone has spent his life in the House of Commons, and cannot imagine a political system or a scheme of popular rule, without as accurate a copy as conditions permit, of the English representative Chamber. Again, he understands the English people so well, he has so completely identified himself with the ideas and aspirations of the upper class of bourgeoisie, that he considers it scarcely worth while to attempt to understand any other race. If he attempts such an intellectual process he can only measure the unfamiliar by reference to the familiar object.

Mr. Gladstone has drunk too deeply of the atmosphere of idolatry and incense by which he has been surrounded. His immense experience of public life, his great capacities as a financier, his moral earnestness, his religious fervor, his scholarship, culture, and conversational powers have procured for him enthusiastic worshippers in every section of the community-among the lower classes, among the men of commerce and business, among the Whig aristocracy with whom he has been educated and who have long since seen in him the bulwark against revolution, among the clergy of the Anglican Church and the Nonconformist ministers, finally among certain small and exclusive divisions of London society itself.


No man can receive the homage that has fallen to the lot of Mr. Gladstone during so many years without experiencing a kind of moral intoxication and forming an absurd idea of his own infallibility. Nor is it good for him that domestic interposition should ward off from him the hostile expressions of opinion which are occasionally expressed in the newspapers not affected to his cause, and which represent the views of a certain section of the English people.

In social life Mr. Gladstone consorts chiefly with the more or less exclusive coteries of Whiggism. He stays at the houses of the great nobles of his party, and entertains them at his own countryseat. In London he gives occasionally dinners to a mixed company of members of the House of Commons and a few of his extraparliamentary friends. He also entertains strangers, admirers, intimates, and celebrities or notorieties at breakfast on Thursday. The meal is of the most uncompromisingly British character: the hour is ten. Here the visitor may meet an operatic prima donna, or a popular actor, or an editor, or a litterateur, or Madame de Novikoff, seated between a Whig peeress, stiff and frigid as an icicle, and an Anglican preacher such as Canon Liddon. The combination is kaleidoscopic, both in its variety and monotony, and always incongruous.

Mr. Gladstone and Mrs. Gladstone do not trouble themselves greatly about the amalgamation of their guests, and both are systematically indifferent to their assortment at table. Of the many warm friends whom this extraordinary man possesses among the Whig peers of England, the stanchest is perhaps Lord Spencer, whose belief in Mr. Gladstone amounts to an enthusiasm. Mr. Gladstone has also always had the warm support of the house of Cavendish. The Russells upon one occasion were, I believe, ready to form a cabal against him. Perhaps matters never went quite to that length, but the Duke of Bedford is a confirmed cynic, and might without any serious thought of evil have taken a perverse pleasure in pleasantly plotting against his leader. There is no member of London society who says as many good things, who is the author of as many mots as acid and biting, who impresses one with a deeper notion of his contempt for human nature generally, than his Grace of Woburn.

Lord Rosebery and Lord Aberdeen have together entertained Mr. Gladstone more frequently than any other two subjects of the English


Crown. Before the English Premier all doors fly open. His hosts compete with each other, and are honored by his presence beneath their roof. It is, I hope, not impertinent to say that Mr. Gladstone has been the reverse of reluctant to bestow this honor upon those to whom he considers it is due. He assumes, no doubt rightly, that the distinction of receiving him is competed for with jealous rivalry by many qualified persons. To save them trouble he himself selects whither, when he wants change, he shall go. In this way the cumbrous machinery of invitation is dispensed with. He asks his hosts; he does not wait for his hosts to ask him. He may be compared in this respect to the ladies in leap-year, who on every 29th of February are supposed to avail themselves of their prerogative of making love and offering marriage to the gentlemen.

Only perhaps a lady of the peculiar type of Mrs. Gladstone could manage this as gracefully as she does. Mrs. Gladstone is the elderly incarnation of guileless naivete, the matronly essence of impulsive simplicity. She is to appearance all artlessness. I have heard persons, who, I think, ought to know better, speak disparagingly of Mrs. Gladstone's sagacity because of these little peculiarities. Believe me, they make a great mistake or they commit a great injustice. Mrs. Gladstone is, in her way, one of the cleverest women living. Her existence has been a semi-public one for half a century. During that time she has been brought into contact with the most distinguished of Englishmen and Englishwomen, from royalty downwards. A silly woman-any woman, indeed, but a remarkably clever one-must have perpetrated under these circumstances a host of blunders. Mrs. Gladstone has steered clear of all. At the very worst she can be credited only with a few small ineptitudes which, if they really deserve that name, are in perfectly artistic keeping with her character. Here is an excellent and, as she is reputed to be, most unsophisticated lady, who, for I know not how long, has been the depositary of the most intimate secrets of State. When, I ask, did she ever show herself so far the victim of feminine communicativeness as to betray or to hint at any one of these ? I have heard of ladies and gentlemen, very astute in their own estimate of themselves, who have endeavored to extract early knowledge of public matters from Mrs. Gladstone; I have never heard of one who succeeded; and her aplomb is as remarkable as her discretion.

Here is an instance. Two years ago, when Mr. W. E. Forster had


resigned his portfolio in Mr. Gladstone's Cabinet, he was naturally anxious to hear how the Prime-minister would speak of the incident in the House of Commons, and not less naturally anxious to listen without being himself observed. He therefore did not take his ordinary place in the body of that assemblage, but made his way into the ladies' cage, or rather that portion of it which is set apart for the lady-friends of the wife of the Speaker. Directly he had entered he perceived that the sole occupant of the apartment was no less a person than Mrs. Gladstone herself. She was the one person whom he would have avoided seeing. He felt a little discomposed, and was proceeding to evince his discomposure in the rugged, spasmodic way peculiar to that flower of Quaker subtlety. But Mrs. Gladstone was perfectly at her ease. She held up her finger at him, and, shaking her head with an air of gentle reproval, muttered in a low voice, " Naughty! naughty!" I have only once in my experience of Englishmen or Englishwomen heard anything at all comparable to this: that was when Lady Waldegrave-now, alas ! dead-asked Lord Beaconsfield whether he intended to dissolve in the forthcoming autumn. "Perhaps," she said archly, "you have another surprise in store for us." The impassive Earl was silent for a moment. He then looked her ladyship straight in the face, and in a tone, half oracular, half bantering, which I shall never forget, said, "Oh, you dear !"

Mrs. Gladstone has exhibited a not inferior dexterity in her management of Mr. Gladstone himself. She understands precisely how to humor him-and how to diet him, what friends to encourage, what to ward off, and what social eccentricities are permissible to him, and even a safety-valve for his overflowing spirits and superabundant vigor. The English Premier is a very careful eater, and has publicly announced that every morsel of animal food which he puts in his mouth requires, for the purposes of digestion, thirtythree-or is it thirty-one ?-distinct bites. Mrs. Gladstone therefore takes care that he should always eat slowly. Again, his internal economy enables him to be indifferent to the quality of the wine, hock, or champagne which he may sip at dinner. He takes very little of it, but he enjoys a couple of glasses of good port afterwards; and Mrs. Gladstone takes care that the good port is never wanting. In the same way as regards his friends, and especially his lady-friends, Mrs. Gladstone never thwarts his tastes, and perhaps one of the reasons of the English Premier's sempiternal


freshness is that he can disport himself in what social pastures he will without domestic fear or reproach.

Of Mr. Gladstone's manner and conversation in society different opinions are entertained. He is a voluble, eager, interested, and apparently omniscient talker upon every topic which may suggest itself. Whether he is equally accurate and profound is another question. I once heard a Japanese gentleman, who had dined in his company, and had listened to him while he held forth on every subject, Japan itself included, exclaim: " What a wonderful man is Mr. Gladstone! He seems to know something about everything except Japan." For myself I cannot say that this most encyclopaedic of septuagenarian statesmen has ever struck me as particularly entertaining. He assumes too much, though in the least aggressive way, of that papal infallibility against which he once wrote a pamphlet; and when he takes a seat at a private dinner-table he is apt, quite unintentionally no doubt, to pose, even in his small-talk, as the symbol of traditional authority against which there can be no appeal. The selection of his familiar friends may also appear a little odd. He loves to liberate his soul to extremely commonplace people. There are of course his old Eton and Oxford friends, his Oxford and High Church friends, his Whig and aristocratic friends, all of whom are respectable and some of whom may be distinguished; but then in addition to these he commands a petty contingent of satellites, sycophants, and toad-eaters, who are picked up from the pavement.