THE intercourse of a British subject of the upper classes with the sovereign usually begins with a
presentation at court; but there are still houses where the Queen visits personally an old or invalid
friend, and the children may thus be earlier brought into the presence of royalty. After the Thanksgiving for the recovery of the Prince of Wales there was much unfavorable comment because Her Majesty had appeared at Saint Paul's in bonnet and shawl, although peers and members of the House of Commons were compelled to wear levee dress. Former sovereigns on similar occasions had worn their robes and crowns, and the loyal throng had been greatly disappointed at not beholding their Queen in "all her proud attire." The next day Her Majesty paid a visit to the mother of a duke who had been unable to leave her couch for years. Notice as usual was given in advance, the house was prepared, the red carpet laid, the gentlemen of the family were in evening dress, and the Queen was received with the proper etiquette. During her stay she was petting a little boy some five or six years old, when the urchin, who had heard the
talk about Saint Paul's, cried out, to the horror of the family: "Are you the Queen? Why didn't you wear your crown?" But only the scions of illustrious houses enjoy such opportunities of direct and early communication with royalty. Young ladies of quality are usually presented to Her Majesty upon their entrance into society, and the men as they emerge from hobble-de-hoy-hood or the university.
The first day I spent in London I went to a levee. It was held by the Prince of Wales, and only men attended. I was then a Secretary of Legation, so that I had what are called the entrees, and enjoyed peculiar opportunities for watching the spectacle. The Prince was standing with his attendants in the throne-room when the diplomatists entered in the order of their rank, and those of the same rank according to the seniority of their standing at the English court. This point of precedence was thought of sufficient importance to be established at the Congress of Vienna, and the representatives of the United States conform to the rule. Each ambassador or minister is followed by the members of his embassy or legation, who have no place of their own; they are simply the suite of their chief.
The Prince was at the head of the room facing the entrance; on his left were his brothers and the other men of the royal family, all arranged punctiliously according to their degree; then came the Government of the day; on the right were the courtiers in attendance, the whole forming a semi-circle, which extended to the doors for entrance and exit on the opposite side of the room. Each person coming to court brings a card, with his name or title written out in full; this is given up at the door and passed along to the Lord Chamberlain, who stands next to the Prince and reads the card aloud. A profound bow is all the obeisance required from men. If the Prince, however, knows the visitor well or wishes to do him especial honor, he extends his hand, which can only be taken by an ungloved hand in return, so that "No gloves at court" is a peremptory etiquette, at least for the right hand. After a reverence to each of the royal personages, the members of the diplomatic corps take up their positions immediately opposite the Prince and his surroundings, thus forming a narrow lane, through which all after comers must pass, for the diplomatists constitute a part of the court, and must remain until royalty leaves the room.
All others, except a very few great personages who have the entrees, pass directly through the lane of dignitaries and into an anteroom, so that for them the ceremony lasts but a moment; but the procession continues, sometimes for hours, and as everyone but an American is in some showy dress, the effect to an unaccustomed eye is decidedly imposing. I was particularly struck at my first levee with the manly beauty of the young aristocrats. I was not then familiar with the ruddy complexions and brown or golden hair, the superb forms and graceful bearing that abundant exercise and the peculiar climate combine to give the British youth of the higher class. Arrayed in Highland kilt or military scarlet, or even in the plainer breeches and laced coat of the modern courtier, they passed along, by far the handsomest set of men I had ever seen.
I must say, however, that the show outside was finer still. The huge footmen were sometimes smarter than their masters in looks as well as clothes, for the court liveries are often the dress worn by the nobility in former times, while the lackeys themselves are selected for their height and the size of their calves. I know a duchess who, whenever she hires a footman, makes him get into breeches and march up and down in her dining-room till she can decide whether his shape and his walk are what her dignity requires.
A drawing-room is held by the Queen, or on rare occasions by the Princess of Wales. It is intended only for ladies, and the announcement is made in the public prints that "noblemen and gentlemen are not expected to present themselves unless in attendance on the ladies of their families." The Queen is easily fatigued, and prefers as much as possible to limit the number of her faithful subjects on these occasions. But as everybody of consequence who is in London is supposed to go to court once a year, and as no one is invited to the Queen's balls or concerts who has not first attended a levee or drawing-room, the crowd is often very great.
The names of those not previously presented must be sent in "two clear days" in advance, as well as the names of those who present them; and it does not follow, as a matter of course, that every name is accepted. Any known immorality in a woman is fatal, no matter what her rank. On this point Her Majesty is immutable. No woman who has deserted her husband for another man, and none who has lived with a man without marriage, can ever be presented to the English Queen. If the stigma is discovered too late, a notice is inserted in the newspapers that the presentation has been cancelled. This occurred some years ago in the case of a woman of title, wife of a member of the Government. But, usually, ladies of sullied reputations are aware of Her Majesty's rule, and take care not to risk consequences so disagreeable.
Dress, however, deters quite as many as character. The regulations are as rigid on one point as the other. The oldest dowager must bare her withered arms and neck before presenting herself in the august presence, or, in order to appear with sufficient protection, a medical certificate is indispensable. Then the train must be three yards long, and the position of the feathers that must be worn is a matter of supreme importance. The Queen directs that the feathers shall be placed at the back of the head, but they must be high enough to be visible to Her Majesty when the lady enters the room. "Women of rank have been turned away for neglecting some of these rules".
Court mourning, too, is a subject for the most serious consideration. The number of days it must be worn, the depth of the sorrow it indicates, the colors of the fans and the shoes, are all prescribed; and the presence-chamber of Her Majesty after a person of royal rank in Siam or Brazil has gone to receive his deserts in some other world, is lugubrious in the last degree. A black drawing-room, as it is called, would be unendurable were it not that all is so manifestly matter of form. The grief that court ladies feel on the death of the uncle of the Czar, or of some petty cousin of the Queen, whom even Her Majesty has seldom seen, can hardly be very profound. Besides, if the mourning lasts more than ten days, they are generally allowed to mitigate its somberness with purple or red, and though their clothes must be as black as the court circular requires, they may go to as many balls as they please.
There is a long and tedious time to be endured by those whom loyalty takes to court. At both levee and drawing-room the visitors must pass through different apartments, to which they are admitted in sections; ropes are drawn across these rooms to prevent the aristocrats behind from pushing forward too eagerly, and the enclosures thus formed are properly enough called "pens". This device, however, does not prevent great crowding and sometimes flagrant ill-breeding in the "highest society of Europe". The daughter of an earl told me she had often known ladies stick pins into the bare arms of those in front to make them move out of the way; and in the rush after the ropes are withdrawn, I have twice had my epaulettes torn from my shoulders. If this should occur to an Englishman at the White House what lectures we should receive on the manners of a democracy!
The Queen, as I have said, is anxious to restrict the number of those who pay their homage. The members of the Government, however, are expected to be present whenever the sovereign holds her court, and until recently their wives as well were always in attendance, and sometimes they pretended to find the obligation irksome. But not long ago these ladies were informed that Her Majesty did not desire their company at more than a single drawing-room in a season, and they took the notification in very high dudgeon. But there was no recourse.
Indeed, when there are more than two unmarried daughters in a family, the Queen's most formal invitations expressly exclude a third. "The Ladies Guelph (2)," or "The Misses Plantagenet (2)" is the form in which the royal courtesy is extended. This limitation appears even on the cards addressed to ambassadors and the representatives of sovereign States, who are thus warned not to encroach with their whole families at once on the palatial hospitalities of England.
This cautionary notice, however, is issued only for balls and other entertainments to which the guests are specially invited. A "court" is an occasion when individuals of rank pay their respects to a royal personage, usually without actual invitation. The Lord Chamberlain makes it known that a levee or drawing-room will be held, and any whose rank entitles them are at liberty to present themselves. The diplomatic corps, as a matter of course, attend; it is, indeed, considered a discourtesy if they are absent without good cause.
But the chiefs of the corps in England not long ago received an intimation that their secretaries and attaches were not expected to be present at drawing-rooms. Now, in such matters the Queen can, of course, command her own subjects, and she certainly ought to have the right to regulate her own court; but there are no more sensitive beings on earth than diplomatic representatives away from home. They assume that all the dignity of their country is concentrated in their proper persons. The question where and how to place them arises at every ceremony, and is a constant occasion of irritation and discord. They are never satisfied, no matter what is done for them; they are exacting, proud, punctilious, and often put aside politeness for precedence and courtesy for form. Their prerogatives, they say, are matters not of privilege but of international law. I have seen them commit outrages upon good manners that the roughest American would disdain to perpetrate thrust ladies back to take precedence of them, or leave a dinner-table because of the place to which they were assigned.
So, of course, the diplomatists resented the attempt to prohibit their suites from attending court. One ambassador declared that he represented the person of his sovereign, and that Her Majesty had no right to dictate the degree of state or the retinue with which he should present himself as his master's proxy. Accordingly he took a whole carriage-load of secretaries with him to the drawing-room; and he was admitted. For, without a doubt, and according to all the etiquettes, no sovereign can, without offence, abridge the train of an ambassador. There have been wars for what was deemed less cause.
But the ladies are waiting all this time in the pens. The presence-chamber is arranged as for a levee, only that the Queen, and not the Prince of Wales, is at the centre of the line; next are the ladies of her family, and then the heir apparent and his brothers, or any royal strangers. Her Majesty wears a black gown and a widow's cap. Over the cap is usually placed a small diamond crown, while the ribbon of the Garter and similar orders are on her breast, as well as the Koh-i-noor and other jewels worthy of a queen. The Princess of Wales and the other princesses are in full court dress petticoats, trains, feathers, and all. Behind them stand their attendants, "male and female," as the court circular sometimes disdainfully describes them.
When the diplomatic corps has made its reverences and taken its place, the English ladies follow, and as each enters the throne-room with her train over her arm, two gentlemen in waiting deftly seize this appendage and spread it behind her, till it hangs like a peacock's drooping tail. Then the lady, handing her card to a lord-in-waiting, passes up toward the Lord Chamberlain, and stands till he pronounces her name. Upon hearing it, she prostrates herself in front of the Queen so that one knee nearly or quite touches the floor. If it is a presentation, Her Majesty extends her hand with the back upward, and the neophyte placing her own hand transversely under that of the sovereign, raises the royal extremity to her lips. When the lady is of the rank of an earl's daughter, the Queen bends slightly forward to kiss the cheek of her subject, and the homage is complete; but there have been occasions when the novice was insufficiently instructed in advance and kissed the monarch in return, very much to the disgust of Majesty and the horror-struck amazement of the courtiers. After the obeisance to the Queen, another must be made to every one in the royal circle in turn, the depth of the courtesy being graduated according to the rank of the personage; and as the last prostration is performed and the subject rises to her natural position in life again, two other watchful lords, or gentlemen, as skilful as the first, catch up her train and throw it once more over the lady's arm, and she slowly stumbles backward out of the room, having been at court.
It took her two hours, I suppose, to dress, and she sat in evening costume two hours more in line in her carriage before she entered the palace; then she was at least an hour in the pens, and she was two minutes in the presence of royalty. Now she must probably wait an hour or more for her carriage, but she has been at court. If she is young, she has practised her obeisance for days in advance, and the backward step as well, and is delighted that at last she is in the world. If she is an aspirant after social honors, a Becky Sharp working her way upward, Thackeray has told us of her sensations. If she has gone through the ceremony forty times before, she throws herself back in her carriage and exclaims, like the cockney who had seen the Apollo Belvidere: "Thank God! That's done!" [As Written]
RANK AND TITLE
THE PRINCE OF WALES
AMERICANS AT COURT
THE CROWN IN POLITICS
QUEENS' PERSONAL CHARACTER
SERVANTS' HALL PRECEDENCE
THE HOUSE OF LORDS
THE PRINCESS OF WALES
A NOBLEMAN INDEED
POMPS & VANITIES OF CHURCH
CHURCH & STATE
HOUSE OF COMMONS
LITERATURE & THE LORDS
THE LONDON SEASON