THE effect of rank upon those who possess it is certainly vulgarizing. It is common, I know, to
suppose and assert the contrary. The refining and exalting results of an aristocracy are always proclaimed by its advocates. We are told that a class set apart from the rest of the world and above it, is sure to be superior both in refinement of breeding and distinction of character. The great mass of English writers have constantly maintained that the upper class of their countrymen set a brilliant example to the world at large, in manners, if not always in morals; and the nobility has been viewed by most of the English and by all Americans through the atmosphere created by these writers, themselves bred to believe their aristocracy exceptionally superior and refined.
But the English men and women of letters are not members of the aristocracy. They belong emphatically to the middle class; and if some of them are now and then admitted to the houses of the great it is not as equals, but to amuse and interest the nobility. They are always at the tail of the procession to dinner, where the most liberal peer will think them in their place, an opinion in which they themselves are certain to agree. It is rarely, indeed, that they get so far as this, and only a very few of them ever see the intimate life of the aristocracy. But, being people of sentiment and imagination, and, in intellectual qualities, often far superior to the upper class, they make tip their minds what the manners of a great aristocracy should be, and describe them accordingly. Even when in their own persons they have penetrated behind the veil, they are either so awestruck at the privilege, or so prepossessed by their partialities, that their vision is blurred, and they see and tell what they think exists, not what is actually before their eyes. It is the glamour that genius has thrown around the aristocracy that gives it the brilliancy and fascination that have dazzled the world. The pictures of Be Gramont, Horace Walpole, and Lord Hervey, aristocrats themselves, are very different from the flattered portraits by most of the writers of other days; and Charles Greville's earlier volumes are proof that the most glowing descriptions of recent times are conceived in as absolute ignorance of the reality.
The high English almost always possess complete ease of manner, but almost never complete elegance, and both peculiarities are attributable to their rank. As a rule, they are remarkable for repose of bearing. There is little pushing when the aristocrats are by themselves, though plenty of it among those who wish to associate with them. The position of the nobility and their connections is so established that nobody is offended because some one of higher rank goes before him, nor elated when he himself precedes an acknowledged inferior. It is the new and uncertain people who struggle. To the aristocrats their rights are usually conceded without a contest. This naturally makes them calm, assured, serene.
But it also makes them indifferent, and sometimes insolent, toward the rest of the world. The fact that they are placed so high, so much above other people with education and taste and refinement equal and often superior to their own, creates a carelessness and superciliousness of behavior and feeling not only offensive, but almost coarse. If they are well bred, so much the better; but if not, they stand quite as secure. The pedestal is just as high, no matter what figure is placed on it. A duke may be a boor or a clown, a duchess may be illiterate or drunken or immoral and there have been instances of all this within the last twenty years but they are dukes and duchesses all the same. Their precedence is not disturbed, their notice is still an honor, their society is courted, their alliance is sought, if not by all, yet by so many that they never discover the deficiency. There are men of the highest rank who turn palaces into dog-kennels and consort with pugilists and yet marry into ducal families; and I have seen tipsy duchesses dance after dinner with shawls and castanets before ambassadors and Prime Ministers, when but for their rank they would not have been tolerated.
It is the consciousness of their superiority that makes them think it unnecessary to cultivate their manners or reform their morals. I once heard a countess account for the manner of one of the court ladies, which was indeed exceptionally soft and charming: "I suppose," she said, "it proceeds from her being always with a superior, always obliged to defer to another." This is the key to the feeling of the aristocracy. They have no need, they think, to defer, with equals or inferiors. They can gratify their moods or their whims, be amiable, or disagreeable or indifferent, as they please. Toward those above them they are deferential in the extreme; servile it seems to an American, and certainly obsequious. With those whom they like they can be as affable as any people in the world, and their affability is the more agreeable because what is not common is always more highly prized. Like everybody else they can be civil enough when it is their interest to be so. But when none of these reasons exists interest, or preference, or necessity they are often cold, supercilious, and arrogant to a degree unknown in what is called good company elsewhere.
The brother of a duke not long ago paid his addresses to an American woman of fortune who was disinclined to listen to him. He persisted, however, till at a final refusal he got up from his knees and exclaimed: "Oh ! you cannot understand us. You are not made of the same clay." Our countrywoman remembered his lordship's family history, and replied: "No, indeed. I am not descended from a king, nor his mistress."
Thackeray was once staying at a countryhouse where one of the highborn guests inquired after dinner: "Who is that agreeable man?" "When he was told it was the famous novelist, the representative of the peerage remarked: "You surprise me. I thought he was a gentleman."
It is often not noblesse oblige, but noblesse excuse. A duchess will not return visits unless it suits her; but if she opens her house for a ball, all the world goes, and is careful to leave cards immediately afterward, so as to be invited next time.
An old peeress not now living, who had seen much of the world, said to me the night I made her acquaintance: "What do you think of us English? Are we not all very rude?" I replied that I had received too many courtesies in England to make this admission; but she went on: "Oh, I know we are ill bred. I never see a stranger but my first impulse is to be rude to him." The next day she asked me to stay a week at her countryhouse, and became one of my intimate friends.
I once saw a duchess drive off from a countryhouse where she had been visiting. Her bonnet was exceedingly shabby, and her sister, a countess, was teasing her to change it for a smarter one. "A duchess," she said, "and drive in such a bonnet!" But the duchess laughed, and replied: "Where is the use of being a duchess if I can't wear what bonnet I please?" It was all in raillery, of course, but there was a genuine feeling under the raillery.
Not long ago someone said in my hearing of the wife of an American President: "Her manners are as good as those of a duchess." "But why," it was asked, "should a duchess have better manners than any one else?" Thereupon an American exclaimed: "If they don't have good manners, what are they for?" Now, as a rule, the duchesses have the worst manners of any women in the peerage. Nobody is born a duchess, so they all must acquire their rank by marriage; and their heads are often completely turned by the elevation. Many of them have been of families quite without the pale of the peerage; they are thus absolute parvenus, and a parvenu peeress is usually downright vulgar, in her consciousness of grandeur. The daughters of dukes, who often descend in life as they go along, for the most part are better bred than their mothers.
The men, as a rule, are less insolent in bearing, if not in behavior, but just as selfish, just as determined to do as they choose, without regard to the feelings of their inferiors; and in their eyes nearly all the world are their inferiors. Their rank not only gives them this indifference; it makes them narrow, prejudiced, provincial, satisfied with themselves. With every good thing in life at their command, with everybody in England at their feet, they are naturally disinclined to effort of any sort. A duke once said to me: "I suppose I ought to go to America to improve my mind." He knew very well that his mind needed improvement, but he was a duke all the same.
There are, of course, many members of the aristocracy of admirable character and attractive qualities; some who feel the requirements and responsibilities of their position, and are worthy of their nobility. I certainly had reason to appreciate the worth and admire the charm of many individuals, but those who were charming and worthy were so, not because of their rank, but because of their personal quality. They would have been equally admirable and attractive in another rank and another sphere. Barring a certain brusqueness which almost never wears off, and the lack of that elegance which they almost never acquire, the most rounded men of the world I have ever known, not perhaps the most highly accomplished, but the healthiest in tone, the most general in information, and, when you know them well, the most genial in sentiment those who best combine the results of life and culture have been the very best of the English aristocracy. ! si sic omnes ! [Si sic omnes. If everything had been thus. An expression that something could last forever.] I must say, however, that these were oftener connected with noble families than the heads of those families themselves.
But I saw also something of what is called the upper middle class the literary and professional people. I got glimpses at the life of the great merchants and manufacturers, and I found among them quite as admirable specimens of English ladies and gentlemen as in the aristocracy; quite as genuine refinement, more regard for the feelings of others, and, unless a lord or a lady came along, quite as much innate dignity. In the presence of the aristocracy, however, they all mentally get down on their hands and knees.
The influence of rank, I repeat, is not refining. It not only magnifies the importance of externals and depreciates that of essential qualities, but it has not the effect claimed for it, of inspiring its possessors to keep themselves up to a high standard. It may do this in some rare instances, with superior natures, which would be lofty without the stimulus of rank; but with the mass of those who enjoy it, who are commonplace enough, it has the contrary effect. It encourages them to dispense with effort, it inspires an offensive pride, it relieves from the obligation of courtesy, it destroys outright that delicate consideration for the rights and especially the feelings of others, which is at the basis of every grace that makes life or character beautiful.
Talent and energy and natural moral excellence are distributed pretty equally, according to my observation, among men of every country and every grade. There are as many fools, and rakes, and knaves among the aristocracy as among the same number of men and women in any other class in England or elsewhere. There are also many vulgar people of the highest birth. There is dishonorable conduct in men of greatest rank and oldest names. The institution does not prevent these things. Blood does not tell; or if it tells, it tells the wrong way. Taking the aristocracy as a whole, judging it neither by the exceptionally excellent nor by the exceptionally vulgar or depraved, but as a class, it did not strike one as superior in ability, character, culture, or breeding to the same number of people who could be culled from the choicest circles of half a dozen different quarters of democratic America. I am sure there are 583 gentlemen in America the equals of the peers, and five or even ten thousand men and women who would not suffer by comparison with their families. [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