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SOCIETY. The French philosophers of the eighteenth century, who, as one of their startling conclusions, were peculiarly fond of deriving the moral and political state of a country from its climate, used to represent it as so impossible for the inhabitants of this island to be tolerably cheerful and happy amidst the frost and fog that surrounds them, that they attributed the freedom of our institutions, as well as the somewhat morose expression of our countenances to a perpetual spirit of discontent, a native of the soil, which was continually urging us to benefit our miserable condition. That a northern climate, by which we are deprived of that indolent enjoyment of being, which frequently satisfies the inhabitant of more sunny parts of the world, has its effect upon us, we do not attempt to deny: still, we can hardly ascribe to it the full extent of our liberty and our ill-humour, as we remember that the ancient Greek was not a slave ; that the modern Turk is far from lively; and that at Vienna, while we write, the Government is despotic, and the people, at all epochs save those of the cholera, are remarkable for their gaiety. There was a time, moreover, as Mr. Cobbet reminds us, when England was called the “merry England,” since which period, very little change of climate, we are apt to conclude, has taken place here.
In the lower and middling classes of society there is a very satisfactory reason, or perhaps a very unsatisfactory reason, for the hurry and the gloom which fixes itself on an Englishman's features. The unfortunate wretch at the moment of his birth feels the weight of his proportionate share of “ the Debt” upon his shoulders. Away he starts, endeavouring by every shift and struggle to get rid of his burthen. There is no repose for him: if he stops, he is lost; and thus we meet him at every twist and turning of life with the same sad countenance and quick step, until he contrives to shake off the intolerability of his load, or is weighed down by it into the workhouse. In the country the peasant toils and frets for the most barren subsistence, frequently in vain. Go into the town! the sole end or aim of Messrs. Tomkins and Co's existence is to supply the revenue, in consuming its taxed tea and sugar, and to meet the tax-gatherer himself with a bold and undaunted countenance when he makes his quarterly visit. This is the thought which rouses up the partners of that frugal and respectable house at five o'clock in the morning, and hurries them to bed at the first sign of a necessity for a candle. Hear the scorn with which they speak of a man less punctual than themselves in their fiscal disbursements. Let us confess the truth ! the pride and pleasure of an English tradesman's life is, to pay his taxes, and he really has not time for any more hilarious amusement.
Again, if we mount a step higher, and speak of those gentlemen whose dark, dirty, and eager countenances glance across us on week days at the exchange, or are seen at church on a Sunday, as melancholy and prim as the clipped trees before their villas at Clapham, it is quite easy to understand that our islandlike habits of commerce, by which are engendered an abstract love of excitement and speculation, should breed
a certain class of persons, who deeply engrossed in the price of cotton, indigo, and consols, in the art and action of making wealth, should not have the time to derive any happiness from its employment. All this is quite natural and conceivable. That even the farmer, up-gazing upon so vicissitudinous a sky, dreading rain for his wheat and drought for his turnips, should jog along with a harassed and unquiet aspect; that the parson, haunted by visions of rising Methodist chapels and dissenting schools, should have something like gloom and fear depicted on his puritanical face, as he orders his neighbour's cattle to be driven to the pound, and wrings the hard-earned penny from the pockets of the poor, is not a marvel, thank God! to those who have read the last number of Moore's almanack, and pretend to know any thing of the signs of the times. But there are other classes, the “nati et natæ consumere fruges;" the select, the élite, the aristocratic, the lounging enjoyers of the gentle privilege of idleness. That that polished horde ycleped “Society” should consist of two tribes only “ the bores and bored;"—that those who take the end of King Pyrrhus's life as the sole object of their own; who set heartily and earnestly to work about amusing themselves, determined to be gay, and inspire gaiety, should be so exquisitely melancholy and dull in all their festive proceedings ;-that the ball and the rout, and the conversazione, which the imaginative writer of a fashionable novel would depicture from his dingy chambers in the Temple, as an exhibition of elegant festivity, of bustling joyfulness, of electrical bon-mots, should in reality be each and all the most common-place, tame, and incorrigibly stupid reunions of insipid drivellers, which it was ever the fate of a glad-hearted sensible being to encounter ;—that all this should be true-does, we confess it, appear a strong argument in favour of that proposition which we set out by contending against. Nor is this all: there are few of the unhappy persons thus huddled ceremoniously together, who, if we chance to meet them in Italy or in France, (in that medley of intriguing abbés, entertaining travellers, spiritual coquettes, polished diplomatists, uncleanly savans, &c., which usually form an Englishman's foreign society,) do not make a very different figure. Each one there has a more original and individual tone. The blue talks of conchology; the innamorata of Lamartine; the naturalist of Vesuvius; the antiquary of Herculaneum; the politician of the unfortunate Poles; while those who have neither learning, feeling, science nor humanity, indulge at least in the licence of laying claim to them all. But the singular circumstance relative to society in England is, that everybody talks, and even endeavours to look, alike. The tone of the elderly and serious is the same as that of the juvenile and gay; a statesman of seventy wrinkles his features into a smile, as he addresses a beauty; and a beldame of sixty makes an effort to simper, if she is spoken to by a beau. Nor does a wit attempt to be less stupid than his neighbours. It would be “ bad taste" if he did. All must adapt their manners to those of a certain age, and suit their conversation to the scale of a certain intellect: your literary lady prattles of a ball
, and your poets spout about a horse-race, and are, therefore, more dull and disagreeable than a Miss in her first season, or a member of the Jockey club.
Much of this we deem owing to our institutions—the result of a grave and thoughtful character—which singularly enough has produced a vapid frivolity of manners. We need hardly observe that modern society takes its tone from those times in which the female sex distributed the rewards which the sovereign granted to valour, the virtue of the period; the smiles of royalty and of beauty were then bestowed together. The feat for which the Prince conferred the glittering badge of his esteem, usually procured the knight the rose-coloured scarf of his mistress. A new era succeeded, when the pursuits of the court became in themselves a career; the monarch was still the dispenser of honours, and women were kind to those who obtained them. As long as the King's power was the first in the State, his antichambers were crowded with men of talent and ambition, who cultivated the graces most in vogue there ; but as our representative system developed itself, the fountains of royal favour were gradually dried up; a richer prize was to be gained in more soul-stirring and exciting scenes. In it was sought those scenes; and as the details of public business, and consequently the labour of a
parliamentary life increased, it became impossible to unite the profession of politics with those charms of manner, those graces and assiduities by which women had accustomed themselves to be won.
Men, continually occupied with their interests, wanted that politeness which proceeds from little to do. “L'époque de la politesse des Romains est la même que celle de l'établissement du pouvoir arbitraire. Le Gouvernement absolu produit l'oisiveté, et l'oisiveté produit la politesse.” At the same time, the orator, or the statesman, feeling his superiority elsewhere, was disgusted at competing in the drawingroom with an ordinary coxcomb who frequently proved a successful rival. A kind of separation therefore gradually took place between those in the one sex who devoted themselves to serious pursuits, and those of the other whose lives were given up exclusively to pleasure. “ Dans une nation,” says Montesquieu, whom we have just quoted above, “ dans une nation où tout homme à sa manière prendrait part à l'administration de l'état, les femmes ne devraient guère vivre avec les hommes." We do not subscribe to this doctrine as a necessity; we admit however as a fact that the men in this country whose time is passed in female society are not those persons whom Montesquieu had in view. Who are these men ? who are the men the most à la mode ? Are they distinguished by their ready wit, their literary attainments, their zeal for the public welfare? Who are the men most à la mode ? Messrs. and -, who will not consider it disrespectful, nay, who will consider it complimentary in us to say that their most conspicuous merit is that of their whiskers. But the ambition of women usually centres in a desire to please. As Messrs. and
are at the head of their class, we must presume their followers have the same minds and tastes. No woman who wished to please these gentlemen would speak to them of the charms of letters, or the welfare of their country. Her hair would be well arranged, her dress in perfect taste, her tournure correct and elegant, and her conversation as frivolous as possible. In Sophie's letters to Mirabeau we see her mind mount with that of her lover; the energies of his soul, the elegance of his perceptions, the exquisite beauties of his style infuse themselves into hers. But in the most intimate relation that can subsist between a woman of fashion and a man of the same
caste, is it possible for the former to acquire one single new idea ? Is it possible for her faculties to be in the slightest degree strengthened or embellished by the friend she has chosen? And this acts reciprocally. The young men who enter society, and who find that they will be rather admired for their persons, than their minds, neglect the one in order to adorn, and, if possible, improve the other. The greatest dandy in the time of Queen Anne prepared himself for a season in town by a private tutor and hard study; a dandy of the present day would take a tailor into his house, and employ himself sedulously in choosing the colour of his waistcoats, and carefully modelling the shape of his summer trousers. Of all nations in the world, England confessedly boasts the best-dressed men.
The larger part of “ Society," therefore, is composed of idle coxcombs and silly women, and its tone is naturally that best suited to these two descriptions of persons. Do any of the Lady Patronesses assembled at Willis's ever inquire-in those interesting debates which take place respecting proper and improper people -- do they ever inquire if Mr. So-and-so is a man of talent or good principles? The ques
– Is he well dressed? Is he good-looking ? “ He is a handsome and gentlemanlike person,” is a recommendation that procures him his ticket without a murmur. Even the old-fashioned notions about “family” are worn away. We rejoice that they are--only regretting that a silly prejudice was not destroyed by a more happy means than an increasing depravity of taste. In the same manner, and for the same reasons, beauty is the best passport for a girl into those circles vulgarly termed “the most select." Those who invite handsome young men to please themselves, also invite pretty young women to please the handsome young men. If Miss Emily, or Lady Mary had been awkward and ugly, we may venture to predict that she would never have been chronicled in the Court Journal, or advertised in the pages of the Morning Post. We do not know anything more astonishing to foreigners than the mixed and uncertain nature of what they imagine to be our aristocracy, i. e. that portion of the community who are called “ Society" (for we must frequently return to that term) in this country. They may have happened to meet on the continent an English gentleman whose family acquired lands at the Conquest, and whose ancestors served in the Holy-land. If they come over to England and inquire after their old friend, it is a hundred to one, particularly if he live in a distant county, but that they are told that nobody knows himthat he is not in society—from which they of course conclude that he has no right to be in it.
We remember there was a certain Monsieur Cavois, in the time of St. Simon, a gentleman of tolerably good birth, gentlemanlike exterior, and ordinary talents, but not possessed in an eminent degree of any of the advantages of birth, exterior, or talent. The noble memorialist expresses his astonishment at so insignificant a personage having crept by any chance into the same salon as himself. Were his descendant now to visit England, the first persons whom he would see, and see everywhere, are a Mr. Percy Thomson, a Mr. Villiers Smith, a Mr. Gordon Brown, young gentlemen in the Guards or the Treasury, living on the credit of 2001. a year, whose fathers were Nov.-VOL. XXXII. NO. CXXXI.
army agents, or quack doctors, and whose grandfathers never existed. Let him inquire who these distinguished individuals are, whom he finds invited, as a matter of course, to every soirée, and considered necessary to every ball. He hears that they dance tolerably well, that they dress tolerably well, that the one was the lover of Lady E. and that the other goes to the Duke of D's. If that interesting “ Stranger," so frequently promenaded through the House of Commons, should be introduced to the drawing-room, and asked to discover some fixed rule by which it would be possible to say whether the person at his elbow be a gentleman or a roturier, he would be obliged to declare that he cannot find one. It is not wealth, it is not birth, it is not talent, that gives station in the world. God and Mr. Croker know what an immense difference there is in the rank of two sisters, one of whom lives in Russell Square, the other in Hill-street. These are distinctions which could only exist in the minds of triflers and women. There is not a sensible man who would not consider them insignificant and absurd; a proof in itself that the lawgivers of our society are triflers and women. At the time when society was at the height of intellectual and social perfection in France, it was the arena on which every man of genius and ambition was forced to contend. It was sought for the purposes of pleasure, but it was also considered the path to power. Instead of preparing a speech for the House of Commons, the aspirant to place conned over a compliment to a Prince's mistress. As such persons made society their sphere, they breathed into it a kind of atmosphere which it was impossible for the dullest not to inhale. Besides, as the women sought the applause and the courtship of those who were most applauded and courted, they in their turn cultivated the same means of success. From the time of the celebrated Madame de Longueville, (the period of the Fronde,) of whom the first courtier and cavalier of the day, said
“ Pour obtenir son cæur, pour plaire à ses beaux yeux,
J'ai fait la guerre aux rois, je l'aurais faite aux Dieux;" to the youthful days of Madame de Coigny, the last of that race which still lingers in the Faubourg St. Germain, “Les dames du chateau,” were frequently as much distinguished by their mental as their personal graces; nor would be easy to point out a remarkable beauty (during that interval) whose wit was not also celebrated : every body knows or ought to know of Madame de Sevigné's elegant and touching account of Marshal Turenne's death, one of the most exquisite pieces of modern eloquence; the vigorous mind of Madame de Tencin guided the cabinet of Cardinal Dubois; the everlasting Ninon herself derived much of the celebrity of her charms from the piquant style of her discourse ; Madame de Maintenon was educated in the spiritual school of old Scar
But for the most perfect picture of a French woman of fashion, we must read the Memoirs of Mademoiselle Delaunay: nothing can compete with her description of the arrival of Madame du Châtelet, Voltaire's Madame du Châtelet, at the Duchesse du Maine's. This lady (Madame du Châtelet) was the best dressed and the most scientific woman of her time. Poor Mademoiselle Delaunay, a bel esprit herself, had the arrangement of her apartment. Painfully she