The Freaks of Mayfair

by E.F. Benson

Previous Chapter

Chapter Twelve - The Praisers of Past Time

EVER SINCE SOCIETY (WITH A LARGE S) has been the subject of Gleanings and Memoirs and Memories and Recollections, the distinguished authors of these chatty little volumes have been practically unanimous in saying that in their day things were very different, and such goings-on would not ever have been allowed then. (They would express it in a statelier manner, but that is the meaning they seek to convey.) Incidentally, then, if we may take it that these strictures accurately represent facts, we may gather that most of those writers must be listened to with the deference due to the elderly (since otherwise they would not be able to remember such a very different state of things), and that they are none of them much pleased with the way in which People (with a big P) behave now. This appears to be a constant phenomenon, for if we delve into social history of any epoch we find just the same complaints about the contemporary world, and we are forced to conclude that, to state the case broadly, uncles and aunts and grandfathers and grandmothers never approve of the behaviour of their nephews, nieces,{218} and grandchildren. At least those who write about them do not, as they take the gloomiest view of them, and are unanimous in declaring that the country is going or has gone to the dogs.

Now there is a great deal of indulgence to be granted to these loquacious pessimists, who are full of a faded sort of spice and are seldom dull. Indeed, they should be more indulgent to themselves, and oftener remember that it is but reasonable that they should have lost the elasticity of youth, and the powers of enjoyment that no doubt were once theirs, the failure of which leads them to contrast so sadly (and peevishly) the days that are with the days that are no more. But they in their time caused a great deal of head-shaking and uplifting of horror-stricken hands on the part of their elders, and, remembering how little notice they ever took of those antique mutterings, they would be kinder to themselves and to others if they put their ink-bottles away, and looked on at the abandoned revellers who take no great notice of them as comfortably as possible, instead of sitting up to all hours of the night composing liverish reflections about the wickedness of the young men and women of the day. It is a waste of good vitriol to throw it about like that, and it is really wiser to wipe the{219} hot ink from the pen before and not after writing, as one of our most industrious social castigators did not so long ago, ‘There is not an ounce of manliness in the country.’ For contradiction of so Bedlamitish a sentiment the myriad graves in France and Flanders bear a testimony that is the more eloquent for its being unspoken.

The truth is that every age finds a great deal to condemn in the manners and customs that differentiate the rising generation from its own. But that does not prove that the elders are right: if it proves anything it proves that they are too old to take in new ideas, and so had better confine their remarks to the old ones, on which they are possibly competent to speak. For in their view, if we take the collective wisdom of the moralists of Mayfair, the country is not now for the first time going to the dogs, but has always been going to the dogs. It has never done anything else, and yet it has not quite arrived at the dogs yet. But the cats appear to have got it.

There has always been, since man became a gregarious animal, a vague affair called Society. Nobody knows precisely what it is except that when the gregariousness of man attained sufficient dimensions it happened, and the older generation disapproved of it. The more elderly specimens{220} of cave-men without a shadow of doubt deplored the manner in which the younger gnawed their mutton-bones, and regretted the days when all well-regulated cave-boys and cave-girls always wiped their greasy fingers not on their new woad as they now do, but on their hair. Society used to be society then, and only the well-mannered could get into it. And it is in precisely the same tone that the modern moralists croon or croak their laments beside the waters of the modern Babylon. The present praisers of past time bewail with an acidity that betokens suppressed gout that their nephews and nieces have lost all decency in speech, and actually make public the fact that one or other of them has had appendicitis. And Uncle cannot bear it! Have appendicitis if you must, but for the sake of Society pretend that it was a sore throat unusually low down. At all costs Uncle’s Victorian sensibilities must be spared, or he will go straight home and embark on Chapter IX. of his Recollections, called the ‘Moral Depravity of Modern Society.’ But is it too late for him to remember how once the Queen of Spain caught fire, and was badly burned because nobody could allude to the awful fact that she had l-gs? The elderly ladies-in-waiting would have died rather than have done so, and there{221}fore the Royal L-gs were much injured by the flame. But perhaps Uncle would like that.... Or again our truculent admonishers remind us that Society was once a very small and esoteric body. Nobody but the de Veres really counted, just as if the de Veres prehistorically came down from heaven with the Ark of Society in their possession and thereupon started it. But nobody really started it; the de Veres did not as a matter of fact say, ‘Let there be Society,’ and there was Society. Once the de Veres themselves were parvenus: when they began to enter the charmed circle they too were accounted nobodies, and the ante-de Veres wondered who Those People were. It was but gradually that the mists of antiquity clothed their august forms, until, as from the cloud on Sinai, they looked down on the post-de Veres, and mumbled together at the degeneration of that which had once been so select and is now so Verabund.

The great central Aunt Sally at which the memorio-maniacs hurl their darts most viciously is a thing they call Smart Society, or the Smart Set. For generations they have done so, and the poor Aunt Sally ought to have been battered to bits long ago, for they throw their missiles straight at her face from point-blank range. Only,{222} by some process not rightly understood by her assailants, she appears perfectly impervious to their attack and proceeds on her godless way as brightly as ever. She is also, as we shall see, largely an invention of those who so strenuously denounce her. What started the loquacious pessimist perhaps was that he found there were a good many nephews and nieces who enjoyed themselves very tolerably, and began to find him and his tedious stories about what the best people did in the age of Henry II. or Charles I. or William IV. (according to the epoch which he remembers best) rather tiresome, and did not listen to him with due attention. That may or may not have set him going, but the fact that there exists in London a quantity of rich people who like to entertain their friends (among whom the loquacious pessimist would scorn to number himself) fills him with ungovernable fury, and with a pen that blisters the paper, he describes how they spend their Sunday.

Breakfast, if we may believe him, goes on from ten till twelve, lunch (a substantial dinner) is prolonged with liqueurs and cigars till close on tea-time, when sandwiches and even ‘bleeding woodcocks’ are provided. Dinner is not till nine, and so late an hour finds everybody hungry again.{223} Then, forgetting that he has told us that eating goes on the whole day, he informs us in another attack on poor Aunt Sally that these same people spend Sunday in riding and driving and going out to tea ten miles away, and careering about on a ‘troop’ of bicycles. Yet again, forgetting that here his text is the sinful extravagance of the present day, he informs us how stately were the good old times, when a rich man kept as many servants as he could afford and ‘sailed along’ in a coach and four, instead of going (as he does in these shambling, undignified days) in the twopenny tube.... After all, the economy effected by using the twopenny tube instead of the coach and four would enable you to buy an occasional ‘bleeding woodcock’ for your friends, and yet not be so extravagant as your good, stately, simple old grandfather. Or, when they speak of modern shooting-parties these chroniclers allude to the mounds of ‘crushed pheasants’ that are subsequently sent to be sold at the poulterer’s, and speak of the hand-reared birds that almost perch on the barrels of their murderers. It would be interesting to place one of these moralists at a modern pheasant-shoot, when the birds rocket above the tree-tops, and see how large a mound of crushed pheasants he mowed down, and how{224} many hand-reared birds came and sat on his gun before he slaughtered them. Such descriptions as these are rank nonsense, the work of outsiders who, while betraying a desolate ignorance of what they are talking about, betray also, in ignorance, an unamiable desire to scold somebody.

Now every one has his own notion of what Society (with a big S) is, and most people mean different things. Guileless snobs read the small paragraphs in the paper, and think they are learning about it. Others walk in the Park and are sure they see it: the suburbs think that it is the sort of circle in which their pet actor habitually moves: South Kensington thinks it is in Park Lane, or the private view of the Academy, or at a garden-party. In point of fact it is, if anywhere, everywhere, and the only thing that can certainly be stated about it is that those who think about it at all, think that it is just a little way ahead, and thus declare themselves to be snobs or ineffectual climbers. But those who really make Society are not those who think about it, but Are it, just because they live the life in which their birth and their circumstances have placed them, with simplicity of mind and enjoyment. Society does not live in a spasm of social{225} efforts, it lives perfectly naturally and without self-consciousness. It is impossible to make anything of your environment if you are always wishing to be somewhere else, and you will make nothing of any environment at all, unless you are at ease there. Indeed the big S of Society is really the invention of the snobbish folk who are not friends with their surroundings, and that in part, at any rate, is why the loquacious pessimist is so unrelenting towards it.

Society, then, and in special Smart Society, as it exists in the minds of the praisers of past time and of snobs, is a perennial phantom, which is the chief reason why none of them can be forced or can succeed in getting into it. As they conceive of it, it is no more than a Will o’ the Wisp, which, if they pursue it, merely leads them on through miry ways to find themselves in the end pursuing nothing at all, and hopelessly bogged in the marshes of their own imagination. That society exists all the world over is, luckily, perfectly true, but this peculiar and odious conception of it is the invention of those who want to get into it and of those who fulminate against it. Indeed it is almost allowable to wonder whether these two classes are not really one, for it is impossible to acquit some of its bitterest{226} enemies of a certain hint of envy in their outpourings, a grain of curiosity in their commination services.

The pity of it is that they will not rest from these strivings, or realize that what they pursue (either with longings or vituperation) exists only in their own excited brains. Each has his feverish dream: one pictures a heavenly Salem of dukes and duchesses, another a swimming bath full of champagne and paved with ortolans, another an Elysium where infinite bridge consumes the night, and continual changing of your dress the day. These conditions have no existence; they are Wills o’ the Wisp. There does not exist in the world a Smarter Set (to retain the beloved old snobbism) than a circle of friends who, with definite aims of their own, and tastes that are not copied from other people, enjoy themselves and are at ease with each other, not being snobs on the one hand or grousers on the other. All other ideas of Smart Sets, whether in London or Manchester or the Fiji Islands, are mere moonshine: the only Smart Set that ever existed or ever will exist is that of uncensorious and simple people who have the sense to appreciate the blessings they so richly enjoy. Of these Smart Sets there are many, but they are not the Smart Sets{227} or the capital-lettered Society that are usually meant when allusion is made to them.

But somehow the notion of the existence of ‘A Smart Set’ or Society with a big S is so deep-rooted that it will be well to examine the evidence for its existence before labelling it ‘Bad Meat,’ to be destroyed by the Board of Moral Health. The evidence in favour of its existence (if they insist on it) is derivable from three possible sources:

(i.) First-hand evidence of those who have witnessed or partaken in these ungodly orgies.

(ii.) Report.

(iii.) Reporters.

Now the purveyors of the intelligence, those who distribute it, are largely the praisers of past time, who so persistently attack it and paint such lurid pictures of its Neronism. But they must have got their information from somewhere (unless we are reluctantly compelled to suppose they made it up) and they can have got it from no other sources than those specified above.

But on their own fervent asseverations they have never so much as set foot in these Medmenham Abbeys, and if their information is derived directly from the Abbeys, it must have been conveyed either by the revellers themselves, by their{228} valets and ladies’ maids, or have grown out of the Tranby Croft trial. It is unlikely that the revellers should have recounted the story of their shame to those sleuth-hounds on the trail of decadence, and if we rule out the Tranby Croft trial as not covering all that the sleuth-hounds say about Smart Life, we must conclude that they must have induced (no doubt with suitable remuneration) the gentleman’s gentleman and the lady’s lady to say what their owners did and when they went to bed. But not for a moment can we believe that these distinguished scribes resorted to such a trick. The statement of the proposition shows how incredible it is, for these high-minded moralists simply could not have applied for the knowledge of ‘sich goings on’ from chattering servants.

First-hand evidence, then, being ruled out, the purveyors may have derived their information from report. Here the baffled aspirants to the social distinction of being Smart may have helped them. But still such knowledge if worth anything must be based on something, and if on report it is merely the more valueless for having gone through so many mouths.

We are left then with the question of evidence derived from reporters, and here I think we{229} touch the source of the appalling state of things pictured by the loquacious pessimist. The delightful anonymous author of the Londoner’s Log-book, has grouped the organs of those who chronicle social happenings under the title of Classy Cuttings, and it is from these columns that we must conclude that the praisers of past time derive their awful information. It is they who give to the thirsty public the details of the menu of the supper that followed the dance, and hint how great were the losings of a certain Countess who lives not a hundred miles from B-lgr-v-Sq-r-, when she played poker at St-l-n-. But, does that sort of information carry the required conviction? Indeed it only carries conviction of the lamb-like credulity of the person who believes it. Once upon a time an eminent and excellent lady revealed to a horrified audience that the Smart Set habitually drank what she called ‘White Cup’ at tea (sensation). It sounded thoroughly Neronian, but lost its impressiveness when the further revelation was made that at a tennis-party certain individuals had been so lost to all sense of decency as to partake of hock and soda instead of tea and cream.

It is on such foundations, columned by Classy{230} Cuttings, that the praisers of past time build the Old Bailey, where, bewigged and berobed, they so solemnly pronounce the extreme sentence on Smart Sets and Society. We must not deny to their summing-up something of the gorgeously Oriental vocabulary of Ouida, though we cannot allow them much share in her wit. She told in the guise of fiction the sort of thing which the praisers of past time—after consulting Classy Cuttings—expect us to accept as facts; she and Classy Cuttings mixed the effervescent beverage which they allow to get flat, and then label it the beef-tea of Fact. And when we are offered these fantastic imaginings and are assured that the lurid pictures are positively photographic in their accuracy, all our pleasure, as readers, is gone, and we expire with a few hollow yawns. We had hoped it was Ouida, but to our unspeakable dismay we are told that it is all Too True. Not being able to swallow that, we can but remember the story of Dr. Johnson and the hot potato.

Tempora mutantur, and unless we change with them we shall never grasp the true values of the marching years. Society (with a final curse on the large S) changes, and the changes represent on the whole the opinion of people who are on the right lines. The praisers of past time have{231} cried ‘Wolf’ too often with regard to the decadence they invariably detect in the present time, and until we are more certain that at last the wolf is really there, it is wiser to push along, than to trust in the denunciations of those who, firmly immured in the sedan-chairs of sixty years ago, squint through the chinks of their lowered blinds (lowered, lest they behold vanity) at the crowd they do not know, and the bustle that they altogether fail to understand. In their day they kicked up their heels much higher than their grandmammas approved. They disregarded the denunciations of their elders then, and they must not be surprised if the younger generation, whose antics their creaking joints and croaking minds are unable to imitate, think of them as antique and peevish progenitors now. The arts of fifty years ago are doubtless theirs, all except the art of gracefully retiring. Instead, the more accomplished of them, since their loquacity no longer can hold an audience, proceed to volumes of uncomprehending memoirs. As long as they stick to the past, their recollections often possess an old-world fragrance as of lavender-bags shut in disused Victorian wardrobes, but when they come to the present the lavender-scent fades, and they reek of brimstone and burning. A grandmamma,{232} talking of past days, is a delightful and adorable member of any circle, but when she laments the dangerous speed at which trains go nowadays, every one younger than she feels she does not quite understand. And if, getting her information from fiction (as the praisers of past days do from the columns of Classy Cuttings), she tells us that motors habitually run over a hundred thousand people a day in the streets of London, the younger folk, with the kindness characteristic of youth, merely shout in her ear-trumpet, ‘Yes, Grandma, isn’t it awful?’ and wonder when her maid will fetch her to go to bed.

It is on Grandma’s data that the praisers of past time form their notions of society. She prides herself on never having been in one of those horrible automobiles: the praisers pride themselves on never having set foot within the doors of these unspeakable temples. Apparently it is for this reason that they can tell us with precision what happens there, except when they forget what they have previously written, and flatly contradict themselves. Like the Fat Boy, the loquacious pessimist wants to make our flesh creep, and sepulchrally announces that he saw Miss Wardle and Mr. Tupman ‘a-kissing and a-hugging.’ But unlike the Fat Boy, who really{233} saw it, the pessimist has only ‘heard tell of it’ in Classy Cuttings, and with Wardle we should exclaim, ‘Pooh, he must have been dreaming.’ So he was, all alone one night when nobody had asked him out to dinner, and falling into a reverie proceeded to contrast the Sancta Simplicitas of the days when everybody sailed along in a coach and four with those extravagant times when he has to pay for his own mutton-chop, and rich folk save their money to go in the twopenny tube. This sounded a little illogical, but it would do, and refreshing himself with another drink of Classy Cuttings, he lashed out at the poker-party at St-l-n-, by way of punishing those who were not his hosts on that terrible occasion. Of course he would not have gone in any case, since he has never and will never set foot in those restaurants (not homes) of vice and extravagance. One cannot help wondering whether, if he condescended to go there, he would not feel a little kinder after ortolans and a bleeding woodcock for tea, and with greater indulgence to the degeneration he deplores, write a few pages about Progress instead of Decadence. But who knows? The ortolans might disagree with him, and he would become unkinder than ever.

Possibly all is for the best.

Return to the The Freaks of Mayfair Summary Return to the E.F. Benson Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson