HE whole happiness of the American Minister to England is marred by the ever-recurring necessity of presenting his country people at court. Most Americans abroad consider that the principal business of their representatives is to procure them invitations to balls or tickets to picture galleries. The London Legation is especially beset with genteel but importunate democrats, determined to explore the mysteries that surround the elite institutions of royalty, to behold in person the gold sticks-in-waiting, the entlemen-at-arms in their helmets and plumes, the maids of honor, and the mistresses of the robes.
They might, it is true, do all this from a position in the palace galleries, out of which respectable English folk not grand enough themselves to go to court are content to look upon the procession of their betters as it passes toward the inner apartments. But no true American acknowledges any "betters;" the very word is stricken from our prayer-books. The citizens of the great republic will stand in no outer galleries; they must be ushered into the very presence-chamber of royalty.
No other minister is so subject to this demand. It is only once in a while that the ambassador from Russia or Germany is called upon to present a countryman to the Queen. Aristocrats, apparently, are not so anxious as republicans to frequent foreign courts. They are familiar with the spectacle and fatigued with the etiquette at home. Besides which, only those entitled to be presented to their own sovereign can be received by the English Queen, and the regulations at Berlin and St. Petersburg are as rigid as at St. James's, so that applications from Russians or Germans are rare. But every decent American may know the Chief Magistrate of the Union, and therefore, according to the rules, he is authorized to ask for a presentation to the Queen. Remembering the levees at Washington, one can imagine the perplexities of the envoy of a democracy.
But this is not all. The court regulations declare that ladies and gentlemen "of distinction" can be presented by their minister in the diplomatic circle, a privilege which entitles them to remain in the presence-chamber during the entire levee or drawing-room, and usually secures an invitation to a ball. Now as all Americans in Europe are persons of distinction, they naturally all desire to be presented with the diplomatic corps. The women especially, fashionable, or would-be fashionable, insist upon this recognition, and besiege the unlucky minister, those torments can be more easily imagined than endured.
American women, however, invariably dress well; much better, as a rule, than the English ladies who go to court. They also adapt themselves with marked facility to unfamiliar circumstances; and as they have only to courtesy and pass before the Queen, there is little opportunity to do discredit to their country or its representative. It is from no fear of a blunder or a scene that the minister is concerned. It is the numbers from whom he must choose that are so appalling. For, after all, the drawing-room is for English subjects, and as there are always more of these than Pier Majesty desires to see on such occasions, it is rather hard for her and for them to give up the precious time to foreigners.
In self-defence, therefore, and in accordance with the traditions of their craft, the wily American diplomatists have contrived to fence themselves about with rules. They have entered into a pact with the court functionaries, themselves nothing loath, by virtue of which only four men and four women can be presented at one time with the diplomatic corps, and the same number in what is called the "general circle." The roster of men is often incomplete, but the occasion is rare when the eight ladies are not all on hand. The minister usually requires a letter of introduction from a personal 'acquaintance' before sending in the name of one entirely unknown to him. But I sometimes used to think that the lists were declared full very early in the season, although if any one whom the minjster particularly wished to place came later, a place was found without all the difficulty that might have been anticipated.
But the gravest question of all is where to draw the line between those who are of sufficient "distinction" to be presented in the diplomatic circle and those who are relegated to "the general." Most ministers cut the matter short by announcing that, as we have no rank nor class distinctions in America, presentations in the diplomatic circle must be restricted to official persons and their families governors of States, senators, high military or naval officers, and the like. Of course stray friends of the minister himself slip in occasionally, whose claim might be disputed, but to be a cousin of an envoy, or even of an acting charge d'affaires, is to be a "person of distinction," at least in the eyes of him who is to decide. The court takes him for sponsor, and I never heard but once that a presentation requested by an American minister was refused.
The court, indeed, is very good to Americans. It does not inquire if they are engaged in trade, although no English merchant can be presented to his sovereign without especial claim. It looks not too closely to the morals or the manners of our countrymen or country-women, but very carefully to their clothes. The rules for dress are never relaxed for any Americans except those in the legation. All men must wear knee-breeches and swords, the court costume, or uniform. As for the women, they are only too happy to put on feathers and trains and any other frippery that etiquette will authorize.
But still another difficulty sometimes remains before an American lady with her unwilling guide arrives at the threshold of the court. A minister can present only men: and the Queen refuses to allow to the daughters of a diplomatist the precedence of a minister's wife or the privilege of presenting her compatriots, so that if the envoy is unmarried he must find some friendly matron to perform the office for him. For a long time it was customary, as it certainly was becoming, in such a crisis, to ask this favor of the wife of the English Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the request was gracefully and graciously complied with. A few years ago, however, a woman whose husband was Foreign Secretary declined to consider herself bound to present American ladies to the Queen, though vouched for by the American representative. There have been times when such a refusal would have produced a rupture in the relations of sovereign States; but the American Minister meekly submitted to the slight, and had recourse to other ladies of his acquaintance. He always found them willing. Sometimes it was the wife of a colleague in the diplomatic corps who came to his relief; sometimes an English woman who atoned for the discourtesy of her compatriot.
When every preliminary is settled the persistent fair one, triumphing over the last obstacle, proceeds to Buckingham Palace, not, however, with her minister or with the lady who is to present her, but in her own carriage, for the furbelows and feathers take up a deal of room, and two ladies dressed for court will crowd the largest coach. If she is to be presented in the diplomatic circle her servant has a ticket admitting her carriage at a special entrance; she then need not fall into line a mile from the palace, but drives direct to the Ambassadors' door, and waits only a few moments in the ante-room. Then she follows her sponsor, and remains with her to the end.
If she goes to the general circle she must take her place in St. James's Park, or still further away, prepared to wait patiently for hours, while the rabble stare in at her carriage windows and comment audibly upon her charms, her laces, and her jewelry, guessing at her age or the prices of her clothes.
Nor is it only the outside mob that indulges in these investigations. One of our country-women told me of an experience she had in the precincts of royalty that is worth recording. She had arrived at "the pens," as the ante-chambers are irreverently called by those who frequent them. Tired of standing for hours, jostled and trodden on and stared at by high-bred dames, the American was about to retire from the column, when a lively contest of voices immediately in her rear attracted her attention.
"I tell you it is."
"No, it cannot be."
"But look for yourself."
Turning to learn the cause of the dispute, the stranger found two English ladies turning up her train to discover whether or no it was lined with lace. Fortunately for her feminine pride the lace was real.
The ball, the object of all these efforts, and importunities, is very much like other balls. The dresses of the men are more showy than at a private party in America; but those of the women not so brilliant, except that finer jewelry is worn. Court trains are not prescribed, nor are feathers indispensable, though the men are not admitted except in uniform or court-dress. I once saw an exception to this rule. The Emperor of Brazil wore a black coat and trousers and heavy boots at one of these balls. But His Imperial Majesty constantly violated not only etiquette, but good breeding as well. * He was above the rules.
Every one is supposed to be in the room before the entrance of royalty, and at about ten o'clock "God Save the Queen" is struck up, and the Princess of Wales with her ladies heads the procession. Afterward come the Prince of Wales, his brothers, and their attendants; for in all court ceremonies the women of equal rank precede the men. I was once at a dinner given to an Emperor and Empress, where the Prince of Wales entered first, preceding even the Emperor, because he walked with the Empress.
* Before Dora Pedro's arrival in England, the Brazilian minister had issued cards for a ball in his master's honor, to which all the great people in London were asked; but when the Emperor came to town he declared that the minister had no right to make arrangements for him without his knowledge, and refused to go to the ball. So the servant was disgraced before the world, though he had shown himself a finer gentleman than the sovereign whom he had sought to please.
Another instance of the imperial discourtesy will be more interesting to Americans. General Grant arrived in London a week earlier than the Emperor. He had welcomed Dom Pedro to America the year before as President, and paid him every attention due from one Head of a State to another. He now sent to inquire when it would suit the Emperor to receive a visit. His Majesty was not in, and the message was delivered to a Chamberlain. But the Emperor never made any reply to the offered courtesy, and the visit was not paid.
After a few moments the first quadrille is formed, in which no one joins but royalty, or those whom royalty invites; afterward dancing becomes general, but the upper part of the room is appropriated to the court and persons of very high rank. If a princess wishes to dance with a nobleman or gentleman, she sends him word by an equerry, for no one not royal can ask her. So also, when a prince desires a partner of lower degree, his lord-in-waiting signifies the princely pleasure, though the royal brothers sometimes overlook this form and invite in person the lady with whom they deign to dance. Needless to say, they are never refused.
The ball-room is oblong in shape, and showily, rather than splendidly decorated, according to the taste of the Prince Consort, which was always heavy and gaudy in art. At the top of the room, and running nearly across it, is a dais, with chairs of state for the royal personages; and on each side of this, but at right angles, are several tiers of seats, those on one side reserved for the diplomatic corps, on the other for peeresses; the bench next the floor for duchesses, the next for marchionesses, and so on; and it is amusing to observe how scrupulous these noblewomen are to take exactly the place to which they consider themselves entitled. The court lias never recognized the right of the duchesses to the seats they claim; but every duchess insists upon her bench, and royalty winks at the usurpation.
After the first quadrille it used to be the custom when I first went to court (it is different now) for the greatest personages to pass in line before the Princes, who, to receive this homage, ranged themselves standing along the dais. The diplomatic corps went first, the ladies leading the way; then the men of the corps, according to their rank and the seniority of their standing at the English court. Afterward the duchesses advanced. The dais was so high that as they made their courtesies the heads of the ladies were brought about to the knees of the Princes. Some of these peeresses were of lineage as ancient as that of the royal family, and descended from as many kings; others were the wives and daughters of men whose estates are larger than German principalities, and whose incomes transcend those of all the children of the Queen; while for public service and character, their names will live when the world has forgotten whether Victoria was ever married. But the prostration went on, and those who performed it seemed as satisfied as those who received.
At midnight supper is served, and, of course, royalty precedes. The doors of the supper-room are at the sides of the dais, and the great folk who usually surround royalty are already near these doors. And now comes one of the most extraordinary of all the scenes in court life. Only the most distinguished in rank are supposed to follow the Princes to the supper-room. The doors are very soon closed, and the struggle among duchesses and ambassadors and people of that sort to get within these portals in time is something more ridiculous and unrefined than is ordinarily supposed to occur in palaces. You can see nothing worse in any parvenu house in the Fifth avenue.
Once in, the aristocracy smooths its ruffled plumage, and places itself in two parallel lines, to watch the royal hosts at their repast, for no guest can be served till the Princes are appeased. There are three tables lining three sides of the room, and the royal family advance to the centre one, where they stand with their backs to the company, looking for all the world like ordinary people at an ordinary table at an ordinary ball. After the hosts have satisfied themselves they turn to their guests, and pass leisurely down the room toward the entrance, while the magnates of England in rank and political power and territorial importance press gently forward, if haply they may catch a royal glance and perform the profound genuflection again.
Sometimes a scion of royalty feels a desire to stop and exchange a word with an individual of sufficient consequence, and then the favored one bends deferentially forward, the object of envy all along the line. When the Prince or Princess thinks the colloquy has been sufficiently prolonged a little signal makes the participant aware that this high honor and happiness is over; another profound obeisance, and the man or woman whom royalty has recognized sinks back into the crowd, beaming with reflected radiance.
At other times the Princes walk steadily by, conversing with each other, and ignoring every highbred effort to attract their notice, and then the lines of courtiers on both sides all bow together very low, like the chorus in the opera boufle of "Bar be Bleue," and pretend not to be disappointed; but when the children of the Queen have passed along their lieges fall to discussing their faults as vigorously as if the hosts were mortal, like themselves. In all these abasements I never noticed that the ultra-Radicals who go to court were any less supple than the most ardent Tories, while the last manufacturer who had entered the Government craned his neck for recognition as eagerly as the American Minister or the oldest groom of the stole.Source: Aristocracy In England by Adam Badeau - Copyright, 1885, 1886. [As Written] Original text, may contain OCR errors.
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
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