IF the influence of the aristocracy is vulgarizing upon the aristocrats themselves, rendering them
often arrogant, supercilious and rude, it is still more so with their inferiors, debasing the spirit and
degrading the behavior to an extent incomprehensible to an American, in persons who in other respects are neither abject nor servile. When one considers the character and history of the race, the grovelling of an Englishman before a lord is one of the marvels of modern times. There is nothing like it in any civilized nation on the globe. Neither the peasant of France or Spain, nor the private soldier of Germany, nor the lazzarone of Naples, nor even the emancipated Russian serf manifests in the presence of a superior that conviction of the existence of a caste composed of his "betters," which marks the educated Briton of the
middle class. The sentiment is really more remarkable in the educated than in the ignorant, for
in the latter it can be excused or comprehended; but the prostration of spirit and manner, the uncovering of the whole being, without any purpose or aim of sycophancy or interest, in a man or woman of culture and refinement and character, because of the presence of a person of rank transcends explanation. The very word "betters" has a meaning that is shocking to think of.
A woman of rank once asked me what, of all I had seen in England, struck me most forcibly. I had no doubt whatever, and answered: "The distinction of classes, the existence of caste." "But," she inquired, "do you really mean to say that in America the great merchant's daughter does not look down on the little grocer's daughter?" "Perhaps," said I, "the great merchant's daughter does look down, but very certainly the little grocer's daughter does not look up"; and the whole company was horrified at the idea of a country where the little grocers' daughters "don't look up."
This, indeed, is the difference between English and American life. In England everybody looks up. The most accomplished scholars, the men of science and letters, the artists, the great lawyers and physicians, even the politicians born without the pale, all look up to the aristocracy.
Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli, undoubtedly the two greatest statesmen England has produced since the days of Fox and Pitt, who have swayed the destinies and moulded the political character of the country for nearly a quarter of a century, each sprang from the middle class, and neither ever freed himself altogether from his awe of the aristocracy. Gladstone has done more to transmute liberal ideas into realities than any other Englishman that ever lived; yet not long ago he used these words: "So far as a man in my station can be supposed to understand or enter into the feelings of one of the rank of a duke"; and Disraeli, although he made himself a peer, could not get over his admiration and reverence for a born nobleman. His own adherents made this weakness their butt. Even after he had negotiated the treaty of Berlin, had snatched Constantinople from the grasp of Russia, and received the Order of the Garter from the Queen, I heard Tory wits, both men and women, laugh at his fondness for dukes, and declare that he was never so happy as when seated between duchesses, no matter how ugly or old.
For it is not enough to belong to the nobility; you must inherit the title to feel like an aristocrat. The law lords are always slightingly spoken of as new creations; people tell you how they are descended from barbers and tailors; and any duke with proper sentiment would rather his daughter were married to a stupid country squire of ancient family than to one of your modern Lord Chancellors. It is not till the blood of two or three generations has washed away the stain of plebeian origin that they take their place without uneasiness among the peers.
It is not only the chiefs in politics who are affected by the feeling of caste. In 1874, when Mr. Gladstone withdrew for a while from public affairs, the Liberals were obliged to select another leader. Mr. Forster was then by all odds their strongest and ablest man, but they had also Sir William Harcourt, Mr. Bright, Mr. Childers, Mr. Goschen, and others distinguished for intelligence and accomplishment. Yet the Marquis of Hartington, possessed of no striking qualifications of character or capacity, only the heir to a dukedom, was preferred. Had it not been for his rank he would never have been thought of; but all, it was said, could submit to his pre-eminence without humiliation. No one could object to a leader of so exalted rank and inconspicuous intellect ; while if Forster or one of the others became chief, it would be a reflection on the abilities of those who were not preferred. And this was in the Liberal party of England!
Literature hurries after politics to bend before the lords. Froude and Lecky have written with all their force and eloquence on the "Uses of the Aristocracy" and the "Landed Gentry," to which they do not belong. They are as able and accomplished as any men in England today, and at least the intellectual equals of any living peer; but they want someone above them some one "to kotow to."
A literary woman, whose name and works are deservedly popular both in England and America, and who had seen enough of London society, one would suppose, to accustom her to the presence of persons of rank, could never overcome her awe for the upper classes. I went one day to call upon a friend, who told me that the novelist had just left the room, and that upon entering she had exclaimed: "Oh! I am such a snob that I am ashamed. I have been taking tea at a house where a countess came in, and it fluttered me so that I couldn't take off my gloves, and spilt all my tea."
And so, all up and down the scale. I once heard a woman of fashion say of some young girl just entering the world, who was remarkable for her self-possession: "She could go into a room full of duchesses and not be afraid."
A great merchant said to me when we were talking of the English love for sport, which in its excess I did not commend: "But how shall our aristocracy be amused? We must amuse our aristocracy." He evidently thought it one of the duties of the English nation to amuse its aristocracy.
When General Grant was in England he did not confine his visits to the nobility. He was the guest of the Mayors of all the prominent towns, and of manufacturers and merchants and other middle-class people, many of them as charming and cultivated in their way as any of the aristocracy. But they could not conceive that a mere ex-President was the equal of an earl. At one manufacturing town he stayed at a house where every honor was paid him and every courtesy extended. But his hosts took him to visit the steward of a lord who lived nearby; he was permitted to see the state apartments in the absence of "his lordship", and he lunched in the land steward's room, and not in the earl's. The steward was probably an abler and better educated man than his master, and General Grant was too good a democrat not to appreciate this fact and to respect his host; but if he had been an English nobleman, neither steward nor manufacturer would have dreamed of entertaining him.
Not many years ago a statue of Mr. Peabody was erected in London, the work of our gifted countryman, Story. The Prince of Wales was present at the unveiling, and Mr. Motley, then Minister to England, delivered the address. It was an impressive circumstance the commemoration by Englishmen of the munificence and charity of an American, who had bestowed his munificence on Englishmen. The presence of the heir to the throne and of the American Minister made the incident international; but the American artist was not invited. The city authorities of London looked upon him as a stonecutter, or at best as a tradesman who had sold them the result of his labor. Mr. Motley had to make a persistent application before they consented to include the sculptor in the ceremonies of which his own work was not only the principal ornament, but the occasion. In the eyes of the London citizen an artist is not an aristocrat; he is no better than one of themselves.
Adelaide Kemble Sartoris once told me a story about herself that illustrates the social situation in England. A great lady which Mrs. Sartoris said she was not had sent out cards for a ball, of course to the aristocracy. The woman of genius was about to give a dinner: her dinners were famous, for the company was of the rarest and choicest kind; poetry and wit and science and art came to her table often rather than to a lord's. The great lady wanted to go to one of these dinners, and sent word to Mrs. Sartoris that if she would ask her to the dinner, Mrs. Sartoris and her daughter might come to the ball. Mrs. Sartoris said she wanted her daughter to be seen at so grand a house, so she ate her portion of dirt and exchanged invitations with the peeress. The great lady went to the dinner, and the great genius and her daughter went to the ball.
I knew a clever American who had been struggling for a long while to get into English society, and had not succeeded. He was in every way fitted, but he had not the entree or the introductions. At last he got afloat a little and asked me to dinner to meet some lords. The dinner was given to show his success; but the lords were all clever, and they went to his table because their host was also clever, and they knew they would enjoy themselves, not because they thought he was of their world. One of the company said to me that my countryman was getting along, but he couldn't be considered to have succeeded till he could get stupid lords.
The feeling of which I write extends to every sphere; it permeates England. The reverence that Gladstone and Disraeli showed is parodied in the sentiment of the servants, who regard the lords as beings of a different race from themselves. Even when the great people condescend, the servants never allow their own heads to be turned. When the master dances with the housemaid or the mistress with the butler, no liberties are taken in return. The great gulf is still impassable. Mr. Auberon Herbert is the brother of the Earl of Carnarvon, but a radical. He prides himself on ignoring the distinctions of rank. When he hires a new servant he is said to ask him to tea, and he offers his hand to the menials of the noblemen whom he visits. A butler, who did not refuse this honor, afterward spoke of it with sorrow and deprecation to his own master. "I know my place, my lord, and that is more than Mr. Auberon Herbert knows his."
This persistent humility is common with class, and is manifested even toward republicans. I once found it convenient to assign to my valet a room in a part of the house near my own, and thought he would be pleased with the situation; but he told me respectfully he didn't like it at all. He was a servant, not a gentleman; he didn't want to be treated like a gentleman, nor to live in a gentleman's apartments. It was not proper.
They sometimes show this same appreciation of propriety in a different way. A cook, some time ago, took service with a physician who was a baronet. She knew her master's title, and did not suspect his occupation, but as soon as she discovered the reality she gave warning. She had only been used, she said, to living with the gentry.
I recollect visiting the ruins of Raglan Castle, where the porter, in showing the great hall, is sure to announce that here once feasted a hundred and forty lords and gentlemen, every one of whom was proud and honored to serve his Grace the Duke of Beaufort. Soon afterward I was staying at the country seat of the present Earl Fortescue. Mr. Motley was also a guest, and, reviving his historical lore, he reminded his host that in other days an earl would have been served by attendants kneeling. The actual service offered to dukes by lords and gentlemen is nearly past, but the parasites of the modern peers are as obsequious at heart as their predecessors, and if the lackeys are not still on their knees at table, they are prostrate all their lives in sentiment.
I could fill pages with proof of the reverence for rank which many of the English besides Lecky and Froude defend, declaring that it exalts and refines the people who pay it: we all need something to venerate, they say. But the question is whether rank is the thing. In England, however, there is no question. The greatest nobles feel themselves honored by attendance on royalty, and their servants are conscious of no degradation in the duties they perform lower down, while the culture and genius of England are proud to pay both homage to the Queen and obeisance to the lords. To Americans this feature of caste is the most curious in the entire national character. That in the country of Carlyle and Bright, of Huxley and Mill, where the last results of modern thought and material civilization are soonest reached and often widest spread, where law and freedom are at least as universal in their prevalence as in America this relic of barbarism should still survive, wrought into the very nature of the people is as wonderful as if amid the congregations of Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's one should suddenly stumble on the worship of Isis or of Jove. [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