ONE of his subjects said that Charles II was the father of many of his people in a literal sense. He
recruited the ranks of the nobility largely with his children and their mothers, and at least five English dukes today can trace their lineage to the monarch who left no legitimate descendant. One of these had a father-in-law who boasted a similar connection with a later sovereign, and of course was titled. The two noblemen were at a levee together, some years ago, and as the carriage of each stood at the door the duke said to his father-in-law: "How do you use the royal liveries?" "Whereupon the other descendant of kings replied: "How do you?" One had the same right as the other.
These offshoots of royalty claim all the distinction that their birth confers. The daughter of a ducal house prides herself on her likeness to her great ancestor, Nell Gwynne, whose portrait hangs in her drawing-room, so that all who come can compare. You can pay her no higher compliment than to notice the resemblance which proves her royal origin.
The royal favors have been extended even in recent times. Charles Greville sets forth with great minuteness the relations between George IV and the Marchioness of Conyngham. One should be well up in genealogy to go about in London society; and, though I had lived in England many years, I once came near tripping on this subject. Greville's revelations and recollections were the talk of the town, and when I went of a Sunday to call on a countess (now dead), who was fond of gossip, I asked if she had read the volumes. "Yes," she said, "but I must tell you at once, Lady Conyngham was my grandmother."
The book was very generally disapproved by the relations of those whose imperfections it exposed, the Queen among the number; for Her Majesty's uncles were the principal offenders against morality, of their time. The editor defended his disclosures by referring to the "Life of the Prince Consort," which revealed the secret and domestic history of the Queen. But the stories there told were all favorable to the royal family; Her Majesty, like the rest of the world, prefers to select for herself the point where she draws the line. It is true, she had no scandals to conceal in her own career; but I knew at least half a dozen grandchildren of William IV, none of whom were descended from Queen Adelaide. Yet they all had titles, or, as one of them said, "handles to their names." They also inherited the peculiarity to which they owed their connection with the Crown. Divorces were common in the family.
Illegitimacy, however, in England is not confined to the descendants of royalty. The nobility emulates the example set by a long line of sovereigns. In the exalted circles of the aristocracy the bastards of peers go about bearing the family names, and daughters whose mothers are unrecognized marry into families as "good" as those on the paternal side. There are even instances of sons born before the marriage of their parents, whose younger brothers inherit titles to which the elders would have succeeded, but for the neglect of their mothers to go to church in time; the legitimate and illegitimate children can claim precisely the same progenitors. Some of these premature sons are today ministers at foreign courts, others have been masters of ceremonies in royal houses, while dukes and earls have been able to find places for the spawn of shame in the army, the Foreign Office, and even in that Church whose rites they had themselves neglected to observe.
God knows the unfortunates are not to blame; but to make their birth a distinction and an advantage is a greater enormity than the offence to which they owe their origin. A Countess of Cardigan had once been the wife of Lord Cardigan's staff officer; but she deserted her first husband. A divorce ensued and a second marriage. A peeress not now living told me this story at her own table, and not having studied the family tree of my hostess, I innocently inquired if Lady Cardigan had been received in society. Here one of my neighbors purposely interrupted the conversation, and I perceived there was reason not to push my inquiries. After dinner I was told that the mother of my hostess had committed the fault of Lady Cardigan. The lady herself had spoken of her father, who was an earl, without a shade of reticence or embarrassment, and only some ignorant republican like me ever reminded her of the mother to whom that father was never married.
The famous Lady Waldegrave was married to two brothers in turn: first, to Mr. Waldegrave, the natural son of the Earl of the same name, and afterward to his brother, the legitimate heir, so that she was Mrs. Waldegrave and Countess Waldegrave successively. In this instance the father had preferred the child of shame, and left the bastard the bulk of his property, which was unentailed; but the fortunate lady who married first the wealthy brother and then the titled one, secured both fortune and rank without going out of the family. Her marriage with Lord Waldegrave would have been invalid, according to English law, which prohibits a marriage with a deceased husband's brother, but Mr. Waldegrave, being illegitimate, the son of nobody, was also the brother of no one, in the eye of the law. Had there been, however, a son by the second marriage, and an earldom at stake, the next heir would undoubtedly have disputed the legitimacy of the issue. But the question did not arise, and the violation of one law rendered possible the evasion of another.
Some of the aristocracy exhibit a fidelity in these irregular relations not always displayed toward more respectable partners. A nobleman who died while I was in England was (devoted to a woman whom he refused to marry. He was no longer young, but when his companion fell ill he nursed her with the tenderness of the fondest husband, and when his cares proved vain and she passed from his arms let us hope, to a better life his grief so overwhelmed him that he could not survive the loss. In six weeks he followed her to the tomb. This touching constancy is characteristic of the family, which has shown in several instances how love can rise superior, not only to considerations of rank and station, but to morality and public sentiment. Their devotion, however, has never necessitated the sacrifice of position or precedence. During the present generation, they have filled important stations in diplomacy, secured the grants of successive peerages, and married into families even higher than their own that is, when they married at all.
It is not to be supposed that the aristocracy are without virtue. There are houses and circles as pure as those of the Queen ; but there is hardly a family in the peerage that has not, like the Queen's, its admitted illegitimate connections. There is probably no more immorality among the upper classes of England than in the corresponding caste in other countries, or possibly than in the wealthiest and most pretentious circles in our own. But there is this difference: in America acknowledged immorality is a bar, while in England it detracts from neither rank nor station, and men and women have consideration not only in spite, but because of illegitimacy. In one country people are ennobled and received because they are bastards ; in the other the shame is hidden and the stigma concealed.
An American woman, whose name is well known, was staying at Homburg with a duchess, who persisted in visiting the unmarried companion of a royal personage. The American was not sufficiently accustomed to aristocratic ways to consider the acquaintance an honor, and warned her ducal friend not to speak to that woman when they were together. Soon after this they passed the lady on the promenade, and the duchess could not bring herself to reject the recognition of a royal favorite; whereupon the American, though she had her own weakness for rank and was fully impressed by caste, indignantly left the two Europeans to their own company, and walked home alone.
The influence of rank is unfavorable to virtue, because it not only shields vice, but actually exalts immorality. A fault is more venial in a duke than in a man of lower degree. A slip in a woman of high position is easier overlooked and sooner forgotten ; and there are peeresses to-day who have been divorced for cause and remarried, and who are received. This would not be if they were not members of the aristocracy. Even women who have lost their position in America, have regained it in England. One of these had a great success in the highest circles of London until finally her history became known. She then went in tears to one of the leaders of society and exclaimed: "You surely don't believe these horrible rumors about me?" To which the countess replied: "My dear, if they were all true, I shouldn't think any the less of you."
It is not true that the same thing occurs here in the same open way. Rank in England often enables its possessor to ignore or defy the shame that here would follow the sin ; but the stigma blazes boldly beneath a coronet. When the late Lord Chief Justice of England could take a woman whom he had not married on judicial tours to be received by provincial dignitaries, and respond to toasts as a bachelor while his grown-up daughters sat by his side, the state of society is certainly different from that existing in America. And this difference is the direct result of aristocracy. A class is placed so high that it can make a social law for itself and defy the opinion of a world composed of inferiors. At least half a dozen peers of the realm have married women of public lives, and these women belong to the peerage. Their names must be set down in Burke. [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