IT is the fashion to say that in these days the barriers of rank are broken down, that literary reputation is a social passport, and genius opens all doors; that the aristocracy itself has entered the lists and recognized the equality of poets and philosophers with its highest members. But nothing can be more fallacious than this opinion. The lords open their doors to men and women of parts, it is true, but the purpose is to amuse themselves, not to do honor to literature. In old times they had their jesters and their bards, to while away the time or to chronicle their deeds. Froissart and Ben Jonson did little more, in their eyes. So the Queen
still keeps a poet laureate to celebrate the births and marriages of her progeny, and duchesses have
authors and actors at their parties to entertain their guests, as they have music and ice-cream.
The geniuses would like to believe, because they are sometimes invited to dinner, or even to a country-house, that the feeling of the aristocracy is changed ; but let one of them ask to marry the daughter of a duke and he will discover how wide is the gulf that separates them. Let him presume in any way too far upon the notice that he thinks is a friendship, and he will be dropped with as little ceremony as if his lordship were dismissing a footman. The people of letters are admitted or invited today, and forgotten or ignored to-morrow. They may be in society for a while, they are never of it; and if they no longer wait in the ante-room as Johnson did at Chesterfield House, they must make themselves either serviceable or agreeable if they expect to stay upstairs. They know this very well, though they don't always tell it, and the more dignified ones keep aloof from the great world. Dickens was invited to Windsor to play in private theatricals before the Queen, but refused to go, because he could not be received as a gentleman. Others, however, are content to follow in the train where their wives are seldom placed at all, or to sit at the bottom of the table, as really now as in the days of Temple and Swift, below the salt.
I know that all this will be denied. A well-known wit, himself a middle-class man, who was much invited because of his learned gossip and his talent for repartee, wrote pages in the Quarterly Review to prove that a man who has attained distinction in any walk of life is received on a footing of equality by the aristocracy. But the assertion is preposterous. Taine and Laugel, the two acutest critics of English life in later years, assert the contrary. Gladstone and Thackeray constantly proclaim the existence of the distinction that I describe. Langel declares: "For the middle-man, for the peasant, for the shopkeeper, even for the Radical, the lord is not a man like another." Lord Houghton, the most liberal of aristocrats, wrote: "There are barriers in our social life which no individual will or power can throw down. You cannot bring into close sympathetic communion the operative poor and the inoperative rich, any more in intellectual than in physical relations." To illustrate this he describes a passage between Lady Ash burton and Thackeray. The novelist had been much invited by the aristocrat, but there came a difference between them and a discontinuance of the social relations. Houghton says that Thackeray was discourteous. After a while, however, the peeress, as the grander personage, made an advance. She sent the literary man a card to dinner, and he replied with a pictorial acceptance, representing himself on his knees at her ladyship's feet, while she was heaping coals of fire on his head from an ornamented brazier. After this, says Lord Houghton, she was always very kind to Thackeray and his family.
Mrs. Carlyle tells of a journey she and her great husband made to Scotland in the train of this same Lady Ashburton, who took them along indeed, but in a separate compartment, as she would her lackey or her lap-dog. Carlyle, it is true, sometimes was sent in to dinner at the head of the company, but so was Sara Bernhardt, in my time; and in each instance the distinction was an impertinence. It was not because the author or the actor was considered above the nobility, but because they were not in the degrees at all. The forms which the aristocracy maintain among themselves are inapplicable with such outsiders, and the dramatic or literary lions may in this way come to receive the place usually reserved for princes. If they were given a definite station in the line it would be more like a recognition of their quality. But nobody supposed the French artist was grander than duchesses because she walked in before them; and today if she went back to London, the houses where she once was welcomed, would be closed to her. The fashion is past.
Two or three men of letters have, it is true, maintained a permanent position in aristocratic society, but it is one neither lofty nor dignified. These are received not because of any personal distinction or position, not because they have written poetry or history or romance, but because they are men of agreeable manners and interesting information, used to the forms and relishing the frivolities of the great world intellectual courtiers and time-servers. They are diners-out, though they don't dine lords in return; they haunt ball-rooms and race-courses and country-houses ; but they are seldom seen at court. In the ordinary intercourse of society you might imagine that they belonged to the sphere in which they seem to move, but the moment the great question of rank is raised, they fall back to their own place; everybody precedes them and passes by them, and if matters of privilege are discussed, they are necessarily and of course ignored.
But the nobility, it is said, is itself engaged in literature; and the lords, and the ladies, too, do dabble a little in literature. Lord Mahon, afterwards Lord Stanhope, wrote a dreary history; the Duke of Argyll has discussed science, and the late Duke of Somerset religion, in a manner quite abnormal in dukes, but their labors would have attracted little attention in persons of lower degree. A dozen or more lords and lordlings have written books of travel or memoirs, with the assistance of their doctors, or tutors, or secretaries; and one or two titled dames have put their names to really readable romances; while, as the courts of law can testify, the quality contribute gossip and scandal at a guinea an item to the society journals, and an editor has been sent to jail for the libels that a countess supplied.
But these caprices of the aristocracy never lower them in the eyes of their equals or inferiors. A duke or a countess may write books and not lose caste, just as some of them play in private theatricals or sing at concerts for charity; the Duke of Edinburgh even plays the violin in public in the orchestra. But all this is very different from belonging to the trade. Dukes drive the coach to Brighton, and I have seen a viscount touch his hat and take a tip from an unknown passenger, as he put a portmanteau into the boot. But for all that, no one considered him the fellow of a genuine Jehu. So it is with literature.
The Duke of Argyll is looked upon as par excelcellence the literary peer. While I was in London he presided at a Press Fund dinner. His speech was full of condescension and consideration for the literary guild. He applauded the merits of these worthy members of the middle class, declared that they should be protected, and supported and encouraged; and altogether spoke of them about as a Congressman here might discuss the occupants of tenement houses or broken-down cobblers deserving charity.
The literary people were of the same mind as his Grace. They were delighted to get a duke to talk thus to them ; to teach them their duty, to preside at their dinner and send them a couple of guineas for their fund. The spirit of the jester still lingers. Thackeray himself tells how proud he was to walk down Pall Mall between dukes. Sir Thomas Erskine May, who has lived all his life among lords, devotes pages of his Constitutional History of England to glorifying and upholding the influence of the aristocracy. Yet Thackeray satirized the foibles of the people he considered his betters with a lash as cutting as Juvenal's, and Erskine May describes in detail the corruptions and meannesses, the bargains and sales, the tricks and devices by means of which the peerage has been recruited and maintained. The newspapers follow the lead of the poets and novelists and historians. Pages of every journal are devoted to descriptions of feasts to which newspaper writers are never asked, and to details of the life and pursuits of the most ordinary characters who happen to have title and rank, from Princes of the Blood down to city knights and Companions of the Bath.
Everybody in England knows how a lord is made ; that barbers may become Lord Chancellors and brewers get baronies ; that political service or trickery, or wealth obtained often by questionable means, can secure that nobility which is denied to science and letters and art. Yet Froude and Leckey and May uphold the system, and journalists with more power than any duke in the peerage, prostrate themselves in their columns at the mention of a lord. Nine-tenths of the literary men in England feel honored when asked to the tables of persons with less education or character or ability than themselves.
The people who use the pen, indeed, do more for the continuance of the aristocratic system and the development of its pernicious influence than any other class in the community. They spread the doctrines and intensify the sentiments which support an institution more hostile to the greatest good of the greatest number than any other that exists in civilized society. If the men of letters fought the lords, the lords would succumb. But the men of letters serve and follow the lords, and the aristocracy flaunt their insolence in the face of the world, and take these intellectual superiors in their train to proclaim their magnificence, to illuminate their feasts, and to celebrate the splendor they may not share. These deserve the place they accept. They recall a description I long ago read of a Russian serf carefully holding the horses for his master, who stood on the shafts, while he horse-whipped the slave.
One of the most famous English writers of the century told me that he had once been very intimate with Motley, the historian. They were fellow-laborers in the same field; but after the American was made a Minister the British author held aloof. Motley, he said, was now in another sphere; he lived in the aristocratic circle where English men of letters do not belong. He evidently thought the diplomatist would look down on the literary class, and he recognized the distance that rank had put between himself and his old associate. [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