THE season depends upon Parliament, and Parliament depends upon sport. The fashionable world is composed very largely of those connected with either the House of Lords or the House of Commons; and when Parliament meets, their families come up to town. For the nobility live in the country, their homes are on their estates, and their town-houses are only for sojourn when they happen to be in London. The great world does not begin its whirl till politics summons the important members to transact the business of the nation. In February, usually in the second week, after the best of the hunting is over, the Queen that is, the Prime Minister calls her "lords and gentlemen" together. Then the fashionable season begins.
The people connected with the government, the diplomatic corps, those of the gentry who have no large estates, the lawyers and literary people, and others who live by their exertions, all these are in town for the most part from November, with an interval of a fortnight at Christmas. They make a very pleasant and intimate society among themselves small but accessible, and often much more delightful than the more pompous and pretentious circle that comes only with Parliament.
From February until Easter is another pleasant period. London is not yet crowded. Many families do not leave the country so soon. The rush has not begun. There are yet no court-balls nor concerts, and the veterans make a point of attending the levees and drawing-rooms at this time, so as to avoid the mobs that crowd to court later on. The ante-paschal season is perhaps the most agreeable part of the London year. There are few dances in Lent, and not so many of the formal receptions which nobody wants to attend and yet everybody attends. There are incessant dinners, but many of them are small; there are occasional theatre parties, and numerous five-o'clock teas.
But just as people begin to get used to each other, and fall into the habit of meeting two or three times a week those whom they really want to see Easter intervenes. Parliament is adjourned, and everybody who has a house in the country goes to it. Large country-house parties are made, and the world of politics and fashion deserts London. Those who have neither country-houses nor country invitations would be lonely in town, and they run off to the Continent for a fortnight, or to Brighton, or some other resort of forlorn, houseless, fashionable wanderers.
After Easter the full tide sets in, everybody is up. The great houses are all open; the park is full in the afternoon; the Row is crowded every morning with a thousand horsewomen, the finest in the world, and the Englishwomen look better in the saddle than anywhere else. Lunches are frequent, dinners innumerable. Forty people often sit at one sumptuous board, and the overflow sometimes reaches to side tables; clever people, if not of too high rank, contend for these cosy corners, where they can choose their partners. Balls now begin, to the sorrow of unfortunate chaperones and the delight of the debutantes. The Queen's drawing-rooms are crowded. Politics are everywhere discussed. Theatres and operas are abandoned by people of fashion; for you cannot dine at eight o'clock and go to the play the same night; while the opera has for years been given up to those who like music, and to strangers and others who fancy it is the mode, because it was so half a century ago.
But the whirl lasts only four or five weeks, when Whitsuntide comes; and then another recess, and more than half the world flits again to the country, which by this time is enchanting. I used at first to find these constant interruptions to the round of society very provoking; just as one got in the swim there was a gate or a dike, and a halt; but after some years I liked the fashion too. The lilacs and laburnums, the hawthorne and the gorse are all in their glory about Whitsuntide, and those who have ever seen the resplendent beauty of the flowering trees and meads of England, or heard the music of the nightingale and the lark, the blackbird and the thrush in May or early June, they know the exquisite charm of sound and color and fragrance that permeates the landscape, the refreshment of brain and sense that comes with the balmy atmosphere of this soft and gracious time.
There are not so many large parties to the country at Whitsuntide as at Easter. The recess is shorter, and those who go down to their estates sometimes go for the pleasure of seeing them in their vernal garment of tender green and variegated border, or to rest before the great plunge into the vortex of fashion after their return.
You come back, usually, late in May. It is now the height of the season. The country is never so attractive in its loveliness, but many of the owners of great estates assured me they had never seen their homes in June. They possess great gardens of geraniums, roseries in which no land can rival England, lawns and pastures and groves and glades delicious in verdure beyond those of any country on earth; but since childhood these slaves of the world have never known what it was to look on their own landscapes and enjoy the principal beauty of their own properties at the season when their natural glories culminate. You must be in town in June, if you are in the world.
You must go to late dinners and later balls. You must breathe the hot atmosphere of Parliament, and the still more stifling air at court. You must be clad in the stiff garments that etiquette prescribes for every hour ; you must devote yourself to a round of visits and entertainments which would be most acceptable in dreary winter, but now distract you from delights that are rare in England because of the climate. At this moment, when the climate and the country are alike Saturnian, you forsake the country and come up to town. For so fashion decrees. Or rather so the sportsmen determine ; the men will not abandon their guns and their game in the autumn and winter, and this leaves only the spring and summer for town. And in England, society, like everything else, is ruled by the men. The women only exist to give them pleasure and do them service; to marry them, to rear their children, to preside over their homes, to decorate their entertainments. What the men want is always done, and the women submit, as a matter of course.
But since they must be in town in summer, the English make the best of the necessity. Half their amusements are out of doors. First there is the Derby day, about the last of May or the first of June. In some years this is the fashion, in others, not; but Parliament always adjourns for the race; and the people who live in the streets leading to Epsom, hang carpets over their balconies and invite their friends to look at the returning crowds. On the 4th of June there is Commencement at Eton, and a boat-race by the boys, to which swarms of smart people go down.
Then there are cricket matches between the Lords and the Commons, between Oxford and Cambridge, between Eton and Harrow. These are held at a pleasure-ground called "Lord's" in the outskirts of London, and are very high fashion indeed. The great folk send their largest carriages down the night before, and the enclosure is lined three rows deep. Next day they drive down in landaus, broughams, and victorias, and mount the drags or coaches in their gayest gowns and highest beavers, to watch the game. They lunch on the carriages and get back in time for dinner.
Above all now is the time for garden parties. Chiswick is a delightful seat of the Duke of Devonshire on the banks of the Thames, which in some years he lends to the Prince of Wales on condition that His Highness gives two great breakfasts a season. The parties at Strawberry Hall are historical, as well as those at Sion House and Osterley, the parks of the Duke of Northumberland and the Dowager Duchess of Cleveland. The nearest of these is ten miles from London, but people think nothing of driving out and back between luncheon and dinner. Closer to town are the lodges of the Duke of Argyll and Lady Burdett-Coutts; and noblest of all, Holland House, with its memories more stately even than its architecture, and more unfading than its far-famed landscape and lawn. All these are thronged every season with people of highest rank and oldest name; as many statesmen and soldiers and diplomatists as butterflies of fashion, wits or belles, or dowagers or dandies. Even the Queen throws open the gardens of Buckingham Palace sometimes in July, and invites a few thousand of her greatest subjects to afternoon tea.
These garden parties are unique in effect and loveliness. The women wear costumes of the lightest fabrics and most delicate colors, appropriate in tint and texture for a ball; the men are the best dressed and the handsomest in the world; the lawns and trees and gardens make the most charming background; there are marquees and music, carpets spread here and there on the grass; sometimes an archery match or an alfresco play; sometimes Punch and Judy under the blossoms for the children. The scene is worthy of Watteau's daintiest pencil.
In the midst of all this comes Ascot week, when those who have invitations whirl down to the races which royalty attends in state. This makes another lull in the gayety, but only a lull; for it is now July and every one has too much to do. There are the Court balls and concerts; an Emperor, or a Shah, or a Czar is sure to arrive, whom some very grand personage must entertain, and everybody must go to see him, or say they have done so. Politics are at fever heat. Some important question is to be debated or settled in Parliament, and the world goes to the House of Lords for a night. Dinners at Richmond are popular at this period. People drive down in morning dress and boat on the Thames, or sit on the Terrace and look at the marvellous landscape which Turner painted but could not rival. They dine at the Star and Garter Inn, and drive back through the delicious glades of Richmond Park in the long twilight or the moonlight, or perhaps under a shower that touches every leaf with a more glistening green, yet hardly harms the most fragile garment of the gayest noble dame.
Wimbledon is the last of the fetes champetres. All the world goes to see the shooting by the Volunteers, and the lucky ones stop at one or two of the charming retreats that still linger along the road, hidden from the passer-by, who never suspects the exquisite charm of woodland and dell so near and yet concealed.
But the Lords, and the Commons too, begin to get restive as August approaches; for on the twelfth grouse-shooting begins. Arrangements are made for Scotland and the North; those who are ordered to Carlsbad or Kissingen for their sins, or their amusement, make ready to start. A few familiar faces are already missed. Here and there a great house is closed. There are not so many carriages in the Ring, not so many riders in the Row. Of a Sunday afternoon there are fewer light gowns on the seats in Hyde Park. The debates are more languid. The Minister announces what measures he must abandon for lack of time, and this "Massacre of the Innocents," as it is called, is a sure precursor of the end. Usually by the sacred 12th, all is over, and if by some strange fatality the Houses have not yet been prorogued, the world is gone; streets and halls are deserted; the gay and the great are scattered over mountain and moor, in Switzerland or the Highlands, shooting, or drinking the waters, or resting for their autumnal labors. The London season is at an end. [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