There are degrees of Society with the capital S, as there are of society with the least conspicuous initial letter. There are "ordinary Society"; Society of the high-tone (and its antiithesis of course); Society without much distinctness of tone; and lastly the very best Society. Sub-divisions of each might be noted, as for example, "the very best set," the political coterie, the "social nobodies" (of whom, quite naturally, we know nothing), the circle of "smart people' (whom it is our special privilege to know), the theatrical set, the artist gang (no offence is intended; 'tis but a vulgar Chelsea phrase), the society of literary swells, the Stock Exchange lot, and so on, and so on. You spend your money, and you take your choice. But money you must be provided with, and that, too, in an agreeable measure if you wish to get into "Society".
A lady, who dates her letter from one of the favoured West-end squares, assures me that if am to write anywise correctly on this interesting topic, I must be sure to lay due stress on the money side of the question. "The recognised social duly of today," she writes, "is Money-getting." My correspondent proceeds somewhat cynically, copying the approved pessimistic style, thus: "Our loves, our friendships, our acquaintances do not pretend to last till death parts us; but only so long as we may be possessed of the money that entitles us to affection, friendship, acquaintance, and social position. Money in itself, as you well know, doth not confer social position; but it is far and away the most potent means of acquiring it. The possessor of money, desiring to be in what, for want of a better term, we call "the best Society," must be prepared to part with it pretty freely, and to engage in advance the services of some sponsor, energetic, apt, discreet, and enterprising, who will for a consideration, material or otherwise, agree to accept the office of introducer to whatever 'set' may be selected."
I am reminded by my correspondent that, in starting this little game of getting into "society," one cannot afford to be squeamish. You must put your pride and self-respect in your pocket. There's my money, you say to yourself: now fire away: let's see what can be done. Fail! "In the lexicon of youtth, which fate reserves for a bright manhood, there's no such word as fail." Nor manhood nor womanhood need trouble itself much about failing. The thing is to play your game and win it.
To begin at the beginning; Ordinary Society is provincial and suburban. Yuu may easiest become acquainted with that, by renting a furnished suburban villa, and journeying backwards and forwards by rail. It is a pretty poor enterprise to embark upon; but such as it is it may prove entertaining. Dress is the most convenient passport to suburban society. Copy the Fashions of West-end London. By showing some originality of gown or hat (we address ourselves to the ladies) you may have the satisfaction of exciting envy.
"Base envy withers at another's joy
But it may be that envy will turn about, and essay to make friends. Then make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, thai they may receive you into their homes. "At homes" are the glory of the London suburbs - "At Home, first and third Thursdays in the month." A little cheap and pleasant kindergarten training can do no one any harm, and may serve to pave the way to higher things.
The secondary schools of Society with the "high-tone" are to be found in Kensington and Bayswater: spacious mansions, every convenience, staff of professors, man-servant in livery, and so on. By hook or by crook get an invitation to an afternoon reception in Bayswater — a reception with music, promising lady-pupil of Royal Academy of Music, instrumentalists of the approved type, ferns, flowers, ices, tea, coffee, brown bread and butter, crowded stairways, alcoves and drawing-rooms. With the exercise of a little ingenuity, you may secure invitations to any number of this class of entertainments, leading up to the dinner-party and the dance. High-toned society may be said to revel in the reception and the dance. Neither involves any considerable expense. Everything may be had from "the Stores" or from "Whiteley's," In point of fact, the whole thing may be done very economically: and nothing suits (he pocket of hlgh-toned Society better. You may touch the fringe of this class for a very few shillings by subscribing to the winter dances at Kensington Town Hall, or by keeping an eye on those periodically arranged at Prince's Hall, Piccadilly, or the Town Hall, Chelsea. A guinea, or a guinea and a half will suffice to gain admission to a series of three, "with light refreshments." The committee of Lady Patronesses at these entertainments is never too exacting. The Bayswater squares are the most efficient schools in London for studying society of the high-tone. Object-lessons may be had for next to nothing; and very instructive some of them are.
To be admitted to Society without much distinctness of tone, you have only to possess the requisite assurance, the necessary apparel, and to show a nice discrimination in practising the art of begging. Ask for invitations to this, that, and the other place, as it suits your fancy. Select your place, and beg for an invitation — not necessarily from the giver of the entertainment, but from some one of his (or her) friends and acquaintances. You may even get to dine with the Lord Mayor of London that way. You may find yourself at a concert in the drawing-room of a duchess that way. You may gain admission to why, a good half of the London Season's functions and festivities that way. Don't be half-hearted about the means. Say to yourself, "I mean to be there," and go. Plucky people have been known to gain admission to the very best London social entertainments without any invitation at all. I have known an impecunious, though otherwise spirited young fellow, to figure at a function graced by the presence of the most distinguished personages, upon no more respectable credentials than those which the possession of a dress-coat implies: and that, alas! was borrowed.
The most useful passports to a man entering Society without much distinctness of tone, are sufficient self-confidence and the necessary dress-coat. For a woman, a pretty face, a good figure, and taste in gowns are desirable, though not essential. That kind of society is gathered from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. It comprises all sorts and conditions of people, royal, republican, aristocratic, democratic, English, and foreign. Jews, infidels, and heretics (for whose behoof the English church-catholic prays), and Japanese, Chinese, Siamese, and others (whom it uncharitably passes by), mingle with the company. And you may find included in it travellers from all parts: the loveliest Americans and the least comely Africans; possibly an occasional genteel cowboy of the Plains; warrior chiefs; Cape-diamond people; Bonanza and other princes of degree; schemers in every direction; eccentric artists; popular actors; and the most charming actresses; people who try to reform some of these classes, and others who try to reform them; writers of books, and a great multitude who never read books; fair damosels of the greenish-greyish-golden kind, (Art at Home ladies), and others of the pink-and-white type: in point of fact, every one of passing account, and some of no account at all. It is very difficult to gain admission to the ranks of the grand army of pleasure-loving people comprised within the circle of London society without much distinctness.
But to elude the outposts and cross the frontiers of "the very best society," is no easy matter. It requires excessive vigilance. If you are successful, you may yet find lesser zones within the greater still more difficult to enter. The very best society might be represented as a maze, with as many intricate twistings and turnings as those of the Maze at Hampton Court. The inner-most ring but very few succeed in reaching.
Simple folks, who are what is known as out of the world, provincial people with a taste for the genteel, and ordinary society "swells" of the suburbs, too often think, when they periodically mingle with the fine company in the "crush-room" at the Opera, or gaze upon the brilliant galaxy of bejewelled beauties in the "stalls" of the London Theatres In the Season, or as they take their seat in Ascot week in the splendidly-lit Grand and Oak Dining-Salons of the Metropole, or are hard-pressed in the grand crowd at this Art Soiree; or that; the uninitiated no seldom on these occasions fancy, and that at last they are within the charmed circle of the very best society.
Poor, deluded, simple people, they little think how far astray they are. The North Pole is no remoter from human knowledge and observation than the best London society. We all remember the story of Tantalus who, in olden time, was seen vainly trying to quench his thirst with a flowing stream, which ebbed whenever he approached it. He is always present with us — in Paris, in New York, in London of To-Day. He is now in great spirits: thinks he shall bottle the wave. Alas! it has gone from him. In the like case in greater part are they who, thinking to drink of the sparkling waters of that river which encompasseth the more sequestered regions of Belgravia and Mayfair, stand lingering upon its brink only to watch the perpetual ebbing of the incoming tide.
The frantic efforts which women, perhaps, more than men make (though men are not slack in pushing themselves forward) to drink of the waters, the meannesses to which they submit, the insults which they undergo in the vain hope of quenching their thirst, are matters of wonder to those who stand by and know beforehand the futility of their efforts.
Thousands of pounds have been known to change hands for a cupful only of the delicious waters. Quacks there are who advertise to sell; but they do not retail the real thing. That it may somewhere be had is generally believed. We have been told of persons recognised and well known in London society, who act as sponsors for rich people desiring to enter "the best set." There are others who take upon themselves not merely the office of introducer, but who are prepared to get up balls, order music, flowers, refreshments, suppers, wines, and guarantee the presence of guests in sufficient numbers to enjoy them. The hostess herself has nothing more to do than pay the bills, and submit to the contemptuous treatment of the women who take temporary possession of her rooms.
There are gentlemen, too, not averse to this business, — professional masters of the ceremonies, Beau Nashes, as it were, of London of To-Day.
A young unmarried man with no special pretensions, save that suits his purpose, and exceedingly complaisant when desirable. He should be worldly to the heart's core, and utterly impervious to snubs. " He ought to be able to dance well; and if he can sing and play, lead a cotillon prettily, turn a compliment neatly, tell a story with point, and know when to keep properly silent, he need never dine at home. In the London Season he may have the best houses open to him, and take his full share of the good things which rich people provide. The fact of his presence will often be considered a compliment; for hostesses of fashion are only too grateful to young men for accepting their invitations. A young man thus launched upon the world very soon learns to go only where they "do him well," as he says in his slangy, ungrateful fashion. Thus our friendly informant.
"The most exalted London society, parvenus and smart people rarely enter; and of the highest section of all, they never become habitues. It is not, perhaps, the most amusing or lively, the lady writes; "but there is no doubt that it is the best bred, the most refined, and the most permanent. Its members do not come to-day and go to-morrow. They are among the highest-born and the oldest families of the realm, and it is only on occasions that some of its younger members mingle with the gayer and more rowdy element without.
"Many fortunes in our time have been almost made in a day. More than one notable house at which some of the gay parties of the London season are given have been built with the proceeds, it is said, of a week's successful speculation. Lightly come, lightly go. Fortunes made in a day are often lost in a day on the turf or at the gaming table. A rich man who wants to get on is pretty sure to go on the turf. It is his own fault if he bets; but racing is a great social lever, and helps to throw the outsider among the charmed few. A good sportsman and a pretty woman have the road much smoothed for them. "Les beaux yeux de madame" have opened many a closed door, both socially and financially.
"Those who go warily go safely; and the social aspirant has expense and still more ruinous waste of time and faculties?" The which "select Society," dear Reader, we need scarce remind you, is the right brilliant and never enervating company of "saint and sage, of the wisest and wittiest of mankind and womankind, at their wisest and wittiest moment" - in a word, the makers of the world's Literature, in comparison of whom "the very best society" (as the jargon of the day has it) is but sordid, mean, and contemptible.