Sunday 24 October 2010

Is Society Worse Than It Was?

An inconsequential little article, with a good couple of quotes ... it gives a good idea of the moral tone of Edwardian London ...


When Queen Victoria began to reign, her youth and innocence had such an effect on Society that people, conscious of their imperfections, began to amend their former ways. Respectability became the fashion, and those whose conduct had not been irreproachable' were ashamed, and, outwardly at least, conformed to all rules, of propriety.
    This, however, lasted only for the lifetime of one generation, and then, as Society grew larger, people became more and more worldly, and less and less careful to maintain a high standard until now, when though perhaps not sufficiently ashamed of it they are not altogether pleased with the state of affairs.
    If the question be asked, 'Is Society now better than it, was, a hundred years ago?' the frequent answer hastily and cheerfully given is, 'Yes, undoubtedly, for people are more sober, more refined, and no longer swear.'
    This is true to a certain extent, but when we consider how much more educated, refined, and sober the whole nation has become, and what vast strides have been made in science and all kinds of knowledge, then in comparison Society seems to have made little, if any, progress. There may be now as many wise, charming, and brilliantly clever people as there were then, but they have not increased in number, though Society has.
    Society has its rules, and claims as heretofore to be an example-in good manners and honourable behaviour. Any person openly convicted of cheating, or of breaking the marriage laws, is expelled. A few who manage to conceal their misdoings and appear outwardly respectable are welcome to remain.
    There are others, really noble and good, who, though in the-world, are not of the world, whose homes are an example of all that is best in the British nation, and whose good influence would be felt if Society had not grown so large that it can no longer be controlled by one set. There are now many circles within it, each containing people who consider themselves leaders of their own surroundings,. some of whom are so far from being patterns of good behaviour that it becomes a question whether the term of reproach 'not in Society' may not in future become one of commendation.
    But let us consider first the improvements claimed to have been made within the last century—in sobriety, manners, and refinement. Certainly among men it is no longer thought a fine thing to drink too much.. Insobriety happens very seldom, and when it does, is considered a disgrace. But women drink far more than they did fifty years ago, not only wine, but spirits and liqueurs. People interested in the subject say that the liking for alcohol is increasing alarmingly among them, though of course they indulge in it secretly. It is said that dressmakers and grocers procure wine or spirits for 'the lady,' and call it by some other name in the bill paid by the husband. Whether this be true or not, there is little doubt that many women drink far more than is necessary or good for them. Perhaps the now common practice of smoking cigarettes habitually may tend to increase this evil. Then the taking of drugs seems much more common. There is a greater impatience at the least pain. A slight headache, often caused only by racketing about after too many pleasures, is made an excuse for taking antipyrine, or some other soothing medicine, with results disastrous to heart and nerves.
    As to manners, it is curious to observe how far less they have improved in Society, than among those from whom good manners are least expected.. Except in the case of a panic, it was less disagreeable to be in a common crowd at the entrance of an exhibition or theatre, than in a large drawing-room at the Palace, before the new regulations were made. In the common crowd, you are good-humouredly tolerated, sometimes even assisted, never intentionally pushed.
    In Croker's Diary we read: 'A great crowd at the Drawing-room, and the absence of hoops brings the ladies into such close contact that some of them quarrelled, and were near pulling one another's feathers.' We are not quite so bad as this now, but some years ago a man in uniform, desirous of helping his wife and daughters to the royal. presence, forgetting his manners, said, 'No room ? Oh, you just follow me, I will make room,' and assisted by sharp epaulettes he did so.
    Good manners are often to be met with in a 'bus or third-class railway carriage. There you are welcomed with kind hands stretched out to lift your birdcage or bandbox. It is surprisingly rare to meet with common civility in a first-class carriage: For instance, going by train to garden parties near London, without any encumbrances of birds or boxes, you are unwillingly, ungraciously permitted to squeeze into a seat, the other occupants of the carriage making it very clear that, because you happen to be unknown to them, no civility is to be expected on their part. It may be urged as an excuse that heat, stuffiness, and overcrowding are more annoying to gentlefolk, but then good manners should conceal it. As a French writer has said, 'La politesse a été inventée pour remplacer la bonte de coeur qui nous manque.' But those wanting in kindness of heart do not always avail themselves of the invention.
    The same can be said of those who extinguish all view of the stage with their large hats at a morning performance, and others who discuss the play, or their own affairs, in a loud voice during the performance. This, in the last few years, has become an intolerable nuisance. Can nothing be done to put an end to it? In a Paris theatre any attempt at talking is instantly stopped by loud hisses. In London a polite request for silence has no effect. It is people in Society, as well as those out of it, who are guilty of this kind of selfishness. The other day a little girl, whose father had vainly tried to remonstrate with some chatterer in the stalls, said in a clear but subdued voice, 'Oh, it's no good; leave him alone, papa! He looks like my dentist, and might pay me out some day.' The child's remark had the desired effect.
    As to refinement, of course a spade is no longer called a spade quite so plainly as long ago, and swearing is never heard. Some of the slang expressions now in use may not be considered very refined, but they are harmless. It is, however, doubtful if anything in former years can have been more seriously objectionable than the conversation that goes on in some houses at the present time. What excuse can be made for people, by birth gentlefolk, who allow stories and jokes to be circulated round the dinner-table in whispers, because they are too bad to be repeated aloud; and for those women who encourage by their laughter coarse conversation full of allusions and doubles-ententes, who discuss such disgraceful gossip in their drawing-rooms that it must poison the mind of any innocent young woman who may be present?
    Honesty has always been reckoned one of the essential qualities of every member of society, and when it concerns gambling and racing is strictly adhered to. But in other matters not connected directly with friends or acquaintances, some people have very lax ideas on the subject. To be so extravagant as to buy more than can possibly be paid  for, is certainly cheating, though not perhaps of the same kind as Society blames most. And this is done by many without shame or remorse for the ruin it often causes to the tradespeople. There are women, for instance, who indulge in every kind of extravagance they cannot afford, and at the same time are willing enough to give away money which is not theirs, thereby gaining the credit of being charitable. In a few instances they have even been heard preaching to working girls on the desirability of dressing quietly and being respectable. It is doubtful if such incongruity and hypocrisy were practised a hundred years ago.
    No doubt there always were, and are now, people who do not pretend to be otherwise than worldly, and are for ever striving to obtain pleasures or advantages. Some of them, whose greatest fear is being uncomfortable or bored, try to avoid these by running after the wealthy. Now and then they discover new rich people, and hastily introduce them into the inner fashionable circle, without the least caring whether they possess anything besides money, nor how this was acquired. They stand at what we will call the 'turnstile' of Society, and say in veiled language no doubt), 'What will you give in return for these introductions ? ' The answer comes later, honestly paid in some substantial form or other, a carriage, horses, or a sum of money purposely lost at a game of cards. Occasionally some charity benefits largely, but seldom in the real giver's name. Once through the gate, they are welcomed by many ; albeit some may smile and call them 'vulgar,' in reality they are not more so than those who introduced them.
    Sometimes, when fault is found with the present-day manners and morals, the blame is laid on Americans and nouveaux riches, of whom there are a greater number than formerly. But it is doubtful whether this accusation is justified. It is true American girls are supposed to be independent and free and easy in manner, but surely not so silly or so devoid of womanly dignity as to behave as a few English young ladies do, who, in trying to copy fast married women, only succeed in imitating the saucy, romping manners of factory girls, and even, like them, in 'keeping company with their young man.' For what else can it be called, when girls consent to drive off at night in hansoms with their partners, instead of dancing? Yet this has been known to occur at balls where chaperones were considered superfluous.
    As to American women, they certainly encourage extravagance in dress, but they are generally speaking well-educated, energetic, self-reliant, and those who have married Englishmen have in most cases proved to be exemplary wives and mothers.
    As a rule the nouveaux riches help to exaggerate the importance of wealth by their extravagance, but there are many exceptions. Some, aware of the responsibility of riches, spend their money not only in the encouragement of science, culture, and art, but also in charity. If some bring an element of vulgarity into Society, it is no serious fault, nor one that can be cavilled at by those who toady to and worship the wealthy.
    If there be reason to think that Society is deteriorating rather than improving, it is not owing to these, nor even perhaps, as some suppose, to the bad influence of a few among the aristocracy, who, by their conduct, have extinguished the respect hitherto accorded to their old family names, but rather to the apathy of some, and the timidity amounting to cowardice of others, belonging to that vast majority of respectable people who condone conduct which in their heart of hearts they condemn.
    They ought to be the example, but they have never realised their responsibilities. With some the dread of being considered strait-laced or prim, is far greater than the fear of evil. Virtuous themselves, they yet know and believe all the evil gossip about others from whom they readily accept: invitations and benefits. They allow gambling to go on in, their houses, for they have not the pluck, to. forbid games of cards being played for money. Idle people are encouraged by them to play 'bridge,' not merely as a recreation in the evening, but, as the business of the day, beginning after :luncheon and continuing throughout the night. In entertaining their friends and acquaintances, so anxious are they to. be popular and please those who are the fashion of the day, that they encourage flirtations among married people, and would sooner think of leaving out the husbands, than of not including in their 'invitations the well-known admirers of their guests.
    They pride themselves in knowing all the on dits and latest gossip, so that they may be able to arrange for people to meet in their houses whom, it would be far kinder to keep apart. If it result in marring the happiness of some man or woman's life, they are unconcerned. ' It is no business of theirs,' they say. If, however, it all ends in some open scandal,, they are the first to turn away in virtuous indignation, and are shocked at what they themselves have really done their best to bring about. It never dawns upon their minds that they have shared in the evil, and are in a great measure responsible for what has occurred. If, however, they suspected their cook of making rendez-vous with the married policeman, they would see the harm more clearly, and consider it their duty to put a stop to it at once.
    These are people who never think perhaps, because they never give themselves time. By no means wicked, for, on the contrary, they are kind, well-intentioned, and even in their way religious. They go regularly to church, and are horrified at any unorthodox ideas. When for a moment they have time to speak seriously, you find that Divine words, like 'Inasmuch as ye have done it to one of these,' are loved and reverenced by them, but, like holy relics, of some long lost friend, they are locked away and. treasured. carefully, but have no part or meaning in their daily life.
    Yet it is to them that many a man or woman might-point and say, 'In your house the great sorrow of my life began;' or `The gambling in your house was the beginning of my ruin.'
    With. some, respectable persons the fault lies in their denseness or stupidity. For instance, one will tell you all sorts of wicked unpardonable things Lady X. has done, and shortly afterwards will say: 'She is giving, a ball next week. There she is,  standing near the door in pale green. Shall I introduce you ? She may invite you and your pretty daughter!'  Surprised, you reply, 'No, thank you; after all, you have told me I would rather not make her acquaintance.'  'But she gives such excellent balls ; surely for the sake of your daughter?' and if you, take the trouble to explain that you object to making the acquaintance of, or accepting a kindness from anyone whose conduct you abhor, your opinion is received with the same shocked surprise as if you had spoken lightly of the Bible.
    Or, again, somebody deplores to you in confidence, 'What a dreadful pity it is that' the objectionable little Mrs. Dragonfly has quite got hold of Mr. Z., who is so charming. I know you have asked him to your dance, but I fear he will not come unless you send an invitation to Mrs. D. !' Then you answer, 'I agree with you, Mr. Z. is charming, and he will come or not as he chooses, but I shall not ask Mrs. D.' This somebody goes on urging you, saying, 'After all, Mrs. Dragonfly is very pretty, lively, and much admired. Everybody asks her. You know, a few smart married women like her are always an attraction to any ball.' This advice, if worldly, is genuine and kindly meant.
    Another time some timid woman will reveal to you in confidence how terribly shocked she was at something said in the conversation, when the women were alone after dinner. When you ask, 'What did you do ? Did you remonstrate, or get up and leave them ?'
    'Oh no,' she answers, 'I could not get up. I was afraid they would think me prudish, or that I considered myself better than they; I said nothing.'
    Sometimes this kind of weakness only comes from humility or a mistaken idea of charity. 'Are we then,' they ask, 'to decline to invite or to meet any person whose conduct, in our opinion, does not come, up to our own standard? Are we to judge others whose lives may be more beset with temptations, difficulties, and dangers than our own If so, is this consistent with Christian charity?'
    No, nor are they required to judge others, but rather to judge themselves. To be lenient to the faults of others, only if they be fashionable, and for as long as they prosper, and their friendship be of worldly advantage, is not charity. It is also easy to forgive sins when they are not committed against ourselves. We know that, though we may love sinners, we are to hate sin.
    It is possible to be hospitable, generous, considerate, and kind to all our friends and acquaintances, and at the same time to be firm and true to our own principles.
    Parents who are not wise in choosing their friends, and invite gamblers and other idlers, to, their houses, cannot bring up their children well. This may account for there being: now so many young people who spend their whole time in madly rushing after amusements. Though born in a position where the highest education is attainable, they seem to be idle, uncultivated, with little interest in anything beyond childish pleasures. If you ask them to go to the play, they will only consent provided it be one devoid of story, but with plenty of dancing and singing in it. They groan at the very mention of Shakespeare.
    Even if they wish to improve, having never been taught the necessity of any duty or work, always surrounded only by the worldly, frivolous friends of their parents, it is almost impossible for them to do so. The boys go to school, and may come in contact with better influences; but the girls, if they marry, have little chance of becoming good wives or mothers, or in any way useful members of society.
    Men, as well as women, may be held equally responsible for the faults of society. But women, if they have the will, possess greater power for good. A man, beyond his own personal example, has fewer opportunities of influencing others. He is afraid of appearing priggish if he expresses disapproval, and believes he has no influence.
    Yet, though he may not know it, sometimes he possesses more influence than he thinks. One word of good and true friendly advice of his may have more effect on a woman than any preaching from her own sex. From them she is accustomed to hear virtue extolled, but from him it surprises her and obliges her to think. Perhaps startled to find his ideals are higher than her own, she follows his counsel; and who knows whether or no it may be just at a turning point of her life? If men, on the other hand, realised the effect their flippant words may have on others, they would be more careful.
    A woman, however, has the greatest influence over society in general. To begin with, the home and children are much more under her influence. If she entertains, all the invitations and social arrangements are, generally speaking, entirely under her control. Therefore her opportunities for influencing the conduct, manners, tone, and conversation of her surroundings are greater than those of her husband. There are many good women who do all this, but it were better if there were more. As long as people continue satisfied, the present state of affairs will continue.
    That the responsibilities of Society are very great and can in no way be evaded is true, for no one denies that the vices of Society have a disastrous effect on the nation at large.
    If a desire for improvement were to arise again as in 1837, it would be hailed with joy by all those who still cling to the old-fashioned ideas embodied in the saying, Noblesse oblige.
    No doubt the leaven is there, but the mass of -dough is too great to be effectually pervaded by it. The hope for improvement lies in the young people of this present generation. If some young married women will only lead the way, others will follow.
    Do not listen to the cynical worldling who tells you there is no use in trying to alter anything. Let him sit with folded hands in contented apathy saying, 'All is not so bad,' and that it is better to live and let live,' and surtout point de zele! Pay no heed to him; remember that Society's influence reaches to the heart of the nation; so for the sake of your country, for the sake of all you love best, cling to your highest ideals of life, and your home will become a beacon for good. No matter if you are poor or stand alone, there is still power in your life's example if only (to use the words of Emerson) you take care to ' hitch your car to a star.'
The Nineteenth Century, 1903

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