NEW VIEW OF SOCIETY.
In these times, when a man sits down to write, it is considered necessary that he should have a purpose in view. To prevent any misapprehension on this point, so far as I am personally concerned, I beg to announce at once that I am provided with a purpose of an exceedingly serious kind. I want to know whether I am fit for Bedlam, or not?
This alarming subject of inquiry was started in my mind, about a week or ten days ago, by a select circle of kind friends, whose remarks on the condition of my brains have, since that period, proved to be not of the most complimentary nature. The circumstances under which I have lost caste, intellectually speaking, in the estimation of those around me, are of a singular kind. May I beg permission to relate them?
I must begin (if I can be allowed to do so without giving offence) in my own bedroom; and I must present myself, with many apologies, in rather less than a half-dressed condition. To be plainer still, it was on one of the hottest days of this remarkably hot summer—the time was between six and seven o’clock in the evening—the thermometer had risen to eighty, in the house—I was sitting on a cane chair, without coat, waistcoat, cravat or collar, with my shirt-sleeves rolled up to cool my arms, and my feet half in and half out of my largest pair of slippers—I was sitting, a moist and melancholy man, with my eyes fixed upon my own Dress Costume reposing on the bed, and my heart fainting within me at the prospect of going out to Dinner.
Yes: there it was—the prison of suffocating black broadcloth in which my hospitable friends required me to shut myself up—there were the coat, waistcoat, and trousers, the hideous habilimentary instruments of torture which Society actually expected me to put on in the scorching hot condition of the London atmosphere. All day long I had been rather less than half dressed, and had been fainting with the heat. At that very moment, alone in my spacious bedroom, with both the windows wide open, and with nothing but my shirt over my shoulders, I was in the condition of a man who is gradually melting away, who is consciously losing all sense of his own physical solidity.
How should I feel, in half an hour’s time, when I had enclosed myself in the conventional layers of black broadcloth? How should I feel, in an hour’s time, when I was shut into a dining-room with fifteen of my melting fellow-creatures, half of them, at least, slowly liquefying in garments as black, as heavy, as outrageously unsuited to the present weather as my own? How should I feel in three hours’ time, when the evening party, which was to follow the dinner, began, and when I and a hundred other polite propagators of animal heat were all smothering each other within the space of two drawing-rooms, and under the encouraging superincumbent auspices of the gas chandeliers? Society would have been hot in January, under these after-dinner circumstances—what would Society be in July?
While these serious questions were suggesting themselves to me, I took a turn backwards and forwards in my bedroom; and perspired; and sat down again in my cane chair. I got up once more, and approached the neighbourhood of my dress coat, and weighed it experimentally in my arms; and perspired; and sat down again in my cane chair. I got up for the third time, and tried a little eau-de-Cologne on my forehead, and attempted to encourage myself by thinking of the ten thousand other men, in their bedrooms at that moment, patiently putting themselves into broadcloth prisons in all parts of London; and perspired; and sat down again in my cane chair. Heat, I believe, does not retard the progress of time. It was getting nearer and nearer to seven o’clock. I looked, interrogatively, from my dress trousers to my legs. On that occasion, only, my legs were eloquent, and they looked back at me, and said, No.
I rose, in a violent perspiration, and reviled myself bitterly, with my forlorn dress trousers grasped in my hand. Wretch (I said), you are unworthy of the kind attentions of your friends—you are a base renegade from your social duties—you are unnaturally insensible to those charms of society which your civilised fellow-creatures universally acknowledge! It was all in vain. Common Sense—that low-lived quality which has no veneration for appearances—Common Sense, which had not only suggested those terrible questions about what my sensations would be after I was dressed, but had even encouraged my own faithful legs to mutiny against me, now whispered persistently, My friend, if you make yourself at least ten degrees hotter than you are already, of your own accord, you are an Ass—Common Sense drew my trousers from my grasp, and left them in a dingy heap on the floor; led my tottering steps (to this day I don’t know how) down stairs to my writing-table; and there suggested to me one of the most graceful epistolary compositions, of a brief kind, in the English language. It was addressed to my much-injured hostess; it contained the words “ sudden indisposition,” neatly placed in the centre of a surrounding network of polite phraseology; and when I had sealed it up, and sent it off upon the spot, I was, without any exception whatever, the happiest man, at that moment, in all London. This is a startling confession to make, in a moral point of view. But the interests of truth are paramount (except where one’s host and hostess are concerned); and there are unhappily crimes, in this wicked world, which do not bring with them the slightest sense of misery to the perpetrator.
Of the means by which I contrived, after basely securing the privilege of staying at home, to get up a nice, cool, solitary, impromptu dinner in my own room, and of the dinner itself, no record shall appear in these pages. In my humble opinion, modern writers of comic literature have already gorged the English public to nausea with incessant eating and drinking in print. Now-a-days, when a man has nothing whatever to say, he seems to me to write, in a kind of gluttonous despair, about his dinner. I, for one, am tired of literary gentlemen who unaccountably take it for granted that I am interested in knowing when they are hungry; who appear to think that there is something exquisitely new, humorous, and entertaining, in describing themselves as swallowing large quantities of beer; who can tell me nothing about their adventures at home and abroad, draw me no characters, and make me no remarks, without descending into the kitchen to fortify themselves and their paragraphs with perpetual victuals and drink. I am really and truly suffering so acutely from the mental dyspepsia consequent on my own inability to digest other people’s meals, as served up in modern literature, that the bare idea of ever writing about breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea, or supper, in my own proper person, has become absolutely revolting to me. Let my comic brethren of the pen feed in public as complacently and as copiously as they please. For myself, if I live a hundred years, and write a thousand volumes, no English reader—I solemnly declare it—shall ever know what I have had for dinner, in any part of the world, or under any stress of gastronomic circumstances. Dismissing my lonely meal, therefore, with the briefest possible reference to it, let me get on to the evening, and to the singular—or, as my friends consider it, to the crack-brained—occupation by which I contrived to enliven my self-imposed solitude.
It was approaching nine o’clock, and I was tasting the full luxury of my own cool seclusion, when the idea struck me that there was only one thing wanting to complete my sense of perfect happiness. I rose with a malicious joy in my heart; I threw my lightest paletot over my shoulders, put on a straw hat, pulled up my slippers at the heel, and directed my steps to the house of my friend and host, from whose dinner-party “sudden indisposition” had compelled me to be absent. What was my object in taking this extraordinary course? The diabolical object—for surely it can be qualified by no other term—of gloating over the sufferings of my polite fellow-creatures in the dining-room, from the cool and secret vantage-ground of the open street.
Nine o’clock had struck before I got to the house. A little crowd of street idlers—cool and comfortable vagabonds, happily placed out of the pale of Society—was assembled on the pavement, before the dining-room windows. I joined them, in my airy and ungentlemanlike costume—I joined them, with the sensations of a man who is about to investigate the nature of some great danger from which he has just narrowly escaped. As I had foreseen, the suffocating male guests had drawn up the blinds on the departure of the ladies to the drawing-room, so as to get every available breath of air into the dining-room, reckless of all inquisitive observation on the part of the lower orders in the street outside. Between us—I willingly identify myself, on this occasion, with the mob—and the gorgeously-appointed dessert-service of my friend and host, nothing intervened but the area railings and the low, transparent, wire window-blinds. We stood together sociably on the pavement and stared in. My brethren of the mob surveyed the magnificent epergne, the decanters glittering under the light of the chandelier, the fruit, flowers, and porcelain on the table; while I, on my side, occupied myself with the human interest of the scene, and looked with indescribable interest and relish at the guests.
There they were, all oozing away into silence and insensibility together; smothered in their heavy black coats, and strangled in their stiff white cravats! On one side of the table, Jenkins, Wapshare, and two strangers, all four equally speechless, all four equally gentlemanly, all four equally prostrated by the lights, the dinner, and the heat. I can see the two strangers feebly dabbing their foreheads with white pocket-handkerchiefs; Jenkins is slyly looking at his watch; the head of Wapshare hangs helplessly over his finger-glass. At the end of the table, I discern the back of my injured host—it leans feebly and crookedly against the chair—it is such a faint back to look at, on this melancholy occasion, that his own tailor would hardly know it again. On the other side of the table, there are three guests only: Soward, fast asleep, and steaming with the heat; Ripsher, wide awake, and glittering with the heat; and Pilkington—the execrable Pilkington, the scourge of society, the longest, loudest, cruelest, and densest bore in existence—Pilkington alone of all this miserable company still wags complacently his unresting tongue. There is a fourth place vacant by his side. My place, beyond a doubt. Horrible thought! I see my own ghost sitting there: the appearance of that perspiring spectre is too dreadful to be described. I shudder in my convenient front place against the area railings, as I survey my own full-dressed Fetch at the dinner-table—I turn away my face in terror, and look for comfort at my street-companions, my worthy fellow outcasts, watching with me on either side. One of them catches my eye. “Ain’t it beautiful?” says my brother of the mob, pointing with a deeply-curved thumb at the silver and glass on the table. “And sich lots to drink!” Artless street-innocent! unsophisticated costermonger! he actually envies his suffering superiors inside!
The imaginary view of that ghost of myself sitting at the table has such a bewildering effect on my mind, that I find it necessary to walk away a little, and realise the gratifying certainty that I am really a free man, walking the streets in my airy paletot, and not the melting victim of Pilkington and Society. I retire gently over the pavement. How tenderly the kind night air toys with the tails of my gossamer garment, flutters about my bare neck, and lifts from time to time the ribbon-ends on my cool straw hat! Oh, my much-injured host, what would you not give to be leaning against a lamp-post, in loose jean trousers (as I lean now), and meeting the breeze lazily as it wantons round the corner of the street! Oh, feverish-sleeping Soward—oh, glittering Ripsher—oh, twin-strangers among the guests, dabbing your damp foreheads with duplicate pocket-handkerchiefs—oh, everybody but Pilkington (in whose sufferings I rejoice), are there any mortal blessings you all covet more dearly, at this moment, than my vagabond freedom of locomotion, and my disgracefully undressed condition of body! Oh, Society, when the mid-year has come, and the heavenly fires of Summer are all a-blaze, what unutterable oppressions are inflicted in thy white and pitiless name!
With this apostrophe (in the manner of Madame Roland) I saunter lazily back to my post of observation before the dining-room windows. So! so! the wretched gentlemen are getting up—they can endure it no longer—they are going to change from a lower room that is hot to an upper room that is hotter. Alterations have taken place, since I saw them last, in the heart-rending pantomime of their looks and actions. The two strangers have given up dabbing their foreheads in despair, and are looking helplessly at the pictures—as if Art could make them cooler! Jenkins and Wapshare have shifted occupations. This time, it is Wapshare who is longingly looking at his watch, and Jenkins who is using his finger-glass; into the depths of which I detect him yawning furtively, under cover of moistening his lips. Sleepy Soward has been woke up, and sits steaming and staring with protuberant eyes and swollen cheeks. The glittering face of Ripsher reflects the chandelier, as if his skin was made of glass. Execrable Pilkington continues to talk. My host of the feeble back is propped against the sideboard, and smiles piteously as he indicates to his miserable guests the way up-stairs. They obey him, and retire from the room in slow funereal procession. How strangely well I feel; how unaccountably strong and cool and blandly composed in mind and body!—Hoi! hoi! hoi! out of the way there! Lord bless your honour! crash! bang! Here is the first carriage bursting in among us like a shell; here are the linkmen scattering us off the pavement, and receiving Society with all the honours of the street. The Soirée is beginning. The scorching hundreds are coming to squeeze the last faint relics of fresh air out at the drawing-room windows. How strangely well I feel; how unaccountably strong and cool and blandly composed in mind and body!
I once more join my worthy mob-brethren; I add one to the joyous human lane which watches the guests as they go in, and which has not got such a thing as a dress-coat on either side of it. I am not in the least afraid of being recognised—for who would suppose it possible that I could conduct myself in this disgraceful manner? Ha! the first guests are well known to me. Sir Aubrey Yollop, Lady Yollop, the two Misses Yollop. “What time shall we order the carriage?” “Infernal nuisance coming at all this hot weather—get away as soon as we can—carriage wait.” Crash! bang! More guests known to me. Doctor and Mrs Gripper, and Mr Julius Gripper. “What time shall we order the carriage?” “How the devil should I know?” (Heat has made the doctor irritable) “ The carriages are ordered, sir, at one.” “I can’t and won’t stand it, Mrs Gripper, till that time—cursed tomfoolery giving parties at all, this hot weather—carriage at twelve.”—Crash! bang! Strangers to me, this time. A little dapper man, fanning himself with his hat; a colossal old woman, with a red-hot garnet tiara and a scorching scarlet scarf; a slim, cool, smiling, serenely stupid girl, in that sensible half-naked costume which gives the ladies such an advantage over us at summer evening parties. More difficulty with these, and the next dozen arrivals, about ordering the carriage—more complaints of the misery of going out—nobody sharp enough to apply the obvious remedy of going home again—all equally ready to bemoan their hard fate and to rush on it voluntarily at the same time. I look up, as I make these reflections, to the drawing-room story. Wherever the windows are open, they are stopped up by gowns; wherever the windows are shut, Society expresses itself on them in the form of steam. It is the Black Hole at Calcutta, ornamented and lit up. It is a refinement of slow torture unknown to the Inquisition and the North American savages. And the name of it in England is Pleasure—Pleasure when we offer it to others, which is not so very wonderful; Pleasure, equally, when we accept it ourselves, which is perfectly amazing.
While I am pondering over Pleasure, as Society understands it, I am suddenly confronted by Duty, also as Society understands it, in the shape of a policeman. He comes to clear the pavement, and he fixes me with his eye. I am the first and foremost vagabond whom he thinks it desirable to dismiss. To my delight, he singles me out, before my friend’s house, on the very threshold of the door, through which I have been invited to pass in the honourable capacity of guest, as the first obstruction to be removed. “ Come, I say, you there—move on!” Yes, Mr Policeman, with pleasure. Other men, in my situation, might be a little irritated, and might astonish you by entering the house and revealing themselves indignantly to the footman. I am a philosopher; and I am grateful to you, Mr Policeman, for reminding me of my own liberty. Yes, official sir, I can, move on; it is my pride and pleasure to move on; it is my great superiority over the unfortunate persons shut up in that drawing-room, not one of whom can move on, or has so much as a prospect of moving on, for some time to come. Wish you good evening, Mr Policeman. In the course of a long experience of Society, I never enjoyed any party half as much as I have enjoyed this; and I hardly know any favour you could ask of me which I am so readily disposed to grant as the favour of moving on. Many, many thanks; and pray remember me kindly at Scotland-yard.
I leave the scene—or, rather, I am walked off the scene—in the sweetest possible temper. The carriages crash and bang past me by dozens; the victims pour into the already over-crammed house by twenties and thirties; Society’s gowns and Society’s steam are thicker than ever on the windows, as I see the last of them. Shocking! shocking! I am almost ashamed to feel so strangely well, so unaccountably strong and cool and blandly composed in mind and body.
On my airy way home (in excellent time) I endeavour—being naturally a serious and thoughtful man—to extract some useful result for others out of my own novel experience of Society. Animated by a loving and missionary spirit, I resolve to enlighten my ignorant fellow-creatures, my dark surrounding circle of social heathen, by communicating to them my new discovery of the best way of attending London dinner-parties and soirées in the fervid heat of July and August. In the course of the next few days I carry out my humane intention by relating the true narrative here set down to my most valued and intimate friends. I point out the immense sanitary advantages which are likely to accrue from the general adoption of such a sensible and original course of proceeding as mine has been. I show clearly that it must, as a matter of necessity, be followed by a wise change in the season of the year at which parties are authorised to be given. If we were all to go and look in at the windows in our cool morning costume, and then come away again, the masters and mistresses of houses would have no choice left but to adapt their hospitalities sensibly to atmospheric circumstances; summer would find us as summer ought to find us, in the fields; and winter would turn our collective animal heat to profitable and comfortable results.
I put these plain points unmistakably; but to my utter amazement nobody accepts my suggestions. My friends, who all groan over giving hot parties and going to hot parties, universally resent my ingeniously unconventional plan for making parties cool; and universally declare that no man in his right senses could have acted in such an outrageously uncustomary manner as the manner in which I represent myself to have acted on the memorable evening which these pages record. Apparently, the pleasure of grumbling is intimately connected, in the estimation of civilised humanity, with the pleasure of going into Society? Or, in other words, ladies and gentlemen particularly like their social amusements, as long as they can say that they don’t like them. And these are the people who indignantly tell me that I could hardly have been in my right senses to have acted as I did on the scorching July evening of my friend’s dinner. The rest who went into the house, to half suffocate each other, at the very hottest period of the year, are all sensible persons; and I, who remained outside in the cool, and looked at them comfortably, am fit for Bedlam? Am I?
First published:All The Year Round 20 August 1859 vol.I pp.396-399
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