The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Caroline M. Kirkland/The Mystery of Visiting

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There is something wonderfully primitive and simple in the fundamental idea of visiting. You leave your own place and your chosen employments, your slipshod ease and privileged plainness, and sally forth, in special trim, with your mind emptied, as far as possible, of whatever has been engrossing it, to make a descent upon the domicile of another, under the idea that your presence will give him pleasure, and, remotely, yourself. Can anything denote more amiable simplicity? or, according to a certain favourite vocabulary, can anything be more intensely green? What a confession of the need of human sympathy! What bonhommie in the conviction that you will be welcome! What reckless self-committal in the whole affair! Let no one say this is not a good-natured world, since it still keeps up a reverence for the fossil remains of what was once the heart of its oyster.

Not to go back to the creation (some proof of self-denial, in these days of research), what occasioned the first visit, probably? Was it the birth of a baby, or a wish to borrow somewhat for the simple householdry, or a cause of complaint about some rural trespass; a desire to share superabundant grapes with a neighbour who abounded more in pomegranates; a twilight fancy for gossip about a stray kid, or a wound from “the blind boy’s butt-shaft?” Was the delight of visiting, like the succulence of roast pig, discovered by chance; or was it, like the talk which is its essence, an instinct? This last we particularly doubt, from present manifestations. Instincts do not wear out; they are as fresh as in the days when visiting began—but where is visiting?

A curious semblance of the old rite now serves us, a mere Duessa—a form of snow, impudently pretending to vitality. We are put off with this congelation, a compound of formality, dissimulation, weariness, and vanity, which it is not easy to subject to any test without resolving it at once into its unwholesome elements. Yet why must it be so? Would it require daring equal to that which dashed into the enchanted wood of Ismena, or that which exterminated the Mamelukes, to fall back upon first principles, and let inclination have something to do with offering and returning visits?

A coat of mail is, strangely enough, the first requisite when we have a round of calls to make; not the “silver arms” of fair Clorinda, but the unlovely, oyster-like coat of Pride, the helmet of Indifference, the breastplate of Distrust, the barred visor of Self-Esteem, the shield of “gentle Dulness;” while over all floats the gaudy, tinsel scarf of Fashion. Whatever else be present or lacking, Pride, defensive, if not offensive, must clothe us all over. The eyes must be guarded, lest they mete out too much consideration to those who bear no stamp. The neck must be stiffened, lest it bend beyond the haughty angle of self-reservation in the acknowledgment of civilities. The mouth is bound to keep its portcullis ever ready to fall on a word which implies unaffected pleasure or surprise. Each motion must have its motive; every civility its well-weighed return in prospect. Subjects of conversation must be any but those which naturally present themselves to the mind. If a certain round is not prescribed, we feel that all beyond it is proscribed. O, the unutterable weariness of this worse than dumb-show! No wonder we groan in spirit when there are visits to be made!

But some fair, innocent face looks up at us, out of a forest home, perhaps, or in a wide, unneighboured prairie,—and asks what all this means? “Is not a visit always a delightful thing—full of good feeling—the cheerer of solitude—the lightener of labour—the healer of differences—the antidote of life’s bitterness?” Ah, primitive child! it is so, indeed, to you. The thought of a visit makes your dear little heart beat. If one is offered, or expected at your father’s, with what cheerful readiness do you lend your aid to the preparations! How your winged feet skim along the floor, or surmount the stairs; your brain full of ingenious devices and substitutes, your slender fingers loaded with plates and glasses, and a tidy apron depending from your taper waist! Thoughts of dress give you but little trouble, for your choice is limited to the pink ribbon and the blue one; what the company will wear is of still less moment, so they only come! It would be hard to make you believe that we invite people and then hope they will not come! If you omit anybody, it will be the friend who possesses too many acres, or he who has been sent to the legislature from your district, lest dignity should interfere with pleasure; we, on the contrary, think first of the magnates, even though we know that the gloom of their grandeur will overshadow the mirth of everybody else, and prove a wet blanket to the social fire. You will, perhaps, be surprised to learn that we keep a debtor and creditor account of visits, and talk of owing a call, or owing an invitation, as your father does of owing a hundred dollars at the store, for value received. When we have made a visit and are about departing, we invite a return, in the choicest terms of affectionate, or, at least, cordial interest; but if our friend is new enough to take us at our word, and pay the debt too soon, we complain, and say, “Oh dear! there’s another call to make!”

A hint has already been dropt as to the grudging spirit of the thing, how we give as little as we can, and get all possible credit for it; and this is the way we do it. Having let the accounts against us become as numerous as is prudent, we draw up a list of our creditors, carefully districted as to residences, so as not to make more cross-journeys than are necessary in going the rounds. Then we array ourselves with all suitable splendour (this is a main point, and we often defer a call upon dear friends for weeks, waitng till the arrivals from Paris shall allow us to endue a new bonnet or mantilla), and, getting into a carriage, card-case in hand, give our list, corrected more anxiously than a price-current, into the keeping of the coachman, with directions to drive as fast as dignity will allow, in order that we may do as much execution as possible with the stone thus carefully smoothed. Arrived at the first house (which is always the one farthest off, for economy of time), we stop—the servant inquires for the lady for whom our civility is intended, while we take out a card and hold it prominent on the carriage door, that not a moment may be lost in case a card is needed. “Not at home?” Ah then, with what pleased alacrity we commit the scrap of pasteboard to John, after having turned down a corner for each lady, if there are several, in this kind and propitious house. But if the answer is “At home,” all wears a different aspect. The card slips sadly back again into its silver citadel; we sigh, and say “Oh dear!”, if nothing worse and then, alighting with measured step, enter the drawing-room all smiles, and with polite words ready on our lips. Ten minutes of the weather—the walking—the opera—family illnesses—on-dits, and a little spice of scandal, or at least a shrug and a meaning look or two—and the duty is done. We enter the carriage again—urge the coachman to new speed, and go through the same ceremonies, hopes, regrets, and tittle-tattle, till dinner time, and then bless our stars that we have been able to make twenty calls—“so many people were out.”

But this is only one side of the question. How is it with us when we receive visits? We enter here upon a deep mystery. Dear simple child of the woods and fields, did you ever hear of reception-days? If not, let us enlighten you a little.

The original idea of a reception-day is a charmingly social and friendly one. It is that the many engagements of city life, and the distances which must be traversed in order to visit several friends in one day, make it peculiarly desirable to know when we are sure to find each at home. It may seem strange that this idea should have occurred to people who are confessedly glad of the opportunity to leave a card, because it allows them time to despatch a greater number of visits at one round; but so it is. The very enormity of our practice sometimes leads to spasmodic efforts at reform. Appointing a reception-day is, therefore, or, rather, we should say, was intended to make morning-calls something besides a mere form. To say you will always be at home on such a day, is to insure to your friends the pleasure of seeing you; and what a charming conversational circle might thus be gathered, without ceremony or restraint!

No wonder the fashion took at once. But what has fashion made of this plan, so simple, so rational, so in accordance with the best uses of visiting? Something as vapid and senseless as a court drawing-room, or the eternal bowings and compliments of the Chinese! You, artless blossom of the prairies, or belle of some rural city a thousand miles inland, should thank us for putting you on your guard against Utopian constructions of our social canons. When you come to town with your good father, and find that the lady of one of his city correspondents sets apart one morning of every week for the reception of her friends, do not imagine her to be necessarily a “good soul,” who hates to disappoint those who call on her, and therefore simply omits going out on that day lest she should miss them. You will find her enshrined in all that is grand and costly; her door guarded by servants, whose formal ushering will kill within you all hope of unaffected and kindly intercourse; her parlours glittering with all she can possibly accumulate that is recherché (that is a favourite word of hers), and her own person arrayed with all the solicitude of splendour that morning dress allows, and sometimes something more. She will receive you with practised grace, and beg you to be seated, perhaps seat herself by you and inquire after your health. Then a tall, grave servant will hand you, on a silver salver, a cup of chocolate, or some other permissible refreshment, while your hostess glides over the carpet to show to a new guest or group the identical civilities of which you have just had the benefit. A lady sits at your right hand, as silent as yourself; but you must neither hope for an introduction, nor dare to address her without one, since both these things are forbidden by our code. Another sits at your left, looking wistfully at the fire, or at the stand of greenhouse plants, or, still more likely, at the splendid French clock, but not speaking a word; for she, too, has not the happiness of knowing anybody who chances to sit near her.

Presently she rises; the hostess hastens towards her, presses her hand with great affection, and begs to see her often. She falls into the custody of the footman at the parlour door, is by him committed to his double at the hall door, and then trips lightly down the steps to her carriage, to enact the same farce at the next house where there may be a reception on the same day. You look at the clock, too, rise are smiled upon, and begged to come again; and, passing through the same tunnel of footmen, reach the door and the street, with time and opportunity to muse on the mystery of visiting.

Now you are not to go away with the idea that those who reduce visiting to this frigid system, are, of necessity, heartless people. That would be very unjust. They are often people of very good hearts indeed; but they have somehow allowed their notions of social intercourse to become sophisticated, so that visiting has ceased with them to be even a symbol of friendly feeling, and they look upon it as merely a mode of exhibiting wealth, style, and desirable acquaintances; an assertion, as it were, of social position. Then they will tell you of the great “waste of time” incurred by the old system of receiving morning calls, and how much better it is to give up one day to it than every day; though, by the way, they never did scruple to be “engaged” or “out” when visits were not desirable. Another thing is—but this, perhaps, they will not tell you,—that the present is an excellent way of refining one’s circle; for, as the footman has strict orders not to admit any one, or even receive a card, on other than the regular days, all those who are enough behind the age not to be aware of this, are gradually dropt, their visits passing for nothing, and remaining unreturned. So fades away the momentary dream of sociability with which some simple-hearted people pleased themselves when they heard of reception-days.

But morning calls are not the only form of our social intercourse. We do not forget the claims of “peaceful evening.” You have read Cowper, my dear young friend?

“Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
 Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
 And while the bubbling and loud hissing urn
 Throws up a steaming column, and the cups
 That cheer, but not inebriate,” etc., etc.

And you have been at tea-parties, too, where, besides the excellent tea and coffee and cake and warm biscuits and sliced tongue, there was wealth of good-humoured chat, and, if not wit, plenty of laughter, as the hours wore on towards ten o’clock, when cloaks and hoods were brought, and the gentlemen asked to be allowed to see the ladies home, and, after a brisk walk, everybody was in bed at eleven o’clock, and felt not the worse but the better next morning. Well! we have evening parties, too! A little different, however.

The simple people among whom you have been living really enjoyed these parties. Those who gave them, and those who went to them, had social pleasure as their object. The little bustle, or, perhaps, labour of preparation was just enough to mark the occasion pleasantly. People came together in good humour with themselves and with each other. There may have been some little scandal talked over the tea when it was too strong but, on the whole, there was a friendly result, and everybody concerned would have felt it a loss to be deprived of such meetings. The very borrowings of certain articles of which no ordinary, moderate household is expected to have enough for extraordinary occasions, promoted good neighbourhood and sociability, and the deficiencies sometimes observable, were in some sense an antidote to pride.

Now all this sounds like a sentimental, Utopian, if not shabby romance to us, so far have we departed from such primitiveness. To begin, we all say we hate parties. When we go to them we groan and declare them stupid, and when we give them we say still worse things. When we are about to give, there is a close calculation either as to the cheapest way, or as to the most recherché, without regard to expense. Of course these two views apply to different extent of means, and the former is the more frequent. Where money is no object, the anxiety is to do something that nobody else can do; whether in splendour of decorations or costliness of supper. If Mrs. A. had a thousand dollars’ worth of flowers in her rooms, Mrs. B. will strain every nerve to have twice or three times as many, though all the greenhouses within ten miles of the city must be stripped to obtain them. If Mrs. C. bought all the game in market for her supper, Mrs. D.’s anxiety is to send to the prairies for hers,—and so in other matters. Mrs. E. had the prima donna to sing at her soirée, and Mrs. F. at once engages the whole opera troupe. This is the principle, and its manifestations are infinite.

But, perhaps, these freaks are characteristic of circles into which wondering eyes like yours are never likely to penetrate. So we will say something of the other classes of party-givers, those who feel themselves under a sort of necessity to invite a great many people for whom they care nothing, merely because these people have before invited them. Obligations of this sort are of so exceedingly complicated a character, that none but a metaphysician could be expected fully to unravel them. The idea of paying one invitation by another is the main one, and whether the invited choose to come or not, is very little to the purpose. The invitation discharges the debt, and places the party-giver in the position of creditor, necessitating, of course, another party, and so on, in endless series.

It is to be observed in passing, that both debtor and creditor in this shifting-scale believe themselves “discharging a duty they owe society.” This is another opportunity of getting rid of undesirable acquaintances, since to leave one to whom we “owe” an invitation out of a general party, is equivalent to a final dismissal. This being the case, it is, of course, highly necessary to see that everybody is asked that ought to be asked, and only those omitted whom it is desirable to ignore, and for this purpose, every lady must keep a “visiting list.” It is on these occasions that we take care to invite our country friends, especially if we have stayed a few weeks at their houses during the preceding summer.

The next question is as to the entertainment; and this would be a still more anxious affair than it is, if its form and extent were not in good measure prescribed by fashion. There are certainly must-haves, and may-haves, here as elsewhere; but the liberty of choice is not very extensive. If you do not provide the must-haves you are “mean,” of course; but it is only by adding the may-haves that you can hope to be elegant. The cost may seem formidable, perhaps; but it has been made matter of accurate computation, that one large party, even though it be a handsome one, costs less in the end than the habit of hospitality for which it is the substitute, so it is not worth while to flinch. We must do our “duty to society,” and this is the cheapest way.

Do you ask me if there are among us no old-fashioned people, who continue to invite their friends because they love them and wish to see them, offering only such moderate entertainment as may serve to promote social feeling? Yes, indeed! there are even some who will ask you to dine, for the mere pleasure of your company, and with no intention to astonish you or excite your envy! We boast that it was a lady of our city, who declined giving a large party to “return invitations,” saying she did not wish “to exhaust, in the prodigality of a night, the hospitality of a year.” Ten such could be found among us, we may hope; leaven enough, perhaps, to work out, in time, a change for the better in our social plan. Conversation is by no means despised, in some circles, even though it turn on subjects of moral or literary interest, and parlour music, which aims at no eclat, is to be heard sometimes among people who could afford to hire opera singers.

It must be confessed that the wholesale method of “doing up” our social obligations is a convenient one on some accounts. It prevents jealousy by placing all alike on a footing of perfect indifference. The apportionment of civilities is a very delicate matter. Really, in some cases, it is walking among eggs to invite only a few of your friends at a time. If you choose them as being acquainted with each other, somebody will be offended at being included or excluded. If intellectual sympathy be your touchstone, for every one gratified there will be two miffed, and so on with all other classifications. Attempts have been made to obviate this difficulty. One lady proposed to consider as congenial all those who keep carriages, but the circle proved so very dull, that she was obliged to exert her ingenuity for another common quality by which to arrange her soirées. Another tried the expedient of inviting her fashionable friends at one time, her husband’s political friends at another, and the religious friends, whom both were desirous to propitiate, at another; but her task was as perplexing as that of the man who had the fox, the goose, and the bag of oats to ferry over the river in a boat that would hold but one of them at a time. So large parties have it; and in the murky shadow of this simulacrum of sociability we are likely to freeze for some time to come; certainly until all purely mercantile calculation is banished from our civilities.

It is with visiting as with travelling; those who would make the most of either must begin by learning to renounce. We cannot do everything; and to enjoy our friends we must curtail our acquaintances. “When we would kindle a fire, we do not begin by scattering the coals in every direction; so neither should we attempt to promote social feeling by making formal calls once or twice a year. If we give offence, so be it; it shows that there was nothing to lose. If we find ourselves left out of what is called fashionable society, let us bless our stars, and devote the time thus saved to something that we really like. What a gain there would be if anything drove us to living for ourselves and not for other people; for our friends, rather than for a world, which, after all our sacrifices, cares not a pin about us!