Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1720/Social Position

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From The Whitehall Review.

SOCIAL POSITION.

When George the Third was king, and when English gentlemen wore full-bottomed wigs, colored velvet coats, shorts, silk stockings, and swords, a man's position in society was easily determined. But times and manners have both changed, until now, thanks to the sartorial ingenuity of Smalpage and Kerslake, et hoc genus omne, he would be a clever man who, by outward appearance, could discriminate between the Duke of Bareacres and Mr. Moneybags of Mincing Lane.

There is nothing which an average Englishman strives so much to attain unto as a higher social position than that in which he was born. It is only in the very highest ranks of society that this ambition does not exist. When a man is a peer, or even a commoner of good family, it is impossible for him to rise socially higher, and he is therefore obliged to be content with what he has, without running after what he has not. But in every class below the peerage there betrays itself a more or less, feverish anxiety to rise a step higher than that to which one has a just claim. Among women this craving for social advancement is even more general than among men. Nor was the desire for "position" ever more general than it is at the present day. The reason is obvious. Money is made much more quickly than it used to be. For one nouveau riche that could be pointed out forty years ago, there are now at least two score. And when a man has "made his pile" how can he expect to enjoy the days that he has yet to live unless he advances his social position by at least a step or two? Hence it is that daily and almost hourly we are amused at the sight of parvenus, who are ever attempting to rise in society but rarely attain the desired end. It is true that there are back doors which can be opened with golden keys, and through which the ascent to the much-desired position is both surer and safer than by ordinary means. Thus, when the daughter of the wealthy contractor, or fortunate financier, has attained the proper age, there is always a push made to have the girl and her mother presented at court. That the younger women, who have, in all probability, never known what poverty or struggling means, should desire this undeniable advantage is only natural. Education, a good governess, and the most expensive professors have done a great deal for them; and they may, as far as ordinary appearance or conversation goes, hold their own with the highest in the land. But it is not so with their parents. A man has so many opportunities of mixing with others of his sex who are better born and better educated than himself, that it is often comparatively easy for him to assume a social standing which he does not properly possess. With his wife it is far different. As a rule no woman changes after she has passed twenty-five or twenty-six years of age. If she be vulgar then, she is vulgar always; if ignorant then, she is ignorant always; if she drops her "h's" then, she will continue to do so until doomsday. Why does such a woman thirst to be presented to the queen? Be that as it may, desire it she does, partly for the sake of her daughters, but chiefly because she believes it will advance her own social position. How the scheme is to be carried out greatly troubles her for a time. But, as the old song says, "the man that has money may do as he pleases;" and, for the matter of that, the woman too. There are always to be found in London certain elderly ladies of good blood, but, alas! poorer than their own maids. They cannot dig, to beg they are ashamed; and so, having the entrée at court, they make a business of presenting to royalty such of their own sex as require their good offices, and are willing to pay handsomely for what, in other businesses, would be stigmatized as "dirty work." A cheque for fifty guineas as a retainer when the subject is first mooted, and another of equal value when the business is over, is not much to pay for an introduction to royalty, Paterfamilias — much against his own sense of propriety, it must be admitted — manages somehow or other to go to the levée. There is always some male friend who is under some obligation to him, who has a certain social standing, and who is ever ready to "present" any one, provided the transaction "leaves a margin for profit." Unlike the needy lady of good family under whose auspices the mother and daughter appear at the palace, the man who presents the nouveau riche to royalty does not receive a piece of colored paper addressed to Coutts's or Drummond's, but expects another kind of remuneration. He looks forward to be — or perhaps he already has been — put up to a "good thing," by which he can safely increase his too scanty income for the year. And when all this has been gone through — when father, mother, and daughter have all made their bow to her Majesty or the Prince of Wales — what a triumph it is for the family! How they can lord it over their more humble friends who have not been, and are never likely to be, presented! And yet, as Mr. Toole says, they "are not happy." What with court-dresses, jewels, trains, and feathers for his women; new liveries for his coachman and footman; new harness for his carriage horses; the honorarium to the lady presenter, the "good thing" he has put his male presenter up to; and his own court-dress, the father of the family must be at least £1,000 or £1,500 the poorer after the business is over. And all this for what! Merely that his wife and daughter may be able to boast that they have been to court. Does the fact in any way enhance their social position? Are they a single step nearer the happy hunting-grounds where those of genuine high birth and standing disport themselves? Not at all. They may, indeed, get an invitation to a royal garden-party at Chiswick; or, if they are in great luck, be asked to one of the royal balls at Buckingham Palace; but their social position is exactly what it was, and beyond the supreme happiness of telling every one they have been to court, they are exactly what and where they were before.