The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 106/The Chimney-Corner for 1866
THE CHIMNEY-CORNER FOR 1866.
HOW SHALL WE ENTERTAIN OUR COMPANY?
“The fact is," said Marianne, "we must have a party. Bob don't like to hear of it, but it must come. We are in debt to everybody: we have been invited everywhere, and never had anything like a party since we were married, and it won't do."
"For my part, I hate parties," said Bob. "They put your house all out of order, give all the women a sick-headache, and all the men an indigestion; you never see anybody to any purpose; the girls look bewitched, and the women answer you at cross-purposes, and call you by the name of your next-door neighbor, in their agitation of mind. We stay out beyond our usual bedtime, come home and find some baby crying, or child who has been sitting up till nobody knows when; and the next morning, when I must be at my office by eight, and wife must attend to her children, we are sleepy and headachy. I protest against making overtures to entrap some hundred of my respectable married friends into this snare which has so often entangled me. If I had my way, I would never go to another party; and as to giving one—I suppose, since my empress has declared her intentions, that I shall be brought into doing it; but it shall be under protest."
"But, you see, we must keep up society," said Marianne.
"But I insist on it," said Bob, "it isn't keeping up society. What earthly thing do you learn about people by meeting them in a general crush, where all are coming, going, laughing, talking, and looking at each other? No person of common sense ever puts forth any idea he cares twopence about, under such circumstances; all that is exchanged is a certain set of common-places and platitudes which people keep for parties, just as they do their kid gloves and finery. Now there are our neighbors, the Browns. When they drop in of an evening, she knitting, and he with the last article in the paper, she really comes out with a great deal of fresh, lively, earnest, original talk. We have a good time, and I like her so much that it quite verges on loving; but see her in a party, when she manifests herself over five or six flounces of pink silk and a perfect egg-froth of tulle, her head adorned with a thicket of craped hair and roses, and it is plain at first view that talking with her is quite out of the question. What has been done to her head on the outside has evidently had some effect within, for she is no longer the Mrs. Brown you knew in her every-day dress, but Mrs. Brown in a party state of mind, and too distracted to think of anything in particular. She has a few words that she answers to everything you say, as, for example, 'O, very!' 'Certainly!' 'How extraordinary!' 'So happy to,' &c. The fact is, that she has come into a state in which any real communication with her mind and character must be suspended till the party is over and she is rested. Now I like society, which is the reason why I hate parties."
"But you see," said Marianne, "what are we to do? Everybody can't drop in to spend an evening with you. If it were not for these parties, there are quantities of your acquaintances whom you would never meet."
"And of what use is it to meet them? Do you really know them any better for meeting them, got up in unusual dresses, and sitting down together when the only thing exchanged is the remark that it is hot or cold, or it rains, or it is dry, or any other patent surface-fact that answers the purpose of making believe you are talking when neither of you is saying a word?"
"Well, now, for my part," said Marianne, "I confess I like parties: they amuse me. I come home feeling kinder and better to people, just for the little I see of them when they are all dressed up and in good humor with themselves. To be sure we don't say anything very profound,—I don't think the most of us have anything very profound to say; but I ask Mrs. Brown where she buys her lace, and she tells me how she washes it, and somebody else tells me about her baby, and promises me a new sack-pattern. Then I like to see the pretty, nice young girls flirting with the nice young men; and I like to be dressed up a little myself, even if my finery is all old and many times made over. It does me good to be rubbed up and brightened."
"Like old silver," said Bob.
"Yes, like old silver, precisely; and even if I do come home tired, it does my mind good to have that change of scene and faces. You men do not know what it is to be tied to house and nursery all day, and what a perfect weariness and lassitude it often brings on us women. For my part, I think parties are a beneficial institution of society, and that it is worth a good deal of fatigue and trouble to get one up."
"Then there's the expense," said Bob. "What earthly need is there of a grand regale of oysters, chicken-salad, ice-creams, coffee, and champagne, between eleven and twelve o'clock at night, when no one of us would ever think of wanting or taking any such articles upon our stomachs in our own homes? If we were all of us in the habit of having a regular repast at that hour, it might be well enough to enjoy one with our neighbor; but the party fare is generally just so much in addition to the honest three meals which we have eaten during the day. Now, to spend from fifty to one, two, or three hundred dollars in giving all our friends an indigestion from a midnight meal, seems to me a very poor investment. Yet if we once begin to give the party, we must have everything that is given at the other parties, or wherefore do we live? And caterers and waiters rack their brains to devise new forms of expense and extravagance; and when the bill comes in, one is sure to feel that one is paying a great deal of money for a great deal of nonsense. It is, in fact, worse than nonsense, because our dear friends are in half the cases, not only no better, but a great deal worse, for what they have eaten."
"But there is this advantage to society," said Rudolph,—"it helps us young physicians. What would the physicians do if parties were abolished? Take all the colds that are caught by our fair friends with low necks and short sleeves, all the troubles from dancing in tight dresses and inhaling bad air, and all the headaches and indigestions from the mélange of lobster-salad, two or three kinds of ice-cream, cake, and coffee on delicate stomachs, and our profession gets a degree of encouragement that is worthy to be thought of."
"But the question arises," said my wife, "whether there are not ways of promoting social feeling less expensive, more simple and natural and rational. I am inclined to think that there are."
"Yes," said Theophilus Thoro; "for large parties are not, as a general thing, given with any wish or intention of really improving our acquaintance with our neighbors. In many cases they are openly and avowedly a general tribute paid at intervals to society, for and in consideration of which you are to sit with closed blinds and doors and be let alone for the rest of the year. Mrs. Bogus, for instance, lives to keep her house in order, her closets locked, her silver counted and in the safe, and her china-closet in undisturbed order. Her 'best things' are put away with such admirable precision, in so many wrappings and foldings, and secured with so many a twist and twine, that to get them out is one of the seven labors of Hercules, not to be lightly or unadvisedly taken in hand, but reverently, discreetly, and once for all, in an annual or biennial party. Then says Mrs. Bogus, 'For Heaven's sake, let's have every creature we can think of, and have 'em all over with at once. For pity's sake, let's have no driblets left that we shall have to be inviting to dinner or to tea. No matter whether they can come or not,—only send them the invitation, and our part is done; and, thank Heaven! we shall be free for a year.'"
"Yes," said my wife; "a great stand-up party bears just the same relation towards the offer of real hospitality and good-will as Miss Sally Brass's offer of meat to the little hungry Marchioness, when, with a bit uplifted on the end of a fork, she addressed her, 'Will you have this piece of meat? No? Well, then, remember and don't say you haven't had meat offered to you!' You are invited to a general jam, at the risk of your life and health; and if you refuse, don't say you haven't had hospitality offered to you. All our debts are wiped out and our slate clean; now we will have our own closed doors, no company and no trouble, and our best china shall repose undisturbed on its shelves. Mrs. Bogus says she never could exist in the way that Mrs. Easygo does, with a constant drip of company,—two or three to breakfast one day, half a dozen to dinner the next, and little evening gatherings once or twice a week. It must keep her house in confusion all the time; yet, for real social feeling, real exchange of thought and opinion, there is more of it in one half-hour at Mrs. Easygo's than in a dozen of Mrs. Bogus's great parties.
"The fact is, that Mrs. Easygo really does like the society of human beings. She is genuinely and heartily social; and, in consequence, though she has very limited means, and no money to spend in giving great entertainments, her domestic establishment is a sort of social exchange, where more friendships are formed, more real acquaintance made, and more agreeable hours spent, than in any other place that can be named. She never has large parties,—great general pay-days of social debts,—but small, well-chosen circles of people, selected so thoughtfully, with a view to the pleasure which congenial persons give each other, as to make the invitation an act of real personal kindness. She always manages to have something for the entertainment of her friends, so that they are not reduced to the simple alternatives of gaping at each other's dresses and eating lobster-salad and ice-cream. There is either some choice music, or a reading of fine poetry, or a well-acted charade, or a portfolio of photographs and pictures, to enliven the hour and start conversation; and as the people are skilfully chosen with reference to each other, as there is no hurry or heat or confusion, conversation, in its best sense, can bubble up, fresh, genuine, clear, and sparkling as a woodland spring, and one goes away really rested and refreshed. The slight entertainment provided is just enough to enable you to eat salt together in Arab fashion,—not enough to form the leading feature of the evening. A cup of tea and a basket of cake, or a salver of ices, silently passed at quiet intervals, do not interrupt conversation or overload the stomach."
"The fact is," said I, "that the art of society among us Anglo-Saxons is yet in its ruder stages. We are not, as a race, social and confiding, like the French and Italians and Germans. We have a word for home, and our home is often a moated grange, an island, a castle with its drawbridge up, cutting us off from all but our own home-circle. In France and Germany and Italy there are the boulevards and public gardens, where people do their family living in common. Mr. A is breakfasting under one tree, with wife and children around, and Mr. B is breakfasting under another tree, hard by; and messages, nods, and smiles pass backward and forward. Families see each other daily in these public resorts, and exchange mutual offices of good-will. Perhaps from these customs of society come that naïve simplicity and abandon which one remarks in the Continental, in opposition to the Anglo-Saxon, habits of conversation. A Frenchman or an Italian will talk to you of his feelings and plans and prospects with an unreserve that is perfectly unaccountable to you, who have always felt that such things must be kept for the very innermost circle of home privacy. But the Frenchman or Italian has from a child been brought up to pass his family life in places of public resort, in constant contact and intercommunion with other families; and the social and conversational instinct has thus been daily strengthened. Hence the reunions of these people have been characterized by a sprightliness and vigor and spirit that the Anglo-Saxon has in vain attempted to seize and reproduce. English and American conversazioni have very generally proved a failure, from the rooted, frozen habit of reticence and reserve which grows with our growth and strengthens with our strength. The fact is, that the Anglo-Saxon race as a race does not enjoy talking, and, except in rare instances, does not talk well. A daily convocation of people, without refreshments or any extraneous object but the simple pleasure of seeing and talking with each other, is a thing that can scarcely be understood in English or American society. Social entertainment presupposes in the Anglo-Saxon mind something to eat, and not only something, but a great deal. Enormous dinners or great suppers constitute the entertainment. Nobody seems to have formed the idea that the talking—the simple exchange of the social feelings—is, of itself, the entertainment, and that being together is the pleasure.
"Madame Recamier for years had a circle of friends who met every afternoon in her salon, from four to six o'clock, for the simple and sole pleasure of talking with each other. The very first wits and men of letters and statesmen and savans were enrolled in it, and each brought to the entertainment some choice morceau which he had laid aside from his own particular field to add to the feast. The daily intimacy gave each one such perfect insight into all the others' habits of thought, tastes, and preferences, that the conversation was like the celebrated music of the Conservatoire in Paris, a concert of perfectly chorded instruments taught by long habit of harmonious intercourse to keep exact time and tune together.
"Real conversation presupposes intimate acquaintance. People must see each other often enough to wear off the rough bark and outside rind of common-places and conventionalities in which their real ideas are enwrapped, and give forth without reserve their innermost and best feelings. Now what is called a large party is the first and rudest form of social intercourse. The most we can say of it is, that it is better than nothing. Men and women are crowded together like cattle in a pen. They look at each other, they jostle each other, exchange a few common bleatings, and eat together; and so the performance terminates. One may be crushed evening after evening against men or women, and learn very little about them. You may decide that a lady is good-tempered, when any amount of trampling on the skirt of her new silk dress brings no cloud to her brow. But is it good temper, or only wanton carelessness, which cares nothing for waste? You can see that a man is not a gentleman who squares his back to ladies at the supper-table, and devours boned turkey and paté de fois gras, while they vainly reach over and around him for something, and that another is a gentleman so far as to prefer the care of his weaker neighbors to the immediate indulgence of his own appetites; but further than this you learn little. Sometimes, it is true, in some secluded corner, two people of fine nervous system, undisturbed by the general confusion, may have a sociable half-hour, and really part feeling that they like each other better, and know more of each other than before. Yet these general gatherings have, after all, their value. They are not so good as something better would be, but they cannot be wholly dispensed with. It is far better that Mrs. Bogus should give an annual party, when she takes down all her bedsteads and throws open her whole house, than that she should never see her friends and neighbors inside her doors at all. She may feel that she has neither the taste nor the talent for constant small reunions. Such things, she may feel, require a social tact which she has not. She would be utterly at a loss how to conduct them. Each one would cost her as much anxiety and thought as her annual gathering, and prove a failure after all; whereas the annual demonstration can be put wholly into the hands of the caterer, who comes in force, with flowers, silver, china, servants, and, taking the house into his own hands, gives her entertainment for her, leaving to her no responsibility but the payment of the bills; and if Mr. Bogus does not quarrel with them, we know no reason why any one else should; and I think Mrs. Bogus merits well of the republic, for doing what she can do towards the hospitalities of the season. I'm sure I never cursed her in my heart, even when her strong coffee has held mine eyes open till morning, and her superlative lobster-salads have given me the very darkest views of human life that ever dyspepsia and east wind could engender. Mrs. Bogus is the Eve who offers the apple; but, after all, I am the foolish Adam who take and eat what I know is going to hurt me, and I am too gallant to visit my sins on the head of my too obliging tempter. In country places in particular, where little is going on and life is apt to stagnate, a good, large, generous party, which brings the whole neighborhood into one house to have a jolly time, to eat, drink, and be merry, is really quite a work of love and mercy. People see one another in their best clothes, and that is something; the elders exchange all manner of simple pleasantries and civilities, and talk over their domestic affairs, while the young people flirt, in that wholesome manner which is one of the safest of youthful follies. A country party, in fact, may be set down as a work of benevolence, and the money expended thereon fairly charged to the account of the great cause of peace and good-will on earth."
"But don't you think," said my wife, "that, if the charge of providing the entertainment were less laborious, these gatherings could be more frequent? You see, if a woman feels that she must have five kinds of cake, and six kinds of preserves, and even ice-cream and jellies in a region where no confectioner comes in to abbreviate her labors, she will sit with closed doors, and do nothing towards the general exchange of life, because she cannot do as much as Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Parsons. If the idea of meeting together had some other focal point than eating, I think there would be more social feeling. It might be a musical reunion, where the various young people of a circle agreed to furnish each a song or an instrumental performance. It might be an impromptu charade party, bringing out something of that taste in arrangement of costume, and capacity for dramatic effect, of which there is more latent in society than we think. It might be the reading of articles in prose and poetry furnished to a common paper or portfolio, which would awaken an abundance of interest and speculation on the authorship, or it might be dramatic readings and recitations. Any or all of these pastimes might make an evening so entertaining that a simple cup of tea and a plate of cake or biscuit would be all the refreshment needed."
"We may with advantage steal a leaf now and then from some foreign book," said I. "In France and Italy, families have their peculiar days set apart for the reception of friends at their own houses. The whole house is put upon a footing of hospitality and invitation, and the whole mind is given to receiving the various friends. In the evening the salon is filled. The guests, coming from week to week, for years, become in time friends; the resort has the charm of a home circle; there are certain faces that you are always sure to meet there. A lady once said to me of a certain gentleman and lady whom she missed from her circle, 'They have been at our house every Wednesday evening for twenty years.' It seems to me that this frequency of meeting is the great secret of agreeable society. One sees, in our American life, abundance of people who are everything that is charming and cultivated, but one never sees enough of them. One meets them at some quiet reunion, passes a delightful hour, thinks how charming they are, and wishes one could see more of them. But the pleasant meeting is like the encounter of two ships in mid-ocean: away we sail, each on his respective course, to see each other no more till the pleasant remembrance has died away. Yet were there some quiet, home-like resort where we might turn in to renew from time to time the pleasant intercourse, to continue the last conversation, and to compare anew our readings and our experiences, the pleasant hour of liking would ripen into a warm friendship.
"But in order that this may be made possible and practicable, the utmost simplicity of entertainment must prevail. In a French salon, all is, to the last degree, informal. The bouilloire, the French teakettle, is often tended by one of the gentlemen, who aids his fair neighbors in the mysteries of tea-making. One nymph is always to be found at the table dispensing tea and talk; and a basket of simple biscuit and cakes, offered by another, is all the further repast. The teacups and cake-basket are a real addition to the scene, because they cause a little lively social bustle, a little chatter and motion,—always of advantage in breaking up stiffness, and giving occasion for those graceful, airy nothings that answer so good a purpose in facilitating acquaintance.
"Nothing can be more charming than the description which Edmond About gives, in his novel of 'Tolla,' of the reception evenings of an old noble Roman family,—the spirit of repose and quietude through all the apartments,—the ease of coming and going,—the perfect homelike spirit in which the guests settle themselves to any employment of the hour that best suits them,—some to lively chat, some to dreamy, silent lounging, some to a game, others, in a distant apartment, to music, and others still to a promenade along the terraces.
"One is often in a state of mind and nerves which indisposes for the effort of active conversation; one wishes to rest, to observe, to be amused without an effort; and a mansion which opens wide its hospitable arms, and offers itself to you as a sort of home, where you may rest, and do just as the humor suits you, is a perfect godsend at such times. You are at home there, your ways are understood, you can do as you please,—come early or late, be brilliant or dull,—you are always welcome. If you can do nothing for the social whole to-night, it matters not. There are many more nights to come in the future, and you are entertained on trust, without a challenge.
"I have one friend,—a man of genius, subject to the ebbs and flows of animal spirits which attend that organization. Of general society he has a nervous horror. A regular dinner or evening party is to him a terror, an impossibility; but there is a quiet parlor where stands a much-worn old sofa, and it is his delight to enter without knocking, and be found lying with half-shut eyes on this friendly couch, while the family life goes on around him without a question. Nobody is to mind him, to tease him with inquiries or salutations. If he will, he breaks into the stream of conversation, and sometimes, rousing up from one of these dreamy trances, finds himself, ere he or they know how, in the mood for free and friendly talk. People often wonder, 'How do you catch So-and-so? He is so shy! I have invited and invited, and he never comes.' We never invite, and he comes. We take no note of his coming or his going; we do not startle his entrance with acclamation, nor clog his departure with expostulation; it is fully understood that with us he shall do just as he chooses; and so he chooses to do much that we like.
"The sum of this whole doctrine of society is, that we are to try the value of all modes and forms of social entertainment by their effect in producing real acquaintance and real friendship and good-will. The first and rudest form of seeking this is by a great promiscuous party, which simply effects this,—that people at least see each other on the outside, and eat together. Next come all those various forms of reunion in which the entertainment consists of something higher than staring and eating,—some exercise of the faculties of the guests in music, acting, recitation, reading, etc.; and these are a great advance, because they show people what is in them, and thus lay a foundation for a more intelligent appreciation and acquaintance. These are the best substitute for the expense, show, and trouble of large parties. They are in their nature more refining and intellectual. It is astonishing, when people really put together, in some one club or association, all the different talents for pleasing possessed by different persons, how clever a circle may be gathered—in the least promising neighborhood. A club of ladies in one of our cities has had quite a brilliant success. It is held every fortnight at the house of the members, according to alphabetical sequence. The lady who receives has charge of arranging what the entertainment shall be,—whether charade, tableau, reading, recitation, or music; and the interest is much increased by the individual taste shown in the choice of the diversion and the variety which thence follows.
"In the summer time, in the country, open-air reunions are charming forms of social entertainment. Croquet parties, which bring young people together by daylight for a healthy exercise, and end with a moderate share of the evening, are a very desirable amusement. What are called 'lawn teas' are finding great favor in England and some parts of our country. They are simply an early tea enjoyed in a sort of picnic style in the grounds about the house. Such an entertainment enables one to receive a great many at a time, without crowding, and, being in its very idea rustic and informal, can be arranged with very little expense or trouble. With the addition of lanterns in the trees and a little music, this entertainment may be carried on far into the evening with a very pretty effect.
"As to dancing, I have this much to say of it. Either our houses must be all built over and made larger, or female crinolines must be made smaller, or dancing must continue as it now is, the most absurd and ungraceful of all attempts at amusement. The effort to execute round dances in the limits of modern houses, in the prevailing style of dress, can only lead to developments more startling than agreeable. Dancing in the open air, on the shaven green of lawns, is a pretty and graceful exercise, and there only can full sweep be allowed for the present feminine toilet.
"The English breakfast is an institution growing in favor here, and rightfully, too; for a party of fresh, good-natured, well-dressed people, assembled at breakfast on a summer morning, is as nearly perfect a form of reunion as can be devised. All are in full strength from their night's rest; the hour is fresh and lovely, and they are in condition to give each other the very cream of their thoughts, the first keen sparkle of the uncorked nervous system. The only drawback is, that, in our busy American life, the most desirable gentlemen often cannot spare their morning hours. Breakfast parties presuppose a condition of leisure; but when they can be compassed, they are perhaps the most perfectly enjoyable of entertainments."
"Well," said Marianne, "I begin to waver about my party. I don't know, after all, but the desire of paying off social debts prompted the idea; perhaps we might try some of the agreeable things suggested. But, dear me! there's the baby. We'll finish the talk some other time."