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Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1707/The "Dreadful People" who go to Court

From Truth.


There are two sorts of people whom levées en masse offend. There are, firstly, those people who once had the pleasure of imagining that the world consisted of a thin layer of rich cream, below which lay unimportant depths of blue milk, about whose value and destination it did not become the cream to concern itself. We believe that enconomical dairy-maids, who look to quantity rather than quality, not only allow milk to stand a greater number of hours than is compatible with obtaining the finest and purest cream, but return once, twice, and even thrice, and get fresh "skimmings" every time from the bowl. It is naturally very offensive to the cream of the cream to be treated in this fashion; and the esoteric circle which used formerly to bask in what we believe it is correct to speak of as the sunshine of the court, have been horrified to find that "anybody" can obtain what was once an exclusive, and therefore inestimable privilege. How can Smythe be expected any longer to enjoy what he suddenly finds can be enjoyed also by Smith? Shelley says, —

True love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.

But as there is nothing particularly loving about court privileges, to divide them is to take them away with a vengeance. Hence the real original members of levées and drawing-rooms are scandalized beyond expression at "these dreadful people" who now get presented. "Where do they all come from?" is the scornful question with which their arrival is greeted. But the cry is still they come. The second class of persons, who are shocked by this upheaval of the new couches sociales, are those humble individuals who are too far removed from courts for it ever to enter their heads that they may some day possibly go there, and who, though they dearly love that there should be a crowned head, and court, and an aristocracy, like to see this last as aristocratic and exclusive as possible. To see its ranks invaded by those only just above themselves, is peculiarly offensive to them. It is the old dislike of the peasant or the mechanic for the roturier.

But whilst we can appreciate the feelings of these jealous guardians of the honor of the crown, we have just as little difficulty in entering into the motives of the "dreadful people" by whom these feelings are outraged. They perceive that the one indispensable basis of aristocracy in England in these days is wealth, and that a poor lord is of no more account than a poor commoner. No doubt a rich lord is more important, cæteris paribus, than a rich commoner; but again, the rich commoner, if rich enough, may aspire to be transformed into a rich nobleman by mere virtue of his opulence. There is no service which persons, of what used to be called gentle birth, can render either to the crown or to the State which cannot be rendered by persons not of gentle birth. Aristocracy has now no special duties. It would be wonderful, therefore, if it long retained any special rights. Its members perhaps still enjoy certain undefined social privileges; but as these are no longer paid for, they are in danger of extinction, and will, of a certainty, be extinguished. Prestige lasts for a certain time, but it does not endure forever. Something has to be done periodically to renew its lease of life, or it expires; and as aristocracy in England now does nothing which plutocracy cannot and does not do, the two will eventually be completely confounded. There is nothing save savoir faire, which can only be inculcated in early youth, to distinguish them even now; and though to some of us this may be a very important and telling distinction, it will not operate effectually with the multitude for any length of time. New rich people, seeing that old rich people are of importance chiefly by reason of their riches, naturally insist upon sharing their importance. The crown is still the fountain of honor, and to be "presented" is to gain at least a ticket of admission into the outer circles of "society," though you may not be treated with great consideration when you get there, or be assigned a first place. But to be even only just inside the charmed ring is better than to be standing out in the cold and wanting to be inside; moreover, once inside, it only requires vigilance, audacity, and luck to push to the front. Many people lament levees en masse as another sign of the advance of democracy; but these are shallow observers. Once there no longer exists a real aristocracy, but in its stead only a plutocracy, the greater the number of plutocrats you satisfy and whose vanity you tickle by treating them as though they were aristocrats, the greater naturally the size of the garrison which defends the social fortress. They may be hired troops; but all troops are hired in these days; feudal service — in other words, real aristocratic service — is extinct. Mr. Disraeli found Conservative voters in Mr. Bright's residuum; similarly, the crown may have found its most courtly defenders in "those dreadful people."