Read CHAPTER VIII - HOSPITALITY of Fifteen Chapters of Autobiography , free online book, by George William Erskine Russell, on ReadCentral.com.

“I never eat and I never drink,” said the Cardinal. “I am sorry to
say I cannot. I like dinner-society very much. You see the world,
and you hear things which you do not hear otherwise.”

LORD BEACONSFIELD, Lothair.

The Cardinal was much to be pitied. He had a real genius for society, and thoroughly enjoyed such forms of it as his health and profession permitted. Though he could not dine with Mr. Putney Giles, he went to Mrs. Putney Giles’s evening party, where he made an important acquaintance. He looked in at Lady St. Jerome’s after dinner; and his visits to Vauxe and to Muriel Towers were fraught with memorable results.

Mrs. Putney Giles, though a staunch Protestant, was delighted to receive a Cardinal, and not less so that he should meet in her drawing-room the inexpressibly magnificent Lothair. That is all in the course of nature; but what has always puzzled me is the ease with which a youth of no particular pretensions, arriving in London from Oxford or Cambridge or from a country home, swims into society, and finds himself welcomed by people whose names he barely knows. I suppose that in this, as in more important matters, the helpers of the social fledgling are good-natured women. The fledgling probably starts by being related to one or two, and acquainted with three or four more; and each of them says to a friend who entertains-“My cousin, Freddy Du Cane, is a very nice fellow, and waltzes capitally. Do send him a card for your dance”-or “Tommy Tucker is a neighbour of ours in the country. If ever you want an odd man to fill up a place at dinner, I think you will find him useful.” Then there was in those days, and perhaps there is still, a mysterious race of men-Hierophants of Society-who had great powers of helping or hindering the social beginner. They were bachelors, not very young; who had seen active service as dancers and diners for ten or twenty seasons; and who kept lists of eligible youths which they were perpetually renewing at White’s or the Marlborough. To one of these the intending hostess would turn, saying, “Dear Mr. Golightly, do give me your list;” and, if Freddy Du Cane had contrived to ingratiate himself with Mr. Golightly, invitations to balls and dances, of every size and sort, would soon begin to flutter down on him like snow-flakes. It mattered nothing that he had never seen his host or hostess, nor they him. Corney Grain expressed the situation in his own inimitable verse:

“Old Mr. Parvenu gave a great ball-
And of all his smart guests he knew no one at all.
Old Mr. Parvenu went up to bed,
And the guest said ‘Good-night’ to the butler instead.”

But light come, light go. Ball-going is elysian when one is very young and cheerful and active, but it is a pleasure which, for nine men out of ten, soon palls. Dinner-society, as Cardinal Grandison knew, is a more serious affair, and admission to it is not so lightly attained.

When Sydney Smith returned from a visit to Paris, he wrote, in the fulness of his heart:

“I care very little about dinners, but I shall not easily forget a matelote at the ‘Rochers de Cancale,’ or an almond tart at Montreuil, or a poulet a la Tartare at Grignon’s. These are impressions which no changes in future life can obliterate.”

I am tempted to pursue the line of thought thus invitingly opened, but I forbear; for it really has no special connexion with the retrospective vein. I am now describing the years 1876-1880, and dinners then were pretty much what they are now. The new age of dining had begun. Those frightful hecatombs of sheep and oxen which Francatelli decreed had made way for more ethereal fare. The age-long tyranny of “The Joint” was already undermined. I have indeed been one of a party of forty in the dog-days, where a belated haunch of venison cried aloud for decent burial; but such outrages were even then becoming rare. The champagne of which a poet had beautifully said:

“How sad and bad and mad it was,
And Oh! how it was sweet!”

had been banished in favour of the barely alcoholic liquor which foams in modern glasses. And, thanks to the influence of King Edward VII, after-dinner drinking had been exorcised by cigarettes. The portentous piles of clumsy silver which had overshadowed our fathers’ tables-effigies of Peace and Plenty, Racing Cups and Prizes for fat cattle-had been banished to the plate-closets; bright china and brighter flowers reigned in their stead. In short, a dinner thirty-five years ago was very like a dinner to-day. It did not take me long to find that (with Cardinal Grandison) “I liked dinner-society very much,” and that “you see the world there and hear things which you do not hear otherwise.”

I have already described the methods by which ball-society was, and perhaps is, recruited. An incident which befell me in my second season threw a similar light on the more obscure question of dinner-society. One day I received a large card which intimated that Mr. and Mrs. Goldmore requested the honour of my company at dinner. I was a little surprised, because though I had been to balls at the Goldmores’ house and had made my bow at the top of the stairs, I did not really know them. They had newly arrived in London, with a great fortune made in clay pipes and dolls’ eyes, and were making their way by entertaining lavishly. However, it was very kind of them to ask me to dinner, and I readily accepted. The appointed evening came, and I arrived rather late. In an immense drawing-room there were some thirty guests assembled, and, as I looked round, I could not see a single face which I had ever seen before. Worse than that, it was obvious that Mr. and Mrs. Goldmore did not know me. They heard my name announced, received me quite politely, and then retired into a window, where their darkling undertones, enquiring glances, and heads negatively shaken, made it only too clear that they were asking one another who on earth the last arrival was. However, their embarrassment and mine was soon relieved by the announcement of dinner. As there were more male guests than women, there was no need to give me a partner; so we all swept downstairs in a promiscuous flood, and soon were making the vital choice between bisque and consomme. Eating my dinner, I revolved my plans, and decided to make a clean breast of it. So, when we went up into the drawing-room, I made straight for my hostess. “I feel sure,” I said, “that you and Mr. Goldmore did not expect me to-night.” “Oh,” was the gracious reply, “I hope there was nothing in our manner which made you feel that you were unwelcome.” “Nothing,” I replied, “could have been kinder than your manner, but one has a certain social instinct which tells one when one has made a mistake. And yet what the mistake was I cannot guess. I am sure it is the right house and the right evening-Do please explain.” “Well,” said Mrs. Goldmore, “as you have found out so much, I think I had better tell you all. We were not expecting you. We have not even now the pleasure of knowing who you are. We were expecting Dr. Russell, the Times Correspondent, and all these ladies and gentlemen have been asked to meet him.” So it was not my mistake after all, and I promptly rallied my forces. “The card certainly had my first name, initials, and address all right, so there was nothing to make me suspect a mistake. Besides, I should have thought that everyone who knew the Times Russell knew that his first name was William-he is always called ‘Billy Russell.’” “Well”-and now the truth coyly emerged-“the fact is that we don’t know him. We heard that he was a pleasant man and fond of dining out, and so we looked him up in the Court Guide, and sent the invitation. I suppose we hit on your address by mistake for his.” I suppose so too; and that this is the method by which newcomers build up a “Dinner-Society” in London.

One particular form of dinner deserves a special word of commemoration, because it has gone, never to return. This was the “Fish Dinner” at Greenwich or Blackwall, or even so far afield as Gravesend. It was to a certain extent a picnic; without the formality of dressing, and made pleasant by opportunities of fun and fresh air, in the park or on the river, before we addressed ourselves to the serious business of the evening; but that was serious indeed. The “Menu” of a dinner at the Ship Hotel at Greenwich lies before me as I write. It contains turtle soup, eleven kinds of fish, two entrees, a haunch of venison, poultry, ham, grouse, leverets, five sweet dishes, and two kinds of ice. Well, those were great days-we shall not look upon their like again. Let a poet who knew what he was writing about have the last word on Dinner.

“We may live without poetry, music, and art;
We may live without conscience and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man cannot live without Cooks.

“He may live without lore-what is knowledge but grieving?
He may live without hope-what is hope but deceiving?
He may live without love-what is passion but pining?
But where is the man that can live without dining?”

There is an exquisite truth in this lyrical cry, but it stops short of the fulness of the subject. It must be remembered that “dining” is not the only form of eating. Mr. Gladstone, who thought modern luxury rather disgusting, used to complain that nowadays life in a country house meant three dinners a day, and, if you reckoned sandwiches and poached eggs at five o’clock tea, nearly four. Indeed, the only difference that I can perceive between a modern luncheon and a modern dinner is that at the former meal you don’t have soup or a printed Menu. There have always been some houses where the luncheons were much more famous than the dinners. Dinner, after all, is something of a ceremony; it requires forethought, care, and organization. Luncheon is more of a scramble, and, in the case of a numerous and scattered family, it is the pleasantest of reunions.

My uncle Lord John Russell (1792-1878) published in 1820 a book of Essays and Sketches, in which he speaks of “women sitting down to a substantial luncheon at three or four,” and observes that men would be wise if they followed the example. All contemporary evidence points to luncheon as a female meal, at which men attended, if at all, clandestinely. If a man habitually sat down to luncheon, and ate it through, he was regarded as indifferent to the claims of dinner, and, moreover, was contemned as an idler. No one who had anything to do could find time for a square meal in the middle of the day. But, as years went on, the feeling changed. Prince Albert was notoriously fond of luncheon, and Queen Victoria humoured him. They dined very late, and the luncheon at the Palace became a very real and fully recognized meal. The example, communicated from the highest quarters, was soon followed in Society; and, when I first knew London, luncheon was as firmly established as dinner. As a rule, it was not an affair of fixed invitation; but a hostess would say, “You will always find us at luncheon, somewhere about two”-and one took her at her word.

The luncheon by invitation was a more formal, and rather terrible, affair. I well remember a house where at two o’clock in June we had to sit down with curtains drawn, lights ablaze, and rose-coloured shades to the candles, because the hostess thought, rightly as regarded herself, less so as regarded her guests, that no one’s complexion could stand the searching trial of midsummer sunshine.

“Sunday Luncheon” was always a thing apart. For some reason, not altogether clear, perhaps because devotion long sustained makes a strong demand on the nervous system, men who turned up their noses at luncheon on weekdays devoured roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on Sundays, and went forth, like giants refreshed, for a round of afternoon calls. The Sunday Luncheon was a recognized centre of social life. Where there was even a moderate degree of intimacy a guest might drop in and be sure of mayonnaise, chicken, and welcome. I can recall an occasion of this kind when I saw social Presence of Mind exemplified, as I thought and think, on an heroic scale. Luncheon was over. It had not been a particularly bounteous meal; the guests had been many; the chicken had been eaten to the drumstick and the cutlets to the bone. Nothing remained but a huge Trifle, of chromatic and threatening aspect, on which no one had ventured to embark. Coffee was just coming, when the servant entered with an anxious expression, and murmured to the hostess that Monsieur de Petitpois-a newly-arrived attache-had come, and seemed to expect luncheon. The hostess grasped the situation in an instant, and issued her commands with a promptitude and a directness which the Duke of Wellington could not have surpassed. “Clear everything away, but leave the Trifle. Then show M. de Petitpois in.” Enter De Petitpois. “Delighted to see you. Quite right. Always at home at Sunday luncheon. Pray come and sit here and have some Trifle. It is our national Sunday dish.” Poor young De Petitpois, actuated by the same principle which made the Prodigal desire the husks, filled himself with spongecake, jam, and whipped cream; and went away looking rather pale. If he kept a journal, he no doubt noted the English Sunday as one of our most curious institutions, and “Le Trifle” as its crowning horror.

Supper is a word of very different significances. There is the Ball Supper, which I have described in a previous chapter. There is the Supper after the Missionary Meeting in the country, when “The Deputation from the Parent Society” is entertained with cold beef, boiled eggs, and cocoa. There is the diurnal Supper, fruitful parent of our national crudities, eaten by the social class that dines at one; and this Supper (as was disclosed at a recent inquest) may consist of steak, tomatoes, and tea.

And yet, again, there is the Theatrical Supper, which, eaten in congenial company after Patience or The Whip, is our nearest approach to the “Nights and Suppers of the Gods.” This kind of supper has a niche of its own in my retrospects. It was my privilege when first I came to London to know Lady Burdett-Coutts, famous all over the world as a philanthropist, and also, in every tone and gesture, a survival from the days when great station and great manner went together. Lady Burdett-Coutts was an enthusiastic devotee of the drama; and, when her Evening Parties were breaking up, she would gently glide round the great rooms in Stratton Street, and say to a departing guest:

“I hope you need not go just yet. I am expecting Mr. Irving to supper after the play, and I am asking a few friends to meet him.”

As far as I know, I am the only survivor of those delightful feasts.

Dinner and luncheon and supper must, I suppose, be reckoned among the permanent facts of life; but there is, or was, one meal of which I have witnessed the unwept disappearance. It had its roots in our historic past. It clung to its place in our social economy. It lived long and died hard. It was the Breakfast-Party. When I first lived in London, it was, like some types of human character, vigorous but unpopular. No one could really like going out to breakfast; but the people who gave Breakfast-Parties were worthy and often agreeable people; and there were few who had the hardihood to say them Nay.

The most famous breakfast-parties of the time were given by Mr. Gladstone, on every Thursday morning in the Session; when, while we ate broiled salmon and drank coffee, our host discoursed to an admiring circle about the colour-sense in Homer, or the polity of the ancient Hittites. Around the table were gathered Lions and Lionesses of various breeds and sizes, who, if I remember aright, did not get quite as much opportunity for roaring as they would have liked; for, when Mr. Gladstone had started on a congenial theme, it was difficult to get in a word edgeways. One of these breakfast-parties at 10, Downing Street, stands out in memory more clearly than the rest, for it very nearly had a part in that “Making of History” which was then so much in vogue. The date was April 23, 1885. The party comprised Lady Ripon, Lord Granville, Dean Church, and Miss Mary Anderson, then in the height of her fame and beauty. We were stolidly munching and listening, when suddenly we heard a crash as if heaven and earth had come together; and presently we learned that there had been an explosion of dynamite at the Admiralty, about a hundred yards from where we were sitting. The proximity of nitro-glycerine seemed to operate as a check on conversation, and, as we rose from the table, I heard Miss Anderson say to Miss Gladstone, “Your pa seemed quite scared.”

Other breakfast-givers of the time were Lord Houghton, Lord Arthur Russell, Mr. Shaw-Lefevre (afterwards Lord Eversley), and Sir John Lubbock (afterwards Lord Avebury); and there were even people so desperately wedded to this terrible tradition that they formed themselves into Clubs with no other object than to breakfast, and bound themselves by solemn pledges to meet one morning in every week, and eat and argue themselves into dyspepsia. Sydney Smith wrote thus to a friend: “I have a breakfast of philosophers to-morrow at ten punctually-muffins and metaphysics, crumpets and contradiction. Will you come?” That inviting picture, though it was drawn before I was born, exactly describes the breakfast-parties which I remember. One met all sorts of people, but very few Mary Andersons. Breakfasters were generally old,-politicians, diplomatists, authors, journalists, men of science, political economists, and everyone else who was most improving. No doubt it was a priceless privilege to meet them; yet, as I heard them prate and prose, I could not help recalling a favourite passage from Mrs. Sherwood’s quaint tale of Henry Milner:-

“Mr. Dolben, as usual, gave utterance at breakfast to several of those pure and wise and refined principles, which sometimes distil as drops of honey from the lips of pious and intellectual old persons.” It was breakfast that set Mr. Dolben off. We are not told that he distilled his honey at dinner or supper; so his case must be added to the long list of deleterious results produced by breakfasting in public.

Conversation must, I think, have been at rather a low ebb when I first encountered it in London. Men breakfasted in public, as we have just seen, in order to indulge in it; and I remember a terrible Club where it raged on two nights of every week, in a large, dark, and draughty room, while men sat round an indifferent fire, drinking barley-water, and talking for talking’s sake-the most melancholy of occupations. But at these dismal orgies one never heard anything worth remembering. The “pious and intellectual old persons” whom Mrs. Sherwood admired had withdrawn from the scene, if indeed they had ever figured on it. Those who remained were neither pious nor intellectual, but compact of spite and greediness, with here and there worse faults. But some brighter spirits were coming on. To call them by the names which they then bore, Mr. George Trevelyan and Mr. John Morley were thought very promising, for social fame in London takes a long time to establish itself. Sir William Harcourt was capital company in the heavier style; and Lord Rosebery in the lighter. But Mr. Herbert Paul was known only to the Daily News, and Mr. Augustine Birrell’s ray serene had not emerged from the dim, unfathomed caves of the Chancery Bar.

So far, I have been writing about Conversation with a capital “C,”-an elaborate and studied art which in old days such men as Sharpe and Jekyll and Luttrell illustrated, and, in times more modern, Brookfield and Cockburn and Lowe and Hayward. For the ordinary chit-chat of social intercourse-chaff and repartee, gossip and fun and frolic-I believe that London was just as good in 1876 as it had been fifty years before. We were young and happy, enjoying ourselves, and on easy terms with one another. “It was roses, roses all the way.” Our talk was unpremeditated and unstudied, quick as lightning, springing out of the interest or the situation of the moment, uttered in an instant and as soon forgotten. Everyone who has ever made the attempt must realize that to gather up the fragments of such talk as this is as impossible as to collect shooting stars or to reconstruct a rainbow.

But, though I cannot say what we talked about in those distant days, I believe I can indicate with certainty two topics which were never mentioned. One is Health, and the other is Money. I presume that people had pretty much the same complaints as now, but no one talked about them. We had been told of a lady who died in agony because she insisted on telling the doctor that the pain was in her chest, whereas it really was in the unmentionable organ of digestion. That martyr to propriety has no imitator in the present day. Everyone has a disease and a doctor, and young people of both sexes are ready on the slightest acquaintance to describe symptoms and compare experiences. “Ice!” exclaimed a pretty girl at dessert. “Good gracious, no. So bad for indy!” And her companion, who had not travelled with the times, learned with interest that “indy” was the pet name for indigestion.

Then, again, as to money. In the “Sacred Circle of the Great Grandmotherhood,” I never heard the slightest reference to income. Not that the Whigs despised money. They were at least as fond of it as other people, and, even when it took the shape of slum-rents, its odour was not displeasing; but it was not a subject for conversation. People did not chatter about their neighbours’ incomes; and, if they made their own money in trades or professions, they did not regale us with statistics of profit and loss. To-day everyone seems to be, if I may use the favourite colloquialism, “on the make”; and the devotion with which people worship money pervades their whole conversation, and colours their whole view of life. “Scions of Aristocracy,” to use the good old phrase of Pennialinus, will produce samples of tea or floor-cloth from their pockets, and sue quite winningly for custom. A speculative bottle of extraordinarily cheap peach-brandy will arrive with the compliments of Lord Tom Noddy, who has just gone into the wine-trade; and Lord Magnus Charters will tell you that, if you are going to rearrange your electric light, his firm has got some really artistic fittings which he can let you have on specially easy terms.

So far I have spoken of Hospitality as if it consisted wholly in eating and drinking. Not so. In those days Evening Parties, or Receptions, or Drums, or Tails, for so they were indifferently called, took place on four or five nights of every week. “Tails” as the name implies, were little parties tacked on to the end of big dinners, where a few people looked in, rather cross at not having been invited to dine, or else in a desperate hurry to get on to a larger party or a ball. The larger parties were given generally on Saturday evenings; and then, amid a crushing crowd and a din which recalled the Parrot-House at the Zoo, one might rub shoulders with all the famous men and women of the time. When Mr. St. Barbe in Endymion attended a gathering of this kind, he said to his companion, “I daresay that Ambassador has been blundering all his life, and yet there is something in that Star and Ribbon. I do not know how you feel, but I could almost go down on my knees to him.

‘Ye stars which are the poetry of heaven,’

Byron wrote; a silly line, he should have written-

‘Ye stars which are the poetry of dress.’”

Political “Drums” had a flavour which was all their own. If they were given in any of the Great Houses of London, where the stateliness and beauty of the old world still survived, such guests as Lord Beaconsfield’s creations, Mr. Horrocks, M.P., and Trodgitts, the unsuccessful candidate, would look a little subdued. But in the ordinary house, with a back and front drawing-room and a buffet in the dining-room, those good men were quite at home, and the air was thick with political shop-whether we should loose Pedlington or save Shuffleborough with a struggle-whether A would get office and how disgusted B would be if he did.

Here and there a more thrilling note was sounded. At a Liberal party in the spring of 1881 an ex-Whip of the Liberal party said to a Liberal lady, as he was giving her a cup of tea: “Have you heard how ill old Dizzy is?” “Oh, yes!” replied the lady, with a rapturous wink, “I know-dying!” Such are the amenities of political strife.

A much more agreeable form of hospitality was the Garden-Party. When I came to live in London, the old-fashioned phrase-a “Breakfast”-so familiar in memoirs and novels, had almost passed out of use. On the 22nd of June, 1868, Queen Victoria signalized her partial return to social life by commanding her lièges to a “Breakfast” in the gardens of Buckingham Palace; and the newspapers made merry over the notion of Breakfast which began at four and ended at seven. The old title gradually died out, and by 1876 people had begun to talk about “Garden-Parties.”

By whichever names they were called, they were, and are, delightful festivals. Sometimes they carried one as far as Hatfield, my unapproached favourite among all the “Stately homes of England”; but generally they were nearer London-at Syon, with the Thames floating gravely past its lawns-Osterley, where the decorative skill of the Brothers Adam is superimposed on Sir Thomas Gresham’s Elizabethan brickwork-Holland House, rife with memories of Fox and Macaulay-Lowther Lodge, with its patch of unspoiled country in the heart of Western London. Closely akin to these Garden-Parties were other forms of outdoor entertainment-tea at Hurlingham or Ranelagh; and river-parties where ardent youth might contrive to capsize the adored one, and propose as he rescued her, dripping, from the Thames.

It is only within the last few years that we have begun to talk of “Week-Ends” and “week-Ending.” These terrible phrases have come down to us from the North of England; but before they arrived the thing which they signify was here. “Saturday-to-Monday Parties” they were called. They were not so frequent as now, because Saturday was a favourite night for entertaining in London, and it was generally bespoken for dinners and drums. But, as the summer advanced and hot rooms became unendurable, people who lived only forty or fifty miles out of London began to ask if one would run down to them on Friday or Saturday, and stay over Sunday. Of these hospitalities I was a sparing and infrequent cultivator, for they always meant two sleepless nights; and, as someone truly observed, just as you had begun to wear off the corners of your soap, it was time to return to London. But there were people, more happily constituted, who could thoroughly enjoy and profit by the weekly dose of fresh air and quiet. It was seldom that Mrs. Gladstone failed to drag Mr. Gladstone to some country house “from Saturday to Monday.”

As I re-read what I have written in this chapter, I seem to have lived from 1876 to 1880 in the constant enjoyment of one kind or another of Hospitality. It is true; and for the kindness of the friends who then did so much to make my life agreeable, I am as grateful as I was when I received it. My social life in London seems to me, as I look back, “a crystal river of unreproved enjoyment”; and some of those who shared it with me are still among my closest friends.

One word more, and I have done with Hospitality. I brought with me from Oxford a simple lad who had been a College servant. In those more courteous days a young man made it a rule to leave his card at every house where he had been entertained; so I made a list of addresses, gave it to my servant with a nicely-calculated batch of cards, and told him to leave them all before dinner. When I came in to dress, this dialogue ensued: “Have you left all those cards?” “Yes, sir.” “You left two at each of the houses on your list?” “Oh no, sir. I left one at each house, and all the rest at the Duke of Leinster’s.” Surely Mrs. Humphry Ward or Mr. H. G. Wells might make something of this bewildering effect produced by exalted rank on the untutored mind.