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Chaperons and Their Duties


It is strange that the Americans, so prone to imitate British customs, have been slow to adopt that law of English society which pronounces a chaperon an indispensable adjunct of every unmarried young woman.

The readers of "Little Dorrit" will recall the exceedingly witty sketch of Mrs. General, who taught her young ladies to form their mouths into a lady-like pattern by saying "papa, potatoes, prunes, and prism." Dickens knew very little of society, and cared very little for its laws, and his ladies and gentlemen were pronounced in England to be as great failures as his Little Nells and Dick Swivellers were successes; but he recognized the universality of chaperons. His portrait of Mrs. General (the first luxury which Mr. Dorrit allowed himself after inheriting his fortune) shows how universal is the necessity of a chaperon in English society, and on the Continent, to the proper introduction of young ladies, and how entirely their "style" depends upon their chaperon. Of course Dickens made her funny, of course he made her ridiculous, but he put her there. An American novelist would not have thought it worth mentioning, nor would an American papa with two motherless daughters have thought it necessary, if he traveled with them, to have a chaperon for his daughters.

Of course, a mother is the natural chaperon of her daughters, and if she understand her duties and the usages of society there is nothing further to be said. But the trouble is that many American mothers are exceedingly careless on this point. We need not point to the wonderful Mrs. Miller, Daisy's mother in Henry James, Jr.'s, photograph of a large class of American matrons--a woman who loved her daughter, knew how to take care of her when she was ill, but did not know in the least how to take care of her when she was well; who allowed her to go about with young men alone, to "get engaged," if so she pleased, and who, arriving at a party after her daughter had appeared, rather apologized for coming at all. All this is notoriously true, and comes of our crude civilization. It is the transition state. Until we learn better, we must expect to be laughed at on the Pincian Hill, and we must expect English novelists to paint pictures of us which we resent, and French dramatists to write plays in which we see ourselves held up as savages. Europeans have been in the habit of taking care of young girls, as if they were the precious porcelain of human clay. The American mamma treats her beautiful daughter as if she were a very common piece of delft indeed, and as if she could drift down the stream of life, knocking all other vessels to pieces, but escaping injury to herself.

Owing to the very remarkable and strong sense of propriety which American women innately possess--their truly healthy love of virtue, the absence of any morbid suspicion of wrong--this rule has worked better than any one would have dared hope. Owing, also, to the exceptionally respectful and chivalrous nature of American men, it has been possible for a young lady to travel unattended from Maine to Georgia, or anywhere within the new geographical limits of our social growth. Mr. Howells founded a romance upon this principle, that American women do not need a chaperon. Yet we must remember that all the black sheep are not killed yet, and we must also remember that propriety must be more attended to as we cease to be a young and primitive nation, and as we enter the lists of the rich, cultivated, luxurious people of the earth.

Little as we may care for the opinion of foreigners we do not wish our young ladies to appear in their eyes in a false attitude, and one of the first necessities of a proper attitude, one of the first demands of a polished society, is the presence of a chaperon. She should be a lady old enough to be the mother of her charge, and of unexceptionable manner. She must know society thoroughly herself, and respect its laws. She should be above the suspicion of reproach in character, and devoted to her work. In England there are hundreds of widows of half-pay officers--well-born, well-trained, well-educated women--who can be hired for money, as was Mrs. General, to play this part. There is no such class in America, but there is almost always a lady who will gladly perform the task of chaperoning motherless girls without remuneration.

It is not considered proper in England for a widowed father to place an unmarried daughter at the head of his house without the companionship of a resident chaperon, and there are grave objections to its being done here. We have all known instances where such liberty has been very bad for young girls, and where it has led to great scandals which the presence of a chaperon would have averted.

The duties of a chaperon are very hard and unremitting, and sometimes very disagreeable. She must accompany her young lady everywhere; she must sit in the parlor when she receives gentlemen; she must go with her to the skating-rink, the ball, the party, the races, the dinners, and especially to theatre parties; she must preside at the table, and act the part of a mother, so far as she can; she must watch the characters of the men who approach her charge, and endeavor to save the inexperienced girl from the dangers of a bad marriage, if possible. To perform this feat, and not to degenerate into a Spanish duenna, a dragon, or a Mrs. General--who was simply a fool--is a very difficult task.

No doubt a vivacious American girl, with all her inherited hatred of authority, is a troublesome charge. All young people are rebels. They dislike being watched and guarded. They have no idea what hesperidia fruit they are, and they object to the dragon decidedly.

But a wise, well-tempered woman can manage the situation. If she have tact, a chaperon will add very much to the happiness of her young charge. She will see that the proper men are introduced; that her young lady is provided with a partner for the German; that she is asked to nice places; that she goes well dressed and properly accompanied; that she gives the return ball herself in handsome style.

"I owe," said a wealthy widower in New York, whose daughters all made remarkably happy marriages--"I owe all their happiness to Mrs. Constant, whom I was so fortunate as to secure as their chaperon. She knew society (which I did not), as if it were in her pocket. She knew exactly what girls ought to do, and she was so agreeable herself that they never disliked having her with them. She was very rigid, too, and would not let them stay late at balls; but they loved and respected her so much that they never rebelled, and now they love her as if she were really their mother."

A woman of elegant manners and of charming character, who will submit to the slavery--for it is little less--of being a chaperon, is hard to find; yet every motherless family should try to secure such a person. In traveling in Europe, an accomplished chaperon can do more for young girls than any amount of fortune. She has the thing they want--that is, knowledge. With her they can go everywhere--to picture-galleries, theatres, public and private balls, and into society, if they wish it. It is "etiquette" to have a chaperon, and it is the greatest violation of it not to have one.

If a woman is protected by the armor of work, she can dispense with a chaperon. The young artist goes about her copying unquestioned, but in society, with its different laws, she must be under the care of an older woman than herself.

A chaperon is indispensable to an engaged girl. The mother, or some lady friend, should always accompany a young  fiancÚ on her journeys to the various places of amusement and to the watering-places. Nothing is more vulgar in the eyes of our modern society than for an engaged couple to travel together or to go to the theatre unaccompanied, as was the primitive custom. This will, we know, shock many Americans, and be called a "foolish following of foreign fashions." But it is true; and, if it were only for the "looks of the thing," it is more decent, more elegant, and more correct for the young couple to be accompanied by a chaperon until married. Society allows an engaged girl to drive with her fiancÚ  in an open carriage, but it does not approve of his taking her in a close carriage to an evening party.

There are non-resident chaperons who are most popular and most useful. Thus, one mamma or elderly lady may chaperon a number of young ladies to a dinner, or a drive on a coach, a sail down the bay, or a ball at West Point. This lady looks after all her young charges, and attends to their propriety and their happiness. She is the guardian angel, for the moment, of their conduct. It is a care which young men always admire and respect--this of a kind, well-bred chaperon, who does not allow the youthful spirits of her charges to run away with them.

The chaperon, if an intelligent woman, and with the sort of social talent which a chaperon ought to have, is the best friend of a family of shy girls. She brings them forward, and places them in a position in which they can enjoy society; for there is a great deal of tact required in a large city to make a retiring girl enjoy herself. Society demands a certain amount of handling, which only the social expert understands. To this the chaperon should be equal. There are some women who have a social talent which is simply Napoleonic. They manage it as a great general does his corps de bataille_.

Again, there are bad chaperons. A flirtatious married woman who is thinking of herself only, and who takes young girls about merely to enable herself to lead a gay life (and the world is full of such women), is worse than no chaperon at all. She is not a protection to the young lady, and she disgusts the honorable men who would like to approach her charge. A very young chaperon, bent on pleasure, who undertakes to make respectable the coaching party, but who has no dignity of character to impress upon it, is a very poor one. Many of the most flagrant violations of propriety, in what is called the fashionable set, have arisen from this choice of young chaperons, which is a mere begging of the question, and no chaperonage at all.

Too much champagne is drunk, too late hours are kept, silly stories are circulated, and appearances are disregarded by these gay girls and their young chaperons; and yet they dislike very much to see themselves afterwards held up to ridicule in the pages of a magazine by an Englishman, whose every sentiment of propriety, both educated and innate, has been shocked by their conduct.

A young Frenchman who visited America a few years ago formed the worst judgment of American women because he met one alone at an artist's studio. He misinterpreted the profoundly sacred and corrective influences of art. It had not occurred to the lady that if she went to see a picture she would be suspected of wishing to see the artist. Still, the fact that such a mistake could be made should render ladies careful of even the appearance of evil.

A chaperon should in her turn remember that she must not open a letter, She must not exercise an unwise surveillance. She must not _suspect_ her charge. All that sort of Spanish _espionage_ is always outwitted. The most successful chaperons are those who love their young charges, respect them, try to be in every way what the mother would have been. Of course, all relations of this sort are open to many drawbacks on both sides, but it is not impossible that it may be an agreeable relation, if both parties exercise a little tact.

In selecting a chaperon for a young charge, let parents or guardians be very particular as to the past history of the lady. If she has ever been talked about, ever suffered the bad reputation of flirt or coquette, do not think of placing her in that position. Clubs have long memories, and the fate of more than one young heiress has been imperiled by an injudicious choice of a chaperon. If any woman should have a spotless record and admirable character it should be the chaperon. It will tell against her charge if she have not. Certain needy women who have been ladies, and who precariously attach to society through their families, are always seeking for some young heiress. These women are very poor chaperons, and should be avoided.

This business of chaperonage is a point which demands attention on the part of careless American mothers. No mother should be oblivious of her duty in this respect. It does not imply that she doubts her daughter's honor or truth, or that she thinks she needs watching, but it is proper and respectable and necessary that she should appear by her daughter's side in society. The world is full of traps. It is impossible to be too careful of the reputation of a young lady, and it improves the tone of society vastly if an elegant and respectable woman of middle age accompanies every young party. It goes far to silence the ceaseless clatter of gossip; it is the antidote to scandal; it makes the air clearer; and, above all, it improves the character, the manners, and elevates the minds of the young people who are so happy as to enjoy the society and to feel the authority of a cultivated, wise, and good chaperon.


Website: The History
Article Name: Chaperons and Their Duties
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina


Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John Sherwood; Harper & Brothers-New York 1894 Loc
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