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Good and Bad Society


Many of our correspondents ask us to define what is meant by the terms "good society" and "bad society." They say that they read in the newspapers of the "good society" in New York and Washington and Newport, and that it is a record of drunkenness, flirtation, bad manners and gossip, backbiting, divorce, and slander. They read that the fashionable people at popular resorts commit all sorts of vulgarities, such as talking aloud at the opera, and disturbing their neighbors; that young men go to a dinner, get drunk, and break glasses; and one ingenuous young girl remarks, "We do not call that good society in Atlanta."

Such a letter might have been written to that careful chronicler of "good society" in the days of Charles II., old Pepys of courtly fame. The young maiden of Hertfordshire, far from the Court, might well have thought of Rochester and such "gay sparks," and the ladies who threw glasses of wine at them, as not altogether well-bred, nor entitled to admission into "good society." We
cannot blame her.

It is the old story. Where, too, as in our land, pleasure and luxury rule a certain set who enjoy no tradition of good manners, the contradiction in terms is the more apparent. Even the external forms of respect to good manners are wanting. No such overt vulgarity, for instance, as talking aloud at the opera will ever be endured in London, because a powerful class of really well-born
and well-bred people will hiss it down, and insist on the quiet which music, of all other things, demands. That is what we mean by a tradition of good manners.

In humbler society, we may say as in the household of a Scotch peasant, such as was the father of Carlyle, the breaches of manners which are often seen in fashionable society would never occur. They would appear perfectly impossible to a person who had a really good heart and a gentle nature. The manners of a young man of fashion who keeps his hat on when speaking to a lady, who would smoke in her face, and would appear indifferent to her comfort at a supper-table, who would be contradictory and neglectful--such manners would have been impossible to Thomas or John Carlyle, reared as they were in the humblest poverty. It was the "London swell" who dared to be rude in their day as now.

But this impertinence and arrogance of fashion should not prevent the son of a Scotch peasant from acquiring, or attempting to acquire, the conventional habits and manners of a gentleman. If he have already the grace of high culture, he should seek to add to it the knowledge of social laws, which will render him an agreeable person to be met in society. He must learn how to write
a graceful note, and to answer his invitations promptly; he must learn the etiquette of dress and of leaving cards; he must learn how to eat his dinner gracefully, and, even if he sees in good society men of external polish guilty of a rudeness which would have shocked the man who in the Scotch Highlands fed and milked the cows, he still must not forget that society demands something
which was not found in the farm-yard.

Carlyle, himself the greatest radical and democrat in the world, found that life at Craigenputtock would not do all for him, that he must go to London and Edinburgh to rub off his solitary neglect of manners, and strive to be like other people. On the other band, the Queen of England has just refused to receive the Duke of Marlborough because he notoriously ill-treated the best of wives, and had been, in all his relations of life, what they call in England a "cad." She has even asked him to give back the Star and Garter, the insignia once worn by the great duke, which has never fallen on shoulders so unworthy as those of the late Marquis of Blandford, now Duke of Marlborough. For all this the world has great reason to thank the Queen, for the present duke has been always in "good society," and such is the reverence felt for rank and for hereditary name in England that he might have continued in the most fashionable circles for all his bad behavior, still being courted for name and title, had not the highest lady in the land rebuked him.

She has refused to receive the friends of the Prince of Wales, particularly some of his American favorites, this good Queen, because she esteems good manners and a virtuous life as a part of good society.

Now, those who are not "in society" are apt to mistake all that is excessive, all that is boorish, all that is snobbish, all that is aggressive, as being a part of that society. In this they are wrong. No one estimates the grandeur of the ocean by the rubbish thrown up on the shore. Fashionable society, good society, the best society, is composed of the very best people, the most polished and accomplished, religious, moral, and charitable.

The higher the civilization, therefore, the better the society, it being always borne in mind that there will be found, here and there, the objectionable outgrowths of a false luxury and of an insincere culture. No doubt, among the circles of the highest nobility, while the king and queen may be people of simple and unpretending manners, there may be some arrogant and self-sufficient master of ceremonies, some Malvolio whose pomposity is in strange contrast to the good-breeding of Olivia. It is the lesser star which twinkles most. The "School for Scandal" is a lasting picture of the folly and frivolity of a certain phase of London society in the past, and it repeats itself in every decade. There is always a Mrs. Candour, a Sir Benjamin Backbite, and a scandalous college at Newport, in New York, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Saratoga, Long Branch, wherever society congregates. It is the necessary imperfection, the seamy side. Such is the reverse of the pattern. Unfortunately, the right side is not so easily described. The colors of a beautiful bit of brocade are, when seen as a whole, so judiciously blended that they can hardly be pronounced upon individually: one only admires the tout ensemble, and that uncritically, perhaps.

That society is bad whose members, however tenacious they be of forms of etiquette and elaborate ceremonials, have one code of manners for those whom they deem their equals, and another for those whom they esteem to be of less importance to them by reason of age, pecuniary condition, or relative social influence. Bad manners are apt to prove the concomitant of a mind and disposition that are none too good, and the fashionable woman who slights and wounds people because they cannot minister to her ambition, challenges a merciless criticism of her own moral shortcomings. A young girl who is impertinent or careless in her demeanor to her mother or her mother's friends; who goes about without a chaperon and talks slang; who is careless in her bearing towards young men, permitting them to treat her as if she were one of themselves; who accepts the attention of a young man of bad character or dissipated habits because he happens to be rich; who is loud in dress and rough in manner--such a young girl is "bad society," be she the daughter of an earl or a butcher. There are many such instances of audacity in the so-called "good society" of America, but such people do not spoil it; they simply isolate themselves.

A young man is "bad society" who is indifferent to those older than himself, who neglects to acknowledge invitations, who sits while a lady stands, who goes to a ball and does not speak to his host, who is selfish, who is notoriously immoral and careless of his good name, and who throws discredit on his father and mother by showing his ill-breeding. No matter how rich, how externally agreeable to those whom he may wish to court, no matter how much varnish of outward manner such a man may possess, he is "bad society."

A parvenue who assumes to keep other people out of the society which she has just conquered, whose thoughts are wholly upon social success (which means, with her, knowing somebody who has heretofore refused to know her), who is climbing, and throwing backward looks of disdain upon those who also climb--such a woman, unfortunately too common in America, is, when she happens to have achieved a fashionable position, one of the worst instances of bad society. She may be very prominent, powerful, and influential. She may have money and "entertain," and people desirous of being amused may court her, and her bad manners will be accepted by the careless observer as one of the concomitants of fashion. The reverse is true. She is an interloper in the circles of good society, and the old fable of the ass in the lion's skin fits her precisely. Many a duchess in England is such an interloper; her supercilious airs betray the falsity of her politeness, but she is obliged by the rules of the Court at which she has been educated to "behave like a lady;" she has to counterfeit good-breeding; she cannot, she dare not, behave as a woman who has suddenly become rich may sometimes, nay does, behave in American society, and still be received.

It will thus be seen, as has been happily expressed, that "fashion has many classes, and many rules of probation and admission." A young person ignorant of its laws should not be deluded, however, by false appearances. If a young girl comes from the most secluded circles to Saratoga, and sees some handsome, well-dressed, conspicuous woman much courted, lionized, as it were, and observes in her what seems to be insolent pretence, unkindness, frivolity, and superciliousness, let her inquire and wait before she accepts this bit of brass for pure gold. Emerson defines "sterling fashion as funded talent." Its objects may be frivolous or objectless; but, in the long-run, its purposes are neither frivolous nor accidental. It is an effort for good society; it is the bringing together of admirable men and women in a pleasant way. Good-breeding, personal superiority, beauty, genius, culture, are all very good things. Every one delights in a person of charming manners. Some people will forgive very great derelictions in a person who has charming manners, but the truly good society is the society of those who have virtue and good manners both.

Some Englishman asked an American, "What sort of a country is America?" "It is a country where everybody can tread on everybody's toes," was the answer.

It is very bad society where any one wishes to tread on his neighbor's toes, and worse yet where there is a disposition to feel aggrieved, or to show that one feels aggrieved. There are certain people new in society who are always having their toes trodden upon. They say: "Mrs. Brown snubbed me; Mrs. Smith does not wish to know me; Mrs. Thompson ought to have invited me. I am as good as any of them." This is very bad society. No woman with self-respect will ever say such things. If one meets with rudeness, take no revenge, cast no aspersions. Wit and tact, accomplishments and social talents, may have elevated some woman to a higher popularity than another, but no woman will gain that height by complaining. Command of temper, delicacy of feeling, and elegance of manner--all these are demanded of the persons who become leaders of society, and would remain so. They alone are "good society." Their imitators may masquerade for a time, and tread on toes, and fling scorn and insult about them while in a false and insecure supremacy; but such pretenders to the throne are soon unseated. There is a dreadful Sedan and Strasburg awaiting them. They distrust their own flatterers; their "appanage" is not a solid one.

People who are looking on at society from a distance must remember that women of the world are not always worldly women. They forget that brilliancy in society may be accompanied by the best heart and the sternest principle. The best people of the world are those who know the world best. They recognize the fact that this world should be known and served and treated with as much respect and sincerity as that other world, which is to be our reward for having conquered the one in which we live now.


Website: The History
Article Name: Good and Bad Society
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina


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