10 JULY 1897, Page 12


WE wish the newspapers would leave what they call great social functions alone. It is all very well to publish the list of names of those present, but when it comes to "writing up" parties in private houses, talking about diamonds by the bushel, and mentioning the figure paid by this or that lady for the hire of her diamonds for one night, we confess to a strong sense of disgust. It is needless to say that no one can have any right to object to the Duchess of Devonshire giving a fancy ball. That was a most natural and most hospitable thing to do. She has a splendid and historic set of rooms in which to give her parties, and she showed imagination in arranging so picturesque and beautiful a spectacle as that always afforded by a great gathering of people in rich and curious costumes. But though the Duchess of Devonshire and her guests had every right to make her party a splendid spectaole, we hold that the news- papers who lavished their descriptive head-lines on the ball were doing a distinct injury to our social life. Newspaper reporting is all very well in the case of what are really public functions, like the Queen's garden party, but if it is to be applied with all the force and ingenuity at its command to private parties, not only will society be spoiled, but the ordinary reader will be demoralised by having his most foolish and most snobbish instincts tickled and pandered to. At present people of simple tastes, and it may be moderate means, may go to smart parties if they happen to be friends or relatives of smart people without worrying in the least whether their equipages and diamonds and dresses are up to the level of the evening. But if the picturesque reporter of the daily newspaper is to be let loose at all balls and receptions, things will bear a very different aspect. Quiet folk know that on the whole society is too busy to be snobbish or contemptuous, and is quite tolerant of people who, though they might, do not care to do the thing very smartly. If, however, they know that the morning after a party they may read some such comment as this, they will

not care to brave the reporter's ordeal Daring the course of the evening some amusement was caused by the incursion of a very one-horse four-wheeler among the splendid equipages which thronged the streets in the neighbourhood of Great Gaunt Street. Out of this somewhat antediluvian vehicle descended a middle-aged lady and her daughter. At first the courteous constable on duty tried to persuade them that they had missed their way and got to the wrong party, but after a little good-humoured discussion they were admitted.' Then, no doubt, would follow some kindly chaff about the ladies' homely dresses, and finally a panegyric of Lady — for her success in bringing all ranks of society together. We have not yet quite reached this stage, but depend upon it, it will come sooner or later if our newspapers continue the practice of devoting so much space to social functions. We may even fall a stage lower, and come to adding up the value of each guest's jewels. That abomination is not unknown in America, where the social reporter is a most important personage. We believe that American newspapers have filled a column or so with estimates of the cash value of the diamonds, rabies, and emeralds worn by each lady, and concluded by a general estimate of the total money value of the party as it stood. For example,—' Mrs. Smith-Brown was present in her million-dollar diamond necklace, while her daughter's exquisite dress was set off by pearls, value 15,000 dollars.' To this we shall be sure to come it we once admit that it is the business of the newspapers to descant in detail upon social functions. As we have said, if once too much stress is laid upon jewels and dresses and the other externals of social intercourse, people who are unable to use jewels or clothes sufficiently magnificent to satisfy the reporters will begin to feel that they had better keep away from balls and receptions. This in the end will drain society of some of its best elements, and will tend to make it a mere affair of millionaires, and of those who are ready to sacrifice everything in life to aping their ways. If the element of simplicity is to be absolutely eliminated—and eliminated it will be if a recording angel of the Press, helped by a jewel expert, is to stand behind one of the palms in the well of the staircase, and value the women's jewels as they pass—society will become a much duller, as well as a much more expensive, place than it is at present.

But though we deprecate most strongly the intervention of the Press at social gatherings as ruinous to what is beat and pleasantest in society, as sure to lead to the ossification of society into a plutocratic caste, and as likely to debauch the taste of the ordinary reader, we do not fall into the error of thinking that in reality society is the least bit more lavish, or luxurious, or foolishly extravagant than it used to be. We hold, also, that people who can afford it have a perfect right to spend their money on beautiful diamonds and fine clothes, and on those opportunities for displaying them which we call "balls" and " at homes." Again, we believe it to be quite as virtuous to spend money on flowers and a good supper, as on bricks and mortar or Academy pictures. If, too, the sums now spent on things social are compared to those spent on jewels, clothes, and entertainments a hundred years ago it will be found that, relatively to our wealth, we spend much less than we did. We talk of the world becoming more luxurious and more devoted to gands. In truth it is becoming less. Take the last story of the lady who hired her diamonds,—probably a mere invention. Every one who read has been saying, "How disgusting ; how horribly snobbish ! What are we coming to ? " Yet as a matter of fact we had come to it long ago. In Miss Edgeworth's "Helen," Lady Davenant describes to the heroine the tactics of ladies who, though not the wives of millionaires, are determined to wear jewels as magnificent as those of their neighbours. "I know a lady of high rank," says Lady Davenant, "who hires a certain pair of emerald earrings at £1,500 per annum. She rents them in this way from some German Countess, in whose family they are an heirloom and cannot be sold. This is only one instance, my dear. I could give you hundreds." Becky Sharpe, again, is able to conceal the fact that Lord Steyne has given her the diamonds in which she goes to Court by quoting the custom of hiring diamonds which prevails among fashionable ladies. She tells Rawdon, Sir Pitt, and Lady Jane that she has hired them for the occasion. "I hired them, to be sure. I hired them at Mr. Polonius's in Coventry Street. You don't suppose that all the diamonds which go to Court belong to the owners." In fact, the world is very much the same sort of place now that it always was, and certainly does not, because it could not, grow more vain, or more luxurious, or more fond of show. Our ancestors were a match for us in all these particulars. But though the world does not really grow worse, it does from time to time pass through periods of fatuity in regard to social functions. Certain epochs have been marked by the men and women of the upper class giving an altogether undue importance to balls and masques and other such gatherings. These men and women have not been in the least more really luxurious or in any sense more wicked than men and women in other ages, but they have been distinctly softer and more easily diverted from the great and important things of life. This was the case of the courtiers at Versailles at the end of the eighteenth century. They were not specially wicked, but they were socially infatuated, and thought their little supper- parties and balls the most important things in the whole world. When to wear and when not to wear diamonds or rubies, and what was the proper place for pearls, were to them matters of the utmost moment. But this pettiness, this overtroubling about the little things and mere luxuries and trappings of life, made them odious and contemptible to the stronger, though not better, men in the country. When the Dantons and Marats saw the courtiers fiddle-faddling over their balls and receptions, they had the courage to say that in spite of the apparent odds they would upset the great State coach. Depend upon it, societies that are evidently paying undue attention to the merely ornamental part of life will always become contemptible to the rough, strong men who stand outside and know nothing and care nothing about the "nice conduct of a clouded cane," or the distinction bestowed on a family by the possession of a unique necklace of pearls. We do not mean to suggest that our own upper class is getting to care too much about jewels and clothes and balls and parties,—is getting soft, in fact. We believe, indeed, that they are in reality quite sound in essentials,—a great deal more sound than they were in the twenties, and possibly than in the thirties, when Disraeli made one of the characters in his novels speak so ominously about Versailles. But though we believe that in reality society is sound enough, and gives only a fair and reasonable amount of attention to social functions, we cannot help feeling that if the newspapers are to write up all parties we shall Boon have the country believing that the upper and richer classes are eaten up by the zeal of giving and going to parties, and that as a result they will fall into popular contempt. That would be a great disaster. We are not worshippers of aristocracy, but we should see with the utmost alarm our leisured class—the rich and the well-born— fall in public estimation, and be held frivolous and effeminate people by the greater public. And assuredly this is what will happen if the million readers of the daily Press are to be fed on descriptions of the jewels and dresses and decorations at big parties. Those who read will end by believing that the people whose names they see in the lists are wholly given up to this peacock business.

How the Press is to be prevented from producing this false sense of degeneracy is another matter. We do not suppose that the great ladies as yet care to see their parties written up, but in the end they and their guests will acquire the taste for being noticed in the papers, and will feel that a ball has been flat which has not been well puffed in a dozen journals. Nothing grows upon people so rapidly and so easily as the desire to be noticed in public. At present the great hostesses are very glad to escape the reporters, though they probably have a sort of half-superstitious feeling that if the people want to know about their parties they ought to be allowed to do so. It has always been the custom in the country to allow the village to come up and stare through the windows of the hall at the dancers. We trust, however, that in London this feeling may be suppressed, and that hostesses may make it clear to the newspapers that they do not want their parties described, and that the publication of any information beyond a list of names will be most unwelcome. Such a line firmly maintained would soon check the tendency towards descriptive articles on private parties. After all, our daily Press, London and provincial, is in the hands of men who are sincerely anxious to keep up a high standard of journalism. In all probability most of them dislike the new development, though they are forced into it by competition. If only the London hostesses by taking a firm attitude would give them a good excuse for returning to the older way of treating society functions, we believe they would soon do so. At least the satirists have done one thing for us,—they have made all Englishmen afraid of being thought snobs. Our newspapers have this sensitiveness to the fall. We have only got to make them feel the utter snobbishness of writing at large about private parties, and all this silly prattle about jewels and silks and satins will be relegated once more to the second and third rate prints.