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Chaperon

" YOUNG people think that old people are fools, but old people know that young people are fools," says the rather sour old adage.

When we are in the heyday of youth, full of spirits and gayety, and believing implicitly in the virtue and good intentions of every one around us, the institution of chaperonage seems to us a very odious and unnecessary restraint on our liberty. Alas, how different does the whole subject look when viewed through the spectacles of a more mature age! The belief in universal virtue has long since vanished, with other early illusions. Not only do we feel that mankind in general will bear watching, but most of us have grown a shade more worldly as well as a shade less hopeful with advancing years. We believe that chaperons are very necessary to guard young girls from bad and designing people, and from penniless young men and rash romantic marriages as well. Hence arises, as usual, a hopeless discrepancy between the views of youth and those of age,

Many American mothers, it is true, do not believe in a very strict chaperonage; at least, no such belief can be inferred from their actions. They allow their daughters to do very much as they please, to go about where and as they like, and in short to hold the whip hand generally. Sometimes this is the result of indolence or good-nature on the mother's part, and sometimes it comes from a conscientious belief that it is best for young people to have their own sweet will.

And so it was, perhaps, in the days when we were a young and simple people, living principally in small communities where every one knew every one else. What may be quite permissible in a village is out of place in a large city; the Joneses and the Browns, who have lived next door to one another all their lives, and who know each other intimately, may safely allow their young people more freedom of intercourse than the mother of a city belle could grant to her daughter, surrounded by a host of admirers about whom she knows little or nothing beyond the fact that they appear like gentlemen.

The old American way of putting young people on their honor, and taking it for granted that they would do everything that was right, certainly implied a much nobler view of human nature than the French system, for instance, which must have a very curious effect on the minds of the young. What a terribly wicked place the world must seem to a young French girl, since her relatives consider it necessary to shut her up from its evil influences behind the bars of a convent! How she must weary at times of the dull, monotonous life prescribed for her by the good nuns, and long for the arrangement of the marriage which will set her free from durance vile, and give her a chance to become part and parcel of that dreadful world, - to make up by plenty of gayety for the long, tiresome years of dreary routine! Her freedom begins where that of the American girl ends.

George Sand was brought up in a convent, and longed at one time to become a religieuse. If she had been reared in a more healthy and, natural manner, and allowed to choose her own helpmeet, might not these early and noble aspirations have borne their proper fruit in life and character? Might not the stormy and disastrous career of this woman- of genius have been mercifully averted?

It would be very unjust to charge Frenchwomen in general with possessing either the faults or the talents of their famous sister; but does she not furnish an extreme instance of the folly and wickedness of the French system, a system which culminates in " le mariage de convenance "? Of the two extremes, surely the American system, which grants young people liberty to do just as they please in almost every in-stance, is the better one, at any rate for our people.

But we are not obliged to choose extremes, and the English method offers a safe middle course, which our people are gradually adopting. Americans now spend so much of their time in Europe, and foreigners do us the honor of coming to the United States in such large numbers, that our views on social subjects cannot but be influenced in some degree by theirs.

It must be remembered however that the position of women is changing in other countries as well as in our own. They are claiming more and more the right to regulate their own affairs, their own lives. Many now go to college, study a profession or engage in business. Yet even these, so long as they are young, attractive and inexperienced, find the presence of older women a help and protection in all social affairs. Teachers and professors matronize the entertainments of college girls, if men are invited.

The chaperon may be said, therefore, to be slowly but surely extending her sway in this country, and it is to be hoped that she will make a good and unselfish use of her power. From a chaperon who is one in name only, some young married woman who utterly neglects her charge and devotes herself to her own amusement solely, — from such may Heaven deliver us! A stationary chaperon is highly desirable for a young girl; not one devoid of the power of motion, that is to say, but one who at balls and dances remains always in the same place, or informs her charge when she is about to change it, so that the latter may be able to return to her without difficulty after every dance.

But a model chaperon needs many qualifications besides the one just mentioned. Indeed, the woman who can faithfully and efficiently perform all the duties involved in matronizing young girls, must be very nearly an angel. Night after night she is obliged to sit up till the small hours, watching the same everlasting round of the german, eating the same indigestible supper, and talking the same wearisome small-talk to other tired dowagers or elderly beaux, all longing to be at home in their own comfortable beds.

She must not show fatigue nor look cross, no matter what her feelings may be. It is a part of her duty to be entertaining and agreeable, and thus form an attractive background, as it were, to her young charge. A brilliant woman who is also an amiable and unselfish one has great opportunities for helping her young people to have a good time. Young men like to talk to her, and she takes care to introduce them to her daughters when they come up. If she has good spirits, they are contagious to all around her, and her cleverness and ready answers inspire and amuse the young people and put them at their ease.

She must not, however, endeavor to shine too brightly, lest she put out th* lesser lights which it is her duty to tend and brighten: Neither must she say sharp things nor encourage her daughters to do so. Young men are very much afraid of clever girls who say sharp things; the mother's knowledge of the world has taught her this, and she should teach it to her children. If her daughters are neglected and are not asked to dance, she must bear it like a Spartan; nor must she ever say disagreeable things about other girls who are receiving more attention. She must endeavor to find out what are the habits and character of the young men with whom her daughters become acquainted, and she must as far as possible nip any undesirable friend-ships in the bud. At the same time she must not be harsh, severe nor unjust, lest she lose the confidence and affection of those under her charge.

Even a model chaperon need not endure martyrdom until every ball breaks up. It is better form — as well as infinitely better for the health of all concerned - to leave in good season, and not to have the reputation of being always among the very last to go away. The daughters alone are invited to many house-dances, on the plea that there is no room for the mothers. In this case, a maid should go with her young mistress.

A chaperon accompanies those who are under her charge not only to balls and dances, but to the theatre, the opera, to concerts and other evening occasions, and to all matinées, receptions and other entertainments given in the daytime, unless they are of a very informal character. To the races, automobile-parties, yachting-parties, tennis-tournaments, etc., must the long-suffering matron go if her daughter does; and she must also go with the latter to pay visits. Even at home her watch and ward must still be kept up, for according to strict etiquette the chaperon must make a disagreeable third party whenever the young girls under her charge receive calls from gentlemen.

Against this last restraint, however, American girls rebel vigorously, and with some justice. Mamma does well to sit in the other parlor with her book or work and give the young people a little freedom. Whether she remains in the parlor or not, however, she must never go to bed until all callers have left the house.

These very strict rules are modified somewhat after a young lady has been in society for a year or two, and as her youth and inexperience pass away, the added years give her an additional right to take care of herself. Still, even for a girl who is no longer very young, it is not desirable to go much into society alone, especially if she is handsome and attractive. Let her join forces with some young woman of her own age if she has no chaperon to accompany her. An elder sister sometimes matronizes one who is a good deal younger, where the mother is either dead or unable to go into society.

Where a family of daughters are left without either father or mother, it is very desirable, indeed almost necessary, that they should have an elderly cousin or some other woman of mature years come to live with them, that she may give a certain dignity to the house-hold, and help them receive and entertain their guests, even if she cannot accompany them into society.

Young women who are engaged to be married need chaperons quite as much as do other girls; this subject has been already treated in the chapter on engagements.

For travelling, — especially for travelling in Europe, —a chaperon is highly desirable and indeed necessary, as the international novel has made Americans understand very clearly. In cities where it is considered highly improper for young ladies to walk abroad, or indeed to go anywhere alone, what comfort can there be for a girl who has no accompanying matron to guard her from impertinence and even from insult? If she is at all sensitive she will stay in the house pining for want of fresh air, and losing the opportunity to see half the sights she longs to see, rather than be stared at or spoken to in a disrespectful manner.

It must be said, however, that the great number of our countrywomen living or travelling in Europe, have had some effect on the behavior of foreigners toward them. Many of these understand that the American " Mees " is a very independent young person, who persists in doing things forbidden to a French demoiselle of a German maiden. Girl students living in Paris go about in twos or threes or even alone in the daytime. Unless they are very quiet in manner, they are in danger of annoyance, however.

In America it is quite permissible for a young lady to ride or drive with a young man in the day-time in frequented places. On lonely country roads it is well to have a groom, a chauffeur or a footman accompany them. In other words, the groom is the substitute on the road for the weary and long-suffering matron. In driving, this is not so much of a boon, as no matter how fast you drive you cannot shake him off; but in the saddle, a brisk trot or a sharp canter will leave James at a judicious distance in the rear, especially if he has been provided with a good, slow nag.

It must be confessed that our young people like very much to go in an automobile, without the restraining presence of the paid chauffeur, and some of them are permitted to do so.

It is not according to etiquette that a young lady should go to a dance or return from one under the sole escort of a young man, especially if she goes in a carriage. Where she has no mother or other resident matron and no maid who can accompany her to and from the evening's entertainment, she should endeavor to make an arrangement with one or two other young girls, so that they may hire the same carriage and go together. This is — or was considered allowable in Boston, where there are a number of old and well-known livery-stable keepers who employ hack-drivers of the highest respectability. But it is not allowable — indeed, it would hardly be safe - to follow this custom in New York. A young girl in New York should never drive alone in a hack; if she arrives at the depot alone and is unfortunate enough to have no one to meet her (a most undesirable thing), she must take the cars and express her trunk, as it would be very unsafe for her to take a hack at the station.

It seems hardly necessary to say that a young girl must never go to a restaurant with a young man unless a chaperon accompanies them; neither must she go on excursions of any sort. Especially should she avoid the fascinations and uncertainties of a sail-boat. If the boat be becalmed, it may be hours before a landing can be effected; indeed, a sailing-party is sometimes obliged to stay out all night. Hence much unfavorable comment arises; and perhaps a single careless act of this sort may be remembered spitefully against a girl for many years. Especially will this be the case if she is pretty and attractive, and if she has frank and cordial manners. The plain woman and the woman of cold heart and severe demeanor run little risk of censure; but the beautiful and charming girl is too often surrounded by a host of detractors, envious people who are delighted to catch up and magnify her every thoughtless word or act.

The woman who possesses beauty, possesses what most of her sex desire above all else; but often she pays dearly for this much-coveted gift of Nature. Slander and envy place a thousand thorns in her path; her own sex can seldom forgive " the most beautiful." Wise Minerva and queenly Juno could not forgive Venus; and after three thousand years the fair sex have still a root of envy lurking in their hearts.

Let us all remember, therefore, to guard against this fatal weakness from which even goddesses were not exempt, and to believe only a small fraction of the slander hovering in the air, especially the slander directed against beautiful and attractive women.

A woman of business, or an artist, is not usually thought to need a chaperon in our country when engaged in her professional duties. But if she is at all young or pretty, it is very advisable for her to take at least a companion of her own age with her, especially if she is obliged to call upon shop-keepers, men of business, etc. It would certainly seem as if her vocation should afford perfect protection to such a woman; but practically it does not always do so. There are some people of mean and base spirit who will treat with profound respect the young lady of wealth, since her patronage will increase their store of dollars and cents, but whose civility is scanty toward the woman who has her own way to make in the world.

To do the tradesman justice, it is not the degree of the wealth of the person with whom he has to do that alone influences him. No; he instinctively recognizes a rival, a competitor, in the woman of business. There may apparently be no possible danger that their interests will ever clash; but he is prepared for all possibilities, and he at once places himself on the defensive.

Perhaps, too, he has been imposed upon by adventurers and swindlers, and the remembrance thereof makes him cautious, makes him bristle at the recollection of past wrongs to his pocket. For all these reasons the business woman may not always be treated with the same courtesy that ever follows the footsteps of her less independent sister. And she must above all things avoid the pretty little airs and graces, the charming ways which are so delightful in a parlor, but which are utterly out of place, nay, even dangerous, in the arena of daily struggle for bread and butter.

She must remember that it is the fact that her calling obliges her to make these visits which alone justifies her in doing so, and her manner should be serious, quiet, business-like, — in fact impersonal as far as it is possible to make it so. While her dress may very properly be of handsome materials, it should be quiet, plain and severely lady-like. It is never in good taste to wear showy, gaudy clothes when walking in the public streets, and especially when on an errand of business.

( Originally Published 1911 )

Social Customs:
Children And How They Should Behave At The Table

Luncheons

Breakfast

Afternoon Teas And Receptions

Balls And Dances, Their Arrangements, Etc.

Etiquette Of The Ballroom

Musical Parties

Etiquette Of Weddings

Marriage Engagements And English Wedding Breakfasts

Chaperon

Read More Articles About: Social Customs



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