Pride And Parvenus
IF one circle of society is really superior and better than another, why is it not a laudable ambition for a man or a woman to wish to rise to that which is best? Why does the world laugh, good-naturedly or bitterly, according to its mood, at those who strive to ascend the social ladder? The world does not laugh at people who try to improve their fortunes or strive to remedy the defects of their early education; but for the social aspirant the parvenu it always has a scornful word!
This attitude of society seems a very unjust and illogical one to many ambitious persons, and they bewail long and bitterly the snobbishness, the injustice, the overweening pride which distinguishes the demeanor of the " ins " toward the " outs." It is never safe, however, for the pot to call the kettle black; and if the attitude of society is illogical, is that of the social climber any less so?
If one set of people is just as good as another, why aren't you satisfied to stay where you are, and to remain in the circle where you were born and bred? We grant you that all men are free and equal, and we therefore consider that we have a right to choose our own associates, and leave you to choose yours. We regard society as a great club, where the right of the blackball is sacred. Society would not be worthy of the name if it possessed no safeguards against the intrusion of uncongenial persons; it would degenerate into a mere mob. The parties to a trial by jury have a right to challenge peremptorily those whom they do not wish to have for jurors; we claim the same right, and the same privilege of withholding our reasons." In such words might the members of the charmed circle reply to those who knock for admission; and if one asks why the parvenu is smiled at, the reasons are not far to seek.
A parvenu, in the first place, is not a soldier who has been promoted from the ranks for merit; he is rather a deserter from his own friends and belongings. He is a renegade, and the world despises renegades and turncoats. Parvenus have been defined as those who do not want to belong to their own people, and do not in reality belong to any other.
Thus it will be seen that a man who rises in the social scale because he deserves to rise, is not necessarily a parvenu. The man of high talent, the great general, the successful politician, need make no effort to go into society. Society comes to them, and is only too happy to secure their presence at all fκtes. Such men are no parvenus, and are not considered in that odious light. The parvenu is the man who has succeeded in society, succeeded because of his own efforts. He has been the active agent of his own elevation; he has sought it, and sought it at the expense of old ties, old friendships. Like the woman in the story, who flung her children to the wolves to save her own life, the parvenu will sacrifice not only his wife's relations, but most of his own, to the Moloch of gentility. His conduct is virtually that of Trabb's boy in Dickens' " Great Expectations." He says " I don't know you " to every one save the few people whom he considers it desirable to know.
Your true parvenu is not a man who wishes to raise all mankind to the same high level, or even to pull them down to a lower level. He is no democrat very far from it. All that he wishes is to raise himself, and when he has once attained the coveted position, he instantly reverses his tactics. His efforts then are all directed downward instead of upward. He wishes to push away the Iadder by which he has himself climbed and to prevent any one else from following in his footsteps. The parvenu is wondrously exclusive; he knows by his own experience that social barriers can be forced, and it grieves him excessively if others leap in through the gap which he has made!
He is usually a bold, persistent person, who has taken the social world by storm; he stands where he has longed to stand; he has conquered all weapons employed against him, save that last unconquerable weapon, the defence of all intellect against brute strength, ridicule. Satire has ever been the dread of tyrants, the refuge of oppression. With its lash Horace, Juvenal and Persius scourged the wickedness and folly of their times, while Rabelais and Chaucer attacked with it the rottenness and corruption of the Church, whereof no man durst then openly complain. Nay, why else was Socrates put to death, save because he wielded the flashing blade of ridicule as no one has been able to do before or since?
In the words of the little Queen Anne's man:
Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see
O sacred weapon! left for truth's defence,
Pore: Epilogue to the Satires.
Therefore when society has been conquered by some ruthless invader, what wonder if it falls back on its last resource, a smile, and thus declares that the conqueror shall never win its respect, though he may have succeeded in forcing himself into an undesired fellowship!
The stories that are related at the expense of parvenus show the esteem in which they are held, how this one drew the line at his own brother, when making out a list of invitations for a great ball; how that one cut all his old friends as soon as he had safely secured a position among more advantageous acquaintances.
Shakespeare, in " A Winter's Tale," gives us a bit of his delightful and inimitable satire, at the expense of those who have been suddenly elevated by a freak of fortune.
" Clown. You denied to fight with me this other day, be-cause I was no gentleman born. See you these clothes? say you see them not and think me still no gentleman born: you were best to say these robes are not gentlemen born: give me the lie, do, and try whether I am not now a gentleman born.
" Autolycus. I know you are now, sir, a gentleman born.
" Clown. Ay, and have been so any time these four hours.
" Shep. And so have I, boy.
" Clown. So you have: but I was a gentleman born before my father; for the king's son took me by the hand, and called me brother; and then the two kings called my father brother; and then the prince my brother and the princess my sister called my father father; and so we wept, and there was the first gentle-manlike tears that ever we shed."
Thackeray, in his " Diary of C. Jeames de la Pluche," has followed out a similar train of thought, but at greater length, and with more elaboration. The following account of Jeames's presentation at court hides a keen thrust at the toadyism and snobbishness of mankind in general, while it pretends to attack only the folly of the poor silly footman, who has completely lost his head in his sudden exaltation.
" You, per'aps, may igspect that I should narrait at lenth the suckmstanzas of my hawjince with the British Crown. But I am not one who would gratafy imputtnint curaiosaty. Rispect for our reckonized instatewtions is my fust quallaty. I, for one, will dye rallying round my Thrown.
" Sufοise it to say, when I stood in the Horgust Presnts when I sor on the right & of my Himperial Sovring that Most Gracious Prins, to admire womb has been the chief Objick of my life, my busum was seased with an imotium which my Penn rifewses to dixeribe my trembling knees halmost rifused their hoffis I reckleck nothing mor until I was found phainting in the harms of the Lord Chamberling. Sir Robert Peal apnd to be standing by (I knew our wuthy Primmier by Punch's pictures of him, igspecially his ligs) and he was conwussing with a man of womb I shall say nothink, but that he is a Hero of 100 fites, and hevery fite he fit he one. Nead I say that I elude to Harthur of Wellingting? I introjuiced myself to these Jents, and intend to improve the equaintance, and per'aps ast Guvmint for a Barnetcy."
While we laugh at the absurd airs and ridiculous affectations of the footman turned gentleman, Thackeray takes good care to show us the greater worldliness, the more unpardonable folly, of those who receive the parvenu into their society solely because of his wealth, and cater to the insolence of a low-bred lackey in the hope of furthering their own fortunes.
The parvenu could never succeed in forcing an entrance into the citadel of good society, were there not traitors among the garrison ready to aid and abet him, people quite willing to barter the influence of their social position for the gold or the gifts of their new associate. Therefore the parvenu has quite as good a right to despise his new-found and mercenary acquaintances as they have to look down upon him. Indeed, his contempt is more justifiable than theirs, because he has forced these people to falsify their own traditions, abandon their own theories, and stoop from their own deliberately chosen position, - they, the men of culture, education, and high-breeding, and all in favor of one whose advantages, save in the single point of money, have been far inferior to their own: The higher the sinner stands, so much the greater is his sin. Where a high-born family accept a rich boor for their son-in-law, who can pity them if he walks over their sensibilities and their prejudices rough-shod? They must have known that he would do so; and it is a part of their just punishment that they should become doormats under the feet of the coarse Croesus whose ingots they basely coveted.
To do justice to the nouveaux-riches, it is not always they who make the overtures to what is technically termed society. Society, or certain emissaries thereof, sometimes go to them, knocking at their gates and asking leave to come into their ample halls. In this case the newly rich man is not obliged to abandon his dignity, but merely yields gracefully to the force of circumstances.
No one would advise such a man to take up his abode in the good city of Boston, however, under the influence of any such delusive hope. If he had the wealth of the Rothschilds, the Vanderbilts, and the Astors all rolled into one, he might live to be as old as Methuselah, yet never be invited to join the fashionable set, unless he made the first advances himself, and made them, be it said, with the greatest circumspection. The fashionable society of the grand old Puritan city cannot but have something of the sternness which characterizes the native land of conscience; it is to be feared that they use that sternness chiefly toward outsiders, " and slay them with their noble birth."
New people have found their way into the most aristocratic circles of Boston, but they have got in through the back-door of Europe, or gone around by the way of Newport or Mount Desert. No one ever yet went boldly up to the front door of Beacon Street, and struck with the lance's-point on the shield which hangs there ever ready for the fray, no one ever did this, and lived to tell the tale. At least, he never cared to tell the only tale which he could truthfully unfold, because it was full of sorrow and defeat.
But e'en the failings of the dear old city lean to virtue's side; she never could submit to conquest in the days of Bunker Hill and Lexington, and she doesn't mean to now. On the whole, it is a proud boast of Boston, that she does not allow her most exclusive circles to be invaded as readily as do other cities; and more than one ambitious family has left her precincts in despair of ever achieving social success there.
But if it be legitimate for certain people to refuse to grant to others coveted social privileges, there are still various ways in which that refusal may be ex-pressed, some courteous, and some just the reverse of courteous. " One would rather be trodden upon by a velvet slipper than by a wooden shoe," said some one apropos of the French Revolution; and there is a way of saying " no " that takes half the sting from that bitter monosyllable.
Among the weapons that exclusive people take to keep others at a distance, none is more aggravating, none is more unpleasant, than a species of haughty stare, a look of half-suppressed pride and disdain, with which many women and especially many young women disfigure their countenances. To do them justice, they probably are not aware of their own expression; but it is the hidden thought, the inward feeling of superiority, that betrays itself unbidden on the face. And the cruellest use of this weapon is when it is employed in a reckless and indiscriminating way against the innocent and the guilty alike.
A young woman will walk abroad, armed and protected by this Gorgon's-head expression of countenance, and during her progress she will distribute haughty glances right and left, bestowing them not only on people whom she does not know, but on people who do not know her, and do not even know who she is, save that she assumes the air of the Great Mogul himself.
How wise were the ancient Athenians when they set forth in their fable that only one of the Gorgons was mortal, but that the remaining two of the dread sisters could not perish! It has seemed to some of us, when walking the streets of our native Boston, that those two old Gorgons were indeed alive, alive in modern Athens, and that their beautiful, cold, cruel faces, young but stony, still petrified the men and women whom they encountered!
Nor is it in Boston alone that one finds the sin of pride openly written on the human brow. Even in small towns and villages one may often observe persons whose air seems to say, " I own, if not the whole earth, certainly all that is worth speaking of." And to those who seriously contemplate assuming this high-toned expression of countenance, perhaps a word of warning may not come amiss. Do not try to look as if you owned " all creation " unless you are perfectly sure that you do. The least failure in this grand attempt, the least wavering in your look, will be fatal to your pre-tensions.
It goes without saying that the undisguised and therefore most offensive look of pride, what Dickens called the " turned-up-nosed peacock " expression, is seldom if ever seen, except on the face of some parvenu, or some newly rich person, whose recently acquired fortune has had an unhappy effect on the angle of his nasal elevation.
The true aristocrat, the man who has inherited from his ancestors a high social position, may not be lacking in pride, but he does not consider it necessary to ex-press it constantly in his manner and bearing, to go about exasperating his fellow-mortals by a constant assumption of superiority over them. He is, on the contrary, indisposed both by nature and training to injure the feelings of any one else. " Noblesse oblige " is his motto, and it obliges, above all other things, to perfect civility of demeanor and speech. The true aristocrat is so sure of his own position that he does not need to bolster it up by haughty looks or words.
There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, in the case of men whose souls are little and mean, and who are vulgarians at heart, in whatever station in life they may 'happen to have been born; just as among those who are of the most humble birth and breeding there is occasionally to be found a man whose natural nobility of character and native refinement stamp him as one of nature's gentlemen.
Burns belonged to the latter class. The letters of this most unfortunate man of genius are full of just and bitter indignation at the neglect, the contempt with which he was too often treated. As Carlyle says, in his noble eulogium of the peasant poet, mankind could find nothing better to do with this wonderful man than to make a gauger of him!
In our own country we have no recognized aristocracy, no absolutely superior class, and we have reason to be devoutly thankful therefor. But our democratic form of society is attended with some evils, and one of these is the boundless self-assertion with which many people strive to eke out what else were very insufficient claims to social preeminence. They know, at the bottom of their hearts, that they have no real right to the superiority which they would fain assume; hence they strive, by an arrogant bearing, by an aping of the faults of the aristocracies of European countries, to put themselves on a level with these latter. They forget that the higher the station, the greater are its obligations. An hereditary nobility without refinement, grace, or a sense of duty and responsibility, with no claim to elevated rank save that of boundless pride, would not long be endured by any country. Its members may often be profligate and morally worth-less; but even such unworthy scions of a noble race know that amiability and graciousness are expected of them, why else the title " Your Grace " ? When we come to royalty, it is very plain that even the puppet kings and queens of England pay dearly for their exalted station, by the sacrifice of their own time, tastes and pleasures, by the wretched condition of dress parade, and the continual appearance in public, which is rigorously exacted of them.
Hence the spectacle of one set of people claiming to be like Another simply because they have produced a fair imitation of the faults of the latter, is about as absurd as if a scarecrow should claim to be like a man because he too wore a coat and hat!
While pride, as a weapon of offence, is entirely out of place in civilized society, there is still a certain species of it, what people call proper pride, which a self-respecting man has a perfect right to use as a shield against impertinence or over-familiarity. There are persons in this world who will take advantage of the courtesy with which they are treated, to assume a familiarity that the acquaintanceship in no wise warrants, towards those whom they know very slightly. Such persons have only themselves to blame if they are snubbed. To be perfectly polite and courteous, and to be " hail fellow, well met " with everybody one meets, are two very different matters.
The rebuke of the young King Henry V. to the impertinent greeting of Falstaff is a famous instance of a richly deserved reprimand, not of vice only, but of undue familiarity as well. Yet the royal Harry was not filled with an overweening pride of place. He was the darling of his soldiery, not for his skill and bravery alone, but for his humane and generous temper as well. His oft-quoted epitaph on Falstaff,
" Poor Jack, farewell!
I could have better spared a better man,"
shows his real appreciation of the wit and genial humor of his famous companion.
In the same way, when our friend Jeames is treated with hauteur by Captain George Silvertop, we feel that the gallant Captain is in the right, though our sympathies are with the eloquent Jeames.
" 'Mr. De la Pluche,' here said a gintlemen in whiskers and mistashes standing by, ' hadn't you better take your spurs out of the Countess of Bare-acres' train? ' ` Never mind mamma's train ' (said Lady Hangelina), ' this is the great Mr. De la Pluche let me present you to Captain George Silvertop.' The Capting bent just one jint of his back very slitely; I retund his stare with equill hottiness."
The man who goes about the world enraging everybody by his ill-concealed pride and arrogance, is like a householder who throws hot water out of the window on the inoffensive passers-by. But the man who appears haughty only when he is treated with unwarrantable familiarity, may be likened to the householder who knows that his house is his castle, and will not permit trespassers therein. " It makes my blood boil to be treated with the supercilious manner which Mr. puts on toward me because he is rich and I am poor," said an intelligent young man not long since.
Oh, men and women on whom fortune has smiled, do you realize how cruel you are to use the success which Providence has given you, as a two-edged weapon with which to stab and thrust back those who are less fortunate than yourselves? You do not, I am sure you do not; for if you did, you would remember that it is the arrogance of the victor which makes defeat bitter to the vanquished. Surely success should bring smiles and happiness, not frowns and arrogance. How well did the ancient Romans understand the weakness and pride of the human heart when they placed the slave, with his " memento mori," in the triumphal car of the conqueror!
Thackeray had a theory that snobbishness was universal; that every one was more or less of a snob at heart. It seems to me that the great satirist had studied this odious phase of human character so long, that his view had become somewhat jaundiced thereby. Might we not say more truly that snobbishness is a sort of fever which every one has at some period of his existence? Many people recover from it after one dreadful attack, which always occurs between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five. Others, again, are subject to an intermittent variety of snobbishness; while to some persons it clings with the persistence of a true malaria, and they are never wholly free from its malign influence.
Human nature is too full of varied emotions to be treated as if it were a one-stringed fiddle playing the same old tune everlastingly. We are not always under the dominion of the same faults, any more than we are always swayed by the same virtues. There were seven devils who entered the house spoken of in Scripture; and while Snobbishness is certainly a very large and powerful devil, it is not the only one of its tribe. Indeed, it may be considered in the light of a single manifestation of two evil forces, -- selfishness and cowardice. A man is a snob first, because he is afraid of what other people may say of him; and second, because he is selfish and wishes to advance his own way in the world.
It seems a little singular that youth should be the time of life which is more subject than any other to this form of moral cowardice; because in the mere matter of physical courage young people are very superior to their elders. But youth is very selfish in many ways, though full of noble and generous emotions if the right chords are only touched. The young man, newly released from the pleasant bondage of childhood, sees the whole world suddenly placed within his reach, as he thinks. At the same time it is revealed to him, as by a flash of light, that mankind attach great importance to the outward shows and forms of things, a truth which is entirely concealed from the clear and beautiful vision of childhood. So the young man, filled with a desire to grasp the sum of earthly happiness, and over-estimating the importance of what we call appearances, - because he has just found out that they are of any consequence at all, -- becomes a good deal of a snob in minor and outward matters. He suffers tortures if he is obliged to do anything except what everybody else does, or if he is obliged to appear in any way unlike other people. But a child seldom troubles its happy little heart about what people will think or say, or about its own appearance. A pretty little girl of twelve fell down on the ice some years ago and broke out one. of her front teeth. Her relatives were very much troubled at this misfortune, and at the sad havoc that it made in the little lady's beauty. But she herself was perfectly serene as soon as the pain had subsided, and tried in vain to understand why her friends were troubled. She had plenty of teeth left, she said, and it did not hurt now!
The torments which parents endure from the extraordinary sensitiveness to appearances which afflicts their growing sons and daughters, would be pathetic were they not so universal. The young people suddenly discover that the charming roomy old mansion in which they have been brought up is shabby and old-fashioned. The family carryall, in which they have driven sleepily to church from their earliest infancy, is changed in the twinkling of an eye from an easy-going, delightful old vehicle, to a hopelessly decrepit rattletrap. The horse is condemned, without appeal, as old, fat and lame, and the driver is not half spruce enough, he must have a tall hat, mutton-chop whiskers, top-boots and livery, without delay.
As to the young lady and gentleman themselves, of course their raiment is found to be hopelessly out of style, and nothing but the services of the most expensive tailors for both sexes can make them feel in any degree satisfied with their own appearance. A domes-tic revolution takes place very promptly; poor paterfamilias puts on a very rueful face, and wishes that if young people must be discontented with their clothes, like Cinderella, that they would at least follow her example by providing their own fairy godmother.
The theory that fine feathers make fine birds seems to be a very old one. In a delightful ballad, which must be nearly as old as the wars between Stephen and Mathilda, and from which Shakespeare quotes, we find these verses:
O Bell, my wiffe, why dost thou floute?
They are cladd in blacke, greane, yellowe, or gray
King Stephen was a worthy peere,
( Originally Published 1911 )
Pride And Parvenus
There Is Nothing New Under The Sun
Etiquette Of Sport
Theatre And Supper Parties
Hints For Young Men Washington Customs
Read More Articles About: Social Customs