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Except two, all these Essays have previously appeared in the
Fortnightly Review and the North American Review.





GARDENS, ...... 45





THE ITALY OF TO-DAY, . . . .145


L'UoMO FATALE, . . . . .188

THE NEW WOMAN, .... 205

DEATH AND PITY, . . . . .223

SHELLEY, ...... 254



VULGARITY, . . . . .327





'Ses divertissements sont infiniment moins raisonnables que
ses ennuis.' PASCAL.

A BRILLIANT and daring thinker lately pub-
lished some admirable papers called ' Under
the Yoke of the Butterflies.' The only thing which
I would have changed in those delightful satires
would have been the title. There are no butterflies
in this fast, furious and fussy age. They all died
with the eighteenth century, or if a few still lingered
on into this, they perished forever with the dandies.
The butterfly is a creature of the most perfect taste,
arrayed in the most harmonious colours : the butter-
fly is always graceful, leisurely, aerial, unerring in
its selection of fragrance and freshness, lovely as the
summer day through which it floats. The dominant
classes of the present day have nothing in the least
degree akin to the butterflies ; would to Heaven that
they had ! Their pleasures would be more elegant,
their example more artistic, their idleness more
picturesque than these are now. They would rest



peacefully on their roses instead of nailing them to
a ballroom wall ; they would hover happily above
their lilies and carnations without throwing them
about in dust and dirt at carnivals.

Butterflies never congregate in swarms ; it is only
locusts which do that. Butterflies linger with lan-
guorous movement, always softly rhythmical and
undulating even when most rapid, through the sunny
air above the blossoming boughs. The locust is
jammed together in a serried host, and tears breath-
lessly forward without knowing in the least why or
where he goes, except that he must move on and
must devour. There is considerable analogy be-
tween the locust and society ; none between society
and the butterfly. But be the yoke called what it
will, it lies heavily on the world, and there is no
strength in the strongest sufficient to lift it up and
cast it off, for its iron is Custom and its ropes are
Foolishness and Bad Example, and what is termed
Civilisation carries it as the steer carries the nose-
ring and the neck-beam.

Some clever people have of late been writing a
great deal about society, taking English society as
their especial theme. But there are certain facts and
features in all modern society which they do not
touch : perhaps they are too polite, or too politic.
In the first place they seem to except, even whilst
attacking them, smart people as elegant people, and
to confuse the two together : the two words are
synonymous in their minds, but are far from being
so in reality. Many leaders of the smart sets are
wholly unrefined in taste, loud in manner, and fol-
lowed merely because they please certain person-


ages, spend or seem to spend profusely, and are seen
at all the conspicuous gatherings of the season in
London and wherever else society congregates. This
is why the smart sets have so little refining influence
on society. They may be common, even vulgar ; it
is not necessary even for them to speak grammatic-
ally ; if they give real jewels with their cotillon toys
and have a perfect artist at the head of their kitchens,
they can become 'smart,' and receive royalty as
much and as often as they please. The horrible word
smart has been invented on purpose to express this :
smartness has been borrowed from the vocabulary
of the kitchenmaids to express something which is at
the top of the fashion, without being necessarily
either well born or well bred. Smart people may be
both the latter, but it is not necessary that they
should be either. They may be smart by mere force
of chance, impudence, charm, or the faculty of mak-
ing a royal bored one laugh.

It is, therefore, impossible for the smart people to
have much influence for good on the culture and
manners of the society they dominate. A beau monde,
really exclusive, elegant and of high culture, not to
be bought by any amount of mere riches or display,
would have a great refining influence on manner and
culture, and its morality, or lack of it, would not
matter much. Indeed, society cannot be an accurate
judge of morality ; the naughty clever people know
well how to keep their pleasant sins unseen ; the
candid, warm-hearted people always sin the sole sin
which really injures anybody they get found out.
' You may break all the ten commandments every
day if you like,' said Whyte Melville, 'provided


only you observe the eleventh, "Thou shalt not be
found out." ' There is a morality or immorality, that
of the passions, with which society ought to have
little or nothing to do ; but there is another kind with
which it should have a good deal to do, i.e., the low
standard of honour and principle which allows persons
in high place to take up richards for sheer sake of
their wealth, and go to houses which have nothing to
recommend them except the fact that convenient
rendezvous may be arranged at them, or gambling
easily prosecuted in them. But it is not society as
constituted at the present year of grace which will
have either the courage or the character to do this.
Theoretically, it may condemn what it calls immorality
and gambling, but it will always arrange its house-
party in accord with the affinities which it sedulously
remembers and ostensibly ignores, and will allow bac'
to follow coffee after dinner rather than illustrious
persons should pack up and refuse to return.

At risk of arousing the censure of readers, I confess
that I would leave to society a very large liberty in
the matter of its morality or immorality, if it would
only justify its existence by any originality, any
grace, any true light and loveliness. In the face of
its foes lying grimly waiting for it, with explosives in
their pockets, society should justify its own existence
by its own beauty, delicacy and excellence of choice
and taste. It should, as Auberon Herbert has said,
be a centre whence light should radiate upon the rest
of the world. But one can only give what one has,
and as it has no clear light or real joy within itself it
cannot diffuse them, and in all probability never will.
* The Souls ' do, we know, strive in their excellent


intentions and their praiseworthy faith to produce
them, but they are too few in numbers, and are already
too tightly caught in the tyres of the great existing
machinery to be able to do much towards this end.
After all, a society does but represent the temper of
the age in which it exists, and the faults of the
society of our time are the faults of that time itself ;
they are its snobbishness, its greed, its haste, its
slavish adoration of a royalty which is wholly out of
time and keeping with it, and of a wealth of which
it asks neither the origin nor the solidity, and which
it is content only to borrow and bask in as pigs in

It is not luxury which is enervating ; it is over-
eating, over-smoking, and the poisoned atmosphere of
crowded rooms. Edmond de Goncourt likes best to
write in a grey, bare room which contains nothing to
suggest an idea or distract the imagination. But few
artists or poets would desire such an entourage.
Beauty is always inspiration. There is nothing in a
soft seat, a fragrant atmosphere, a well-regulated
temperature, a delicate dinner, to banish high thought ;
on the contrary, the more refined and lovely the place
the happier and more productive ought to be the
mind. Beautiful things can be created independently
of place ; but the creator of them suffers when he can
enjoy beauty only in his dreams. I do not think that
the rich enjoy beauty one whit more than the poor in
this day. They are in too great a hurry to do so.
There is no artistic enjoyment without repose. Their
beautiful rooms are scarcely seen by them except
when filled with a throng. Their beautiful gardens
and parks are visited by them rarely and reluctantly.


Their treasures of art give them no pleasure unless
they believe them unique, unequalled. Their days,
which might be beautiful, are crammed with incessant
engagements, and choked with almost incessant eating.
In England the heavy breakfasts, the ponderous
luncheons, the long, tedious dinners, not to speak of
the afternoon teas and the liqueurs and spirits before
bedtime, fill up more than half the waking hours ;
' stoking,' as it is elegantly called, is the one joy which
never palls on the human machine, until he pays
for it with dyspepsia and gout. People who live
habitually well should be capable of denying their
appetites enough to pass from London to Paris, or
Paris to London, without wanting to eat and drink.
But in point of fact they never dream of such denial
of the flesh, and they get out at the buffets of Boulogne
and Amiens with alacrity, or order both breakfast and
dinner, with wines at choice, in the club-train. A
train de luxe is, by the the way, the epitome and por-
trait of modern society ; it provides everything for
the appetite ; it gives cushions, newspapers and iced
drinks ; it whirls the traveller rapidly from capital to
capital ; but the steam is in his nostrils, the cinder
dust is in his eyes, and the roar of the rattling wheels is
in his ears. I do not think that plain living and high
thinking are a necessary alliance. Good food, delicate
and rich, is like luxury ; it should not be shunned,
but enjoyed. It is one of the best products of what is
called civilisation, and should be duly appreciated by
all those who can command it. But feeding should
not occupy the exaggerated amount of time which is
given to it in society, nor cost the enormous amount
of money which is at present spent on it.


Luxury in itself is a most excellent thing, and I
would fain see it more general, as the luxury of the
bath was in Imperial Rome open to one and all ;
with the water streaming over the shining silver and
snowy marbles, and the beauty of porphyry and jade
and agate gleaming under the silken awning, alike
for plebeian and patrician. It is not for its luxury
for a moment that I would rebuke the modern world :
but for its ugly habits, its ugly clothes, its ugly hurry-
skurry, whereby it so grossly disfigures, and through
which it scarcely even perceives or enjoys the agree-
able things around it.

Luxury is the product and result of all the more
delicate inventions and combinations of human in-
telligence and handicraft. To refuse its graces and
comforts would be as unwise as to use a rudely-
sharpened flint instead of a good table-knife. A far
more lamentable fact than the existence of luxury is
that it is so little enjoyed and so rarely made general.
We deliberately surrender the enjoyment of the
luxury of good cooking because we most stupidly
mix up eating with talking, and lose the subtle and
fine flavours of our best dishes because we consider
ourselves obliged to converse with somebody on our
right or our left whilst we eat them. We neutralise
the exquisite odours of our finest flowers by the
scent of wines and smoking dishes. We spoil our
masterpieces of art by putting them together pell-
mell in our rooms, smothered under a discordant
mingling of different objects and various styles. We
allow nicotines to poison the breath of our men and
women. We desire a crowd on our stairs and a crush
in our rooms as evidence of our popularity and our


distinction. We cannot support eight days of the
country without a saturnalia of slaughter. We are so
tormented by the desire to pack forty-eight hours
into twenty-four, that we gobble our time up breath-
lessly without tasting its flavour, as a greedy school-
boy gobbles up stolen pears without peeling them.
Of the true delights of conversation, leisure, thought,
art and solitude, society en masse has hardly more
idea than a flock of geese has of Greek. There is in
the social atmosphere, in the social life of what is
called ' the world,' a subtle and intoxicating influence
which is like a mixture of champagne and opium,
and has this in common with the narcotic, that it is
very difficult and depressing to the taker thereof to
leave it off and do without it. As La Bruyere said
of the court life of his time, it does not make us
happy but it makes us unable to find happiness
elsewhere. After a full and feverish season we have
all known the reaction which follows on the return to
a quiet life. There is a magnetic attraction in the
great giddy gyrations of fashionable and political
life. To cede to this magnetism for a while may be
highly beneficial ; but to make of it the vital necessity
of existence, as men and women of the world now do,
is as fatal as the incessant use of any other stimulant
or opiate.

The great malady of the age is the absolute in-
ability to support solitude, or to endure silence.

Statesmanship is obscured in babbling speech ;
art and literature are represented by mere hurried
impressions snatched from unwillingly - accorded
moments of a detested isolation ; life is lived in a
throng, in a rush, in a gallop ; the day was lost to


Titus if it did not record a good action ; the day is
lost to the modern man and woman unless it be spent
in a mob. The horror of being alone amounts in our
time to a disease. To be left without anybody else
to amuse it fills the modern mind with terror. c La
solitude n'effraie pas le penseur : il y a toujours
quelqu'un dans la chambre,' a witty writer has said ;
but it is the wit as well as the fool in this day who
flies from his own company ; it is the artist as well
as the dandy who seeks the boulevard and the crowd.
There is nothing more costly than this hatred of
one's own company, than this lack of resources and
occupations independent of other persons. What
ruins ninety-nine households out of a hundred is the
expense of continual visiting and inviting. Every-
body detests entertaining, but as they all know that
they must receive to be received, and they cannot
bring themselves to support solitude, people ruin
themselves in entertainment. There can scarcely be
a more terrible sign of decadence than the indiffer-
ence with which the grands de la terre are everywhere
selling their collections and their libraries. Instead
of altering the excessive display and expenditure
which impoverish them, and denying themselves that
incessant amusement which they have grown to con-
sider a necessity, they choose to sell the books, the
pictures and the manuscripts which are the chief
glories of their homes ; often they even sell also their
ancestral woods.

This day, as I write, great estates which have been
in the same English family for six hundred years are
going to the hammer. This ghastly necessity may
be in part brought about by agricultural depression,


but it is far more probably due to the way of living
of the times which must exhaust all fortunes based
on land. If men and women were content to dwell
on their estates, without great display or frequent
entertainment, their incomes would suffice in many
cases. It is not the old home which ruins them : it
is the London house with its incessant expenditure,
the house-parties with their replica of London, the
women's toilettes, the men's shooting and racing and
gaming, the Nile boat, the Cairene winter, the weeks
at Monte Carlo, the Scotch moors, the incessant,
breathless round of intermingled sport and pleasure
danced on the thin ice of debt, and kept up frequently
for mere appearances' sake, without any genuine
enjoyment, only from a kind of false shame and a
real inability to endure life out of a crowd.

There is a stimulant and a drug, as I have said, in
the curious mixture of excitement and ennui, of
animation and fatigue, produced by society, and
without this mixture the man and woman of the
world cannot exist ; and to find the purchase-money of
this drug is what impoverishes them, and makes them
indifferent to their own degradation, and sends their
beautiful old woods and old books and old pictures to
the shameful uproar of the sale-rooms. If the passion
for the slaughter of tame creatures which is almost an
insanity, so absorbing and so dominant is it, could be
done away with in England, and the old houses be
really lived in by their owners all the year round with
genuine affection and scholarly taste, as they were
lived in by many families in Stuart and Georgian
days, their influence over the counties and the villages
would be incalculable and admirable, as Mr Auberon


Herbert and Mr Frederick Greenwood have recently
said ; and the benefit accruing to the fortunes of the
nobles and gentry would be not less.

It is not only in England that men have become
bored by and neglectful of their great estates. All
over Italy stand magnificent villas left to decay or
tenanted by peasants, the lizard creeping in the
crevices of forgotten frescoes, the wild vine climbing
over the marbles of abandoned sculptures, the oranges
and the medlars falling ungathered on the mosaics of
the mighty and desolate courts. Why is this ? In
the earlier centuries men and women loved pleasure
well, and had few scruples ; yet they loved and
honoured their country houses, and were happy in
their fragrant alleys and their storied chambers, and
spent magnificently on their adornment and enrich-
ment with a noble pride. It is only now in the latest
years of the nineteenth century that these superb
places are left all over Europe to dust, decay, and
slow but sure desolation, whilst the owners spend
their time in play or speculation, call for bocks and
brandies in the club-rooms of the world, and buy
shares in mushroom building companies.

Marion Crawford observes dryly ' that it is useless
to deny the enormous influence of brandy and games
of chance on the men of the present day.' It is in-
deed so useless that no one who knows anything of
our society would dream of attempting to deny it,
and if we substitute morphia for brandy, we may say
much the same of a large proportion of the women of
the present day. Drinking and gambling, in some
form or another, is the most general vice of the cul-
tured world, which censures the island labourer for


his beer and skittles, and condemns the continental
workman for his absinthe and lotteries. It is a
strange form of progress which makes educated
people incapable of resisting the paltry pleasures of
the green-table and the glass ; a strange form of
culture which ends at the spirit frame, the playing
cards, and the cigar box. The poor Japanese coolie
amongst the lilies and lilacs of his little garden is
surely nearer both culture and progress than the
drinker and the gambler of the modern clubs.

Reflect on the enormous cost of a boy's education
when he belongs to the higher strata of social life, and
reflect, also, that as soon as he becomes his own
master he will, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred,
take advantage of his liberty only to do what
Crawford's young Don Orsino does, i.e., drink brandy,
gamble at bac', and try to gain admittance into the
larger gaming of the Bourses. It will certainly be
allowed by any dispassionate judge, that a better re-
sult might be arrived at with such exorbitant cost ;
that a nobler animal ought to be produced by such
elaborate and wholly useless training.

Drinking and gambling (in varied forms it is true,
but in essence always the same) are the staple delights
of modern life, whether in the rude western shanty ot
the navvy, the miner and the digger, or in the
luxurious card-rooms of the clubs and the country
houses of the older world. We have even turned
all the rest of creation into living dice for us, and the
horse trots or gallops, the dog is fastened to the show-
bench, the pigeon flies from the trap, even the rat
fights the terrier that our fevered pulses may beat still
quicker in the unholy agitation of a gamester's greed.


\Ve are great gamblers, and the gambler is always
a strangely twisted mixture of extravagance and
meanness. Expenditure is not generosity ; we are
lavish but we are not liberal ; we will waste two
thousand pounds on an entertainment, but we can-
not spare five pounds for a friend in distress. For the
most part we live not only up to but far beyond our
incomes, and the necessary result is miserliness in
small things and to those dependent on us.

' Ses divertissements sont infiniments moins raison-
nables que ses ennuis,' says Pascal of the society of
his day, and the statement stands good of our own.
Society has no pleasure which is graceful or elevating,
except music ; but music listened to in a crowd loses
half its influence ; and it is an insult to the most
spiritual of all the arts to regard it, as it is regarded
in society, as a mere interlude betwixt dinner and
the card-table. There is little except music which is
beautiful in the pageantries of this day. A ball is still a
pretty sight if it takes place in a great house, and if not
too many people have been invited. But except this,
and this only in a great house, all entertainments are
unsightly. No decoration of a dinner-table, no gold
plate, and orchidae, and electric light, and old china
can make even tolerable, artistically speaking, the
sight of men and women sitting bolt upright close
together taking their soup around it. A full concert-
room, lecture-room, church, are a hideous sight. A
garden party in fair weather and fine grounds alone
has a certain grace and charm ; but garden parties,
like all other modern spectacles, are spoilt by the
attire of the men, the most frightful, grotesque and
disgraceful male costume which the world has ever


seen. When the archaeologists of the future dig up one
of our bronze statues in trousers they will have no need
to go further for evidence of the ineptitude and idiotcy
of the age. What our historians call the dark ages had
costumes, alike for the villein and the seigneur, adap-
ted to their needs, serviceable, picturesque and comely ;
this age alone, which vaunts its superiority, has a
clothing for its men which is at once utterly un-
sightly, unhealthy, and so constructed that all the bodily
beauty of an Apollo or an Achilles would be obscured,
caricatured, and deformed by it. The full height of
its absurdity is reached when the glazier comes in his
black suit to mend your windows, and brings his
working clothes in a bundle to be put on ere he works
and put off ere he goes into the street. The political
incapacity with which the natives of Ireland are
charged by English statesmen never seemed to me so
conclusively proven as by their persistence in wearing
ragged tail-coats and battered tall hats in their stony
fields and on their sodden bogs. A man who cannot
clothe his own person reasonably is surely a man
incapable of legislating for himself and for his kind.
This rule, however, if acted on, would disfranchise
Europe and the United States.

To a society which had any true perception of
beauty, grace, or elegance, the masher would be im-
possible ; the shoulder-handshake, the tall hat, the
eternal cigarette, the stiff collar, the dead birds on the
ball-dresses and bonnets, the perspiring struggles of
the sexes on the tennis ground, and a thousand other
similar things would not be for a moment endured.
To a society which had any high standard of refine-
ment such entertainments as are appropriately called


' crushes ' would be insupportable ; the presence and
the speeches of women on public platforms would be

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaViews and opinions → online text (page 1 of 30)