American Duchesses by Grant Allen

Story type: Essay

Every American woman is by birth a duchess.

There, you see, I have taken you in. When you saw the heading, “American Duchesses,” you thought I was going to purvey some piquant scandal about high-placed ladies; and you straightway began to read my essay. That shows I rightly interpreted your human nature. There’s a deal of human nature flying about unrecognised. Yet when I said duchesses, I actually meant it. For the American woman is the only real aristocrat now living in America.

These remarks are forced upon me by a brilliant afternoon on the Promenade des Anglais. All Nice is there, in its cosmopolitan butterfly variety, flaunting itself in the sun in the very ugly dresses now in fashion. I don’t know why, but the mode of the moment consists in making everything as exaggerated as possible, and sedulously hiding the natural contours of the human figure. But let that pass; the day is too fine for a man to be critical. The band is playing Mascagni’s last in the Jardin Public; the carriages are drawn up beside the palms and judas-trees that fringe the Paillon; the sous-officiers are strolling along the wall with their red caps stuck jauntily just a trifle on one side, as though to mow down nursemaids were the one legitimate occupation of the brav’ militaire. And among them all, proud, tall, disdainful, glide the American duchesses, cold, critical, high-toned, yet ready to strike up, should opportunity serve, appropriate acquaintance with their natural equals, the dukes of Europe.

“And the American dukes?”–There aren’t any. “But these ladies’ husbands and fathers and brothers?”–Oh, they’re business men, working hard for the duchesses in Wall Street, or on ‘Change in Chicago. And that’s why I say quite seriously the American woman is the only real aristocrat now living in America. Everybody who has seen much of Americans must have noticed for himself how really superior American women are, on the average, to the men of their kind. I don’t mean merely that they are better dressed, and better groomed, and better got up, and better mannered than their brothers. I mean that they have a real superiority in the things worth having–the things that are more excellent–in education, culture, knowledge, taste, good feeling. And the reason is not far to seek. They represent the only leisured class in America. They are the one set of people from Maine to California who have time to read, to think, to travel, to look at good pictures, to hear good music, to mix with society that can improve and elevate them. They have read Daudet; they have seen the Vatican. The women thus form a natural aristocracy–the only aristocracy the country possesses.

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I am aware that in saying this I take my life in my hands. I shall be prepared to defend myself from the infuriated Westerner with the usual argument, which I shall carry about loaded in all its chambers in my right-hand pocket. I am also aware that less infuriated Easterners, choosing their own more familiar weapon, will inundate my leisure with sardonic inquiries whether I don’t consider Oliver Wendell Holmes or Charles Eliot Norton (thus named in full) the equal in culture of the average American woman. Well, I frankly admit these cases and thousands like them; indeed I have had the good fortune to number among my personal acquaintances many American gentlemen whose chivalrous breeding would have been conspicuous (if you will believe it) even at Marlborough House. I will also allow that in New York, in Boston, and less abundantly in other big towns of America, men of leisure, men of culture, and men of thought are to be found, as wide-minded and as gentle-natured as this race of ours makes them. But that doesn’t alter the general fact that, taking them in the lump, American men stand a step or two lower in the scale of humanity than American women. One need hardly ask why. It is because the men are almost all immersed and absorbed in business, while the women are fine ladies who stop at home, and read, and see, and interest themselves widely in numberless directions.

The consequence is that nowhere, as a rule, does the gulf between the sexes yawn so wide as in America. One can often observe it in the brothers and sisters of the same family. And it runs in the opposite direction from the gulf in Europe. With us, as a rule, the men are better educated, and more likely to have read and seen and thought widely, than the women. In America, the men are generally so steeped in affairs as to be materialised and encysted; they take for the most part a hard-headed, solid-silver view of everything, and are but little influenced by abstract conceptions. Their horizon is bounded by the rim of the dollar. Nay, owing to the eager desire to get a good start by beginning life early, their education itself is generally cut short at a younger age than their sisters’; so that, even at the outset, the girls have often a decided superiority in knowledge and culture. Amanda reads Paul Bourget and John Oliver Hobbes; she has some slight tincture of Latin, Greek, and German; while Cyrus knows nothing but English and arithmetic, the quotations for prime pork and the state of the market for Futures. Add to this that the women are more sensitive, more delicate, more naturally refined, as well as unspoilt by the trading spirit, and you get the real reasons for the marked and, in some ways, unusual superiority of the American woman.

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That, I think, in large part explains the fascination which American women undoubtedly exercise over a considerable class of European men. In the European man the American woman often recognises for the first time the male of her species. Unaccustomed at home to as general a level of culture and feeling as she finds among the educated gentlemen of Europe, she likes their society and makes her preference felt by them. Now man is a vain animal. You are a man yourself, and must recognise at once the truth of the proposition. As soon as he sees a woman likes him, he instantly returns the compliment with interest. In point of fact, he usually falls in love with her. Of course I admit the large number of concomitant circumstances which disturb the problem; I admit on the one hand the tempting shekels of the Californian heiress, and on the other hand the glamour and halo that still surround the British coronet. Nevertheless, after making all deductions for these disturbing factors, I submit there remains a residual phenomenon thus best interpreted. If anybody denies it, I would ask him one question–how does it come that so many Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Italians marry American women, while so few Englishwomen, French women, or Italian women marry American men? Surely the American men have also the shekels; surely it is something even in Oregon or Montana to have inspired an honourable passion in a Lady Elizabeth or a dowager countess. I think the true explanation is that our men are attracted by American women, but our women are not equally attracted by American men, and that the quality of the articles has something to do with it.

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The American duchess, I take it, comes over to Europe, and desires incontinently to drag the European duke at the wheels of her chariot. And the European duke is fascinated in turn, partly by this very fact, partly by the undeniable freshness, brightness, and delicate culture of the American woman. For there is no burking the truth that in many respects the American woman carries about her a peculiar charm ungranted as yet to her European sisters. It is the charm of freedom, of ease, of a certain external and skin-deep emancipation–an emancipation which goes but a little way down, yet adds a quaint and piquant grace of manner. What she conspicuously lacks, on the other hand, is essential femininity; by which I don’t mean womanliness–of that she has enough and to spare–but the wholesome physical and instinctive qualities which go to make up a sound and well-equipped wife and mother. The lack of these underlying muliebral qualities more than counterbalances to not a few Europeans the undoubted vivacity, originality, and freshness of the American woman. She is a dainty bit of porcelain, unsuited for use; a delicate exotic blossom, for drawing-room decoration, where many would prefer robust fruit-bearing faculties.

I dropped into the Opera House here at Nice the other night, and found they were playing “Carmen”–which is always interesting. Well, you may perhaps remember that when that creature of passion, the gipsy heroine, wishes to gain or retain a man’s affections, she throws a rose at him, and then he cannot resist her. That is Merimee’s symbolism. Art is full of these sacrifices of realism to reticence. Outside the opera, it is not with roses that women enslave us. But the American duchess relies entirely upon the use of the rose; and that is just where she fails to interest so many of us in Europe.

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And now I think it’s almost time for me to go and hunt up the material arguments for that rusty six-shooter.

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