“Climbers” In England by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

The expression “Little Englander,” much used of late to designate an inhabitant of the Mother Isle in contra-distinction to other subjects of Her Majesty, expresses neatly the feeling of our insular cousins not only as regards ourselves, but also the position affected toward their colonial brothers and sisters.

Have you ever noticed that in every circle there is some individual assuming to do things better than his comrades-to know more, dress better, run faster, pronounce more correctly? Who, unless promptly suppressed, will turn the conversation into a monologue relating to his own exploits and opinions. To differ is to bring down his contempt upon your devoted head! To argue is time wasted!

Human nature is, however, so constituted that a man of this type mostly succeeds in hypnotizing his hearers into sharing his estimate of himself, and impressing upon them the conviction that he is a rare being instead of a commonplace mortal. He is not a bad sort of person at bottom, and ready to do one a friendly turn-if it does not entail too great inconvenience. In short, a good fellow, whose principal defect is the profound conviction that he was born superior to the rest of mankind.

What this individual is to his environment, Englishmen are to the world at large. It is the misfortune, not the fault, of the rest of the human race, that they are not native to his island; a fact, by the way, which outsiders are rarely allowed to lose sight of, as it entails a becoming modesty on their part.

Few idiosyncrasies get more quickly on American nerves or are further from our hearty attitude toward strangers. As we are far from looking upon wandering Englishmen with suspicion, it takes us some time to realize that Americans who cut away from their countrymen and settle far from home are regarded with distrust and reluctantly received. When a family of this kind prepares to live in their neighborhood, Britons have a formula of three questions they ask themselves concerning the new-comers: “Whom do they know? How much are they worth?” and “What amusement (or profit) are we likely to get out of them?” If the answer to all or any of the three queries is satisfactory, my lord makes the necessary advances and becomes an agreeable, if not a witty or original, companion.

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Given this and a number of other peculiarities, it seems curious that a certain class of Americans should be so anxious to live in England. What is it tempts them? It cannot be the climate, for that is vile; nor the city of London, for it is one of the ugliest in existence; nor their “cuisine”-for although we are not good cooks ourselves, we know what good food is and could give Britons points. Neither can it be art, nor the opera,-one finds both better at home or on the Continent than in England. So it must be society, and here one’s wonder deepens!

When I hear friends just back from a stay over there enlarging on the charms of “country life,” or a London “season,” I look attentively to see if they are in earnest, so incomparably dull have I always found English house parties or town entertainments. At least that side of society which the climbing stranger mostly affects. Other circles are charming, if a bit slow, and the “Bohemia” and semi-Bohemia of London have a delicate flavor of their own.

County society, that ideal life so attractive to American readers of British novels, is, taken on the whole, the most insipid existence conceivable. The women lack the sparkle and charm of ours; the men, who are out all day shooting or hunting according to the season, get back so fagged that if they do not actually drop asleep at the dinner-table, they will nap immediately after, brightening only when the ladies have retired, when, with evening dress changed for comfortable smoking suits, the hunters congregate in the billiard-room for cigars and brandy and seltzer.

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A particularly agreeable American woman, whose husband insists on going every winter to Melton-Mowbray for the hunting, was describing the other day the life there among the women, and expressing her wonder that those who did not hunt could refrain from blowing out their brains, so awful was the dulness and monotony! She had ended by not dining out at all, having discovered that the conversation never by any chance deviated far from the knees of the horses and the height of the hedges!

Which reminds one of Thackeray relating how he had longed to know what women talked about when they were alone after dinner, imagining it to be on mysterious and thrilling subjects, until one evening he overheard such a conversation and found it turned entirely on children and ailments! As regards wit, the English are like the Oriental potentate who at a ball in Europe expressed his astonishment that the guests took the trouble to dance and get themselves hot and dishevelled, explaining that in the East he paid people to do that for him. In England “amusers” are invited expressly to be funny; anything uttered by one of these delightful individuals is sure to be received with much laughter. It is so simple that way! One is prepared and knows when to laugh. Whereas amateur wit is confusing. When an American I knew, turning over the books on a drawing-room table and finding Hare’s Walks in London, in two volumes, said, “So you part your hair in the middle over here,” the remark was received in silence, and with looks of polite surprise.

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It is not necessary, however, to accumulate proofs that this much described society is less intelligent than our own. Their authors have acknowledged it, and well they may. For from Scott and Dickens down to Hall Caine, American appreciation has gone far toward establishing the reputation of English writers at home.

In spite of lack of humor and a thousand other defects which ought to make English swelldom antagonistic to our countrymen, the fact remains that “smart” London tempts a certain number of Americans and has become a promised land, toward which they turn longing eyes. You will always find a few of these votaries over there in the “season,” struggling bravely up the social current, making acquaintances, spending money at charity sales, giving dinners and fêtes, taking houses at Ascot and filling them with their new friends’ friends. With more or less success as the new-comers have been able to return satisfactory answers to the three primary questions.

What Americans are these, who force us to blush for them infinitely more than for the unlettered tourists trotting conscientiously around the country, doing the sights and asking for soda-water and buckwheat cakes at the hotels!

Any one who has been an observer of the genus “Climber” at home, and wondered at their way and courage, will recognize these ambitious souls abroad; five minutes’ conversation is enough. It is never about a place that they talk, but of the people they know. London to them is not the city of Dickens. It is a place where one may meet the Prince of Wales and perhaps obtain an entrance into his set.

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One description will cover most climbers. They are, as a rule, people who start humbly in some small city, then when fortune comes, push on to New York and Newport, where they carry all before them and make their houses centres and themselves powers. Next comes the discovery that the circle into which they have forced their way is not nearly as attractive as it appeared from a distance. Consequently that vague disappointment is felt which most of us experience on attaining a long desired goal-the unsatisfactoriness of success! Much the same sensation as caused poor Du Maurier to answer, when asked shortly before his death why he looked so glum, “I’m soured by success!”

So true is this of all human nature that the following recipe might be given for the attainment of perfect happiness: “Begin far down in any walk of life. Rise by your efforts higher each year, and then be careful to die before discovering that there is nothing at the top. The excitement of the struggle-‘the rapture of the chase’-are greater joys than achievement.”

Our ambitious friends naturally ignore this bit of philosophy. When it is discovered that the “world” at home has given but an unsatisfactory return for cash and conniving, it occurs to them that the fault lies in the circle, and they assume that their particular talents require a larger field. Having conquered all in sight, these social Alexanders pine for a new world, which generally turns out to be the “Old,” so a crossing is made, and the “Conquest of England” begun with all the enthusiasm and push employed on starting out from the little native city twenty years before.

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It is in Victoria’s realm that foemen worthy of their steel await the conquerors. Home society was a too easy prey, opening its doors and laying down its arms at the first summons. In England the new-comers find that their little game has been played before; and, well, what they imagined was a discovery proves to be a long-studied science with “donnant! donnant!” as its fundamental law. Wily opponents with trump cards in their hands and a profound knowledge of “Hoyle” smilingly offer them seats. Having acquired in a home game a knowledge of “bluff,” our friends plunge with delight into the fray, only to find English society so formed that, climb they never so wisely, the top can never be reached. Work as hard as they may, succeed even beyond their fondest hopes, there will always remain circles above, toward which to yearn-people who will refuse to know them, houses they will never be invited to enter. Think of the charm, the attraction such a civilization must have for the real born climber, and you, my reader, will understand why certain of our compatriots enjoy living in England, and why when once the intoxicating draught (supplied to the ambitious on the other side) has been tasted, all home concoctions prove insipid.

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