Living On Your Friends by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Thackeray devoted a chapter in “Vanity Fair” to the problem “How to Live Well on Nothing a Year.” It was neither a very new nor a very ingenious expedient that “Becky” resorted to when she discounted her husband’s position and connection to fleece the tradespeople and cheat an old family servant out of a year’s rent. The author might more justly have used his clever phrase in describing “Major Pendennis’s” agreeable existence. We have made great progress in this, as in almost every other mode of living, in the latter half of the Victorian era; intelligent individuals of either sex, who know the ropes, can now as easily lead the existence of a multi-millionaire (with as much satisfaction to themselves and their friends) as though the bank account, with all its attendant worries, stood in their own names. This subject is so vast, its ramifications so far-reaching and complicated, that one hesitates before launching into an analysis of it. It will be better simply to give a few interesting examples, and a general rule or two, for the enlightenment and guidance of ingenious souls.

Human nature changes little; all that our educational and social training has accomplished is a smoothing of the surface. One of the most striking proofs of this is, that here in our primitive country, as soon as accumulation of capital allowed certain families to live in great luxury, they returned to the ways of older aristocracies, and, with other wants, felt the necessity of a court about them, ladies and gentlemen in waiting, pages and jesters. Nature abhors a vacuum, so a class of people immediately felt an irresistible impulse to rush in and fill the void. Our aristocrats were not even obliged to send abroad to fill these vacancies, as they were for their footmen and butlers; the native article was quite ready and willing and, considering the little practice it could have had, proved wonderfully adapted to the work.

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When the mania for building immense country houses and yachts (the owning of opera boxes goes a little further back) first attacked this country, the builders imagined that, once completed, it would be the easiest, as well as the most delightful task to fill them with the pick of their friends, that they could get all the talented and agreeable people they wanted by simply making a sign. To their astonishment, they discovered that what appeared so simple was a difficult, as well as a thankless labor. I remember asking a lady who had owned a “proscenium” at the old Academy, why she had decided not to take a box in the (then) new opera- house.

“Because, having passed thirty years of my life inviting people to sit in my box, I intend now to rest.” It is very much the same thing with yachts. A couple who had determined to go around the world, in their lately finished boat, were dumbfounded to find their invitations were not eagerly accepted. After exhausting the small list of people they really wanted, they began with others indifferent to them, and even then filled out their number with difficulty. A hostess who counts on a series of house parties through the autumn months, must begin early in the summer if she is to have the guests she desires.

It is just here that the “professional,” if I may be allowed to use such an expression, comes to the front. He is always available. It is indifferent to him if he starts on a tour around the world or for a winter spree to Montreal. He is always amusing, good-humored, and can be counted on at the last moment to fill any vacant place, without being the least offended at the tardy invitation, for he belongs to the class who have discovered “how to live well on nothing a year.” Luxury is as the breath of his nostrils, but his means allow of little beyond necessities. The temptation must be great when everything that he appreciates most (and cannot afford) is urged upon him. We should not pose as too stern moralists, and throw stones at him; for there may enter more “best French plate” into the composition of our own houses than we imagine.

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It is here our epoch shows its improvement over earlier and cruder days. At present no toad-eating is connected with the acceptance of hospitality, or, if occasionally a small “batrachian” is offered, it is so well disguised by an accomplished chef, and served on such exquisite old Dresden, that it slips down with very little effort. Even this rarely occurs, unless the guest has allowed himself to become the inmate of a residence or yacht. Then he takes his chance with other members of the household, and if the host or hostess happens to have a bad temper as a set-off to their good table, it is apt to fare ill with our friend.

So far, I have spoken of this class in the masculine, which is an error, as the art is successfully practised by the weaker sex, with this shade of difference. As an unmarried woman is in less general demand, she is apt to attach herself to one dear friend, always sure to be a lady in possession of fine country and city houses and other appurtenances of wealth, often of inferior social standing; so that there is give and take, the guest rendering real service to an ambitious hostess. The feminine aspirant need not be handsome. On the contrary, an agreeable plainness is much more acceptable, serving as a foil. But she must be excellent in all games, from golf to piquet, and willing to play as often and as long as required. She must also cheerfully go in to dinner with the blue ribbon bore of the evening, only asked on account of his pretty wife (by the bye, why is it that Beauty is so often flanked by the Beast?), and sit between him and the “second prize” bore. These two worthies would have been the portion of the hostess fifteen years ago; she would have considered it her duty to absorb them and prevent her other guests suffering. Mais nous avons change tout cela. The lady of the house now thinks first of amusing herself, and arranges to sit between two favorites.

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Society has become much simpler, and especially less expensive, for unmarried men than it used to be. Even if a hostess asks a favor in return for weeks of hospitality, the sacrifice she requires of a man is rarely greater than a cotillion with an unattractive debutante whom she is trying to launch; or the sitting through a particularly dull opera in order to see her to the carriage, her lord and master having slipped off early to his club and a quiet game of pool. Many people who read these lines are old enough to remember that prehistoric period when unmarried girls went to the theatre and parties, alone with the men they knew. This custom still prevails in our irrepressible West. It was an arrangement by which all the expenses fell on the man–theatre tickets, carriages if it rained, and often a bit of supper after. If a youth asked a girl to dance the cotillion, he was expected to send a bouquet, sure to cost between twenty and twenty-five dollars. What a blessed change for the impecunious swell when all this went out of fashion! New York is his paradise now; in other parts of the world something is still expected of him. In France it takes the form of a handsome bag of bon-bons on New Year’s Day, if he has accepted hospitality during the past year. While here he need do absolutely nothing (unless he wishes to), the occasional leaving of a card having been suppressed of late by our jeunesse doree, five minutes of their society in an opera box being estimated (by them) as ample return for a dinner or a week in a country house.

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The truth of it is, there are so few men who “go out” (it being practically impossible for any one working at a serious profession to sit up night after night, even if he desired), and at the same time so many women insist on entertaining to amuse themselves or better their position, that the men who go about get spoiled and almost come to consider the obligation conferred, when they dine out. There is no more amusing sight than poor paterfamilias sitting in the club between six and seven P.M. pretending to read the evening paper, but really with his eve on the door; he has been sent down by his wife to “get a man,” as she is one short for her dinner this evening. He must be one who will fit in well with the other guests; hence papa’s anxious look, and the reason the editorial gets so little of his attention! Watch him as young “professional” lounges in. There is just his man–if he only happens to be disengaged! You will see “Pater” cross the room and shake hands, then, after a few minutes’ whispered conversation, he will walk down to his coupe with such a relieved look on his face. Young “professional,” who is in faultless evening dress, will ring for a cocktail and take up the discarded evening paper to pass the time till eight twenty-five.

Eight twenty-five, advisedly, for he will be the last to arrive, knowing, clever dog, how much eclat it gives one to have a room full of people asking each other, “Whom are we waiting for?” when the door opens, and he is announced. He will stay a moment after the other guests have gone and receive the most cordial pressures of the hand from a grateful hostess (if not spoken words of thanks) in return for eating an exquisitely cooked dinner, seated between two agreeable women, drinking irreproachable wine, smoking a cigar, and washing the whole down with a glass of 1830 brandy, or some priceless historic madeira.

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There is probably a moral to be extracted from all this. But frankly my ethics are so mixed that I fail to see where the blame lies, and which is the less worthy individual, the ostentatious axe-grinding host or the interested guest. One thing, however, I see clearly, viz., that life is very agreeable to him who starts in with few prejudices, good manners, a large amount of well-concealed “cheek” and the happy faculty of taking things as they come.

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