The Better Part by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

As I watch, year after year, the flowers of our aristocratic hothouses blooming behind the glass partitions of their conservatories, tended always by the same gardeners, admired by the same amateurs, and then, for the most part, withering unplucked on their virgin stems, I wonder if the wild flowers appreciate the good luck that allows them to taste the storm and the sunshine untrammelled and disperse perfume according to their own sweet will.

To drop a cumbersome metaphor, there is not the shadow of a doubt that the tamest and most monotonous lives in this country are those led by the women in our “exclusive” sets, for the good reason that they are surrounded by all the trammels of European society without enjoying any of its benefits, and live in an atmosphere that takes the taste out of existence too soon.

Girls abroad are kept away from the “world” because their social life only commences after marriage. In America, on the contrary, a woman is laid more or less on the shelf the day she becomes a wife, so that if she has not made hay while her maiden sunshine lasted, the chances are she will have but meagrely furnished lofts; and how, I ask, is a girl to harvest always in the same field?

When in this country, a properly brought up young aristocrat is presented by her mamma to an admiring circle of friends, she is quite a blasée person. The dancing classes she has attended for a couple of years before her début (that she might know the right set of youths and maidens) have taken the bloom off her entrance into the world. She and her friends have already talked over the “men” of their circle, and decided, with a sigh, that there were matches going about. A juvenile Newporter was recently overheard deploring (to a friend of fifteen summers), “By the time we come out there will only be two matches in the market,” meaning, of course, millionnaires who could provide their brides with country and city homes, yachts, and the other appurtenances of a brilliant position. Now, the unfortunate part of the affair is, that such a worldly-minded maiden will in good time be obliged to make her début, dine, and dance through a dozen seasons without making a new acquaintance. Her migrations from town to seashore, or from one country house to another, will be but changes of scene: the actors will remain always the same. When she dines out, she can, if she cares to take the trouble, make a fair guess as to who the guests will be before she starts, for each entertainment is but a new shuffle of the too well-known pack. She is morally certain of being taken in to dinner by one of fifty men whom she has known since her childhood, and has met on an average twice a week since she was eighteen.

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Of foreigners such a girl sees little beyond a stray diplomatist or two, in search of a fortune, and her glimpses of Paris society are obtained from the windows of a hotel on the Place Vendôme. In London or Rome she may be presented in a few international salons, but as she finds it difficult to make her new acquaintances understand what an exalted position she occupies at home, the chances are that pique at seeing some Daisy Miller attract all the attention will drive my lady back to the city where she is known and appreciated, nothing being more difficult for an American “swell” than explaining to the uninitiated in what way her position differs from that of the rest of her compatriots.

When I see the bevies of highly educated and attractive girls who make their bows each season, I ask myself in wonder, “Who, in the name of goodness, are they to marry?”

In the very circle where so much stress is laid on a girl’s establishing herself brilliantly, the fewest possible husbands are to be found. Yet, limited as such a girl’s choice is, she will sooner remain single than accept a husband out of her set. She has a perfectly distinct idea of what she wants, and has lived so long in the atmosphere of wealth that existence without footmen and male cooks, horses and French clothes, appears to her impossible. Such large proportions do these details assume in her mind that each year the husband himself becomes of less importance, and what he can provide the essential point.

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If an outsider is sufficiently rich, my lady may consent to unite her destinies to his, hoping to get him absorbed into her own world.

It is pathetic, considering the restricted number of eligible men going about, to see the trouble and expense that parents take to keep their daughters en évidence. When one reflects on the number of people who are disturbed when such a girl dines out, the horses and men and women who are kept up to convey her home, the time it has taken her to dress, the cost of the toilet itself, and then see the man to whom she will be consigned for the evening,-some bored man about town who has probably taken her mother in to dinner twenty years before, and will not trouble himself to talk with his neighbor, or a schoolboy, breaking in his first dress suit,-when one realizes that for many maidens this goes on night after night and season after season, it seems incredible that they should have the courage, or think it worth their while to keep up the game.

The logical result of turning eternally in the same circle is that nine times out of ten the men who marry choose girls out of their own set, some pretty stranger who has burst on their jaded vision with all the charm of the unknown. A conventional society maiden who has not been fortunate enough to meet and marry a man she loves, or whose fortune tempts her, during the first season or two that she is “out,” will in all probability go on revolving in an ever-narrowing circle until she becomes stationary in its centre.

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In comparison with such an existence the life of the average “summer girl” is one long frolic, as varied as that of her aristocratic sister is monotonous. Each spring she has the excitement of selecting a new battle-ground for her manœuvres, for in the circle in which she moves, parents leave such details to their children. Once installed in the hotel of her choice, mademoiselle proceeds to make the acquaintance of an entirely new set of friends, delightful youths just arrived, and bent on making the most of their brief holidays, with whom her code of etiquette allows her to sail all day, and pass uncounted evening hours in remote corners of piazza or beach.

As the words “position” and “set” have no meaning to her young ears, and no one has ever preached to her the importance of improving her social standing, the acquaintances that chance throws in her path are accepted without question if they happen to be good-looking and amusing. She has no prejudice as to standing, and if her supply of partners runs short, she will dance and flirt with the clerk from the desk in perfect good humor-in fact, she stands rather in awe of that functionary, and admires the “English” cut of his clothes and his Eastern swagger. A large hotel is her dream of luxury, and a couple of simultaneous flirtations her ideal of bliss. No long evenings of cruel boredom, in order to be seen at smart houses, will cloud the maiden’s career, no agonized anticipation of retiring partnerless from cotillion or supper will disturb her pleasure.

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In the city she hails from, everybody she knows lives in about the same style. Some are said to be wealthier than others, but nothing in their way of life betrays the fact; the art of knowing how to enjoy wealth being but little understood outside of our one or two great cities. She has that tranquil sense of being the social equal of the people she meets, the absence of which makes the snob’s life a burden.

During her summers away from home our “young friend” will meet other girls of her age, and form friendships that result in mutual visiting during the ensuing winter, when she will continue to add more new names to the long list of her admirers, until one fine morning she writes home to her delighted parents that she has found the right man at last, and engaged herself to him.

Never having penetrated to those sacred centres where birth and wealth are considered all-important, and ignoring the supreme importance of living in one set, the plan of life that such a woman lays out for herself is exceedingly simple. She will coquette and dance and dream her pleasant dream until Prince Charming, who is to awaken her to a new life, comes and kisses away the dew of girlhood and leads his bride out into the work-a-day world. The simple surroundings and ambitions of her youth will make it easy for this wife to follow the man of her choice, if necessary, to the remote village where he is directing a factory or to the mining camp where the foundations of a fortune lie. Life is full of delicious possibilities for her. Men who are forced to make their way in youth often turn out to be those who make “history” later, and a bride who has not become prematurely blasée to all the luxuries or pleasures of existence will know the greatest happiness that can come into a woman’s life, that of rising at her husband’s side, step by step, enjoying his triumphs as she shared his poverty.

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