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An essay by George William Curtis

Decayed Gentility

Title:     Decayed Gentility
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

DECAYED gentility has great interest for the novel-reader, and the man and woman who "have seen better days" are familiar figures in actual life. Hampton Court is regarded by some travellers with pensive regard as a kind of almshouse for this class of the indigent, and institutions nearer home are described with a deferential courtesy and avoidance as homes for decayed gentlewomen. It cannot be pleasant to the persons themselves to be so described, but the founders of such places have perhaps a comfortable sense of reflected honor, as if the impulse to provide a retreat of the kind were of itself a sign of "very gentility." Despite the plaintive little plea which the description itself urges for this decayed class of our fellow-beings, the people who "have seen better days" are not generally an engaging multitude. A person whose chief distinction is that he was once more prosperous than he is now seems to renounce any present claim upon consideration, and to offer his inability as a ground of regard. It is an appeal to pity, but pity of old has a disagreeable relative.

The pathos of the appeal lies, first, in the sense of contrast, and then in the spiritual rather than the material poverty which it discloses. The lady who lets lodgings, and whose air and the allusions of whose conversation constantly suggest that she has seen better days, is a person who is mastered by circumstances, and therefore does not compel respect. But a woman who is the perfectly self-respecting lady fulfils simply the duty of the moment with no conscious appeal for sympathy; and if by chance you discover that she has been more prosperous, the fact that she has not the conceit of it strengthens your regard. For it is no personal credit to have been more prosperous. As your landlady shows you the convenience of the room, she lets fall that her father the Bishop, or her uncle the Senator, or her lamented cousin the millionaire would be deeply grieved if he could know that his kinswoman was actually letting lodgings.

"Then, madam, you have seen better days?"

"Ah, sir--"

But how is it personally creditable to the good woman that her uncle was honorable and her cousin rich? She recalls the circumstances of others at the expense of her own character. The lodger wishes to hire rooms upon their own merits. He resents the bribery of pity to take them. If they are a little stuffy, they certainly seem no airier because his landlady once sat upon a crimson sofa and read novels all day long. If some philanthropist builds a retreat to which she can retire gratis, and pass her declining years in regretful recollection of the crimson sofa, so let it be. Such a retreat may be dedicated to sentimental repining. But a woman of spirit and character never becomes a decayed gentlewoman, however destitute she may be.

This refusal to succumb to circumstances and to make the best of it, which is all that can be asked, is charmingly sketched in Lamb's Captain Jackson. The Captain's frugal table had the air of a feast, such was the magic of his cheerfulness. His plain cheese was served like Stilton or Roquefort, and slipping a shred of it upon his guest's plate, he contented himself with the rind, gayly declaring that the nearer the bone the sweeter the meat. Poverty was no pleasanter to him than to the rest of us. But had he gone to the almshouse he would not have complained, and in no word or sigh of his would you have discovered that he had seen better days.

The family of Captain Jackson is by no means extinct. The other day the Easy Chair met one of them in Broadway--an elderly gentleman in a well-brushed, exceedingly threadbare suit, moving briskly along the pavement. His greeting was alert and courteous. There was a little chat of the day's news, a gay jest or two, and then good-morning. Half a century ago this was a young man about town, the heir of a fortune, a youth of "family" who dressed and drove and dined and danced like the golden youth of to-day. When the first Italian opera troupe came, he was nightly behind the scenes. In the circle of Knickerbocker wits he was one. He wrote verses, and had a kind of literary name. His portrait was published in a weekly paper. He sat at the good tables. His name was Fortunio.

Everything is gone but the cheerful spirit. Nobody knows exactly how he lives, but only that it is in extreme poverty. But he preserves the tone of prosperity. He writes notes in a beautiful and graceful hand upon very cheap paper. "You remember our conversation the other morning about 'Anstey's Bath Guide'; and if you will look in your Fraser for this month, you will find that I was right." Here is the assumption that every gentleman takes Fraser, and that your correspondent may have dipped into his before you have looked at yours. Doubtless he had seen it--at some reading-room, perhaps, or on Brentano's counter.

One day we had spoken of a famous author. A little while afterwards came a comely package containing an old and choice work of his, and a note: "Dear Easy Chair,--I thought it might be a pleasure to you to own this rather uncommon copy of an author whom you evidently admire, and which it is a pleasure to my shelves to spare." What a fine air of elegant leisure in a library! But the "shelves" were a few remnant books, probably worthless to sell, but affording the friendly soul true satisfaction in giving. Fortunio is not a decayed gentleman. His gentility, in the best sense, is in full vigor. Everything but that, indeed, is decayed. But there is no unmanly moping about better days, although in few men's lives could there be a sharper contrast between the past and the present.

This cheerful steadiness is largely due to temperament, but it is not therefore beyond those who have not the same temperament. Character can emulate it. "It's bad enough to be poor," said one of the Captain Jackson family, "but it's a great deal worse to be sulky too." It is very easy, indeed, for prosperity to preach resignation to adversity, and to urge it to bear up bravely. But it is a true gospel, although it be easy to preach. Pure Lacrima Christi is as precious when poured from a glass of Murano as from a pewter mug.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Decayed Gentility