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An essay by George William Curtis

Belinda And The Vulgar

Title:     Belinda And The Vulgar
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

IT is perhaps because the Easy Chair sometimes discusses questions of behavior that it is occasionally asked to express an opinion upon more difficult social points. Thus it was lately requested to say whether it did not think that the great want of our society is a social standard. The inquiry was made by the lovely Belinda, who was charmingly dressed for a select party, and the Easy Chair was obliged to own that it did not at once comprehend the scope of the inquiry, and to seek an explanation. As Belinda proceeded to elucidate her meaning it seemed to be tolerably plain that she was contemplating some kind of rank, or visible and recognized distinction, which should separate "society" from what is not society, and it was impossible not to feel that, however high the dividing line, and however small the circle which it enclosed, she was herself included within it.

The Easy Chair thereupon described to her a conversation which it held long ago with a distinguished man upon English social life and the advantages of an aristocracy. The distinguished man's views were very much like those which are set forth in Disraeli's "Sibyl" and "Coningsby," and which were known forty years ago as those of Young England. They proposed a national life blended of feudal romance and modern philanthropy. There was to be a gracious nobility of very blue blood which had been clarified in the veins of the Plantagenets, who were to live in stately castles in the midst of superb demesnes, and to be exceedingly good to their tenants and retainers, for whom there were to be May-poles, and flitches of bacon at Christmas, and greased poles to climb at appropriate times, and sacks to run races in, and who were to be visited at their neat little cottages, when they were ill, by the ladies from the castle, and who were to be industrious and obedient and humble and grateful, and, above all things, to know their place. The nobility were to own the land, and govern the country, and live in splendid idleness, and the happy peasantry were to do all the work, and bow respectfully when the nobility passed by, and go to bed when the curfew tolled, and to make no trouble.

This was the Young England programme, and the Arcadia of the Disraeli novel. And this also showed its familiar features in the talk of the distinguished man as he bewailed the social bareness of American life and descanted upon the charm of an ancient and well-ordered society. But when the Easy Chair mischievously asked him whether he did not think that he might tire of the greased pole, and the dance upon the lawn, and the gracious patronage, and the respectful gratitude, the amusing bewilderment of the distinguished man showed that in his admiration of the society that he described he assumed always that he was to belong to the class that lived in the stately castles and benignly condescended to the humble cottagers. His view, therefore, was very simple. It was merely that he should like to live in splendid idleness, steeped in luxury, and surrounded by respectful servants.

Belinda listened to this story, of which the Easy Chair made no application, with a slight blush; and to the polite inquiry, what kind of social standard she contemplated, she responded that she meant a certain fixed line which should exclude the vulgar. But she was immediately silent, as if reflecting upon a difficult proposition, and did not answer when she was asked what she thought would be the consequence of removing the vulgar from the circles which she considered most select.

Her benevolent attention invited further question, especially as at the same moment a lady entered the room who bore one of the most noted family names in the country, and most familiar in fashionable annals, a family which delights to trace its lineage to a royal source. This proud dame had married her daughter as if by main force to a coroneted lord of hereditary acres. It was a familiar fact of the society in which she was a conspicuous figure, and it was impossible not to ask: "Can there be anything more coarsely vulgar than to sell a daughter for money and a title to a man for whom she does not care; and shall we begin to erect the social standard by expelling the vulgar offender?"

Belinda was still silent, and the brilliant rooms began to fill and murmur with a gay company. Among them came the loud and diamonded Mrs. Smasher, to whose unparalleled fêtes even Belinda would be almost willing to request a card. The Smasher lineage is not renowned or regal; the Smasher mind is imperfectly educated; the Smasher manners are those of the suddenly rich who are not also suddenly refined.

"Is any conceivable vulgarity greater than the Smasher vulgarity, O Belinda; and shall we continue these exercises by expelling also this essentially vulgar person?"

Belinda was still silent. She has remained silent even to this day.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Belinda And The Vulgar