Chapter XIII (The Education of Henry Adams)

The Perfection of Human Society (1864)

MINISTER ADAM’S success in stopping the rebel rams fixed his
position once for all in English society. From that moment he could
afford to drop the character of diplomatist, and assume what, for an
American Minister in London, was an exclusive diplomatic advantage,
the character of a kind of American Peer of the Realm. The British
never did things by halves. Once they recognized a man’s right to
social privileges, they accepted him as one of themselves. Much as
Lord Derby and Mr. Disraeli were accepted as leaders of Her
Majesty’s domestic Opposition, Minister Adams had a rank of his own as
a kind of leader of Her Majesty’s American Opposition. Even the
Times conceded it. The years of struggle were over, and Minister Adams
rapidly gained a position which would have caused his father or
grandfather to stare with incredulous envy.
This Anglo-American form of diplomacy was chiefly undiplomatic, and
had the peculiar effect of teaching a habit of diplomacy useless or
mischievous everywhere but in London. Nowhere else in the world
could one expect to figure in a role so unprofessional. The young
man knew no longer what character he bore. Private secretary in the
morning, son in the afternoon, young man about town in the evening,
the only character he never bore was that of diplomatist, except
when he wanted a card to some great function. His diplomatic education
was at an end; he seldom met a diplomat, and never had business with
one; he could be of no use to them, or they to him; but he drifted
inevitably into society, and, do what he might, his next education
must be one of English social life. Tossed between the horns of
successive dilemmas, he reached his twenty-sixth birthday without
the power of earning five dollars in any occupation. His friends in
the army were almost as badly off, but even army life ruined a young
man less fatally than London society. Had he been rich, this form of
ruin would have mattered nothing; but the young men of 1865 were
none of them rich; all had to earn a living; yet they had reached high
positions of responsibility and power in camps and Courts, without a
dollar of their own and with no tenure of office.
Henry Adams had failed to acquire any useful education; he should
at least have acquired social experience. Curiously enough, he
failed here also. From the European or English point of view, he had
no social experience, and never got it. Minister Adams happened on a
political interregnum owing to Lord Palmerston’s personal influence
from 1860 to 1865; but this political interregnum was less marked than
the social stillstand during the same years. The Prince Consort was
dead; the Queen had retired; the Prince of Wales was still a boy. In
its best days, Victorian society had never been “smart.” During the
forties, under the influence of Louis Philippe, Courts affected to
be simple, serious and middle class; and they succeeded. The taste
of Louis Philippe was bourgeois beyond any taste except that of
Queen Victoria. Style lingered in the background with the powdered
footman behind the yellow chariot, but speaking socially the Queen had
no style save what she inherited. Balmoral was a startling
revelation of royal taste. Nothing could be worse than the toilettes
at Court unless it were the way they were worn. One’s eyes might be
dazzled by jewels, but they were heirlooms, and if any lady appeared
well dressed, she was either a foreigner or “fast.” Fashion was not
fashionable in London until the Americans and the Jews were let loose.
The style of London toilette universal in 1864 was grotesque, like
Monckton Milnes on horseback in Rotten Row.
Society of this sort might fit a young man in some degree for
editing Shakespeare or Swift, but had little relation with the society
of 1870, and none with that of 1900. Owing to other causes, young
Adams never got the full training of such style as still existed.
The embarrassments of his first few seasons socially ruined him. His
own want of experience prevented his asking introductions to the
ladies who ruled society; his want of friends prevented his knowing
who these ladies were; and he had every reason to expect snubbing if
he put himself in evidence. This sensitiveness was thrown away on
English society, where men and women treated each others’ advances
much more brutally than those of strangers, but young Adams was son
and private secretary too; he could not be as thick-skinned as an
Englishman. He was not alone. Every young diplomat, and most of the
old ones, felt awkward in an English house from a certainty that
they were not precisely wanted there, and a possibility that they
might be told so.
{CH_XIII ^paragraph 5}
If there was in those days a country house in England which had a
right to call itself broad in views and large in tastes, it was
Bretton in Yorkshire; and if there was a hostess who had a right to
consider herself fashionable as well as charming, it was Lady Margaret
Beaumont; yet one morning at breakfast there, sitting by her side- not
for his own merits- Henry Adams heard her say to herself in her
languid and liberal way, with her rich voice and musing manner,
looking into her tea-cup: “I don’t think I care for foreigners!”
Horror-stricken, not so much on his own account as on hers, the
young man could only execute himself as gaily as he might: “But Lady
Margaret, please make one small exception for me!” Of course she
replied what was evident, that she did not call him a foreigner, and
her genial Irish charm made the slip of tongue a happy courtesy; but
none the less she knew that, except for his momentary personal
introduction, he was in fact, a foreigner and there was no
imaginable reason why she should like him, or any other foreigner,
unless it were because she was bored by natives. She seemed to feel
that her indifference needed a reason to excuse itself in her own
eyes, and she showed the subconscious sympathy of the Irish nature
which never feels itself perfectly at home even in England. She,
too, was some shadowy shade un-English.
Always conscious of this barrier, while the war lasted the
private secretary hid himself among the herd of foreigners till he
found his relations fixed and unchangeable. He never felt himself in
society, and he never knew definitely what was meant as society by
those who were in it. He saw far enough to note a score of societies
which seemed quite independent of each other. The smartest was the
smallest, and to him almost wholly strange. The largest was the
sporting world, also unknown to him except through the talk of his
acquaintances. Between or beyond these lay groups of nebulous
societies. His lawyer friends, like Evarts, frequented legal circles
where one still sat over the wine and told anecdotes of the bench
and bar; but he himself never set eyes on a judge except when his
father took him to call on old Lord Lyndhurst, where they found old
Lord Campbell, both abusing old Lord Brougham. The Church and the
Bishops formed several societies which no secretary ever saw except as
an interloper. The Army; the Navy; the Indian Service; the medical and
surgical professions; City people; artists; county families; the
Scotch, and indefinite other subdivisions of society existed, which
were as strange to each other as they were to Adams. At the end of
eight or ten seasons in London society he professed to know less about
it, or how to enter it, than he did when he made his first
appearance at Miss Burdett Coutts’s in May, 1861.
Sooner or later every young man dropped into a set or circle, and
frequented the few houses that were willing to harbor him. An American
who neither hunted nor raced, neither shot nor fished nor gambled, and
was not marriageable, had no need to think of society at large.
Ninety-nine houses in every hundred were useless to him, a greater
bore to him than he to them. Thus the question of getting into- or
getting out of- society which troubled young foreigners greatly,
settled itself after three or four years of painful speculation.
Society had no unity; one wandered about in it like a maggot in
cheese; it was not a hansom cab, to be got into, or out of, at
Therefore he always professed himself ignorant of society; he never
knew whether he had been in it or not, but from the accounts of his
future friends, like General Dick Taylor or George Smalley, and of
various ladies who reigned in the seventies, he inclined to think that
he knew very little about it. Certain great houses and certain great
functions of course he attended, like every one else who could get
cards, but even of these the number was small that kept an interest or
helped education. In seven years he could remember only two that
seemed to have any meaning for him, and he never knew what that
meaning was. Neither of the two was official; neither was English in
interest; and both were scandals to the philosopher while they
scarcely enlightened men of the world.
One was at Devonshire House, an ordinary, unpremeditated evening
reception. Naturally every one went to Devonshire House if asked,
and the rooms that night were fairly full of the usual people. The
private secretary was standing among the rest, when Mme. de
Castiglione entered, the famous beauty of the Second Empire. How
beautiful she may have been, or indeed what sort of beauty she was,
Adams never knew, because the company, consisting of the most
refined and aristocratic society in the world, instantly formed a
lane, and stood in ranks to stare at her, while those behind mounted
on chairs to look over their neighbors’ heads; so that the lady walked
through this polite mob, stared completely out of countenance, and
fled the house at once. This was all!
{CH_XIII ^paragraph 10}
The other strange spectacle was at Stafford House, April 13,
1864, when, in a palace gallery that recalled Paolo Veronese’s
pictures of Christ in his scenes of miracle, Garibaldi, in his gray
capote over his red shirt, received all London, and three duchesses
literally worshipped at his feet. Here, at all events, a private
secretary had surely caught the last and highest touch of social
experience; but what it meant- what social, moral, or mental
development it pointed out to the searcher of truth- was not a
matter to be treated fully by a leader in the Morning Post or even
by a sermon in Westminster Abbey. Mme. de Castiglione and Garibaldi
covered, between them, too much space for simple measurement; their
curves were too complex for mere arithmetic. The task of bringing
the two into any common relation with an ordered social system tending
to orderly development- in London or elsewhere- was well fitted for
Algernon Swinburne or Victor Hugo, but was beyond any process yet
reached by the education of Henry Adams, who would probably, even
then, have rejected, as superficial or supernatural, all the views
taken by any of the company who looked on with him at these two
interesting and perplexing sights.
From the Court, or Court society, a mere private secretary got
nothing at all, or next to nothing, that could help him on his road
through life. Royalty was in abeyance. One was tempted to think in
these years, 1860-65, that the nicest distinction between the very
best society and the second-best, was their attitude towards
royalty. The one regarded royalty as a bore, and avoided it, or
quietly said that the Queen had never been in society. The same
thing might have been said of fully half the peerage. Adams never knew
even the names of half the rest; he never exchanged ten words with any
member of the royal family; he never knew any one in those years who
showed interest in any member of the royal family, or who would have
given five shillings for the opinion of any royal person on any
subject; or cared to enter any royal or noble presence, unless the
house was made attractive by as much social effort as would have
been necessary in other countries where no rank existed. No doubt,
as one of a swarm, young Adams slightly knew various gilded youth
who frequented balls and led such dancing as was most in vogue, but
they seemed to set no value on rank; their anxiety was only to know
where to find the best partners before midnight, and the best supper
after midnight. To the American, as to Arthur Pendennis or Barnes
Newcome, the value of social position and knowledge was evident
enough; he valued it at rather more than it was worth to him; but it
was a shadowy thing which seemed to vary with every street corner; a
thing which had shifting standards, and which no one could catch
outright. The half-dozen leaders and beauties of his time, with
great names and of the utmost fashion, made some of the poorest
marriages, and the least showy careers.
Tired at looking on at society from the outside, Adams grew to
loathe the sight of his Court dress; to groan at every announcement of
a Court ball; and to dread every invitation to a formal dinner. The
greatest social event gave not half the pleasure that one could buy
for ten shillings at the opera when Patti sang Cherubino or
Gretchen, and not a fourth of the education. Yet this was not the
opinion of the best judges. Lothrop Motley, who stood among the very
best, said to him early in his apprenticeship that the London dinner
and the English country house were the perfection of human society.
The young man meditated over it, uncertain of its meaning. Motley
could not have thought the dinner itself perfect, since there was
not then- outside of a few bankers or foreigners- a good cook or a
good table in London, and nine out of ten of the dinners that Motley
ate came from Gunter’s, and all were alike. Every one, especially in
young society, complained bitterly that Englishmen did not know a good
dinner when they ate it, and could not order one if they were given
carte blanche. Henry Adams was not a judge, and knew no more than
they, but he heard the complaints, and he could not think that
Motley meant to praise the English cuisine.
Equally little could Motley have meant that dinners were good to
look at. Nothing could be worse than the toilettes; nothing less
artistic than the appearance of the company. One’s eyes might be
dazzled by family diamonds, but if an American woman were present, she
was sure to make comments about the way the jewels were worn. If there
was a well-dressed lady at table, she was either an American or
“fast.” She attracted as much notice as though she were on the
stage. No one could possibly admire an English dinner-table.
Least of all did Motley mean that the taste or the manners were
perfect. The manners of English society were notorious, and the
taste was worse. Without exception every American woman rose in
rebellion against English manners. In fact, the charm of London
which made most impression on Americans was the violence of its
contrasts; the extreme badness of the worst, making background for the
distinction, refinement, or wit of a few, just as the extreme beauty
of a few superb women was more effective against the plainness of
the crowd. The result was mediaeval, and amusing; sometimes coarse
to a degree that might have startled a roustabout, and sometimes
courteous and considerate to a degree that suggested King Arthur’s
Round Table; but this artistic contrast was surely not the
perfection that Motley had in his mind. He meant something
scholarly, worldly, and modern; he was thinking of his own tastes.
{CH_XIII ^paragraph 15}
Probably he meant that, in his favorite houses, the tone was
easy, the talk was good, and the standard of scholarship was high.
Even there he would have been forced to qualify his adjectives. No
German would have admitted that English scholarship was high, or
that it was scholarship at all, or that any wish for scholarship
existed in England. Nothing that seemed to smell of the shop or of the
lecture-room was wanted. One might as well have talked of Renan’s
Christ at the table of the Bishop of London, as talk of German
philology at the table of an Oxford don. Society, if a small
literary class could be called society, wanted to be amused in its old
way. Sydney Smith, who had amused, was dead; so was Macaulay, who
instructed if he did not amuse; Thackeray died at Christmas, 1863;
Dickens never felt at home, and seldom appeared, in society; Bulwer
Lytton was not sprightly; Tennyson detested strangers; Carlyle was
mostly detested by them; Darwin never came to town; the men of whom
Motley must have been thinking were such as he might meet at Lord
Houghton’s breakfasts: Grote, Jowett, Milman, or Froude; Browning,
Matthew Arnold, or Swinburne; Bishop Wilberforce, Venables, or
Hayward; or perhaps Gladstone, Robert Lowe, or Lord Granville. A
relatively small class, commonly isolated, suppressed, and lost at the
usual London dinner, such society as this was fairly familiar even
to a private secretary, but to the literary American it might well
seem perfection since he could find nothing of the sort in America.
Within the narrow limits of this class, the American Legation was
fairly at home; possibly a score of houses, all liberal, and all
literary, but perfect only in the eyes of a Harvard College historian.
They could teach little worth learning, for their tastes were
antiquated and their knowledge was ignorance to the next generation.
What was altogether fatal for future purposes, they were only English.
A social education in such a medium was bound to be useless in
any other, yet Adams had to learn it to the bottom. The one thing
needful for a private secretary, was that he should not only seem, but
should actually be, at home. He studied carefully, and practised
painfully, what seemed to be the favorite accomplishments of
society. Perhaps his nervousness deceived him; perhaps he took for
an ideal of others what was only his reflected image; but he conceived
that the perfection of human society required that a man should
enter a drawing-room where he was a total stranger, and place
himself on the hearth-rug, his back to the fire, with an air of
expectant benevolence, without curiosity, much as though he had
dropped in at a charity concert, kindly disposed to applaud the
performers and to overlook mistakes. This ideal rarely succeeded in
youth, and towards thirty it took a form of modified insolence and
offensive patronage; but about sixty it mellowed into courtesy,
kindliness, and even deference to the young which had extraordinary
charm both in women and in men. Unfortunately Adams could not wait
till sixty for education; he had his living to earn; and the English
air of patronage would earn no income for him anywhere else.
After five or six years of constant practice, any one can acquire
the habit of going from one strange company to another without
thinking much of one’s self or of them, as though silently
reflecting that “in a world where we are all insects, no insect is
alien; perhaps they are human in parts”; but the dreamy habit of
mind which comes from solitude in crowds is not fitness for social
success except in London. Everywhere else it is injury. England was
a social kingdom whose social coinage had no currency elsewhere.
Englishwomen, from the educational point of view, could give
nothing until they approached forty years old. Then they become very
interesting- very charming- to the man of fifty. The young American
was not worth the young Englishwoman’s notice, and never received
it. Neither understood the other. Only in the domestic relation, in
the country- never in society at large- a young American might
accidentally make friends with an Englishwoman of his own age, but
it never happened to Henry Adams. His susceptible nature was left to
the mercy of American girls, which was professional duty rather than
education as long as diplomacy held its own.
Thus he found himself launched on waters where he had never meant
to sail, and floating along a stream which carried him far from his
port. His third season in London society saw the end of his diplomatic
education, and began for him the social life of a young man who felt
at home in England- more at home there than anywhere else. With this
feeling, the mere habit of going to garden-parties, dinners,
receptions, and balls had nothing to do. One might go to scores
without a sensation of home. One might stay in no end of country
houses without forgetting that one was a total stranger and could
never be anything else. One might bow to half the dukes and
duchesses in England, and feel only the more strange. Hundreds of
persons might pass with a nod and never come nearer. Close relation in
a place like London is a personal mystery as profound as chemical
affinity. Thousands pass, and one separates himself from the mass to
attach himself to another, and so make, little by little, a group.
{CH_XIII ^paragraph 20}
One morning, April 27, 1863, he was asked to breakfast with Sir
Henry Holland, the old Court physician who had been acquainted with
every American Minister since Edward Everett, and was a valuable
social ally, who had the courage to try to be of use to everybody, and
who, while asking the private secretary to breakfast one day, was
too discreet to betray what he might have learned about rebel doings
at his breakfast-table the day before. He had been friendly with the
Legation, in the teeth of society, and was still bearing up against
the weight of opinion, so that young Adams could not decline his
invitations, although they obliged him to breakfast in Brook Street at
nine o’clock in the morning, alternately with Mr. James M. Mason.
Old Dr. Holland was himself as hale as a hawk, driving all day
bare-headed about London, and eating Welsh rarebit every night
before bed; he thought that any young man should be pleased to take
his early muffin in Brook Street, and supply a few crumbs of war
news for the daily peckings of eminent patients. Meekly, when
summoned, the private secretary went, and on reaching the front
door, this particular morning, he found there another young man in the
act of rapping the knocker. They entered the breakfast-room
together, where they were introduced to each other, and Adams
learned that the other guest was a Cambridge undergraduate, Charles
Milnes Gaskell, son of James Milnes Gaskell, the Member for Wenlock;
another of the Yorkshire Milneses, from Thornes near Wakefield. Fate
had fixed Adams to Yorkshire. By another chance it happened that young
Milnes Gaskell was intimate at Cambridge with William Everett who
was also about to take his degree. A third chance inspired Mr.
Evarts with a fancy for visiting Cambridge, and led William Everett to
offer his services as host. Adams acted as courier to Mr. Evarts,
and at the end of May they went down for a few days, when William
Everett did the honors as host with a kindness and attention that made
his cousin sorely conscious of his own social shortcomings.
Cambridge was pretty, and the dons were kind. Mr. Evarts enjoyed his
visit, but this was merely a part of the private secretary’s day’s
work. What affected his whole life was the intimacy then begun with
Milnes Gaskell and his circle of undergraduate friends, just about
to enter the world.
Intimates are predestined. Adams met in England a thousand
people, great and small; jostled against every one, from royal princes
to ginshop loafers; attended endless official functions and private
parties; visited every part of the United Kingdom and was not quite
a stranger at the Legations in Paris and Rome; he knew the societies
of certain country houses, and acquired habits of Sunday-afternoon
calls; but all this gave him nothing to do, and was life wasted. For
him nothing whatever could be gained by escorting American ladies to
drawing-rooms or American gentlemen to levees at St. James’s Palace,
or bowing solemnly to people with great titles, at Court balls, or
even by awkwardly jostling royalty at garden-parties; all this was
done for the Government, and neither President Lincoln nor Secretary
Seward would ever know enough of their business to thank him for doing
what they did not know how to get properly done by their own servants;
but for Henry Adams- not private secretary- all the time taken up by
such duties was wasted. On the other hand, his few personal intimacies
concerned him alone, and the chance that made him almost a
Yorkshireman was one that must have started under the Heptarchy.
More than any other county in England, Yorkshire retained a sort of
social independence of London. Scotland itself was hardly more
distinct. The Yorkshire type had always been the strongest of the
British strains; the Norwegian and the Dane were a different race from
the Saxon. Even Lancashire had not the mass and the cultivation of the
West Riding. London could never quite absorb Yorkshire, which, in
its turn had no great love for London and freely showed it. To a
certain degree, evident enough to Yorkshiremen, Yorkshire was not
English- or was all England, as they might choose to express it.
This must have been the reason why young Adams was drawn there
rather than elsewhere. Monckton Milnes alone took the trouble to
draw him, and possibly Milnes was the only man in England with whom
Henry Adams, at that moment, had a chance of calling out such an
un-English effort. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge nor any region south
of the Humber contained a considerable house where a young American
would have been sought as a friend. Eccentricity alone did not account
for it. Monckton Milnes was a singular type, but his distant cousin,
James Milnes Gaskell, was another, quite as marked, in an opposite
sense. Milnes never seemed willing to rest; Milnes Gaskell never
seemed willing to move. In his youth one of a very famous group-
Arthur Hallam, Tennyson, Manning, Gladstone, Francis Doyle- and
regarded as one of the most promising; an adorer of George Canning; in
Parliament since coming of age; married into the powerful connection
of the Wynns of Wynstay; rich according to Yorkshire standards;
intimate with his political leaders; he was one of the numerous
Englishmen who refuse office rather than make the effort of carrying
it, and want power only to make it a source of indolence. He was a
voracious reader and an admirable critic; he had forty years of
parliamentary tradition on his memory; he liked to talk and to listen;
he liked his dinner and, in spite of George Canning, his dry
champagne; he liked wit and anecdote; but he belonged to the
generation of 1830, a generation which could not survive the telegraph
and railway, and which even Yorkshire could hardly produce again. To
an American he was a character even more unusual and more
fascinating than his distant cousin Lord Houghton.
Mr. Milnes Gaskell was kind to the young American whom his son
brought to the house, and Mrs. Milnes Gaskell was kinder, for she
thought the American perhaps a less dangerous friend than some
Englishman might be, for her son, and she was probably right. The
American had the sense to see that she was herself one of the most
intelligent and sympathetic women in England; her sister, Miss
Charlotte Wynn, was another; and both were of an age and a position in
society that made their friendship a compliment as well as a pleasure.
Their consent and approval settled the matter. In England, the
family is a serious fact; once admitted to it, one is there for
life. London might utterly vanish from one’s horizon, but as long as
life lasted, Yorkshire lived for its friends.
In the year 1857, Mr. James Milnes Gaskell, who had sat for
thirty years in Parliament as one of the Members for the borough of
Wenlock in Shropshire, bought Wenlock Abbey and the estate that
included the old monastic buildings. This new, or old, plaything
amused Mrs. Milnes Gaskell. The Prior’s house, a charming specimen
of fifteenth-century architecture, had been long left to decay as a
farmhouse. She put it in order, and went there to spend a part of
the autumn of 1864. Young Adams was one of her first guests, and drove
about Wenlock Edge and the Wrekin with her, learning the loveliness of
this exquisite country, and its stores of curious antiquity. It was
a new and charming existence; an experience greatly to be envied-ideal
repose and rural Shakespearian peace- but a few years of it were
likely to complete his education, and fit him to act a fairly useful
part in life as an Englishman, an ecclesiastic, and a contemporary
of Chaucer.