Is modern society deteriorating? (1901)

Original publication: The San Francisco Call Date: November 17, 1901
Categories: 1900s, Culture & lifestyle, Newspapers
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Is modern society deteriorating?

By the Countess of Malmesbury

modern-society-deteriorating-1901

“It be true that many of the virtues are modern, it is certain that all the vices are ancient.” Such was the qualified and doubtful praise accorded to the society of his own time by the author of The Last Days of Pompeii as a comment on the cogged dice found in that unfortunate city when it was excavated.

It would be a strange, if not a pleasant experience, if some great cataclysm of the kind should overtake and, so to speak, stereotype our mysterious, ugly, but horribly fascinating metropolis, which has devoured in the course of its varied menu lives of great men devoted to world questions; of silly women given up to dress, flirtation and tight lacing; of financiers secretly pulling a complicated system of wires; of the dupes of these gentlemen; of men and women (but chiefly the latter) who have thought the world well lost for love; of the disappointed, who run second for all the prizes of life; of desperate, maddened gamblers; of jealous and revengeful lovers; of the general public, male and female, each unit with its own particular ax to grind; of thousands of silent, toiling, uncomplaining horses, living, working and dying at last under the lash.

The lash, we may truly say, has not been reserved for horses alone, and, though certain human brutes have been considered too tender to endure it, it has been administered freely enough to our own species — morally, at least — and it is not the less cruel when self-inflicted.

The San Francisco call., November 17, 1901, Page 7, Image 7

Man Is Much the Same.

Any comparison between the society of to-day and that of former times must be exceedingly difficult, because, though human nature remains exactly the same and runs like a golden thread up the ages until it is lost in mythology, it is now so differently conditioned and its characteristics so modified by circumstances that its whole form and appearance have completely altered. But if we unwind the different wrappings which shroud the real man from our view, he will be found unchanged.

The vices and even the virtues of the parents, however, have sometimes a curiously deterrent effect on the children, who unconsciously lean to the opposite side, impelled by nature rather than their own will to trim the boats of habit and custom.

Young Girl Gamblers.

Take two of the crying sins which have degraded society ever since social inter course became a power in the world — gambling and drink.

Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers indulged in the former to an extent which made the temptation to cheat an almost overpowering one, but in the days of our fathers and mothers, things were not so bad as they have now again become. Certainly young girls who may now be seen of an afternoon or evening at the bridge table losing far more than they can afford do not figure as gamblers in the memoirs of former days. As most girls have spent their quarter’s allowance long before it is due, and as they have not, so far as I know, the young man’s resources of borrowing cash from his tailor, it is difficult to see how they can meet what losses they are certain to sustain.

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The modern girl, too, is in a difficult position. She is expected to dress far more handsomely than her predecessors early in the century, for whom a ribbon sash and a white muslin dress well damped to make it cling represented the height of luxury. The rush and hurry of modern life, traveling expenses, tips to servants, dresses for London, others for the country, golfing, bicycling and tennis costumes, riding habits, to say nothing of shooting, fishing and “motoring” garments — all these things run into far more money than the ordinary girl can squeeze or coax out of dear papa.

I honestly believe that with all their extra amusements, freedom of action and speech and superior education, they are not nearly so happy as their simpler and more easily pleased forbears, who looked reposee, blooming and domestic and had, if we may trust to the accounts which have come down to us, all the men at their feet.

Now, it seems to me that the reverse is the case. There is nothing more distressing than to be a pretty girl at a party trying to interest a languid, bored young man, who feebly responds to her advances with the same air, if slightly veiled, of having “a stick to keep the girls away” which prevails in less-elevated circles.

Then, again, the hurry and scurry are so terrible. Society is enormous and fed to repletion. The area in which calls have to be paid is appalling, and the fatigue of this particular duty such that I feel sure our successors will dispense with it altogether or adopt some more convenient form of conveying the fact that they are in town or wish to be on visiting terms with someone.

Professor Dolbear, in his summary of the world’s progress in science, has said:

The nineteenth century received from its predecessors the horse; we bequeath the locomotive, the bicycle and the automobile. We received the sailing ship; we bequeath the steamship. We received the beacon signal fire; we bequeath the telephone and wireless telegraphy. All these discoveries have had a deep and lasting influence on society, but whether for good or ill, who shall say?

Saturday-Monday Jaunts.

In any case, if the aim and object of society is to enable persons of wealth and leisure to spend their lives agreeably together, guarded by certain unwritten laws and self-imposed restrictions, I doubt whether that result has been attained as matters stand.

Formerly the great dining days for the London world were Wednesdays and Saturdays, these days being free from House of Commons duties, but now the former only remains to the giver or eater of dinners. Saturday is devoted to a hop, skip and a jump visit into the country till the following Monday. These trying visits are no rest to the overtaxed worldling or to the tired official or litterateur, and the amount of fresh air each is able to imbibe must be considerably counterbalanced in its tonic properties by the enervating effects of overgood cheer, the reaction which follows the airy stimulus of champagne and the deteriorating effects on what our doctors are pleased to call the “nerves” by a rapid railway journey down to the country and up again to town within a limited number of hours.

Add to this that we are nearly all of us trying to drive four horses while we stand precariously balanced on the backs of the other two, and that, what with social “pleasures,” “duties” to match, philanthropy, education, literary, artistic or athletic avocations, to which we may add various forms of serious gambling either on the Stock Exchange or in the drawing room, we can scarcely pause to enjoy what we have most desired, labored to acquire and at length obtained.

Such, for instance, I may say, in the unfortunate case of certain persons with old-fashioned views of the family tie is the result of the stress of modern life that we hardly ever see those most dear to us — our husbands or our children; they are all swallowed up, the former in meeting the terrific competition which confronts them in every career, our sons in passing competitive examinations until they are well on into the thirties, our daughters in tearing from one house to another, from one dinner dance to the next, or in taking up what they fondly believe to be some serious study, which occupies their time if not their minds, and deceives the empty heart with artificial food just as starving men devour the most innutritious substances.

“Bachelor” Girls Not Happy.

This special development of our social edifice rests on the gradually acquired “bachelor” habits of our girls, partly owing to the greater safety and rapidity with which they can move about the world; their wider knowledge of life so acquired, which fits them in a measure to protect themselves, and lastly, on their more extensive education.

Are they happier? I shrewdly suspect not. The charmed veil of mystery which made of their mothers and grandmothers longed for prizes, whose society could scarcely be enjoyed in fullness, has dropped from our lovely, athletic, accomplished, but prosaic young women, whom ambulance classes and lectures on physiology have robbed of something of the tender freshness which dilated the eye and flushed the check of their ancestresses.

And yet in some respects, the position of women has greatly improved. They found early in the century habitual drunkenness; they will leave sobriety. They found the coarsest of language and a flow of oaths on the slightest provocation; and they leave, outside a certain very limited set which seems to rejoice in the unclean and the ambiguous, careful if  slangy speech, in which such a thing as a big, big D is as rare as plums in in work house pudding.

The modern hygienic comforts and facilities of our houses must also have their effect; and it is strange to picture a condition of affairs which compelled the architects of our old castles to build the bedrooms all opening one out of another, the innermost one, which had no other exit, being inhabited by the women of the family for their protection.

Dinners Too Elaborate.

Our dinners are too long, too hot, too gorgeous, too large and therefore usually too deadly dull to be enjoyable; but even if they were perfect in every detail, they could not continue to amuse a person who dines out every night of his life. Still, with all their faults, they must no less intolerable than those interminable feasts of roast beef, cygnet or pea chick at which our grandfather sat, flanked by bottles of port and brown sherry, from 3 in the afternoon till they were carried to bed or perhaps tottered unsteadily into the presence of the ladies. They drank, no doubt, to still the gnawing worm of boredom, which even then must have had some power; but now we bear our disillusions and satiety in soberness, if with depression and languor.

It is said — with what truth I know not — that the abstinence of our ladies of to-day from the flowing bowl is not so conspicuous as that of the men. I trust this is a libel. But worse than this is the secret habit of taking drugs — more fatal, if possible, than alcohol, and less easy to detect and control.

Another conspicuous change in society is the worship of wealth and the altered views of the most ancient and aristocratic families on the subject of trade. Dukes, marquises, earls and their female relations keep shops, issue advertisements of their wares, and, in the case of the former, display their names on a city prospectus or the bill of a theater without feeling at all uncomfortable, unless, indeed, their venture is not a financial success. The whole tone of the social mind has altered in this respect, and if some antiquated and semi-barbaric ideas have been up rooted with the tares, much alas! of the good corn of noblesse oblige has shared their fate.

Short Visits Necessary.

Life in country houses has undergone perhaps the greatest variation of all, owing to railways, telegraphs and the scurry in which we spend our days. Short visits are not only customary, but necessary, where each engagement in succession overlaps the other and has to be fitted in almost like a Chinese puzzle. I am told that a book which recently appeared, and which purported to give a realistic account of the visits of a young girl to a series of country houses, presents a fair picture of what goes on in a certain set; but, if so, I must honestly declare that it is not one with which I am at all acquainted.

Then, again, we found (to continue our paraphrase of the American professor) private charity; we leave professional philanthropy. I hope I may be forgiven for saying that I consider this one of the greatest blots on our modern system, for too often it hardly affords a decent cloak for the grossest hypocrisy and self-interest. It is utilized, on the one hand, by some to erase a stain from their escutcheon, and by others to advance themselves either in society or in the more material search after a well paid appointment.

Charity for the love of God, and not either for excitement, gain, or for whitewashing purposes, is as rare as it is refreshing and ennobling to witness. The great name, the brilliant talents, the cultured leisure, given by some of our conspicuous men and women to the cause of the poor and suffering are beacons to follow and monuments raised for future generations to keep before their eyes.

In literature, as far as society is concerned, I fear we cut a poor figure as compared with our forbears; for though we are copious, we are not original, as a rule, or entertaining.

Too Many Itch to Write.

We found writers of witty and some times learned letters, diaries or memoirs, expressed with eloquence and ease; we leave the new journalism, where titles fetch their price; postcards, and a language compounded of the slang of many nations choicely culled and shortened to fit in with our telegraphic needs and fleeting opportunities.

It is not only mine enemy who needs no pressing to write a book; it is his wife, his family, his secretary, his valet — and even his little children contribute in their degree, either pertly or priggishly, to the pages of weekly papers. Their poems are marvelously good, all things considered, if rather tiresome and obvious; and one hesitates as to which characteristic in them is most developed — preternatural sharpness and a weird instinctive insight into the foibles of their elders, for it eludes punishment and reduces the parent to the condition of a silent witness of the gambols of his offspring among the eggs of life and society, not all of which are strictly new laid, and some of which break, obviously addled, beneath the unconscious foot of the little dancer. Will their precocious knowledge fade away as problems spread themselves, no longer simple, but complex, before their adolescent eyes? Or are they young plants, seedlings of a future race of strange, unknown forest trees, with virtues which we cannot reach at, and a nearness to nature from which education and experience have debarred our blunted minds?

What ever they may prove eventually to be, to us they seem mysterious little offshoots of some alien stock, reversions, perhaps, to a long forgotten type — changelings in which we seem to have no part. What they are as compared with the social children of the past it is difficult to say, for records on this point are sparse; but it is certain that their relations with their elders have suffered a complete revolution not entirely in favor of the latter.

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One of the great disadvantages of modern society is the disproportionate number of women, which is much felt in a Protestant country, where few seek the protection of a convent from a world which has no use for them, and where, although they know that they cumber the ground, they must always look bright and amused even when they are dull and sick at heart. Many such now resort to studios and other kindred haunts to escape from the trammels of a life where it is not all sunshine, although it may be all luxury.

Growth of Moral Laws.

As society becomes more complex, larger and more elastic, bo the moral law must fit itself to protect the weak from themselves and from the strong, and to enable this large and buzzing beehive of a world to get along without too much disorder, just as in the streets we walk to the right or keen to the left, according to the rule of the road.

Social laws which often seem hard are really beneficent, and the relaxation which seems to have taken place in them in earnest of late years may not prove a blessing even to those in whose favor they are loosened.

It should be remembered that the time when Dante wrote his “Inferno” the story of Francesca da Rimini was barely ten years old; but it will be difficult to judge of the true state of the society of our day from its published records, which contain highly Bowdlerized accounts of its real doings.

And in spite of all that can be said either of our period or of previous ones, pure lives shine out; “the good deed in a naughty world” casts a glow round darker prospects, but virtue is not always triumphant nor vice always scouted.

The good and the bad flourish together in the world’s great field — flowers and weeds and corn alike; but it is evident that the good must predominate over the bad, or society and its rules, its petty laws, its great warm life and historic continuity would long since have faded into nothing, as some day it must and will, which it shall have fulfilled the purpose for which it is allowed to exist.


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Source publication: The San Francisco Call

Publication date: November 17, 1901

Notes: Image: N.Y. : J. Ottmann Lith. Co., Puck Bldg., 1901 April 24.


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