Friday, August 10, 2018

Victorian Diplomacy and Precedence

“The waves of the tempest in the samovar have subsided and the bits of lemon float serenely upon the placid surface of the brewing in eggshell cups. The new matrons, debutantes, daughters and belles may not have known it, but they need never to have fluttered a single flutter or puzzled their pretty brains for a moment... In this glorious country of ours, which we are proud to call absolutely democratic, and to whose private, and semi-private social functions, no rigid lines of dogmatic court etiquette are known, we have declared with vaunting vanity, the social gospel of the national capital is made, hammered, riveted and clinched with fastenings more stern than steel, by the chieftains who surround the President.”

Precedence: The Burning Topic of the Hour at Washington D.C.
Aroused by the Fact That Lady Pauncefote Led the New Year's Reception at the White House – Cabinet Dictates; Society Dare Not Disobey –By a Woman in Official Life at Washington

QUITE a tempest in a teapot it was while it lasted, to certain matrons, debutantes, daughters and belles newly launched upon Washington society, and a flutter of agnation deeper under the surface than it appeared outwardly was the result of considerable nervousness that followed the first official function of the season. That Lady Pauncefote should have led at the New Year's reception in the White House seems a slight incident, but that it overthrew or waved aside the very gospel of Washington society became apparent in the not too silent attitude in which it was subsequently regarded. But it is all over now. The waves of the tempest in the samovar have subsided and the bits of lemon float serenely upon the placid surface of the brewing in eggshell cups. The new matrons, debutantes, daughters and belles may not have known it, but they need never to have fluttered a single flutter or puzzled their pretty brains for a moment.

In this glorious country of ours, which we are proud to call absolutely democratic, and to whose private, and semi-private social functions, no rigid lines of dogmatic court etiquette are known, we have declared with vaunting vanity, the social gospel of the national capital is made, hammered, riveted and clinched with fastenings more stern than steel, by the chieftains who surround the President. The Cabinet dictates, and society dare not disobey. More than that, the Cabinet has swayed its social scepter these many years, and is, in its turn, compelled to defer to the rigidly established rules laid down by court chamberlains in other parts of the world.

If Mrs. Senator doesn't know how her diplomatic guests are to be placed, like as not, they will attend to that matter themselves. For they know, and their courts insist that they shall know, just how to fall in line at the functions. In order, however, that Mrs. Senator may not betray her quandary as a novice, she has merely to read the Cabinet's order and to consult the diplomatic list, which is compiled by the Department of State, in accordance with precedence established on the lines adopted at the Vienna Congress of 1815. 

Herr von Holleben, the German Embassador, has had some little difficulty in explaining that Lady Pauncefote should have assumed first place on the New Year's reception in the White House in the absence of her husband, the dean of the Diplomatic Corps. The suggestion that she occupy the place that Lord Pauncefote would have been in did not meet the approval of diplomats, who would as soon violate an international law as the ironclad rules of their social training and instruction. The idea that the representative of a country really does represent the regimes in power, is apparently quite forgotten at times, in what we may call our national desire to have things “go smoothly.” 

There is a story told of a dinner given in Washington when the wife of the English Embassador was taken in by, or rather assigned to, the escort of the young son of the house, the reason given being that he was the only “heir apparent.” Like most of the stories about precedence, this cannot be verified, but it serves as a capital anecdote to relate. It will be remembered that at the time of General Grant's funeral, there was a most serious discussion anent who should lead, the English Embassador or the Vice President, and it was said the only way to set the difficulty was to let the Embassador ride on the hearse.

 The rule that the foreign Embasaador who has held his office for the longest term of years is the dean, and ranks first, has simplified matters somewhat, for none can be found to cavil at so practical a rule. The rule as to the wife of each Minister is carried out in the same order. The rule that an Embassador or Minister shall always take in to dinner the wife of someone of rank is rarely ever broken. Another of the Washington stories is to the effect that one daring young hostess gave a Minister a place between two young and pretty girls, and when sharply called to task for having done so by some of the women present, replied that she thought “the poor man had had such a hard winter of it, without any fun, she was unwilling to have him go back to his court without one enjoyable dinner, and she “had sent for him before the dinner and asked him what he wished.”

Every hostess needs to know her “Washington” now, for the sharp eyes that are watching the newly launched, especially, are very tenterhooks to she who may inadvertently “put her foot into it.” Social precedence is the grammar, the arithmetic, the algebra of the woman who would, or who must, entertain. ‘Must,’ sounds a bit harsh, perhaps, to the lay mind, but “must” it is, for the laws of the Medes and Persians were no more impregnable than the inflexible edict, backed by the Cabinet, to which even the “First Lady” must yield. Mrs. Roosevelt must hold just so many public receptions; the wives of Cabinet members must entertain at intervals. None has dared defy, or will ever one ignore this requirement.   

The formal, official entertainments are past; but there still remain the semi-official functions, and in these must the statute of social precedence be regarded no less scrupulously. At even a private entertainment, must the rights of diplomatists be observed with the nicest delicacy. Indeed, in the light of the adequate means at the disposal of a hostess for her guidance, an error in this matter would seem to be inexcusable. Of course, the “newly launched” are not supposed to know, offhand or intuitively, the exact seniority of service upon which depends the precedence of members of the Diplomatic Corps. That they may learn, the Department of State in this Government, under which democracy of social relations is fondly supposed to be absolute issues a little book for limited circulation among those who may be called upon to face what would, without its aid, prove to be a dilemma. – San Francisco Call, 1898



Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia