Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XVII

Mrs Proudie’s Conversazione

It was grievous to think of the mischief and danger into which Griselda Grantly was brought by the worldliness of her mother in those few weeks previous to Lady Lufton’s arrival in town — very grievous, at least, to her ladyship, as from time to time she heard of what was done in London. Lady Hartletop’s was not the only objectionable house at which Griselda was allowed to reap fresh fashionable laurels. It had been stated openly in the Morning Post that that young lady had been the most admired among the beautiful at one of Miss Dunstable’s celebrated soirees and then she was heard of as gracing the drawing-room at Mrs Proudie’s conversazione.

Of Miss Dunstable herself Lady Lufton was not able openly to allege any evil. She was acquainted, Lady Lufton knew, with very many people of the right sort, and was the dear friend of Lady Lufton’s highly conservative and not very distant neighbours, the Greshams. But then she was also acquainted with so many people of the bad sort. Indeed, she was intimate with everybody, from the Duke of Omnium to old Dowager Lady Goodgaffer, who had represented all the cardinal virtues of the last quarter of a century. She smiled with equal sweetness on treacle and on brimstone; was quite at home at Exeter Hall, having been consulted — so the world said, probably not with exact truth — as to the selection of more than one disagreeable Low Church bishop; and was not less frequent in her attendance at the ecclesiastical doings of a certain terrible prelate in the Midland counties, who was supposed to favour stoles and vespers, and to have no proper Protestant hatred for auricular confession and fish on Fridays. Lady Lufton, who was very staunch, did not like this, and would say of Miss Dunstable that it was impossible to serve both God and Mammon. But Mrs Proudie was much more objectionable to her. Seeing how sharp was the feud between the Proudies and the Grantlys down in Barsetshire, how absolutely unable they had always been to carry a decent face towards each other in Church matters, how they headed two parties in the diocese, which were, when brought together, as oil and vinegar, in which battles the whole Lufton influence had always been brought to bear on the Grantly side; — seeing all this, I say, Lady Lufton was surprised to hear that Griselda had been taken to Mrs Proudie’s evening exhibition. ‘Had the archdeacon been consulted about it,’ she said to herself, ‘this would never have happened.’ But there she was wrong, for in matters concerning his daughter’s introduction to the world the archdeacon never interfered.

On the whole, I am inclined to think that Mrs Grantly understood the world better than did Lady Lufton. In her heart of hearts Mrs Grantly hated Mrs Proudie — that is, with that sort of hatred one Christian lady allows herself to feel towards another. Of course Mrs Grantly forgave Mrs Proudie all her offences, and wished her well, and was at peace with her, in the Christian sense of the word, as with all other women. But under this forbearance and meekness, and perhaps, we may say, wholly unconnected with it, there was certainly a current of antagonistic feeling which, in the ordinary unconsidered language of every day, men and women do call hatred. This raged before the eyes of all mankind. But, nevertheless, Mrs Grantly took Griselda to Mrs Proudie’s evening parties in London. In these days Mrs Proudie considered herself to be by no means the least among bishop’s wives. She had opened the season this year in a new house in Gloucester Place, at which the reception rooms, at any rate, were all that a lady bishop could desire. Here she had a front drawing-room of very noble dimensions, a second drawing-room rather noble also, though it had lost one of its back corners awkwardly enough, apparently in a jostle with the neighbouring house; and then there was a third — shall we say drawing-room, or closet? —-in which Mrs Proudie delighted to be seen sitting, in order that the world might know that there was a third room; altogether a noble suite, as Mrs Proudie herself said in confidence to more than one clergyman’s wife from Barsetshire. ‘A noble suite, indeed Mrs Proudie!’ the clergymen’s wives from Barsetshire would usually answer.

For some time Mrs Proudie was much at a loss to know by what sort of party or entertainment she would make herself famous. Balls and suppers were of course out of the question. She did not object to her daughters dancing all night at other houses — at least, of late she had not objected, for the fashionable world required it, and the young ladies had perhaps a will of their own — but dancing at her house — absolutely under the shade of the bishop’s apron — would be a sin and a scandal. And then as to suppers — of all modes in which one may extend one’s hospitality to a large acquaintance, they are the most costly. ‘It is horrid to think that we should go out among our friends for the mere sake of eating and drinking,’ Mrs Proudie would say to the clergymen’s wives from Barsetshire. ‘It shows such a sense of sensual propensity.’

‘Indeed it does, Mrs Proudie; and is so vulgar too!’ those ladies would reply. But the elder among them would remember with regret, the unsparing, open-handed hospitality of Barchester Palace in the good old days of Bishop Grantly — God rest his soul! One old vicar’s wife there was whose answer had not been so courteous —

‘When we are hungry, Mrs Proudie,’ she had said, ‘we do all have sensual propensities.’

‘It would be much better, Mrs Athill, if the world would provide for all that at home,’ Mrs Proudie had rapidly replied; with which opinion I must here profess that I cannot by any means bring myself to coincide. But a conversazione would give play to no sensual propensity, nor occasion that intolerable expense which the gratification of sensual propensities too often produce. Mrs Proudie felt that the word was not at all that she could have desired. It was a little faded by old use and present oblivion, and seemed to address itself to that portion of the London world that is considered blue, rather than fashionable. But, nevertheless, there was a spirituality about it which suited her, and one may also say an economy. And then as regarded fashion, it might perhaps not be beyond the power of a Mrs Proudie to begild the word with a newly burnished gilding. Some leading person must produce fashion at first hand, and why not Mrs Proudie?

Her plan was to set the people by the ears talking, if talk they would, or to induce them to show themselves there inert if no more be could got from them. To accommodate with chairs and sofas as many as the furniture of her noble suite of rooms would allow, especially with the two chairs and padded bench against the walls in the back closet — the small inner drawing-room, as she would call it to the clergymen’s wives from Barsetshire — and to let the others stand about upright, or ‘group themselves’ as she described it. Then four times during the two hours’ period of her conversazione tea and cake were to be handed around on salvers. It is astonishing how far a very little cake will go in this way, particularly if administered tolerably early after dinner. The men can’t eat it, and the women, having no plates and no table, are obliged to abstain. Mrs Jones knows she cannot hold a piece of crumbly cake in her hand till it be consumed without doing serious injury to her best dress. When Mrs Proudie, with her weekly books before her, looked into the financial upshot of her conversazione, her conscience told her that she had done the right thing. Going out to tea is not a bad thing, if one can contrive to dine early, and then be allowed to sit round a big table with a tea urn in the middle. I would, however, suggest that breakfast cups should always be provided for the gentlemen. And then with pleasant neighbours — or more especially with a pleasant neighbour — the affair is not, according to my taste, by any means the worst phase of society. But I do dislike that handing round, unless it be of a subsidiary thimbleful when the business of the social intercourse has been dinner.

And indeed this handing round has become a vulgar and an intolerable nuisance among us second-class gentry with our eight hundred a year — there or thereabouts; — doubly intolerable as being destructive of our natural comforts, and a wretchedly vulgar aping of men with large incomes. The Duke of Omnium and Lady Hartletop are undoubtedly wise to have everything handed round. Friends of mine who occasionally dine at such houses tell me that they get their wine quite as quickly as they can drink it, that their mutton is brought to them without delay, and that the potato bearer follows quick upon the heels of carnifer. Nothing can be more comfortable, and we may no doubt acknowledge that these first-class grandees do understand their material comforts. But we of the eight hundred can no more come up to them in this than we can in their opera-boxes and equipages. May I not say that the usual tether of this class, in the way of carnifers, cupbearers, and the rest, does not reach beyond neat-handed Phyllis and the greengrocer? and that Phyllis, neat-handed as she probably is, and the greengrocer, though he be ever so active, cannot administer a dinner to twelve people who are prohibited by a Medo-Persian law from all self-administration whatever? And may I not further say that the lamentable consequence to us eight hundreders, dining out among each other is this, that we too often get no dinner at all. Phyllis, with the potatoes, cannot reach us till our mutton is devoured, or in a lukewarm state past our power of managing; and Ganymede, the greengrocer, though we admire the skill of his necktie and the whiteness of his unexceptionable gloves, fails to keep us going in sherry. Seeing a lady the other day in this strait, left without a small modicum of stimulus which was no doubt necessary for her good digestion. I ventured to ask her to drink wine with me. But when I bowed my head at her, she looked at me with all her eyes, struck with amazement. Had I suggested that she should join me in a wild Indian war-dance, with nothing on but paint, her face could not have shown greater astonishment. And yet I should have thought she might have remembered the days when Christian men and women used to drink wine with each other. God be with the good old days when I could hob-nob with my friend over the table as often as I was inclined to lift my glass to my lips, and make a long arm for the hot-potato whenever the exigencies of my plate required it.

I think it may be laid down as a rule in affairs of hospitality, that whatever extra luxury or grandeur we introduce at our tables when guests are with us, should be introduced for the advantage of the guest and not for our own. If, for instance, our dinner be served in a manner different from that usual to us, it should be so served in order that our friends may with more satisfaction eat our repast than our everyday practice would produce on them. But the change should by no means be made to their material detriment in order that our fashion may be acknowledged. Again, if I decorate my sideboard and table, wishing that the eyes of my visitors may rest on that which is elegant and pleasant to the sight, I act in that matter with a becoming sense of hospitality; but if my object be to kill Mrs Jones with envy at the sight of all my silver trinkets, I am a very mean-spirited fellow. This, in a broad way, will be acknowledged; but if we would bear in mind the same idea at all times — on occasions when the way perhaps may not be so broad, when more thinking may be required to ascertain what is true hospitality — I think we of the eight hundred would make a greater advance towards really entertaining our own friends than by any rearrangement of the actual meats and dishes which we set before them.

Knowing as we do, that the terms of the Lufton-Grantly alliance had been so solemnly ratified between the two mothers, it is perhaps hardly open to us to suppose that Mrs Grantly was induced to take her daughter to Mrs Proudie’s by any knowledge which she may have acquired that Lord Dumbello had promised to grace the bishop’s assembly. It is certainly the fact that high contracting parties do sometimes allow themselves a latitude which would be considered dishonest by contractors of a lower sort; and it may be possible that the archdeacon’s wife did think of that second string with which her bow was furnished. Be that as it may, Lord Dumbello was at Mrs Proudie’s, and it did so come to pass that Griselda was seated at a corner of a sofa close to which a vacant space in which his lordship could —“group himself”. They had not been long there before Lord Dumbello did group himself. ‘Fine day,’ he said, coming up and occupying the vacant position by Miss Grantly’s elbow.

‘We are driving today, and we thought it rather cold,’ said Griselda.

‘Deuced cold,’ said Lord Dumbello, and then he adjusted his white cravat and touched up his whiskers. Having got so far, he did not proceed to any immediate conversational efforts; nor did Griselda. But he grouped himself again as became a marquis, and gave very intense satisfaction to Mrs Proudie.

‘This is so kind of you, Lord Dumbello,’ said that lady, coming up to him and shaking his hand warmly; ‘so very kind of you to come to my poor little tea-party.’

‘Uncommonly pleasant, I call it,’ said his lordship. ‘I like this sort of thing — no trouble, you know.’

‘No; that is the charm of it; isn’t it? no trouble, or fuss, or parade. That’s what I always say. According to my ideas, society consists in giving people facility for an interchange of thoughts — what we call conversation.’

‘Aw, yes, exactly.’

‘Not in eating and drinking together — eh, Lord Dumbello? And yet the practice of our lives would seem to show that the indulgence of this animal propensities can alone suffice to bring people together. The world in this has surely made a great mistake.’

‘I like a good dinner all the same,’ said Lord Dumbello.

‘Oh, yes, of course — of course. I am by no means one of those who would pretend to preach that our tastes have not been given to us for our enjoyment. Why should things be nice if we are not to like them?’

‘A man who can really give a good dinner has learned a great deal,’ said Lord Dumbello, with unusual animation.

‘An immense deal. It is quite an art in itself: and one which I, at any rate, by no means despise. But we cannot always be eating — can we?’

‘No,’ said Lord Dumbello, ‘not always.’ And he looked as though he lamented that his powers should be so circumscribed. And then Mrs Proudie passed on to Mrs Grantly. The two ladies were quite friendly in London; though down in their own neighbourhood they waged a war so internecine in its nature. But nevertheless Mrs Proudie’s manner might have showed to a very close observer that she knew the difference between a bishop and an archdeacon. ‘I am delighted to see you,’ said she. ‘No, don’t mind moving; I won’t sit down just at present. But why didn’t the archdeacon come?’

‘It was quite impossible; it was indeed,’ said Mrs Grantly. ‘The archdeacon never has a moment in London that he can call his own.’

‘You don’t stay up very long, I believe.’

‘A good deal longer than either of us like, I can assure you. London life is a perfect nuisance to me.’

‘But people in a certain position must go through with it, you know,’ said Mrs Proudie. ‘The bishop, for instance, must attend the House.’

‘Must he?’ asked Mrs Grantly, as though she were not at all well informed with reference to this branch of a bishop’s business. ‘I am very glad that archdeacons are under no such liability.’

‘Oh, no; there’s nothing of that sort,’ said Mrs Proudie, very seriously. ‘But how uncommonly well Miss Grantly is looking! I do hear that she has quite been admired.’ This phrase certainly was a little hard for the mother to bear. All the world had acknowledged, so Mrs Grantly had taught herself to believe, that Griselda was undoubtedly the beauty of the season. Marquises and lords were already contending for her smiles, and paragraphs had been written in newspapers as to her profile. It was too hard to be told, after that, that her daughter had been ‘quite admired.’ Such a phrase might suit a pretty little red-cheeked milkmaid of a girl.

‘She cannot, of course, come near your girls in that respect,’ said Mrs Grantly, very quietly. Now the Miss Proudies had not elicited from the fashionable world any very loud encomiums on their beauty. Their mother felt the taunt in its fullest force, but she would not essay to do battle on the present arena. She jotted down the item in her mind, and kept it over for Barchester and the chapter. Such debts as those she usually paid on some day, if the means of doing so were at all within her power. ‘But there is Miss Dunstable, I declare,’ she said, seeing that that lady had entered the room; and away went Mrs Proudie to welcome her distinguished guest.

‘And so this is a conversazione, is it,’ said that lady, speaking, as usual, not in a suppressed voice. ‘Well, I declare, it’s very nice. It means conversation, don’t it, Mrs Proudie?’

‘Ha, ha, ha! Miss Dunstable, there is nobody like you, I declare.’

‘Well, but don’t it? and tea and cake? and then, when we’re tired of talking, we go away, isn’t that it?’

‘But you must not be tired for these three hours yet.’

‘Oh, I am never tired of talking; all the world knows that. How do, bishop? A very nice sort of thing this conversazione, isn’t it now?’ The bishop rubbed his hands together and smiled, and said that he thought it was rather nice.

‘Mrs Proudie is so fortunate in all her little arrangements,’ said Miss Dunstable.

‘Yes, yes,’ said the bishop. ‘I think she is happy in these matters. I do flatter myself that she is so. Of course, Miss Dunstable, you are accustomed to things on a much grander scale.’

‘I! Lord bless you, no! Nobody hates grandeur so much as I do. Of course I must do as I am told. I must live in a big house, and have three footmen six feet high. I must have a coachman with a top-heavy wig, and horses so big that they frighten me. If I did not, I should be made out a lunatic and declared unable to manage my own affairs. But as for grandeur, I hate it. I certainly think that I shall have some of these conversaziones. I wonder whether Mrs Proudie will come and put me up to a wrinkle or two.’ The bishop again rubbed his hands, and said that he was sure she would. He never felt quite at his ease with Miss Dunstable, as he rarely could ascertain whether or no she was earnest in what she was saying. So he trotted off, muttering some excuse as he went, and Miss Dunstable chuckled with an inward chuckle at his too evident bewilderment. Miss Dunstable was by nature kind, generous, and open-hearted; but she was living now very much with people who, kindness, generosity, and open-heartedness were thrown away. She was clever also, and could be sarcastic; and she found that those qualities told better in the world around her than generosity and an open heart. And so she went on from month to month, and year to year, not progressing in a good spirit as she might have done, but still carrying within her bosom a warm affection for those she could really love. And she knew that she was hardly living as she should live — that the wealth which she affected to despise was eating into the soundness of her character, not by its splendour, but by the style of life which it had seemed to produce as a necessity. She knew that she was gradually becoming irreverent, scornful, and prone to ridicule; but yet, knowing this, and hating it, she hardly knew how to break from it. She had seen so much of the blacker side of human nature that blackness no longer startled her as it should do. She had been the prize at which so many ruined spendthrifts had aimed; so many pirates had endeavoured to run her down while sailing in the open waters of life, that she had ceased to regard such attempts on her money-bags as unmanly or over-covetous. She was content to fight her own battle with her own weapons, feeling secure in her own strength of purpose and strength of wit.

Some few friends she had whom she really loved — among whom her inner self could come out and speak boldly what it had to say with its own true voice. And the woman who thus so spoke was very different from that Miss Dunstable whom Mrs Proudie courted, and the Duke of Omnium feted, and Mrs Harold Smith claimed as her bosom friend. If only she could find among such one special companion on whom her heart might rest, who would help her to bear the heavy burdens of her world! But where was she to find such a friend? —-she with her keen wit, her untold money, and loud laughing voice. Everything about her was calculated to attract those whom she could not value, and to scare from her the sort of friend to whom she would fain have linked her lot. And then she met Mrs Harold Smith, who had taken Mrs Proudie’s noble suite of rooms in her tour of the evening, and was devoting to them a period of twenty minutes. ‘And so I may congratulate you,’ Miss Dunstable said eagerly to her friend.

‘No, in mercy’s name, do no such thing, or you may too probably have to uncongratulate me again; and that will be so unpleasant.’

‘But they told me that Lord Brock had sent for him yesterday.’ Now at this period Lord Brock was Prime Minister.

‘So he did, and Harold was with him backwards and forwards all the day. But he can’t shut his eyes and open his mouth, and see what God will send him, as a wise and prudent man should do. He is always for bargaining, and no Prime Minister likes that.’

‘I would not be in his shoes if, after all, he has to come home and say that the bargain is off.’

‘Ha, ha, ha! Well I should not take it very quietly. But what can we poor women do, you know? When it is settled, my dear, I’ll send you a line at once.’ And then Mrs Harold Smith finished her course round the rooms, and regained her carriage within the twenty minutes.

‘Beautiful profile, has she not?’ said Miss Dunstable, somewhat later in the evening, to Mrs Proudie. Of course, the profile spoken of belonged to Miss Grantly.

‘Yes, it is beautiful, certainly,’ said Mrs Proudie. ‘The pity is that it means nothing.’

‘The gentlemen seem to think that it means a good deal.’

‘I am not sure of that. She has no conversation, you see; not a word. She has been sitting there with Lord Dumbello at her elbow for the last hour, and yet she has hardly opened her mouth three times.’

‘But, my dear Mrs Proudie, who on earth could talk to Lord Dumbello?’ Mrs Proudie thought that her own daughter Olivia would undoubtedly be able to do so, if only she could get the opportunity. But, then, Olivia had so much conversation. And while the two ladies were yet looking at the youthful pair, Lord Dumbello did speak again. ‘I think I have had enough of this now,’ said he, addressing himself to Griselda.

‘I suppose you have other engagements,’ said she.

‘Oh, yes; and I believe I shall go to Lady Clantelbrocks.’ And then he took his departure. No other word was spoken that evening between him and Miss Grantly beyond those given in this chronicle, and yet the world declared that he and that young lady had passed the evening in so close a flirtation as to make the matter more than ordinarily particular; and Mrs Grantly, as she was driven home to her lodgings, began to have doubts in her mind whether it would be wise to discountenance so great an alliance as that which the head of the great Hartletop family now seemed so desirous to establish. The prudent mother had not yet spoken a word to her daughter on these subjects, but it might soon become necessary to do so. It was all very well for Lady Lufton to hurry up to town, but of what service would that be, if Lord Lufton were not to be found in Bruton Street?

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43