The Enfants Terribles of New York: 1891

Miss Cara Burch, John Singer Sargent

Miss Cara Burch, John Singer Sargent


“Van Gryse ” describes the Child of Rich but Stupid Parents.

Probably the most desperately spoiled children in the length and breadth of North America are to be found in New York. Enfants terribles are as numerous here as the sands of the sea-shore. Dreadful, clever, impossible children, with reasoning minds and brains stored with questions, are to be found as thickly flourishing as dudes, and summer girls, and tennis-playing cranks, and the other strange birds one sees when one has no gun. Sarah Walker, in Bret Harte’s story, is no exaggeration. Any one who has ever frequented a summer hotel has been martyrized by the Sarah Walkers of the piazza, the corridor, the dining-room, and the parlor.

The Sarah Walker variety is not the child of poor but honest parents, but the child of rich but stupid parents.  She belongs to the new rich. If you remember, in the story she developed into a woman of great beauty, great brain, and greater desire to rule every one within her reach, and “run things” to suit herself. One has a glimpse of her, standing before her glass, pinning up her wonderful red hair and berating her feeble prince, who sits meekly by and dares not say her nay.

The little Sarah Walkers of the hotels may meet with such a dazzling fate as hers, may marry obedient and adoring princes, and turn out credits to the republic. At present, however, they are in the stage of long silk stockings and very short and fleecy skirts, floating hair crimped out into a golden bush, and wide leghorn hats flapping under wreaths of flowers.

They have costumes by the dozens — boxes full of wonderful white lace and muslin finery, bought at expensive places, for dizzying prices. They have their Sunday and their weekday hats. They have their little gloves, into which patient maids squeeze their fat and pudgy fists, and their tiny patent-leather slippers for dancing. Fashion has mercifully ordained that they shall never wear jewelry, and though their mother is inclined to observe “that there ain’t no flies on this hotel,” and in her heart has doubts as to whether Shakespeare wrote “Lord Chumley,” she has mastered the decrees of fashion from Alpha to Omega, and her little Sarah Walker is as perfectly dressed as any little Sarah Walker in Gotham.

The parents of these preternaturally acute infants are almost invariably wealthy, and quite as invariably, too, have made their money all of a sudden. From a dingy flat across town they suddenly find themselves quite capable of maintaining a fine establishment on one of the choicer avenues.

From Mother Hubbards and curl-papers, mamma can pass to the most expensive of frisettes and the prettiest confections of up-town modistes. The baby — the only baby and already a strangely precocious darling — can be beautiful as one of the lilies of the field. It can have a maid all of its own, a carriage lined with silk, a silver bowl and spoon, a crib of lace and down, and cut those esoteric mysteries known as “stomach teeth” upon a solid gold and coral ring.

When the baby begins to get over the baby stage, it shows symptoms of being very — unhappily — “cute.” Its parents sit round and listen in amaze at the words of wisdom that fall from its lips. Its witticisms convulse them; when it gets a little older, its corrections and criticisms will alarm them. But never, to their thinking, was there such a child. They adore it and satisfy its every whim. What better use can their money be put to than buying finery and presents for this little lamb? So the little lamb, as is the way with lambs, little and big, clamors for everything it sees. At dinner, it sits in its own high-chair, and, pounding on the table with its spoon, demands for its amusement, sometimes father’s watch, sometimes the gravy-boat, in which it paddles, with great and unctuous pleasure, sometimes the centre-piece of roses, or the crystal dish of salted almonds. When it goes out walking, it shrieks for things it sees in shop-windows. If the desired objects are not immediately purchased, it lies down in its tracks and shrieks and kicks until they are.

Every summer the baby goes to a summer hotel and meets other babies of its own kind, and conferences with these leave it exceeding wise, with an almost serpentine wisdom. The baby has eyes and sees, ears has it and hears. At eight years of age, it has used its eyes to such advantage that it seriously informs its mamma that her frisette is not of the kind usually wom. Already mamma has grown so used to giving in to the baby, and deeming its words the words of the female Solomon of modern history, that she meekly accepts the correction, and, when in town, buys a frisette of the style the baby recommends. In fact, in the course of the next few years, the baby develops with such lightning-like rapidity, and also can make itself so enormously unpleasant if its suggestions are not followed, that its mamma not only obeys it, but asks its advice on all matters — social, intellectual, and domestic.

A year or two at a day-school, where all the other babies go, send the baby shooting up, far, far past the ken of either of its parents, both of whom, still meekly adoring, are beginning to have their adoration tempered with a modicum of uneasy fear. They are both a little bit frightened of the baby and dread her austere and unanswerable corrections of their conduct. When the baby, extremely put out, tells mamma that on no consideration must she sign her letters “Mrs. John Jones,” mamma, nervously ill-at-ease, can think of nothing to say in justification of this fondly adhered to custom. Whatever she says in its defense, she knows the baby will meet with the calm rejoinder:

“Well, now, mamma, because you have done it all your life is no proof that it is right. In fact, from what I know of you, I think it is rather a proof that it is wrong!”

And so, at twelve, the baby rules the house, the people in it, and her own life. She is pretty, with the fine beauty that her father and mother dote on and that has surprised foreigners with its delicacy and finish. She is an astoundingly clever girl, and will grow cleverer all the time. She has a good deal of affection for her parents, and treats them with a sort of contemptuous good-nature as two stupid, harmless, tractable creatures that she must take care of and steer clear of snags. She is very hard-headed, shrewd, and calculating, exceedingly self-confident, daring, and courageous. She will make her own life in a sort of a dashing, brilliant fashion, always live in the world before the eyes of an admiring throng, be a light in gay society, and every day, as she advances in years, grow more selfish, more determined, more willful and arrogant.

This is the baby of the summer hotel, of the silly new rich, of the feeble and vain mother and the soft and easy-going father. But the quietly domestic, the simply bourgeois life has its spoiled babies just as well. There are mother’s girls — sweet little dears brought up at mother’s knee, and taking in, with the extraordinary quickness of a sharp-witted child, everything they hear mentioned. Such children become little replicas of their elders, copy their conversation, their gestures, their tones, ideas, faults, and foolish idiosyncrasies. The parents think it so cute, so cunning, and proud of dear Mary Jane’s old womanish ways and complacent affectations, drag her about with them wherever they go, and force her upon their friends and their visitors till Mary Jane becomes inflated to bursting-point with the consciousness of her own charms, and the family acquaintances feel that they would like to incarcerate the ” dear, clever, little woman ” in some far-distant spot where the babies cease from troubling and the listener is at rest.

Mary Jane’s mamma is always foisting her brilliant daughter upon afternoon visitors, who come at untoward times when mamma is upstairs in the comfortable negligee of a loose white sack and a short white skirt. When she receives the cards, she becomes extremely flurried, after the manner of women, execrates her guests with the true feminine hospitality, and finally tells Mary Jane, who is standing about and silently enjoying the breeze, to smooth her hair, pull up her stockings, and go down and entertain the ladies until “Mamma comes.”

Nothing is dearer to the heart of Mary Jane. Plastering down her bang with a wet brush and donning a clean pinafore, she trips down-stairs and enters the parlor, imparting to her back draperies a gently pendulous swing, as she has seen her Aunt Fanny do when dressed up to meet her young man. Mary Jane has a perfectly self-possessed and complacent manner, copied from mamma’s and Aunt Fanny’s. She greets the guests with gracious patronage, then, sitting on the edge of her chair, smooths her pinafore, crosses her ankles, and proceeds to direct the conversation into interesting channels.

First, she calls their attention to the new draperies over the mantel. They were papa’s taste. “He went off one day and bought them second-hand; cheap, you know. And mamma was furious. She says any one can see they’ve been bought second-hand. Do you think you would have guessed it if I hadn’t told you? No; perhaps not. Mamma said at the time, papa had no more taste than if he’d come from Chicago.”

Then, her eyes lighting on a silk sofa-pillow, she designates it with a languid wave of the hand and continues:  “That is new, too. Mamma’s friend, Miss O’Neil, made it. Miss O’Neil, you know, was at school with mamma, but afterward she didn’t get married, you see, as mamma says her offers were so poor, and so now she’s an old maid and teaches music. She’s worn very badly, mamma says, and is getting a little short in her temper. She gives me lessons — it’s really out of charity, for she is not at all a good teacher. She also comes to dinner once a week, and sometimes twice. We’re beginning to think that she comes a little too often, because we have to have three courses and dessert when she comes, and it does make the bills run up so!”

After this, she falls back on the photographs on the table, and points them out, with appropriate descriptions:  “That man there, with the big mustache, is Aunt Fanny’s beau. He’s been coming here for three years, and papa calls him ‘the forlorn hope.’ I don’t know why he does that.

“Aunt Fanny sits in the parlor when he comes, and we all sit here in the library and listen to Aunt Fanny laugh. Mamma says it’s a pity he’s not so entertaining when he talks to us. He never makes us laugh at all.

“The next man, in the enamel frame, is Mr. Smith. He’s a friend of papa’s. Last winter he lent papa some money, and it isn’t paid yet. As soon as it’s paid, mamma’s going to get her set of cut-glass, but papa says she can’t have one piece until then. Mamma gets awful mad when he tells her so, but papa says honesty is the best policy, and, when papa says a thing, it’s just like the Medes and the Prussians.”

Here mamma, nicely dressed up, but somewhat out of breath, enters rustling : “I am afraid this little chatter-box has been boring you,” she says, with beaming maternal pride. The guests politely disclaim such a possibility. In truth, they have been enormously entertained. Van Gryse.

New York, July 17, 1891.

The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 27 July 1891

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The “Sarah Walker” mentioned above is found in the eponymous story by Mr Bret Hard in his 1885 collection By Shore and Sedge. She is an astonishingly spoilt and selfish child and she comes to a—well, a characteristic end for the Sarah Walkers of the world, marrying a limp-spirited European prince and continuing on her serene, self-centred way.

Mrs Daffodil fears that the identical type of child limned in this scathing indictment can still be found, the product of the so-called “helicopter parent,” who hovers to make smooth the path of their darling. One wonders what the harvest will be.

We have previously seen a similar maternal indulgence in The Horror of the Amateur Piano-player.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


1 thought on “The Enfants Terribles of New York: 1891

  1. Pingback: The Easy-Going Mother: 1892 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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