“Educated Women of Gentle Birth, Destitute and Alone:” 1903

christmas dinner tableA

The Christmas Table

A Novel Christmas Banquet.

By Elizabeth L. Banks.

“Educated Women of Gentle Birth, Destitute and Alone”

So began the strange invitation to a strange Christmas banquet given a few years ago in New York by a well-known church and society woman.

I attended the banquet in my capacity as newspaper reporter, and I speak of it as “strange” because, indeed, it was the strangest as also the most touching banquet I ever attended.

For a certain part of that Christmas Day I was on duty for my newspaper, and it was my task to report the doings at various charity Christmas feasts which were that day given to the city’s poor.

Altogether merry and jolly I found the partakers of the newsboys’ dinner, when I peeped upon them at the beginning of my round. It fairly did my heart good to see them in their hundreds gathered about immense tables, whereon were turkey and cranberry sauce, and escalloped oysters, and plum puddings, and mince pies and celery, and everything else the Christmas appetite could fancy. I watched them scramble into their seats, grab the turkey-legs with their two hands, bite off the meat, use their knives instead of forks, and their fingers sometimes in place of either.

“Why, say,” said one of the grinning youngsters to me, “w’at ye doin’ at our dinner? You ain’t no newsboy!”

“No,” I answered; “but I’m what might be called a ‘newswoman,’ because I’m going to write all about your Christmas dinner for to-morrow’s paper.”

“Hurrah! Hurrah!” came the chorus from the boys. “Say, fellers, ain’t it fine? This yere lady’s goin’ to write about our dinner for her paper. Say, miss, just put my name in as one o’ the guests, will ye? I’m Billy Snyder. An’ there’s me brother, an’ Sam Jones, too—don’t forget ’em, will ye? Say, just take the names of all of us, an’ print ’em, and when I calls out to-morrer’s paper I’ll shout: ‘Yere’s yer mornin’ paper—all about the newsboys’ dinner—buy a paper, mister, and read all the names of us fellers what was there!'”

It was “merry Christmas” with those newsboys, sure enough. Some good people were giving them a free dinner, and they were enjoying it as only boys of their ilk could enjoy such a feast. There was but one cloud upon their happiness—the fact, which I tried to impart to them as gently as possible, that I could not put their names in the paper because of lack of space. But I got a good report of their merriment, and out again into the white Christmas weather I went, then on a cable car to the “up-town” or fashionable part of New York.

“To Educated Women Of Gentle Birth, Destitute And Alone.—You are invited

by Mrs. __ to a Christmas Dinner here in her house to-day at two o’clock.”

In the drawing-room window of one of the brown-stone houses was the sign, the magnet that had drawn me from the newsboys’ dinner on the east side to another Christmas dinner on the west side. A few days before Christmas the invitation had been published in the various New York newspapers: and then, on Christmas Day, lest any of the wished-for guests might not have read the papers, there shone from the window of the brown-stone mansion the light to guide them thither.

At the door of the drawing-room stood the hostess, receiving her guests.

“A merry Christmas! I am pleased to see you,” was her greeting to each one that passed her. She extended her hand, and several times, as guest after guest passed into the beautiful room beyond, I noticed a pained, half-bewildered look on the face of the hostess, and once or twice her eyes were bright with tears.

No servant stood near to announce the guests, since all were nameless for the day. Some, the hostess recognised as friends of former years; some, I, too, knew as grand dames of a time not long gone by; but to each and all only the cheery greeting, “Merry Christmas! I am pleased to see you,” was given, and, finally, when a hundred of New York’s gentlewomen — “destitute and alone”—had passed through the hospitable portal, the doors of the dining-room were thrown open, and the guests took their places at the tables.

The table linen was of the finest damask, the silver shone resplendent, the china was beautiful and costly, the glasses thin and dainty, and the table decorations were such as only taste and wealth could provide. In front of each cover was a tiny cut-glass vase of flowers.

Around the tables there were gathered sweet-faced women with white hair: women with tired, careworn faces and dark hair; and there were some young girls whose beauty shone out in spite of the melancholy of their eyes. All were well dressed—that is, there was nothing cheap or loud or gaudy about the apparel of the guests—but many of the hats and dresses were a bit old-fashioned, and none of the clothes were absolutely new.

A handsome woman of about forty was wearing a black satin dress: satin which, when purchased, must have cost five or six dollars a yard. Her hat, old and behind the times as it was, showed that it had originally been bought of a certain milliner who is known to supply only the richest of New York’s women with headgear. Her boots were of the finest kid, and had been mended in a neat, though amateurish, way by the wearer. One knew instinctively that her feet were encased in silk hose, doubtless much darned.

“I really could not eat any dinner today,” she said, as she tried to smile up at her hostess. “Just a cup of coffee— that is all. You see, my head…”

But it was not her head. It was her stomach! As I looked at her I knew the woman was starving; that she had got past the ravenously hungry stage. Two days before, perhaps, she might have felt hungry, but now she felt only faint and weak, and craved for her Christmas dinner nothing but a cup of coffee. Some years before, she had been giving charity dinners herself, and called in the children of the poor and fed them in her own palatial home. Her hats and dresses were then of the latest style and make, bought in London and Paris, where she had been accustomed to go every year.

At a table there sat society belles of a quarter of a century ago. There was one woman who had owned her hundreds of slaves before the war between North and South; there was the daughter of an honoured judge; the wife of an absconding defaulter; the widow of a clergyman who bad once preached to one of the wealthiest of eastern congregations; there were some women and girls who were trying hard to earn a living by office work, as dressmakers, as milliners, but who, because they were gentlewomen who had never been trained to pounce upon the “almighty dollar” and catch it as it came near, were failures, and must needs be pushed to the wall by the other working women of New York—the less refined and less dainty, but the stronger and better trained.

When the dinner was over and some of the guests were leaving, a woman I had known in another city a few years previously, and whose entertainments I had many times written up for the society columns of the paper on which I had then held a position, recognised me and turned aside to speak to me.

“You here! You here!” she whispered in an agitated voice. “Surely you cannot be going to write up this as a brilliant social function, with the names of the guests and the description of the gowns we are wearing! Promise me one thing for the sake of the days when I used to help you to fill your society page: you will not put my name in among the names of the guests at this dinner.”

“I am not putting any names in,” I answered. “Indeed, I am to write very little about it, except to say that a dinner to gentlewomen was given this year, and that I hope every Christmas to follow may see another such dinner.”

She pressed my hand, and went out silently. I left the house and continued my reportorial round. How happy were the faces at all the other “charity dinners “! How the idea of being “written up” appealed to the newsboys, and the bootblacks, and the cripples, and the inhabitants of the slums! Truly, it was “merry Christmas,” indeed, at all the other places. There were snipes and cheers, and a gulping down of good things. Only in the brown-stone mansion where a rich gentlewoman presided at a table where were gathered these other gentlewomen, “destitute and alone,” did I find sadness on every face. Yet, of all the Christmas charities, I doubt not that this was the one most needed and most deserved and appreciated by those to whom the invitations were sent out.

As I have said, it all happened a few years ago in New York, and all my Christmases since then have been spent in London. Here also I have, Christmas after Christmas, gone about to report upon the feasts spread for the poor. I have heard the smacking of the newsboys’ lips over the huge bites of prime Christmas roast beef; I have heard the watercress and flower girls counting aloud the plums in the slices of plum-pudding which lay upon their plates; I have seen “the poor” of the East End heartily enjoying their Christmas goose with apple sauce, and I have seen the little children of the mission chapels laughing gleefully as they played with their Christmas toys—all these things have I seen provided by London’s rich and well-to-do for London’s poor.

But not yet have I known of a feast provided for London’s women of gentle birth, “destitute and alone,” of whom there are many hundreds more than there are in New York.

There are many of them who live in the topmost, backmost, cheapest little rooms of apartment houses in the most select of West End neighbourhoods, in order, as they will say with a mirthless smile, to “have a good address.” For they do not like anyone to know they are poor, these gentlewomen who are “destitute and alone.” They are supposed by their landladies to “go out for their meals.” Biscuits and watercress, with sometimes a bit of cold ham or beef, bought ready cooked, or an egg, surreptitiously boiled over a little spirit stove, form the bulk of their none too frequent meals. Their clothes look often out-of-date, but their skirts do not look drabbled or dirty, for when they are in their little rooms they mend and brush and patch and darn, re-trim their hats with the same old flowers and ostrich-tips, and the same old ribbons, turned and pressed.

In her room the poor lady has no Christmas fire—but who suspects that? She has neither roast goose nor roast beef of Old England for dinner. She will eat a biscuit and some cheese—that is, unless this year some London woman follows the example of the New York woman, and gives a novel Christmas dinner.

But would she go if she were invited? Would scores of others like her become guests at a party where the hostess took them by the hand and wished them “A merry Christmas.” inquiring not their names, stipulating only that they should be women of gentle birth, “destitute and alone “?

I am not sure: I cannot know; but I believe there would be many guests at such a Christmas feast in London. The hostess must be herself a woman of gentle birth and tact and diplomacy, She must not, on the day of the feast, call in her friends to help her receive her guests. It were better she should receive alone. She must not give over the entertainment of her guests to her servants. Though she should advertise her intention of receiving in the newspapers, she should see that no representatives of the press are there to report upon the identity of her guests. Indeed, if there were any possible way of keeping the address where the dinner is to be given out of the papers, it would be preferable.

The door of the hospitable house where the feast was to be given could not, of course, be left open during the two or three hours when the dinner was in progress. Both the wintry weather and the danger of the entrance of thieves would forbid that. The knocker would be used by the guests, the door opened by a servant, and the guests conducted to the drawing-room where the hostess awaited them. That is all. It requires a careful thinking out, management, and delicate handling.

The Quiver 1903

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: While the thought was kindly meant, the luncheon for those of education and gentle birth (did the hostess require a certificate?) sounds infinitely depressing, not unlike those dreary economies practised by the destitute. One wonders if those in attendance felt worse afterwards, having been given a brief glimpse of their former lives, like the visions of the Little Match Girl as she lit matches in the snow.

Mrs Daffodil fears that, though laudable is the aim of giving impoverished gentlewomen a holiday treat, there is an unpleasant suggestion that the formerly rich cannot bear poverty as easily as can those born to it.  Mrs Daffodil finds offensive the notion that the daughters of the rich cannot compete with the “less refined and less dainty, but the stronger and better trained.”  If training to “pounce” is needed, then perhaps the kind hostesses would consider subscribing the money spent on an afternoon’s entertainment to fund instruction in useful and remunerative trades.

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.

 

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