The Craze to Collect

June 13, 2008

In my golden youth, when everything seemed possible, I chanced to read Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” and became fascinated by the wealth of innuendo packed into those three little words. I promptly resolved to make Browning look like a piker by bagging at least two (to justify “last”) representatives from each tier of the whole peerage. The project seemed well within my scope inasmuch as there were no marchionesses or viscountesses living at that time, leaving me only baronesses, countesses and duchesses to conquer.

My plan was simple enough. The old aristocracy had long sought to rally its declining vigor by regular infusions of fresh commoner blood on the distaff side. For example, the stately Hermione, Dowager Duchess of Longfield, was originally Little Tilly Titmuss, darling of the burlesque stage in the ’20s. The instrument for this rescue operation was invariably the country house weekend, where suitable commoners and unwed scions of the aristocracy could get to know one another in ideal surroundings and complete privacy.

In compiling the guest list, emphasis was placed on good memory, a robust constitution  and the ability to assume any desired role at a moment’s notice, so stage performers were generally favored. For decency’s sake, guests were encouraged to bring an escort, though it was well understood that he was not to interfere with any friendship his companion might strike up.

The routine rarely changed. During the day, the men would ride to hounds or slaughter pheasant, according to season, while the women played cards and… well, I have no idea what they did, but they were evidently bored to distraction by the time cocktails were served at six, and ready for any adventure. The cocktail hour was always a stand-up affair specifically designed for social intercourse, when everyone could move around, discover mutual interests and plan the where and when of a later tryst.

After dinner at eight accompanied by a great deal of wine, the ladies retired to the drawing room while the men smoked cigars, circulated the port and arranged not to compete for the same females. The real action came after everyone had gone to bed at 11, whereupon there was much muffled knocking on doors as consenting couples got together to establish closer relationships.

This was precisely where I came in, as the wives and daughters of the peerage, not to be left out, eagerly seized the opportunity to check out the other side of the fence. So merely by befriending likely-looking actresses and awaiting the call, I could be given access to a whole range of bluebloods dissatisfied with their current arrangements.

Naturally, it sometimes took several weekends at different estates to set up an intimate connection that could be continued elsewhere, but with persistence and the low cunning natural to the serious philanderer, I could always achieve my goal. The real problem came in devising an appropriate exit strategy, because, as the man said, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

It took me nearly a year of concentrated effort to complete my project. In the process I learned many valuable lessons, not least that practically everyone wants to be loved, but almost no one thinks they’re getting enough. I have no solution for this dilemma, but I’m always ready to give practical advice when called upon.

 

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