To know what real hospitality means, a man must needs go to Australia. Let him journey through the length of the land, in the solitude of the back country or in the busiest of the towns, he has nothing to do but to say he is a stranger to ensure him a welcome. Whether he brings letters of introduction or not, as long as he behaves like a gentleman he will find no door in the country closed against him; and if he stays any length of time he will every after attach a meaning to the word hospitality, such as he never realised in any other country in the world.
In England hospitality is a lukewarm and cheerless commodity, occasionally doled out in the form of patronage to those from whom no return can be expected, but generally only extended in carefully measured quantities to those from whom an equivalent in kind is anticipated at no distant date. In Australia the word has a very different significance. Hospitality there is no respecter of persons, but is extended alike to rich and to poor, to those who have come from ten miles off, or to people from the other side of the world, who are extremely unlikely ever to be able to return it.
Prompted neither by a recollection of past benefits nor by expectation of favours to come, it originates in a real honest care for the comfort of others, and looks for no other reward than that of giving happiness, and for no other thanks than a kindly recollection on the part of those to whom it is offered.
It is deeply to be regretted that even this small return is so frequently not forthcoming. Too many of our own countrymen are, I fear, open to a charge of the basest ingratitude in this respect. They go out to visit Australia with a sort of notion that they are conferring a favour on the inhabitants by doing so. While they are there they avail themselves to the utmost of the kindness that is everywhere shown them, and on their return to England they abuse the country that they have just left, and run down its institutions and inhabitants in every possible way.
It is difficult to imagine a more disgusting picture of humanity than a young man, educated as a gentleman, who does not scruple to extract all the pleasure and profit he can from people upon whom he has not the slightest claim, and who, as soon as his back is turned, has not the generosity to acknowledge the kindness with which he has been treated, or to refrain from laughing at some solecism which the extreme delicacy of his insular breeding imagines it has been able to detect in his entertainers.
And yet it is a picture that I have seen only too often. Many of my own countrymen only think it necessary to behave like gentlemen so long as they are in England, and when they get to Australia offer but a sorry sample of the manners and customs of the country that raised them. They seem to consider that because they are in a new country they can behave just as they please, and often do not wait until their return to requite with rudeness the hospitality they seem to expect as a right.
The rampart of pseudo-refinement and class prejudice behind which that portion of English society known as the "Upper Ten" (1) is accustomed to shelter itself is usually supposed to be the result of birth, breeding and education. Since I have had an opportunity of observing the altered behaviour of the members of that mystic guild who find their way to Australia, I have come to the conclusion that their "insular reserve" is not so much a question of class as of climate.
Probably there is something in the genial atmosphere of Australia that so quickly thaws the reserve of Englishmen, and causes them to enter heart and soul into all the amusement that is to be found there, and to accept without hesitation the hospitality that is offered them by perfect strangers.
It must the warmth of the climate that does this, for I have noticed that the reverse process takes place when they return to the lower temperature of their mother country. There, if chance throws them, as it often does, into the society of those with whom they have made merry in Australia, they find it convenient once more to esconce themselves behind the barrier of their own society's law, which holds that except in a foreign land a man cannot associate with anyone out of his own set without losing caste, and at home must not introduce any outsider into its enchanted circle unless he be the possessor of fabulous wealth.
Armed with this, the Australian in London may hope for a certain percentage of return hospitality from those whom he may have entertained in his own country. If he takes a house in a fashionable situation, he may even hope to find a few people so inquisitive as to wish to make his acquaintance. But, wherever he goes, he must always expect to be reminded that he is only there on sufferance; and, if he has a wife, he must not mind her being stared at as if she were a wild beast by members of a society that prides itself on being the most refined in the world. If people who consider themselves in the best society in London were simply to declare that anyone who was born south of the equator is unfit to associate with them, and refuse to recognise Australians at all, such conduct, though open to a charge of prejudice, would at least have the merit of consistency.
What is difficult to understand is how people who pride themselves on the perfection of their breeding can ask Australians to their houses and then be gratuitously rude to them. The prejudice that exists in England against Australians is a perfect discredit to an age so enlightened as the present, and is calculated to do serious injury to the prospect of maintaining the permanent union of the two countries, which is of such vital importance to both. There is no doubt that this prejudice is partly owing to the bad impression created by some few Australians who have brought their money to England to make such fools of themselves with it that many people are only too ready to tar all their compatriots with the same brush.
It is from the views of such critics as these that English notions of Australian society are chiefly derived, and upon no point are they more unjustly censorious than upon what they are pleased to call the fastness of the women of Australia. If the canons of English society of the nineteenth centure were a fixed standard for determining the propriety of woman's behaviour, there might be some show of justice in condemning anything that falls short of it. But we all know that nothing of the kind is the case. Society's laws are constructed on a sliding scale that varies from one generation to another. In the words of Macaulay, "we change the fashion of our morals with our coats and our hats, and wonder at the depravity of our ancestors."
We have only to look at the relative measure of justice that the same society deals to a man and to a woman for the same offence, to see that it is regulated by arbitrary laws, which have little reference to abstract principles of right and wrong.
Nothing can be more unjust than to try one community by the social laws which govern another; for although there are certain broad rules which cannot with impunity be transgressed in any society at present, still, in minor matters, what constitutes a breach of propriety in one society does not necessarily do so in another.
The frank demeanour and the entire absence of affectation that makes an Australian girl such a pleasant companion after ten minutes' acquaintance, would in England, of course, be set down to fastness, if to nothing worse. Society in England holds affectation in an unmarried woman to be an integral part of modesty, and in order, therefore, to guard against the imputation of forwardness, reserve with a recent acquaintance must be pushed to the verge of stupidity.
Now, as long as critics upon this point recognise that it is simply the veneering of outward demeanour that they are discussing, no harm is done. But any inference as to the morality that may lie beneath it, is most reprehensible. Whether it be a more excellent thing in woman to try and entertain a man to whom she is introduced, or to make it next to impossible for him to entertain her, is a question which should be decided entirely upon its own merits. But it is infamous to say that the absence of reserve, which in some women is the natural outcome of good spirits and a desire to please, argues the slightest inferiority of moral principles to those who have been brought up to consider that purity can only be preserved in ice.
In Melbourne especially it is impossible for a man to stay long without feeling that he is in an atmosphere of cheerfulness, and amongst people who are determined to enjoy life thoroughly. A single introduction makes him free of the guild, and before he has been there a week he will know everyone in the place. In this respect Melbourne has a great advantage over Sydney, where society is split up into several sets, each of which, for some unaccountable reason, refuses to mix with the others.
Whatever a man's tastes may be, it must be his own fault if they are not gratified in Melbourne. If he is inclined for sport, from October to March he will see as good racing as he ever saw in his life, and during the remainder of the year he will have an excellent opportunity of breaking his neck with the Melbourne hounds. If he is fond of good living, he will find that it is with good reason that the "viveurs" of Melbourne pride themselves on the excellence of their wines and the proficiency of their "chefs." After dinner, if he wishes to gamble, at either of the clubs he will find a certain number of congenial spirits, and, whether he win or lose, it is extremely unlikely next morning that he will complain of the smallness of the stakes.
There are two exceedingly comfortable clubs, the "Australian" and the "Melbourne," both of which admit honorary members for a period of not more than six months in two years--a very liberal allowance, which adds considerably to the pleasure of a visitor's stay in the place, without putting him to any expense. Occasionally rather heavy play goes on at both the clubs. I have known a single player to drop over ten thousand pounds at a sitting.
For several miles to the south-east the suburbs consist of nothing but detached houses, each surrounded by more or less extensive gardens and grounds. Many of these houses have been constructed at an enormous expense, and fitted up by their owners with every comfort and luxury that can be imagined. The grounds of some of them are really beautifully laid out, and there is invariably a well-kept, prosperous kind of look about the whole concern, from the gatepost to the weather-cock.
A glorious ballroom is a very common appendage to one of these Melbourne houses. Dancing, with the people of Melbourne, is a passion; and, like everything else that they go in for, they do it well. The ballroom is strictly sacred to its legitimate use, and no profane feet are allowed to invade its precincts between whiles. All the anxious care of a mother for a delicate child is lavished by the hostess on her ballroom floor, when she is about to give a dance. The music is generally excellent, and they have a happy knack in Melbourne of filling their rooms without crowding them.
Most of the women dance divinely. All through Australia dancing seems to come as naturally to girls as walking; and in Melbourne it is as rare to find a woman between fifteen and fifty who dances badly as it is in England to find one who dances well. Altogether, if a man goes to a ball to dance and not lean against a doorpost, it is odd if he does not look back to some of these small dances in Melbourne, where everyone knows each other, as amongst the pleasantest he ever was at in his life.
Lawn-tennis is everywhere immensely popular. Young men and maidens, old women and children, at it they go, with the enthusiasm which, whether in the pursuit of business or of pleasure, is a distinctive feature of the inhabitants of Melbourne. Really the energy with which some of the fair sex devote themselves to the game savours rather of work than of play. Those who do play, play for four hours every day of their lives, and those who do not, come to look on. A round of afternoon calls means visiting the various lawn-tennis courts in succession. Here, between the hours of three and seven, the youth, beauty, and fashion of the place are every day to be found, comfortably located in a summer-house overlooking the court, drinking tea and talking scandal, and watching the enthusiasts below, who are playing as if their lives depended upon every stroke of the game.
Hotbeds of scandal are these lawn-tennis parties, but here the people of Melbourne show their wisdom by declining to spoil two good things by mixing them. No one who plays is expected to talk scandal on the same afternoon. The players may sit down to rest their aching limbs, and if there is time they may have some tea; but they must be prepared to put down their cups untasted, and start up again at a moment's notice to make up another set, lest a minute's interval in the play should take place. To display the slightest inclination to sit still is to risk offending an otherwise most indulgent hostess, who is certain to be an indefatigable player herself.
Many a time have I watched a recent arrival in the colony, whose ignorance of its customs leads him to suppose that an hour's hard play under a broiling sun entitles him to a few minutes' repose. Having secured a cup of tea and asked permission to smoke, he lights a cigar, and, establishing himself comfortably in an armchair, prepares to enjoy the society of one of his fair neighbours who does not play. Just then the set is finished. The relentless eye of his hostess marks him out for another, and he is forthwith invited to play again. It is no use refusing. He will have to give in. His hostess is going to play again herself, and for very shame he cannot say he is too tired. There is something sublime in the vitality of a woman who can handle a lawn-tennis racquet for three hours at a stretch under the afternoon fire of an Australian sun. Gradually he will find himself infected by such heroism, and by the time that he has been a week in the town he will never dream of refusing to play when he is asked.
(1) The "Upper Ten" is a colloquialism for the Upper Ten Thousand, meaning the aristocracy or upper class; the ten thousand or so people highest in position or wealth.
Jim Foley || Email me