This is the continuation of my article on Henry Wikoff’s journal. For the previous parts, please see the entries posted on 7th and 14th March 2016.
There is no doubt that Wikoff had ambitions to break into the inner circles of the rich and famous, something that he eventually achieved to great effect, but his first attempts were far from successful. He came to England with ambitions to meet the King, William IV, expecting a letter of introduction from an ambassador would do the trick.
Shortly after this excursion I started on a visit to our representative at the English Court, Mr. Aaron Vail. This gentleman, previously a clerk in the State Department, had accompanied Mr. Van Buren as secretary when he came as envoy to England…
Among the introductions that Vice-President Van Buren had favoured me with was one to his protégé, Mr. Vail, couched in the heartiest language; and I plumed myself vastly on the advantages of such a recommendation. I had a violent longing to make my obeisance to William IV., and beyond that to penetrate into the patrician saloons of the most exclusive aristocracy of Europe.
On presenting my letter to Mr. Vail, whom I found living in quiet lodgings in a retired street, I was a little subdued by his cold and formal presence. He was a nice-looking man, with an air of great respectability, but precise and reserved, as he no doubt thought became his dignity. He read my introduction carefully, laid it down gravely, paused a moment, and then inquired if I intended to remain long in London. My imagination took fire at once, for I inferred from this, if I stayed long enough, my going to Court was a certainty. I replied that I was master of my own time, was in no hurry to quit London, and especially anxious to see all I could meanwhile. Mr. Vail nodded calmly, but said nothing, which a trifle disconcerted me. In my blandest manner I ventured upon a few remarks on the state of the weather, expecting every instant the imperturbable charge would suggest the sort of uniform I must wear at the King’s levée. But to my surprise he did not, and I felt that I must put his ruminations to flight by a bold attack. Summoning up my pluck, I said, with a genial smile,
‘It would afford me the greatest pleasure, Mr. Vail, to be presented at Court.’
‘I am very sorry,’ he answered, though he did not look it, ‘but fear that is impossible, unless you belong to the army or navy, or hold an official position in civil life. No other Americans are received at Court.’
I fell headlong from the heaven of my expectations.
‘Is that the rule?’ I blurted out.
‘It is,’ was the laconic rejoinder.
I did my best to overcome my disappointment.
‘Is it possible,’ I continued, ‘to obtain an invitation to any of the balls or parties of the nobility taking place nightly?’
At this Mr. Vail looked astonished, and did it well.
‘Have you brought letters to any of them?’ he inquired.
‘Then,’ he said, in a placid tone, ‘I don’t see how it is possible.’
My visions of a dip in ‘high life’ were rudely dispelled, and I was conscious that I had been building castles in the air without thought of the ladder to reach them. Yet surely, methought, I have a claim to some civility. Will this callous diplomat presume to ignore the Vice-President’s indorsement? I will try something not impracticable.
‘I should like,’ I persisted boldly, ‘to see the House of Lords, and I hear a ticket is necessary.’
‘It is; but mine is unfortunately engaged for some days,’ was the response.
‘Can you get me into the House of Commons, then?’ was my next demand.
‘If you will call in about a fortnight,’ he remarked, after examining a paper on his table, ‘perhaps I can manage it.’
I was astonished and indignant, but lingered for a moment longer, believing he meant to ask me to dinner, or at least to breakfast, a cheaper kind of hospitality. Not a bit of it. I detected no symptoms of a thaw, and bolted, exclaiming almost aloud, as I regained the street, ‘ That man is first cousin to an iceberg, if not more nearly related. Anything so frigid and hard I never met in human shape.’
Returning to London in 1836, Wikoff started to achieve some success in getting himself invited to important occasions, and was finally able to achieve his ambition to meet the king, just a year before the death of William IV.
My curiosity was aroused by a person who was evidently the ‘observed of all observers.’ He wore a field-marshal’s uniform, was about medium height, and rather slender. His gray hair showed that age was gaining on him, but he looked strong and hearty. His compressed lips and steady eye denoted firmness and courage of no ordinary kind. His manner was serious and reserved, though quite unassuming. The foreign Ministers all approached him in turn. He replied briefly to their remarks, always retaining the same sedate aspect. Who could he be? At this moment I encountered a secretary of the French Embassy, and asked for information.
‘Why, don’t you know him?’ he said. ‘ That is the “Iron Duke.”‘
‘What!’ I exclaimed, ‘is that the great Duke of Wellington?’
For some minutes my gaze never left him. To behold the victor of Napoleon for the first time was an event.
Shortly after, the doors of an inner apartment were thrown open, and, preceded by his chamberlains, William IV. advanced, amid the salutations of all present. The King posted himself at one end of the room, and the reception at once began. Each foreign Minister, according to his seniority at the Court, defiled before him, with whom he exchanged a few words. Whilst this formality was going on I had time to contemplate his Britannic Majesty. He was about medium height, somewhat stout, and his white hair attested his advanced age, then seventy-one, but he seemed in sound health. His face was pleasant in expression, and his mild blue eye gave assurance of an amiable disposition…
When the turn of the American Minister came, I followed him, and was presented to the King as an attache to the U.S. Legation. He, bestowed on me a gracious glance, and inquired if I had recently arrived in London, to which I replied in the affirmative. He then asked in what part of the country my estate was situated.
‘In Pennsylvania, your Majesty,’ I answered.
This seemed entirely satisfactory, and his Majesty bowed; which was the signal to move on, and henceforward I took rank as an attache to the Court of St. James.
This brief encounter with Wellington was a sign of things to come, as Wikoff gradually became more and more acquainted with the leading politicians of the day. At a ball in Upper Grosvenor Street, he met Lord Melbourne, who had been Prime Minister for a year and would continue in office until 1841.
Lord Melbourne, the Premier, was there, chatting gaily, as was his wont. He was celebrated for his cynical wit, and I was amused at one of his sallies. An enthusiast was boring his lordship with a description of an oratorio he had recently heard.
‘It was beautiful,’ he said, ‘and so wonderfully difficult.’
‘Difficult !’ repeated Lord Melbourne; ‘I wish it had been impossible;’ and he turned away to talk on some topic more congenial to him.
The final part of this article will follow soon. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.