Max of the Month 6. When reading non-fiction books from the 19th Century, one finds no shortage of great writers who have now been largely forgotten. However, occasionally a writer comes to light whose work is so entertaining, and who was so incredibly popular in his lifetime, that is it almost inconceivable that he is not still a household name. One such author is Max O’Rell.
This month’s quote from the writings of O’Rell is taken from Jonathan and his Continent, published in 1889, which focusses on all aspects of American society, making the book an important piece of work from a social history perspective. O’Rell was from France, so this was an outsider’s perspective.
Low-necked dresses are much worn by American women, not only at balls and dinners, but at their afternoon receptions. It seems very odd to us Europeans to see a lady in a low-necked ball-dress, at four in the afternoon, receiving her friends, who are habited in ordinary visiting toilettes or tailor-made gowns. I should not have said “ordinary,” as there is nothing ordinary in America, especially in the way of women’s dress. In France, a hostess seeks to make show of simplicity in her reception toilettes, so as to be likely to eclipse no one in her own house.
Low dresses are universal in America; old ladies vieing with young in the display of neck and sboulders. It is true, the Americans are not peculiar in this. Many times, in a European ballroom, have I longed to exclaim:
‘‘Ladies, throw a veil over the past, I pray you.”
…The wives of men with middle-class incomes imitate the luxury of the millionaire’s wife. I expected to find it so: in a Democratic country the frogs all try to swell into oxen. They puff themselves out until they burst; or, rather, until their husbands burst.
In France always, and in England when he will let her, a wife keeps an eye on her husband’s interests. In America, she often lays hands on his capital.
Max O’Rell was born Léon Pierre Blouet, but chose a pen name to avoid any embarrassment in his role as a teacher at St Paul’s School in London. He had worked there since 1874, and the same year married his English wife. Such was the success of his writing that he resigned in 1885 to tour, lecture and write full time. O’Rell wrote more than a dozen books, which fall broadly into two categories: characteristics of different nationalities, and characteristics of women. As can be seen from the quote above, the latter was a subject O’Rell could write about with endless enthusiasm and very contemporary humour. Times have certainly changed.
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