NOTE: Across the Pond with the Incensed Professor is a summer series by the prolific professor who is currently revisiting some of his favorite locations in Great Britain. For the next several weeks, the Professor will share his experiences and memories.
When Claudette Colbert died, she left a packet to her nephews enjoining them not to spend it on anything practical. When my cousin left me a legacy, I decided I would not be practical, either. While my funds last, I plan to live en grand seigneur.
I am returning to London by sea, living as high on the hog as the beast allows.
I have always wanted to live en grand seigneur – a great lord. This has some implications beyond belonging to the right clubs and dining at Michelin three-star restaurants. It often meant that one had a mistress. In the old days, wives were apparently more understanding of this aspect of life en grand seigneur, or just more resigned. In more recent times, restrictions on women taking lovers was apparently a bit relaxed after they had produced the legitimate “heir and the spare,” or so I am told. While Louis XIV had some half dozen “official mistresses,” I am pretty sure not at the same time, the situation remained rather one-sided affair in the ancient regime. Even “Monsieur,” Louis XVI’s homosexual brother, had a mistress as well as a wife and numerous children. I suppose he thought he owed it to his position.
My Parisian Aunt shocked me once when she said even in these days of the petit seigneur there were rules about taking a mistress. Rules? First, one never took his mistress from among his wife’s friends. Second, one never let one’s mistress embarrass one’s wife. Third, one set up one’s mistress in a separate establishment – unless, I suppose, you have all Versailles at your disposal. Now I was a good Sunday School child, and my aunt, though sophisticated, was a woman of great integrity. She merely reported on what she had observed after years of living in Paris. I hope the institution of the mistress is rather foreign to the good people of the South, at least when it comes to “official” mistresses. Given the divorce rate, I suppose a petit seigneur or two must have dabbled in the practice unofficially.
Cornelia Otis Skinner’s Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals details the lifestyle of the courtesan in the Belle Epoque, but as much as I like high-maintenance women in theory, I am far too cheap to take up the practice. I shall confine myself to an occasional Michelin starred restaurant and the occasional foray into various Gentleman’s Clubs – the ones without dancing poles.
While I am rapidly going through my legacy, I know I will eventually have to return to a pension. Of course, a real pension is a boon in today’s society, but it does not support life en grand seigneur. Still, I have arranged a trip to England on the Queen Mary II and plan to take advantage of my own club’s reciprocal arrangements until I am reduced in rank from Grand Seigneur to mere Gentleman. In fact, I am writing this in New York’s Princeton Club through the kind offices of the Director of the Williams Club that is housed there. I am taking advantage of all the dues I paid to a club when I could not so readily travel.
Clubs are a luxury, though they can be risky – like any venture that brings one into contact with people one does not know. On the train to New York, I had an interesting conversation with a woman who was a United Church of Christ pastor. My Church teaches, as Pope John Paul II put it, that we do not have the “competence” to change what Our Lord laid down (Apostolic Succession limited to males), so I politely tried to avoid these aspects of theology. Fortunately, the only noticeable tension came when the topic of “Pope Joan” came up – “Pope Joan” supposedly became Bishop of Rome disguised as a male. I am pretty sure that this pope was a legend; my companion seemed to take her somewhat more literally.
At the Princeton Club, I met a charming Malaysian woman. We got along splendidly until she inveighed against the Duke of Cambridge for sponsoring animal charities whilst still shooting pheasants. I do not hunt, but as long as the game gets used and not just discarded, I must admit I am fond of “Bambi Burgers.” As the conversation continued, I did rather as I do with those who want to limit human behavior that supposedly results in “Global Warming.” (I agree we should be good stewards of the earth God created, but I am not willing to give up air-conditioning and fossil fuel for the snail darter.) I protested in favor of Steak Béarnaise. My companion was almost undoubtedly a vegetarian, so my protest fell on deaf ears. It is my opinion God, foreseeing the invention of Sauce Béarnaise, invented cattle, but this may just be a pious assumption. We parted amicably, but even in clubs, one must choose one’s topics carefully.
This trip is my chance to taste life en grand seigneur. I am treating it like I did dinner at one of Alain Ducasse’s restaurants. As it was a treat for me personally, I asked that my cousin not invite a particular priest. She did anyway, so contrary to my upbringing, I did not start at the bottom of the wine list. The result was an annoyed cousin, though she had said the meal would cost as much as it actually did before we went in. I, on the other hand, did not actually order anything, but her then-husband obliged, letting me enjoy the wines I really wanted – probably a unique event for me in such a restaurant. By the way, the priest called next day to say that, when he realized the cost of the meal, he had to go to Confession. I am not sure how receiving bounty and accepting kind invitations is exactly sinful, but if it is, I certainly plan to go on sinning.