The story is set in the late-1800's/early 1900's (not entirely sure of the year, but between 1890-1900) in England, but the two characters in question come from a fictitious Balkan country. They are political exiles of sorts and one is a girl of noble birth, the other a young man who is trying to train her to eventually go back and lead her country in a sort of reactionary revolution. The girl is trying to assert that she is like everybody else, doesn't need special treatment because of her background, and her friend is trying to explain that she needs to set herself above the rest, that she needs to make sure everyone knows she's nobility and that she needs to pull herself out of the mud, essentially, before she can think of trying to lead others, and if that inconveniences others in the short term, too bad.
I thought of the perfect thing to say to her, if this were set in the modern times, would be to cite the thing they tell you on airplanes during the safety video, that if they need to give you an oxygen mask it drops down -- they tell you how to put it on and all that, then tell you that if you have small children or other dependants traveling with you that you should adjust your own mask before helping them put theirs on. It's a statement that, to me at least, at first sounds like it is encouraging selfishness, but then, when you think about it, if the person in question didn't put their own mask on and passed out it would be worse for the children later, so the children can wait for a minute -- and even suffer for a minute -- so that they can be sure of help later -- I hope my metaphor is making sense?
Now, what I need is something, if any such thing exists, akin to this that a boy in 1906 can refer to. The only thing I've thought of is women-and-children in lifeboats, (like from the Titanic) but that's not really related at all and besides the Titanic is too late for this, though I suppose the idea existed before the Titanic sank.
I don't really have any idea how to research this at all. I'm sorry about that.
The young man in question is quite intelligent and, at this point in the story, fairly informed about how the world works. I suppose some references might be too obscure for him, but I can't think of anything I should rule out. I don't even know if people said things at all like that back then -- safety warnings at all, as that might be an advent all the litigation that happens in today's society, and I can, of course, have him explain his idea without the oxygen mask as a metaphor, but I think the metaphor would make the idea stronger. So, if you can think of anything that would work, please tell me, Thanks!