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No. 64. SATURDAY, DECEMBER 18, 1779.
- Populumque falsis
HOR. CAR. ii. 3. 19.
The science of Manners, for Manners are a science, cannot easily be reduced to that simplicity in its elements of which others admit. Among other particulars, the terms employed in it are not, like those of Arithmetic, Mathematics, Algebra, or Astronomy, perfectly and accurately defined. Its subjects are so fleeting, and marked with shades so delicate, that wherever a general denomination is ventured, there is the greatest hazard of its being misapplied or misunderstood.
In a former paper, I endeavoured to analyze the term, a man of fashion ; in this I am enabled, by an ingenious correspondent, to trace the meaning of another phrase, to wit, good company, which, as it is nearly connected with the former, is, I believe, as doubtful in its signification. The following letter is a practical treatise on the subject; which I shall lay before
readers in the precise terms in which I received it.
“I am at that time of life when education, formerly confined to the study of books, begins to extend itself to the study of men. Having lately
arrived in town, I was anxious to be introduced into good company of every rank and denomination; and, in virtue of some family connections, assisted by the kindness of some college friends and acquaintance, I flattered myself I should succeed in my purpose.
“ My strong bent for Letters induced me first to procure an introduction into the good company of the learned ; and I went to a dinner where several of the literati were to be assembled, full of the hopes of having my mind enlightened with knowledge, expanded with sentiment, and charmed with the Atticism of elegant conversation.
During our meal, there was a more absolute suspension of discourse than I expected, in a society, of spirits so refined as those with whom I was associated. The ordinary functions of eating and drinking made no part of my idea of a learned man; and I could observe in my fellow-guests an attraction to the dishes before them, which I thought did not quite correspond with the dignity of that character. This, however, was but a small deviation from my picture, and I passed it over as well as I could, in expectation of that mental feast with which I was to be regaled when the table should be uncovered.
“ Accordingly, when the cloth was removed, the conversation, which I expected with so much impatience, began. I had too humble an opinion of myself to take any other part than that of a hearer; but I very soon discovered that I was the only person in the company who had an inclination to listen. Every one seemed impatient of his neighbour's speech, and eager to have an opportunity of introducing his own. You, I think, Mr. Mirror, have compared conversation to a favourite dish at an entertainment; here it was carried on like a dinner at
one of those hungry ordinaries, where Quin used wittily to call for a basket-bilted sword to help himself with; in a short time, every one, except your correspondent, endeavoured to secure it to himself, by making it a dish which nobody else could taste. An old gentleman, at the head of the table, introduced a German treatise, written by a man whose name I could neither pronounce nor remember, which none of the rest of the company had seen. Another taking advantage of a fit of coughing with which he was seized, brought us upon a philosophical inquiry into the properties of heat, and a long account of some experiments he had lately witnessed on that subject. Being unfortunately asked for his toast, and pausing a moment to deliberate on it, he was supplanted by my right-hand neighbour, who suddenly transported us into the country of Thibet, and seemed to have a very intimate acquaintance with the Delai Lama. One of the company, who sat opposite to him, thrust in, by mere dint of vociferation, Travels through the interior Parts of America, just then published, and sailed over the lakes in triumph; till happening to mention a particular way in which the Indians dress a certain fish, the discourse was, at last, laid open to everybody present on the subject of cookery; whence it naturally fell into a discussion of the comparative excellence of different wines; on which topics the conversation rested with so much emphasis, that a stranger who had overheard it, would have been led to imagine this symposium, into which I had procured admission with so much eagerness, to be a society of Cooks and Butlers, met to improve each other in their several callings.
“I next procured an introduction into the very best company; that is, I contrived to become a
guest at a table of high fashion, where an entertainment was given to some of the greatest men in this country. The ambition, natural to my age and complexion, prompted me to desire this honour; which, however, I purchased at the price of a good deal of embarrassment and uneasiness. Nothing, indeed, but the high honour conferred by such society could compensate for the feelings even of that minute, in which a man, not used to the company of the great, ascends from the lowest step of a wide-echoing staircase, to the door of a great man's drawing-room. Through this, however, and several other little disquietudes, did I pass, in hopes of finding, in the discourse of those elevated persons, that highly polished elegance, that interesting information, and those extensive views of polity and government, which their rank had afforded so many opportunities of acquiring.
“ Not only during the time of dinner, as in my last company, but for a considerable time after, the scene was silent and solemns this, while it added to my confusion, increased my expectations. Conversation at last began; it was carried on in a manner exactly the reverse of that in my former visit. There, nobody was disposed to listen; here, few seemed inclined to speak; for in this assembly I could perceive there were two or three very great men, to whom the great men were little, and the proud were mean. The last, therefore, hardly spoke at all, except to applaud the observations or anecdotes delivered by the very great men; in which, had they not been delivered by the very great men, I should have discovered no uncommon sagacity or exquisite entertainment. One, who seemed to be at the top of this climax of greatness, began a story of a pretty old date, in which he introduced, at dinner, in the house of the then minister, almost all the
orators and wits of the time. Though, from the anecdotes to which I had already listened, my ears were now familiarized with the sounds of Duke, Marquis, Earl, and Ambassador; yet, from the history of this illustrious assemblage, still conceived very eager expectation; but, after being led through twenty episodes, all tending to show the connection of the noble relator with many other right honourable personages, the conclusion proved to be nothing more than a joke upon a country member of parliament, who asked to be helped to a bit of goose, when, in fact, the dish was a swan, which, it seems, was a favourite bird at the minister's table; and some conceit about not knowing a swan from a goose, and all the minister's geese being swans, was the point of the story; at which all the company laughed very loud and very long ; but the little men, all except myself, infinitely the loudest and the longest.
“I began now to think that the charms of convivial and ordinary conversation were not, perhaps, to be expected among men, whose learning or importance in the state, made it unnecessary for them to cultivate the lesser accomplishments of life; and that I must look for them in the company of the gay, whose minds, unbent from serious and important occupations, had leisure to sport themselves in the regions of wit and humour, and to communicate the liveliness of their fancy to the society around them. I found it no difficult matter to be admitted to a party of this kind; I was introduced, at a public place, to a gentleman, who, I was told, was a man of fashion and of the world, and was by him invited to a petit souper, where I understood I should meet with some of the liveliest and most entertaining companions of both sexes.