Good Company by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

Let it be understood that I do not intend to speak very much about the excellent people who are kind enough to label themselves as “Society,” for I have had quite enough experience of them at one time and another, and my impressions are not of a peculiarly reverential kind. “Company” among the set who regard themselves as the cream of England’s–and consequently of the world’s–population is something so laborious, so useless, so exhausting that I cannot imagine any really rational person attending a “function” (that is the proper name) if Providence had left open the remotest chance of running away; at any rate, the rational person would not endure more than one experience. For, when the clear-seeing outsider looks into “Society,” and studies the members who make up the little clique, he is smitten with thoughts that lie too deep for tears–or laughter. A perfectly fresh mind, when brought to bear on the “Society” phenomenon, asks, “What are these people? What have they done? What are they particularly fitted for? Is there anything noble about them? Is their conversation at all charming? Are any of them really happy?” And to all of these queries the most disappointing answers must be returned. Take the men. Here is a marquis who is a Knight of the Garter. He has held offices in several Cabinets; he can control the votes spread over a very large slice of a county, and his income amounts to some trifle like one hundred and eighty thousand pounds per year. We may surely expect something of the superb aristocratic grace here, and surely a chance word of wit may drop from a man who has been in the most influential of European assemblies! Alas! The potentate crosses his hand over his comfortable stomach, and his contributions to the entertainment of the evening amount to occasional ejaculations of “Ugh! Ugh!” “Hah!” “Hey!” “Exactly!” “Ugh! Ugh!” In the higher spheres of intellect and breeding I have no doubt but that “Ugh! Ugh!” “Hah!” “Hey!” may have some profound significance; but, to say the least, it is not obviously weighty. The marchioness is sweet in manner, grave, reposeful, and with a flash of wit at disposal–not too obvious wit–that would offend against the canon which ordains restraint; but she might, one thinks, become tiresome in an hour. No one could say that her manners were anything but absolutely simple, yet the very simplicity is so obviously maintained as a sort of gymnastic effort that it tires us only to study it. Then here is a viscount, graceful, well-set, easy in his pose, talking with a deep voice, and lisping to the faintest degree. He has owned some horses, caused some scandals, waltzed some waltzes, and eaten a very large number of good dinners: he has been admired by many, hated by many, threatened by many, and he would not be admitted to any refined middle-class home; yet here he is in his element, and no one would think of questioning his presence. He never uttered a really wise or helpful word in his life, he never did anything save pamper himself–his precious self–and yet he is in “Society,” and reckoned as rather an authority too! These are only types, but, if you run through them all, you must discover that only the sweet and splendid girls who have not had time to be spoilt and soured are worth thinking about. If there is dancing, it is of course carried out with perfect grace and composure; if there is merely an assembly, every one looks as well as possible, and every one stares at every one else with an air as indifferent as possible. But the child of nature asks in wild bewilderment, “Where on earth does the human companionship come in?” Young girls are nowadays beginning to expect bright talk from their partners, and the ladies have a singularly pretty way of saying the most biting things in a smooth and unconcerned fashion when they find a dunce beginning to talk platitudes or to patronize his partner; but the middle generation are unspeakably inane; and the worst is that they regard their inanity as a decided sign of distinction. A grave man who adds a sense of humour to his gravity may find a sort of melancholy entertainment if he listens to a pair of thorough-paced “Society” gentry. He will learn that you do not go to a “function” to please others or to be pleased yourself; you must not be witty–that is bad form; you must not be quietly in earnest–that is left to literary people; you must not speak plain, direct truth even in the most restrained fashion–that is to render yourself liable to be classified as a savage. No. You go to a “function” in order, firstly, to see who else is there; secondly, to let others see you; thirdly, to be able to say to absentees that you saw they were not there; fourthly, to say, with a liquid roll on the “ll,” “She’s looking remarkably wellll.” These are the great and glorious duties of the Society person. A little funny creature was once talking to a writer of some distinction. The little funny man would have been like a footman if he had been eight inches taller, for his manners savoured of the pantry. As it was, he succeeded in resembling a somewhat diminutive valet who had learnt his style and accent from a cook. The writer, out of common politeness, spoke of some ordinary topic, and the valet observed with honest pride, “We don’t talk about that sort of thing.” The writer smiled grimly from under his jutting brows, and he repeated that valet’s terrific repartee for many days. The actual talk which goes on runs in this way, “Quite charming weather!” “Yes, very.” “I didn’t see you at Lady Blank’s on Tuesday?” “No; we could hardly arrange to suit times at all.” “She was looking uncommonly well. The new North-Country girl has come out.” “So I’ve heard.” “Going to Goodwood?” “Yes. We take Brighton this time with the Sendalls.” And so on. It dribbles for the regulation time, and, after a sufficient period of mortal endurance, the crowd disperse, and proceed to scandalize each other or to carry news elsewhere about the ladies who were looking “remarkably well-l-l.”

As for the dreadful crushes, what can one say? The absurd rooms where six hundred people try to move about in a space meant for three hundred; the staircase a Black-Hole tempered by flowers; the tired smile of the hostess; the set simper of long-recked shaven young men; the patient, tortured hypocrisy of hustled and heated ladies; the babble of scrappy nothings; the envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness; the magnificence turned into meanness; the lack of all feeling of home, and the discontented dispersal of ungrateful people–are these the things to occupy life? Are these the things to interest any manly man who is free to act for himself? Hardly.

But our “company” refers to the meeting of human souls and hearts, and not to the meeting of a fortuitous concourse of male and female evening-dresses. I have now before me a very brilliant published account of a reception at George Eliot’s house. Those assemblies were company, and company of the finest kind. The exaggerated fuss made by the sibyl’s husband in order to secure silence while she was speaking sometimes became a little embarrassing when men of a humorous turn were there; but nevertheless the best in England met in that drawing-room, and all that was highest in literature, science, and art was talked over in graceful fashion. The sniffing drawl of Society and the impudent affectation of cynicism were not to be found; and grave men and women–some of them mournful enough, it may be–agreed to make the useful hours fleet to some profit. No man or woman in England–or in Europe for that matter–was unwilling to enter that modest but brilliant assemblage, and I wish some one could have taken minute notes, though that of course would have been too entirely shocking. When I think of that little deep-voiced lady gathering the choicest spirits of her day together, and keeping so many notes in tuneful chime, I hardly know whether to use superlatives of admiration about her or superlatives of contempt about the fribbles who crush each other on staircases and babble like parrots in an aviary. If we cast back a little, we have another example of an almost perfect company. People have talked of Johnson, Burke, Boswell, Beauclerc, and Goldsmith until the subject is growing a thought stale; but, unless a reader takes Boswell and reads the book attentively after he has come to maturity, he can hardly imagine how fine was that admirable company. They were men of high aims and strong sense; they talked at their very best, and they talked because they wished to attain clear views of life and fate. The old gladiator sometimes argued for victory, but that was only in moments of whim, and he was always ready to acknowledge when he was in error. Those men may sometimes have drunk too much wine; they may have spoken platitudes on occasion; but they were good company for each other, and the hearty, manly friendship which all but poor Goldsmith and Boswell felt for every one else was certainly excellent. Assemblies like the Club are impossible nowadays; but surely we might find some modification suited even to our gigantic intellects and our exaggerated cleverness! I have defined bad company; I may define good company as that social intercourse which tends to bring out all that is best in man. I have said my bitter word about the artificial society of the capital; but I never forget the lovely quiet circles which meet in places far away from the blare of the city. In especial I may refer to the beautiful family assemblies which are almost self-centred. The girls are all at home, but the boys are scattered. Harry writes from India, with all sorts of gossip from Simla, and many longings for home; a neighbour calls, and the Indian letter gives matter for pleasant half-melancholy chat. Then the quiet evening passes with books and placid casual talk; the nerves from the family stretch perhaps all over the world, but all the threads converge on one centre. This life is led in many places, and the folk who so live are good company among themselves, and good company for all who meet them.

The very thought of the men who are usually described in set slang phrases is enough to arouse a shudder. The loud wit who cracks his prepared witticisms either at the head of a tavern-table or in private society is a mere horror. The tavern men of the commercial traveller class are very bad, for their mirth is prepared; their jokes have run the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, and they are not always prepared to sacrifice the privilege of being coarse which used to be regarded as the joker’s prerogative. In moving about the world I have always found that the society of the great commercial room set up for being jolly, but I could never exactly perceive where the jollity entered. Noise, sham gentility, the cackle of false laughter were there; but the strong, sincere cheerfulness of friendly men–never! Yet the tavern humourist, or even the club joker, is as nothing compared with the true professional wit. Who can remember that story about Theodore Hook and the orange? Hook wrote a note to the hostess, saying, “Ask me at dinner if I will venture on an orange.” The lady did so, and then the brilliant wit promptly made answer, “I’m afraid I should tumble off.” A whole volume of biography is implied in that one gruesome and vulgar anecdote. In truth, the professional wit is no company at all; he has the effect of a performing monkey suddenly planted on the table, and his efforts are usually quite on a level with the monkey’s.

Among the higher Bohemian sets–Bohemian they call themselves, as if there ever was a Bohemian with five hundred a year!–good company is common. I may say, with fear and much trembling, that the man of letters, the man who can name you all the Restoration comedies or tell you the styles of the contemporaries of Alan Chartier is a most terrible being, and I should risk sharks rather than remain with him on a desolate island; but a mixed set of artists, musicians, verse-makers, novelists, critics–yea, even critics–contrive usually to make an unusually pleasant company. They are all so clever that the professional wit dares not raise his voice lest some wielder of the bludgeon should smite him; no long-winded talk is allowed, and, though a bore may once be admitted to the company, he certainly will never be admitted more than once. The talk ranges loosely from point to point, and yet a certain sequence is always observed; the men are freed from conventions; they like each other and know each other’s measure pretty well; so the hours fly in merry fashion, and the brethren who carried on the symposium go away well pleased with themselves and with each other. There can be no good company where the capacity for general agreement is carried too far in any quarter. Unity of aim, difference of opinion–those are the elements that make men’s conversations valuable. Last of all, I must declare that there can be no good company unless women are present. The artists and authors and the rest are all very well in their way, but the dexterous unseen touch of the lady is needed; and no man can reckon himself fit to converse at all unless he has been taught by women’s care, and gently reproved by women’s impalpable skill. Young men of our day are beginning to think it childish or tedious to mix much in women’s society; the consequence is that, though many of them go a long way toward being gentlemen, too many are the merest cubs that ever exhibited pure loutishness in conversation. The subtle blending, the light give-and-take of chat between men and women is the true training which makes men graceful of tongue, kindly in the use of phrases, and, I believe, pure in heart.

October, 1888.

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