On The Nobility Of Ourselves by Jerome K Jerome

Story type: Essay

AN old Anglicized Frenchman, I used to meet often in my earlier journalistic days, held a theory, concerning man’s future state, that has since come to afford me more food for reflection than, at the time, I should have deemed possible. He was a bright-eyed, eager little man. One felt no Lotus land could be Paradise to him. We build our heaven of the stones of our desires: to the old, red-bearded Norseman, a foe to fight and a cup to drain; to the artistic Greek, a grove of animated statuary; to the Red Indian, his happy hunting ground; to the Turk, his harem; to the Jew, his New Jerusalem, paved with gold; to others, according to their taste, limited by the range of their imagination.

Few things had more terrors for me, when a child, than Heaven–as pictured for me by certain of the good folks round about me. I was told that if I were a good lad, kept my hair tidy, and did not tease the cat, I would probably, when I died, go to a place where all day long I would sit still and sing hymns. (Think of it! as reward to a healthy boy for being good.) There would be no breakfast and no dinner, no tea and no supper. One old lady cheered me a little with a hint that the monotony might be broken by a little manna; but the idea of everlasting manna palled upon me, and my suggestions, concerning the possibilities of sherbet or jumbles, were scouted as irreverent. There would be no school, but also there would be no cricket and no rounders. I should feel no desire, so I was assured, to do another angel’s “dags” by sliding down the heavenly banisters. My only joy would be to sing.

“Shall we start singing the moment we get up in the morning?” I asked.

“There won’t be any morning,” was the answer. “There will be no day and no night. It will all be one long day without end.”

“And shall we always be singing?” I persisted.

“Yes, you will be so happy, you will always want to sing.”

“Shan’t I ever get tired?”

“No, you will never get tired, and you will never get sleepy or hungry or thirsty.”

“And does it go on like that for ever?”

“Yes, for ever and ever.”

“Will it go on for a million years?”

“Yes, a million years, and then another million years, and then another million years after that. There will never be any end to it.”

I can remember to this day the agony of those nights, when I would lie awake, thinking of this endless heaven, from which there seemed to be no possible escape. For the other place was equally eternal, or I might have been tempted to seek refuge there.

We grown-up folk, our brains dulled by the slowly acquired habit of not thinking, do wrong to torture children with these awful themes. Eternity, Heaven, Hell are meaningless words to us. We repeat them, as we gabble our prayers, telling our smug, self-satisfied selves that we are miserable sinners. But to the child, the “intelligent stranger” in the land, seeking to know, they are fearful realities. If you doubt me, Reader, stand by yourself, beneath the stars, one night, and SOLVE this thought, Eternity. Your next address shall be the County Lunatic Asylum.

My actively inclined French friend held cheerier views than are common of man’s life beyond the grave. His belief was that we were destined to constant change, to everlasting work. We were to pass through the older planets, to labour in the greater suns.

But for such advanced career a more capable being was needed. No one of us was sufficient, he argued, to be granted a future existence all to himself. His idea was that two or three or four of us, according to our intrinsic value, would be combined to make a new and more important individuality, fitted for a higher existence. Man, he pointed out, was already a collection of the beasts. “You and I,” he would say, tapping first my chest and then his own, “we have them all here–the ape, the tiger, the pig, the motherly hen, the gamecock, the good ant; we are all, rolled into one. So the man of the future, he will be made up of many men–the courage of one, the wisdom of another, the kindliness of a third.”

“Take a City man,” he would continue, “say the Lord Mayor; add to him a poet, say Swinburne; mix them with a religious enthusiast, say General Booth. There you will have the man fit for the higher life.”

Garibaldi and Bismarck, he held, should make a very fine mixture, correcting one another; if needful, extract of Ibsen might be added, as seasoning. He thought that Irish politicians would mix admirably with Scotch divines; that Oxford Dons would go well with lady novelists. He was convinced that Count Tolstoi, a few Gaiety Johnnies (we called them “mashers” in those days), together with a humourist–he was kind enough to suggest myself–would produce something very choice. Queen Elizabeth, he fancied, was probably being reserved to go–let us hope in the long distant future–with Ouida. It sounds a whimsical theory, set down here in my words, not his; but the old fellow was so much in earnest that few of us ever thought to laugh as he talked. Indeed, there were moments on starry nights, as walking home from the office, we would pause on Waterloo Bridge to enjoy the witchery of the long line of the Embankment lights, when I could almost believe, as I listened to him, in the not impossibility of his dreams.

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Even as regards this world, it would often be a gain, one thinks, and no loss, if some half-dozen of us were rolled together, or boiled down, or whatever the process necessary might be, and something made out of us in that way.

Have not you, my fair Reader, sometimes thought to yourself what a delightful husband Tom this, plus Harry that, plus Dick the other, would make? Tom is always so cheerful and good-tempered, yet you feel that in the serious moments of life he would be lacking. A delightful hubby when you felt merry, yes; but you would not go to him for comfort and strength in your troubles, now would you? No, in your hour of sorrow, how good it would be to have near you grave, earnest Harry. He is a “good sort,” Harry. Perhaps, after all, he is the best of the three–solid, staunch, and true. What a pity he is just a trifle commonplace and unambitious. Your friends, not knowing his sterling hidden qualities, would hardly envy you; and a husband that no other girl envies you–well, that would hardly be satisfactory, would it? Dick, on the other hand, is clever and brilliant. He will make his way; there will come a day, you are convinced, when a woman will be proud to bear his name. If only he were not so self-centred, if only he were more sympathetic.

But a combination of the three, or rather of the best qualities of the three–Tom’s good temper, Harry’s tender strength, Dick’s brilliant masterfulness: that is the man who would be worthy of you.

The woman David Copperfield wanted was Agnes and Dora rolled into one. He had to take them one after the other, which was not so nice. And did he really love Agnes, Mr. Dickens; or merely feel he ought to? Forgive me, but I am doubtful concerning that second marriage of Copperfield’s. Come, strictly between ourselves, Mr. Dickens, was not David, good human soul! now and again a wee bit bored by the immaculate Agnes? She made him an excellent wife, I am sure. SHE never ordered oysters by the barrel, unopened. It would, on any day, have been safe to ask Traddles home to dinner; in fact, Sophie and the whole rose-garden might have accompanied him, Agnes would have been equal to the occasion. The dinner would have been perfectly cooked and served, and Agnes’ sweet smile would have pervaded the meal. But AFTER the dinner, when David and Traddles sat smoking alone, while from the drawing-room drifted down the notes of high-class, elevating music, played by the saintly Agnes, did they never, glancing covertly towards the empty chair between them, see the laughing, curl-framed face of a very foolish little woman–one of those foolish little women that a wise man thanks God for making–and wish, in spite of all, that it were flesh and blood, not shadow?

Oh, you foolish wise folk, who would remodel human nature! Cannot you see how great is the work given unto childish hands? Think you that in well-ordered housekeeping and high-class conversation lies the whole making of a man? Foolish Dora, fashioned by clever old magician Nature, who knows that weakness and helplessness are as a talisman calling forth strength and tenderness in man, trouble yourself not unduly about those oysters nor the underdone mutton, little woman. Good plain cooks at twenty pounds a year will see to these things for us; and, now and then, when a windfall comes our way, we will dine together at a moderate-priced restaurant where these things are managed even better. Your work, Dear, is to teach us gentleness and kindliness. Lay your curls here, child. It is from such as you that we learn wisdom. Foolish wise folk sneer at you; foolish wise folk would pull up the useless lilies, the needless roses, from the garden, would plant in their places only serviceable wholesome cabbage. But the Gardener knowing better, plants the silly short-lived flowers; foolish wise folk, asking for what purpose.

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As for Agnes, Mr. Dickens, do you know what she always makes me think of? You will not mind my saying?–the woman one reads about. Frankly, I don’t believe in her. I do not refer to Agnes in particular, but the woman of whom she is a type, the faultless woman we read of. Women have many faults, but, thank God, they have one redeeming virtue–they are none of them faultless.

But the heroine of fiction! oh, a terrible dragon of virtue is she. May heaven preserve us poor men, undeserving though we be, from a life with the heroine of fiction. She is all soul, and heart, and intellect, with never a bit of human nature to catch hold of her by. Her beauty, it appals one, it is so painfully indescribable. Whence comes she, whither goes she, why do we never meet her like? Of women I know a goodish few, and I look among them for her prototype; but I find it not. They are charming, they are beautiful, all these women that I know. It would not be right for me to tell you, Ladies, the esteem and veneration with which I regard you all. You yourselves, blushing, would be the first to cheek my ardour. But yet, dear Ladies, seen even through my eyes, you come not near the ladies that I read about. You are not–if I may be permitted an expressive vulgarism–in the same street with them. Your beauty I can look upon, and retain my reason–for whatever value that may be to me. Your conversation, I admit, is clever and brilliant in the extreme; your knowledge vast and various; your culture quite Bostonian; yet you do not–I hardly know how to express it–you do not shine with the sixteen full-moon-power of the heroine of fiction. You do not–and I thank you for it–impress me with the idea that you are the only women on earth. You, even you, possess tempers of your own. I am inclined to think you take an interest in your clothes. I would not be sure, even, that you do not mingle a little of “your own hair” (you know what I mean) with the hair of your head. There is in your temperament a vein of vanity, a suggestion of selfishness, a spice of laziness. I have known you a trifle unreasonable, a little inconsiderate, slightly exacting. Unlike the heroine of fiction, you have a certain number of human appetites and instincts; a few human follies, perhaps, a human fault, or shall we say two? In short, dear Ladies, you also, even as we men, are the children of Adam and Eve. Tell me, if you know, where I may meet with this supernatural sister of yours, this woman that one reads about. She never keeps any one waiting while she does her back hair, she is never indignant with everybody else in the house because she cannot find her own boots, she never scolds the servants, she is never cross with the children, she never slams the door, she is never jealous of her younger sister, she never lingers at the gate with any cousin but the right one.

Dear me, where DO they keep them, these women that one reads about? I suppose where they keep the pretty girl of Art. You have seen her, have you not, Reader, the pretty girl in the picture? She leaps the six-barred gate with a yard and a half to spare, turning round in her saddle the while to make some smiling remark to the comic man behind, who, of course, is standing on his head in the ditch. She floats gracefully off Dieppe on stormy mornings. Her baigneuse–generally of chiffon and old point lace–has not lost a curve. The older ladies, bathing round her, look wet. Their dress clings damply to their limbs. But the pretty girl of Art dives, and never a curl of her hair is disarranged. The pretty girl of Art stands lightly on tip-toe and volleys a tennis-ball six feet above her head. The pretty girl of Art keeps the head of the punt straight against a stiff current and a strong wind. SHE never gets the water up her sleeve, and down her back, and all over the cushions. HER pole never sticks in the mud, with the steam launch ten yards off and the man looking the other way. The pretty girl of Art skates in high-heeled French shoes at an angle of forty-five to the surface of the ice, both hands in her muff. SHE never sits down plump, with her feet a yard apart, and says “Ough.” The pretty girl of Art drives tandem down Piccadilly, during the height of the season, at eighteen miles an hour. It never occurs to HER leader that the time has now arrived for him to turn round and get into the cart. The pretty girl of Art rides her bicycle through the town on market day, carrying a basket of eggs, and smiling right and left. SHE never throws away both her handles and runs into a cow. The pretty girl of Art goes trout fishing in open-work stockings, under a blazing sun, with a bunch of dew-bespangled primroses in her hair; and every time she gracefully flicks her rod she hauls out a salmon. SHE never ties herself up to a tree, or hooks the dog. SHE never comes home, soaked and disagreeable, to tell you that she caught six, but put them all back again, because they were merely two or three-pounders, and not worth the trouble of carrying. The pretty girl of Art plays croquet with one hand, and looks as if she enjoyed the game. SHE never tries to accidentally kick her ball into position when nobody is noticing, or stands it out that she is through a hoop that she knows she isn’t.

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She is a good, all-round sportswoman, is the pretty girl in the picture. The only thing I have to say against her is that she makes one dissatisfied with the girl out of the picture–the girl who mistakes a punt for a teetotum, so that you land feeling as if you had had a day in the Bay of Biscay; and who, every now and again, stuns you with the thick end of the pole: the girl who does not skate with her hands in her muff; but who, throwing them up to heaven, says, “I’m going,” and who goes, taking care that you go with her: the girl who, as you brush her down, and try to comfort her, explains to you indignantly that the horse took the corner too sharply and never noticed the mile-stone; the girl whose hair sea water does NOT improve.

There can be no doubt about it: that is where they keep the good woman of Fiction, where they keep the pretty girl of Art.

Does it not occur to you, Messieurs les Auteurs, that you are sadly disturbing us? These women that are a combination of Venus, St. Cecilia, and Elizabeth Fry! you paint them for us in your glowing pages: it is not kind of you, knowing, as you must, the women we have to put up with.

Would we not be happier, we men and women, were we to idealize one another less? My dear young lady, you have nothing whatever to complain to Fate about, I assure you. Unclasp those pretty hands of yours, and come away from the darkening window. Jack is as good a fellow as you deserve; don’t yearn so much. Sir Galahad, my dear–Sir Galahad rides and fights in the land that lies beyond the sunset, far enough away from this noisy little earth where you and I spend much of our time tittle-tattling, flirting, wearing fine clothes, and going to shows. And besides, you must remember, Sir Galahad was a bachelor: as an idealist he was wise. Your Jack is by no means a bad sort of knight, as knights go nowadays in this un-idyllic world. There is much solid honesty about him, and he does not pose. He is not exceptional, I grant you; but, my dear, have you ever tried the exceptional man? Yes, he is very nice in a drawing-room, and it is interesting to read about him in the Society papers: you will find most of his good qualities there: take my advice, don’t look into him too closely. You be content with Jack, and thank heaven he is no worse. We are not saints, we men–none of us, and our beautiful thoughts, I fear, we write in poetry not action. The White Knight, my dear young lady, with his pure soul, his heroic heart, his life’s devotion to a noble endeavour, does not live down here to any great extent. They have tried it, one or two of them, and the world–you and I: the world is made up of you and I–has generally starved, and hooted them. There are not many of them left now: do you think you would care to be the wife of one, supposing one were to be found for you? Would you care to live with him in two furnished rooms in Clerkenwell, die with him on a chair bedstead? A century hence they will put up a statue to him, and you may be honoured as the wife who shared with him his sufferings. Do you think you are woman enough for that? If not, thank your stars you have secured, for your own exclusive use, one of us UNexceptional men, who knows no better than to admire you. YOU are not exceptional.

And in us ordinary men there is some good. It wants finding, that is all. We are not so commonplace as you think us. Even your Jack, fond of his dinner, his conversation four-cornered by the Sporting Press–yes, I agree he is not interesting, as he sits snoring in the easy-chair; but, believe it or not, there are the makings of a great hero in Jack, if Fate would but be kinder to him, and shake him out of his ease.

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Dr. Jekyll contained beneath his ample waist-coat not two egos, but three–not only Hyde but another, a greater than Jekyll–a man as near to the angels as Hyde was to the demons. These well-fed City men, these Gaiety Johnnies, these plough-boys, apothecaries, thieves! within each one lies hidden the hero, did Fate, the sculptor, choose to use his chisel. That little drab we have noticed now and then, our way taking us often past the end of the court, there was nothing by which to distinguish her. She was not over-clean, could use coarse language on occasion–just the spawn of the streets: take care lest the cloak of our child should brush her.

One morning the district Coroner, not, generally speaking, a poet himself, but an adept at discovering poetry buried under unlikely rubbish-heaps, tells us more about her. She earned six shillings a week, and upon it supported a bed-ridden mother and three younger children. She was housewife, nurse, mother, breadwinner, rolled into one. Yes, there are heroines OUT of fiction.

So loutish Tom has won the Victoria Cross–dashed out under a storm of bullets and rescued the riddled flag. Who would have thought it of loutish Tom? The village alehouse one always deemed the goal of his endeavours. Chance comes to Tom and we find him out. To Harry the Fates were less kind. A ne’er-do-well was Harry–drank, knocked his wife about, they say. Bury him, we are well rid of him, he was good for nothing. Are we sure?

Let us acknowledge we are sinners. We know, those of us who dare to examine ourselves, that we are capable of every meanness, of every wrong under the sun. It is by the accident of circumstance, aided by the helpful watchfulness of the policeman, that our possibilities of crime are known only to ourselves. But having acknowledged our evil, let us also acknowledge that we are capable of greatness. The martyrs who faced death and torture unflinchingly for conscience’ sake, were men and women like ourselves. They had their wrong side. Before the small trials of daily life they no doubt fell as we fall. By no means were they the pick of humanity. Thieves many of them had been, and murderers, evil-livers, and evil-doers. But the nobility was there also, lying dormant, and their day came. Among them must have been men who had cheated their neighbours over the counter; men who had been cruel to their wives and children; selfish, scandal-mongering women. In easier times their virtue might never have been known to any but their Maker.

In every age and in every period, when and where Fate has called upon men and women to play the man, human nature has not been found wanting. They were a poor lot, those French aristocrats that the Terror seized: cowardly, selfish, greedy had been their lives. Yet there must have been good, even in them. When the little things that in their little lives they had thought so great were swept away from them, when they found themselves face to face with the realities; then even they played the man. Poor shuffling Charles the First, crusted over with weakness and folly, deep down in him at last we find the great gentleman.

I like to hear stories of the littleness of great men. I like to think that Shakespeare was fond of his glass. I even cling to the tale of that disgraceful final orgie with friend Ben Jonson. Possibly the story may not be true, but I hope it was. I like to think of him as poacher, as village ne’er-do-well, denounced by the local grammar-school master, preached at by the local J. P. of the period. I like to reflect that Cromwell had a wart on his nose; the thought makes me more contented with my own features. I like to think that he put sweets upon the chairs, to see finely-dressed ladies spoil their frocks; to tell myself that he roared with laughter at the silly jest, like any East End ‘Arry with his Bank Holiday squirt of dirty water. I like to read that Carlyle threw bacon at his wife and occasionally made himself highly ridiculous over small annoyances, that would have been smiled at by a man of well-balanced mind. I think of the fifty foolish things a week I do, and say to myself, “I, too, am a literary man.”

I like to think that even Judas had his moments of nobility, his good hours when he would willingly have laid down his life for his Master. Perhaps even to him there came, before the journey’s end, the memory of a voice saying–“Thy sins be forgiven thee.” There must have been good, even in Judas.

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Virtue lies like the gold in quartz, there is not very much of it, and much pains has to be spent on the extracting of it. But Nature seems to think it worth her while to fashion these huge useless stones, if in them she may hide away her precious metals. Perhaps, also, in human nature, she cares little for the mass of dross, provided that by crushing and cleansing she can extract from it a little gold, sufficient to repay her for the labour of the world. We wonder why she troubles to make the stone. Why cannot the gold lie in nuggets on the surface? But her methods are secrets to us. Perchance there is a reason for the quartz. Perchance there is a reason for the evil and folly, through which run, unseen to the careless eye, the tiny veins of virtue.

Aye, the stone predominates, but the gold is there. We claim to have it valued. The evil that there is in man no tongue can tell. We are vile among the vile, a little evil people. But we are great. Pile up the bricks of our sins till the tower knocks at Heaven’s gate, calling for vengeance, yet we are great–with a greatness and a virtue that the untempted angels may not reach to. The written history of the human race, it is one long record of cruelty, of falsehood, of oppression. Think you the world would be spinning round the sun unto this day, if that written record were all? Sodom, God would have spared had there been found ten righteous men within its walls. The world is saved by its just men. History sees them not; she is but the newspaper, a report of accidents. Judge you life by that? Then you shall believe that the true Temple of Hymen is the Divorce Court; that men are of two classes only, the thief and the policeman; that all noble thought is but a politician’s catchword. History sees only the destroying conflagrations, she takes no thought of the sweet fire-sides. History notes the wrong; but the patient suffering, the heroic endeavour, that, slowly and silently, as the soft processes of Nature re-clothing with verdure the passion-wasted land, obliterate that wrong, she has no eyes for. In the days of cruelty and oppression–not altogether yet of the past, one fears–must have lived gentle-hearted men and women, healing with their help and sympathy the wounds that else the world had died of. After the thief, riding with jingle of sword and spur, comes, mounted on his ass, the good Samaritan. The pyramid of the world’s evil–God help us! it rises high, shutting out almost the sun. But the record of man’s good deeds, it lies written in the laughter of the children, in the light of lovers’ eyes, in the dreams of the young men; it shall not be forgotten. The fires of persecution served as torches to show Heaven the heroism that was in man. From the soil of tyranny sprang self-sacrifice, and daring for the Right. Cruelty! what is it but the vile manure, making the ground ready for the flowers of tenderness and pity? Hate and Anger shriek to one another across the ages, but the voices of Love and Comfort are none the less existent that they speak in whispers, lips to ear.

We have done wrong, oh, ye witnessing Heavens, but we have done good. We claim justice. We have laid down our lives for our friends: greater love hath no man than this. We have fought for the Right. We have died for the Truth–as the Truth seemed to us. We have done noble deeds; we have lived noble lives; we have comforted the sorrowful; we have succoured the weak. Failing, falling, making in our blindness many a false step, yet we have striven. For the sake of the army of just men and true, for the sake of the myriads of patient, loving women, for the sake of the pitiful and helpful, for the sake of the good that lies hidden within us,–spare us, O Lord.

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