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student of the art of conversation will do well to reckon. He has to study the method of the society in which he hopes to enjoy the fruit of his labour, but to gather figs and grapes he need not perplex himself with the botany of thorns and thistles. He need only master the tillage of fig trees and vines.
The society whose conversational method I have decided to study is essentially leisured, and seems to me wholly sympathetic. Professional and learned social circles command my respect, but not my inclination. I cannot project myself into their atmosphere. They appeal to none of my instincts, they awaken no impression. Lord Byron used to say that the man who made the best first impression upon him he ever met subsequently picked his pocket; but favourable first impressions are things which I for one refuse to ignore. Now the first step in all æsthetic criticism, as Mr. Oscar Wilde says, is to realise our impressions. Of themselves, impressions are rather shadowy things; they want focussing into distinct and distinguishing opinions. From being to all practical purposes supine and dimsighted, they must become active, discerning, and articulate. This activity, clear-sightedness, and articulation can only be given them by exercise and practice. All the treatises in the world,' says somebody somewhere, are not equal to giving one a view in a moment.' Nor will the most imperative first impressions. We must get into actual touch with them. To have impressions about charity is not the same thing as being charitable: we are only charitable when we have realised our impressions about charity, got into actual touch with charity, by giving something away. In the same way, to have vivid impressions about the charm of smart society's conversation will never of themselves make me proficient in the art of charming smart society. I must realise these impressions. I must be given a real view of smart society.
How is this to be done? As I have tried to show, different societies have different standards of taste. As pabulum for conversation, what is meat at Melton may be thought poison, or at all events garbage, at Oxford. What to eat, what to drink, and what to avoid in the social and conversational climate you prefer, can only be learned by noticing what the individuals who thrive best in that climate eat, drink, and avoid. Even then, unless, as Mr. Carlyle read books with the flash of the eye,' you pick up things with a flash of the understanding, this noticing of others before setting up on your own account is not the affair of a moment, it is an affair of special training, and it may become as tedious as working at the antique and the skeleton before being allowed to attack the life-model becomes to an art student. But, further, the people whose observances you mean to copy, the models upon whom you hope to model yourself, must be got at; and here I am met by a veritably disagreeable difficulty.
Had it been a school of painting or a school of music, whose method I yearned to master, its theory in print and its palpable expressions on canvas or in sound are certain, humanly speaking, to be accessible. If I wish to realise my impressions of Velasquez at the pains of a long journey and a horrid hotel, I can do so at Madrid. If I wish to realise my impressions of Wagner, I can subscribe to the Richter concerts, or, better still, fare to Bayreuth. Then painting and music have an imposing literature: their several schools, their several scribes and critics. But this art of conversation has no foundations laid on the rock of time, force, and opinion. The particular school of the art of conversation I wish to study has neither galleries nor concert rooms, neither an historic nor a contemporary critical literature.
Conversation, with its schools, is itself a branch of the science and art of speech. Rhetoric, elocution, and debate are branches of this great science : each with their several schools. But the schools of rhetoric, and elocution, and debate are, as it were, free schools, open to the general public; whereas the schools of polite conversation are not free-indeed, so far from being free, they are exclusive, and in some degree exquisite. We cannot, because we wish to do so, or
, because our idiosyncrasy or turn of mind sways us thither, 'abonner' ourselves to a school of literary or beau monde, of artistic or sporting society and conversation. Unless the accident of birth or of circumstances places us within the radius of a literary or fashionable circle, admission to its intimate fellowship becomes a question in the former case of merit or repute, in the latter of wealth or invitation.
Now in my own case, that of a candidate for admission to the latter by invitation, this question of invitation-confusing enough of itself—is further perplexed by the facts that the only two families I know in London live in what I heard rather picturesquely called the wildest part of South Kensington, and that they are given neither to hospitality nor to going out. Indeed, had it not been that I lately received some assistance and stimulus from an unexpected quarter, I should seriously think of taking back my defeated social gifts to the local breeds of sheep and cattle, the local littlenesses of a clay district, the apple blossom and polar travels of home. To have no engagements in London is an unchartered freedom, not only of a tiring, but a depressing kind, and I begin to 'feel the weight of vain desires. But a fortnight ago I ran up against my old schoolfellow, Sebastian P. I remembered him perfectly, whilst his pleasure at seeing me again would have gratified a pelican in the wilderness.
Sebastian-we all called him by his christian name—went up to the top of the school very quickly, but as lower boys we happened twice to be in the same form together. He was a peculiar-looking boy, with very fat thighs, which the boys immediately next him in form pinched at all decent and possible intervals during school-time. Sebastian was not a Spartan youth, and this generally ended in his having to go down to the bottom of the form for interrupting the school. For my part I honestly liked Sebastian, and I often got
' him to lend me a 'tizzy,' as we called a sixpence, after school. But I always pinched him, not because I liked pinching him, as himself, as Sebastian, but because I always pinched any boy whom all the other boys pinched. This just now is rather interesting, for I suppose it to have been the young embryo of my present strong social instinct.
There is a tenderness about old associations to which few persons can be quite insensible, so within the last few days Sebastian and I have seen a good deal of each other. I still like him, and it is very pleasant to like a person without any incumbency to pinch him. Indeed, from a social point of view, the incumbency lies all the other way, for I find Sebastian moves much in society, and is metaphorically petted, and not pinched. Both his looking-glasses are crammed with invitation cards to parties. I was struck with the number of invitations from 4 to 7'; but Sebastian has since explained that these are parties solely got up for purposes of conversation, 'conversational orgies' he happily styled them. These gatherings appear to be, from his description, the modernised equivalent of the
salons' of which we hear so much in memoirs and elsewhere-now, happily, things of the past. All this, it will readily be imagined, was of special and opportune interest for me, and I am pleased to say that, without showing the weakness of my own hand, I managed -much as I used to manage to borrow the tizzy—to get a good deal out of Sebastian.
After several talks around the subject of conversation generally, and what constitutes success in conversation, Sebastian showed me yesterday what he variously calls the implements of the trade,' and his box of tricks.' They consist of a neatly shelved accumulation of reviews and magazines, the collection extending over two years or more. Sebastian has discriminatingly marked passages in particular articles in every number; and, to use his own metaphor of a man's conversation being like an empty room which he has to furnish, these marked passages are the fond d'ameublement of my Mentor's conversation. But, said Sebastian, my room wants enrichment and originality,' and he handed me a 'Golden Treasury,' and a well-known compilation of extracts from our national prose and poetry; both heavily marked. But Sebastian did not content himself with showing me over this well-stored arsenal of implements. He was kind enough to give me some practical hints as to their employment, and that in a way which delighted me from its gay wisdom.
In the first place, Sebastian warned me to let a full three months go by from the time of an article's appearance to the time of adapting either its thought, its images, or its expressions to my conversa
tional uses. Indeed, as I think modestly, he attributes his own justly merited reputation of being an original and brilliant talker largely to this habit of self-restraint. In the second place, it seems that classicism and erudition are best avoided. They are out of repute. Besides which, the temper of the day is one of self-contemplation, and concerns itself with neither. In the third place, quotations, especially at any length, must be most guardedly resorted to, having in view this fact: that as the evening paper is out by one o'clock the aptest quotation must be a little behind time. I thought this quite neat. Sebastian only smiled, and showed me the original idea in a monthly review nearly a year old. He thinks that the source of a quotation, whether from prose or poetry, should never be given; it is better manners to usher in one's quotation with an easy Who, or some one, says;' no one then can feel stupid or ill-read. Sebastian then said, jokingly, although I did not quite see the joke, that as Plato's philosophy was cloudland to the average intelligence, smart society was enchanted by it: so that I must read up one or two things in a book called 'Jowett.' There was something he said too about Hobbes, and all that sort of men, which I did not quite catch the drift of.
These practical hints, he thinks, and anything like ordinary luck, should help me to make a handsome beginning; and that with the addition of a few religious doubts, I may soon turn fearless somersaults in the smartest society. I thought this very vigorous, but he showed me the same idea in the current Fortnightly marked in violet ink for later use, the acrobat in the original being Mr. Robert Browning.
Well, the secret of Sebastian's system is now mine, at all events. I have only to get together my box of tricks, furbish up some implements, and get some stuff to work upon. Conversation may be a trade or a game, its art only artifice, its artists only handicraftsmen. It is possible that in these abundant days, conversation has only time to be, as Sebastian says, “ le vernis de toutes choses. It may be that good conversation is merely the most nimble manipulation of other men's thoughts, the most tuneful arrangement of the most popular airs. It may all depend upon dexterity and opportunism, and yet I do not feel altogether confirmed that it is so, nor can I quite satisfy myself—the 4 to 7 cards notwithstanding—that Sebastian P. and his method have expressed the artist and the art of conversation; or that they have helped me to realise my impressions.
* There are many kinds of readers, and each has a sort of perusal suitable to his kind.' There are also many kinds of talkers, each with the conversation of his kind. Sebastian P. is one kind, and understands what suits his kind. But a master of the art of conversation surely understands and suits all kinds ? Mr. Bagebot's subtle reader--the passage occurs in the essay on Gibbon-pursues with a fine attention the most delicate and imperceptible ramifications of a topic, .marks slight traits, notes changing manners, is minutely attentive to every prejudice and awake to every passion, watches syllables and waits on words, is alive to the light airs of nice association which float about every subject—the motes in the bright sunbeam—the delicate gradations of the passing shadows.'