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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Conversation in London Drawing-Rooms

By George Washburn Smalley (1833–1916)

[The New-York Tribune, August–September, 1888.]

AMONG many changes in the social life of London, none perhaps is more striking than the change in the fashion of talk. The note of to-day is not the note of twenty years ago, or of the generation which preceded. The literature, the biographical literature, the reminiscences, of the last fifty years are full of the renown of great talkers. Macaulay may be taken as a type of them. He was the superior of all in his own style, but the style was one which prevailed, and it is fair to judge it by its best example or exponent….


I have asked a number of persons who knew Macaulay well; who met him often, who made part of the world he lived in, who sat with him at table; who listened to him, whether his immense reputation was deserved, and whether he would now be thought a good talker. I quote nobody, but I sum up the general sense of all the answers in one phrase,—he would be thought a bore. Whether that is a reflection on Macaulay or on the society of to-day is an open question, but the opinion cannot be far wrong. “Macaulay,” said a talker whose conversation ranged over three generations, “did not talk; he lectured. He chose his subject, it mattered little what, and he delivered a discourse on it; poured out masses of facts, of arguments, of historical illustration. He was not witty; he had no humor; he was not a critic, as he himself confessed; he was devoid of imaginative or poetic faculty. But he had the most prodigious memory ever possessed by a human being, and on this he drew, without stint and without end. People in those days listened to him, his authority was established, his audience docile, nobody interrupted, controversy was out of the question.” “Now,” continued the witness, “no dinner-table would stand it; he would be stopped, contradicted, his long stories vetoed; no monopoly or monopolist is tolerated. If you wanted to know about Queen Anne you could go home and read a cyclopædia.”

This is perhaps overstated; the picture is overdrawn. Macaulay is made as much too black as Trevelyan has made him too white. But it is true in substance, and it will give you a notion of the change in the fashion of talk which, as I began by saying, has really taken place. Everything now is touch and go. Topics are treated lightly, and above all briefly; if you want to preach a sermon you must get into a pulpit or a newspaper; preach it at table you cannot. The autocrat who held sway over the company and forced them to listen has vanished. Perhaps it is the democratic tendency of the age which has driven him out of the field, or out of the drawing-room; at any rate, he is gone and nobody wants him back. You may tell a story, but you must, in Hayward’s phrase, cut it to the bone. The ornamental elaboration, the tricking out your tale with showy togs—purpureis pannis—the leisurely prolongation of the narrative once practised, can be practised no more. If you do not cut it short you will be cut into, and before you are half way through another man will have begun and finished his, and your audience will have gone over to the enemy. Worse still, if you persist, you may for once have your way, but it will be for once only; your host makes the appalling discovery that you are impossible, and he asks you not again,—neither he nor any of the company. No reputation is so universal as that of the bore; no other criminal is so shunned by his fellow-men.


It is this rapidity, this lightness of sound, which makes it so difficult for the provincial or the foreigner to catch the note of modern society in London. Seldom does either succeed at once. Of the provincial I will say nothing; he shall be left unsung. But the transient visitor has painful experiences at times, because he insists on bringing with him to London the manners and customs which he has found avail in his native land. Women make few mistakes; their preternatural quickness of perception, their instantaneous insight into the real condition of things perfectly new to them, their intuitions, are so many extra senses and safeguards. It is the male foreigner whose tact cannot always be depended on to carry him safely over the social reefs and shoals which surround him in the sea he has never navigated before. He comes, let us say, from Central Africa; the Congo is his home. He is a cultivated, an accomplished man; but not quite what is here understood by a man of the world. He belongs, in fact, to that same past generation which had so heavy a hand or such a genius for getting to the bottom of a subject; and sometimes staying there. He is asked to an evening party. He goes correctly attired, and bent on conquest. He is not content with the silent bow, or the word or two of commonplace greeting to his hostess which here are thought sufficient. He comes to a dead halt at the top of the staircase; sets forth in elegant language his pleasure at seeing her, his pleasure at being asked, the pleasure he expects from seeing so many pleasant people, his pleasure at having quite unexpectedly found the English so civil to the tribes of Central Africa. Long before he has finished, the pressure of guests arriving behind him has carried him on into the middle of the drawing-room, and the compliment which he began to his hostess is completed in the ear of a stranger.

His friend introduces him to the stranger; a woman of the world, and of the London world. She receives him precisely as she receives nine-tenths of her acquaintances. Perhaps she even shakes hands with him, seeing that he expects it, then, after two or three of those vapid sentences which do duty for conversation in such a crush, turns to a newcomer. Our friend from the Congo thinks she does not care for conversation, and, if he be sensitive, that she does not care for him. Again he is introduced—presented, I may say between dashes, is only used here for introductions to royalties—and again the English lady, young or old, does her best to be civil to him, but her civilities, too, are of the same fleeting kind. It does not occur to her that this dark cousin from over the sea expects to exchange opinions with her on the Irish question, or to extract a full account of her views on the correlation of forces. She also turns away, and after one or two more such experiences he announces sadly that he is not a success in London society. He has not caught the note—that is all. The very women whom he thought rude to him took his measure, made all allowances for his unacquaintance with customs necessarily new to him, liked him, and before they slept sent him nice notes to ask him to lunch next day, or, more probably, next week.

He is puzzled, but pleased, and accepts and goes. What does he find? He is welcomed cordially but without fuss; if there be anything which English women dislike more than another, it is making a fuss. They do not gush over a new acquaintance or over an old one; it is the avoidance of fuss and gush and sloppy compliments which has gained them a reputation for coldness of manner. The coldness of manner is simplicity of manner; that and nothing else, and it is simplicity of nature which dictates the simple manner. Lunch may mean a party of twenty people, but whether twenty or two, there is no ceremony. The ladies walk into the dining-room by themselves, the men straggle after, and find their way to such seats as suit them. The talk is as easy as if you were sitting about a fire; or more so. If the lunch is a small one, the talk ripples about the table; if large, you have to take your chance with the two fellow-creatures next you; men or women, as chance, you, or superior strategy may have determined. Not even to these or to either of these will the cousin from the Congo have a chance to expound his notions on the correlation of forces, unless he can do it in half a dozen phrases. He may have to carry them back again to the tropics unexpounded; at no entertainment of a purely social kind will he find hearers for these valuable views. If he has anything to say, people will hear it with interest, on one condition; that it be said in the manner of the society amid which he moves for the time being. Society does not object to serious topics, or even to the serious treatment of them; what it objects to is pedantry, pretension, dullness; to that which is heavy as distinguished from that which is serious. It has preferences and strong preferences; but it will endure much. What it will not endure is the professor who brings into its presence the solemnities of the lecture-room, or the man who arrives with a mission….


There remains to this generation one talker who may be likened to Macaulay; I mean Mr. Gladstone. To write about a living celebrity as freely as about one who already belongs to history is impossible; it is equally impossible to give in a few sentences a complete account of Mr. Gladstone’s characteristics as a talker. I name him not as a type, but an anti-type. His manner belongs to a period that is past, if that can be said to belong to any period which is in fact entirely individual. If I liken him to Macaulay it is because he also has in a degree that habit of monologue which Macaulay had, and with him other less famous personages of his time. His talk is a stream; a stream like the Oxus in Arnold’s verse:
  • “Brimming and bright and large.”…
  • Nor does anybody, like Horace’s rustic, wait for it to flow out; it is a stream you would like to flow on forever….

    Roughly speaking, Macaulay passed his life among books; Mr. Gladstone has passed his in affairs. Man of the world in one sense he is not, but preëminently a man of affairs; of English affairs; all his life long engaged in the transaction of the weightiest public business. His conversation reflects the habit of mind which all this continuing experience has formed. No one ever lived who knew the political history of his own time so well, and no English statesman ever had so many interests outside of statesmanship; literary, religious, and the rest.

    There is no subject on which he will not talk. His memory is the marvel of everybody who has been his associate or acquaintance. Scarce a topic can be started on which he has not a store of facts. He takes little thought of his audience or of what may be supposed to interest them. His subject interests him, and it never occurs to him that it may not interest others. And he is quite right; in his hands, whatever it be, it is entertaining. He has been known to discourse to his neighbor through the greater part of a long dinner on the doctrine of copyright and of international copyright. His neighbor was a beautiful woman who cared no more for copyright than for the Cherokees. She listened to him throughout with unfailing delight….

    You may hear all sorts of stories about Mr. Gladstone and his talk; not all of them good-natured, for society does its best to dislike him, and succeeds when he is absent. I will repeat one which gives you another side of him. While Prime Minister, he appointed a certain well-known man to a certain difficult post abroad, requiring a great deal of special knowledge and personal acquaintance with the country and people; all of which this young man had acquired in the course of several laborious years. Mr. Gladstone sent for his commissioner to come and see him before he set out. He came and next day a friend congratulated him on the impression he had made. “Mr. Gladstone says he never met any one who knew so much about the Caucasus.” Lord X. laughed: “I was with him two hours and never opened my mouth.”

    If you doubt that, I could tell you another which is the exact duplicate of it, save that the person and the office to which he was appointed were wholly different. But the same thing happened. Mr. Gladstone talked all the time, and to the next friend he met remarked that he had never known anybody whose knowledge of mathematics was so complete as Mr. F.’s. Wherever he is, he takes the lead, if he does not always monopolize the talk, which, of course, he does not. No doubt, he is sometimes oratorical in private. It would be a fault in a lesser orator, but you are only too happy to hear those stately sentences roll out and roll on; the eye flashing, the voice varying with every emotion; of hardly less compass and perhaps of even greater beauty than on the platform….


    To name any one man or even any group of men or women as a type, or as complete illustrations of the conversation of the day, is impossible. There is no longer an Autocrat of the Dinner-table. Dr. Holmes himself, whether at Dinner or Breakfast, would have to share his beneficent despotism with somebody else. It is no longer the man who rules; it is society. Nobody has all the talk, and everybody has some. The individual withers and the world is more and more. The less numerous the company, the less chance has any one talker of supremacy over the rest. Society becomes not merely democratic; it is communistic. Everything is put into a common stock and divided among the contributors. And the result is precisely what it would be if there were a redistribution of other property. The cleverest soon resumes his former share; adding some of his neighbor’s for the extra trouble. He conforms, nevertheless, to custom; he carries no sceptre to assert or to denote his rank; he renounces all the appearances of authority in order to preserve the substance; he submits to be interrupted and interrupts nobody; he waits his turn; he modulates his voice; he yields to others; he draws out others; he does not argue; to contradict he would be ashamed. His reward is that he escapes the almost inevitable penalty of superiority; the envy of his fellow-men. He is one of those uncrowned kings to whom Democracy pays the homage of unquestioning and unsuspecting obedience….

    There are certain kinds of “shop” which men and women permit themselves to talk. They tacitly assume that everybody else present knows all about their subject, or ought to know. If you do not know, so much the worse for you…. The conversation, indeed, is seldom monotonous, or on one topic only, but, whatever the topic may be, the talk is full of allusions, of unfinished sentences, of hints, of phrases and references that are simply incomprehensible to the outsider. It is like a family party; you must know all the relations and all the family history, and all the pet names, and all the incidents of domestic life, before you can be on even terms with the rest. It changes from one year to another; the note changes; last year’s key will no more open this year’s secret places than last year’s argot will pilot you along the Boulevards in Paris. Yes, and in London or anywhere in England among London society, which spends often as much of the year in the country as in London, you want a pilot among the shoals and quicksands far more than in deep water. The art of silence is more subtle than the art of speech….


    The presence of American women in London society has had an influence on conversation as it has on other things. Youth and beauty and cleverness are often to be found in the same person; it would be wonderful if they were not to be found in the same group. The American girl who marries in England has begun life earlier than her English cousin. She has met men and even talked to them while yet unmarried, a thing which few English girls venture to do. She has probably lived in Paris; part of her education is French; she knows three of the great capitals of the world; her ideas are not bounded by the horizon of Mayfair. She is fresh, original, independent. She cannot always be clever, but she has been taught to think for herself, and never was there a more apt pupil in that science. Above all, perhaps, she was not born into a respect for rank, or even for royalty, and she catches therefore at once that note of equality which is essential to social success—in London as much as anywhere in the world—as well as to intellectual freedom. It was always said that the secret or one secret of American popularity in royal circles was in this American freedom from the purely conventional notion about royalty which prevails in England. A girl from New York talked to the Prince of Wales as if royalty had no more rights than republicanism. She spoke her mind, as she expected the Prince to speak his. I don’t know that he always did, but he was delighted by the girl’s frankness. It is many years since he began to covet American society, and there has never been a time when there was not some one or more American women who, in the current phrase of London, had to be asked if you wanted the Prince.

    I say nothing of other aspects of the matter. It is the question of conversation, and of the influence of American women on the conversation of London society, which alone concerns us at present. Of course, these young girls and these young married ladies who had found out how to amuse His Royal Highness found imitators. How to amuse His Royal Highness is one of the social problems of the United Kingdom; a single solution of the problem is not enough. It is a never-ending series of novel answers to this ever-recurring conundrum which have to be discovered or invented by somebody. The English ought to be grateful to their American kinswomen for helping them to so many. I am not sure that they are.