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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

George, Lord Lyttelton (1709–1773)

Dialogue Between Mercury and Mrs. Modish

From “Dialogues of the Dead”

Mrs. Modish.Indeed, Mr. Mercury, I cannot have the pleasure of waiting upon you now. I am engaged, absolutely engaged.

Mercury.I know you have an amiable, affectionate husband, and several fine children; but you need not be told, that neither conjugal attachments, maternal affections, nor even the care of a kingdom’s welfare or a nation’s glory, can excuse a person who has received a summons to the realms of death. If the grim messenger was not as peremptory as unwelcome, Charon would not get a passenger (except now and then a hypochondriacal Englishman) once in a century. You must be content to leave your husband and family and pass the Styx.

Mrs. Modish.I did not mean to insist on any engagement with my husband and children; I never thought myself engaged to them. I had no engagements but such as were common to women of my rank. Look on my chimney-piece, and you will see I was engaged to the play on Mondays, balls on Tuesdays, the opera on Saturdays, and to card assemblies the rest of the week, for two months to come; and it would be the rudest thing in the world not to keep my appointments. If you will stay for me till the summer season, I will wait on you with all my heart. Perhaps the Elysian Fields may be less detestable than the country in our world. Pray, have you a fine Vauxhall and Ranelagh? I think I should not dislike drinking the Lethe waters when you have a full season.

Mercury.Surely you could not like to drink the waters of oblivion, who have made pleasure the business, end, and aim of your life! It is good to drown cares, but who would wash away the remembrance of a life of gaiety and pleasure?

Mrs. Modish.Diversion was indeed the business of my life, but as to pleasure, I have enjoyed none since the novelty of my amusements was gone off. Can one be pleased with seeing the same thing over and over again? Late hours and fatigue gave me the vapours, spoiled the natural cheerfulness of my temper, and even in youth wore away my youthful vivacity.

Mercury.If this way of life did not give you pleasure, why did you continue in it? I suppose you did not think it was very meritorious?

Mrs. Modish.I was too much engaged to think at all: so far, indeed, my manner of life was agreeable enough. My friends always told me diversions were necessary, and my doctor assured me dissipation was good for my spirits; my husband insisted that it was not, and you know that one loves to oblige one’s friends, comply with one’s doctor, and contradict one’s husband; and, besides, I was ambitious to be thought du bon ton.

Mercury.Bon ton! What is that, madam? Pray, define it.

Mrs. Modish.Oh, sir, excuse me, it is one of the privileges of the bon ton never to define, or be defined. It is the child and the parent of jargon. It is—I can never tell you what it is; but I will try to tell you what it is not. In conversation, it is not wit; in manners, it is not politeness; in behaviour, it is not address; but it is a little like them all. It can only belong to people of a certain rank who live in a certain manner, with certain persons who have not certain virtues and who have certain vices, and who inhabit a certain part of the town. Like a place by courtesy, it gets a higher rank than the person can claim, but which those who have a legal title to precedency dare not dispute, for fear of being thought not to understand the rules of politeness. Now, sir, I have told you as much as I know of it, though I have admired and aimed at it all my life.

Mercury.Then, madam, you have wasted your time, faded your beauty, and destroyed your health for the laudable purposes of contradicting your husband, and being this something and this nothing called the bon ton.