My Miscellanies – Wilkie Collins
The author of ‘The Woman in White’ and of ‘No Name’ has had reprinted and published a collection of articles contributed by him to Household Words, and perhaps to other periodicals. The two papers which will attract most attention are probably those entitled respectively, “To Think, or Be Thought For,” and “Dramatic Grub-street,” inasmuch as upon their first appearance they provoked both private and public remonstrance, and they are now reprinted because Mr. Collins has seen a reason to abandon the convictions the expression of which called down upon him the aforesaid remonstrances. It is undoubted that this publication did not add much to the author’s brilliant fame, but it is useful as a sort of meter by which one may measure his prodigious growth. This edition includes both original volumes.
Excerpt from the text:
We hear a great deal of lamentation now-a-days, proceeding mostly from elderly people, on the decline of the Art of Conversation among us. Old ladies and gentlemen with vivid recollections of the charms of society fifty years ago, are constantly asking each other why the great talkers of their youthful days have found no successors in this inferior present time. Where–they inquire mournfully–where are the illustrious men and women gifted with a capacity for perpetual outpouring from the tongue, who used to keep enraptured audiences deluged in a flow of eloquent monologue for hours together? Where are the solo talkers, in this degenerate age of nothing but choral conversation?
The solo talkers have vanished. Nothing but the tradition of them remains, imperfectly preserved in books for the benefit of an ungrateful posterity, which reviles their surviving contemporaries, and would perhaps even have reviled the illustrious creatures themselves as Bores. If they could rise from the dead, and wag their unresting tongues among us now, would they win their reputations anew, just as easily as ever? Would they even get listeners? Would they be actually allowed to talk? I venture to say, decidedly not. They would surely be interrupted and contradicted; they would have their nearest neighbours at the dinner-table talking across them; they would find impatient people opposite, dropping things noisily, and ostentatiously picking them up; they would hear confidential whispering, and perpetual fidgeting in distant corners, before they had got through their first half-dozen of eloquent opening sentences. Nothing appears to me so wonderful as that none of these interruptions (if we are to believe report) should ever have occurred in the good old times of the great talkers. I read long biographies of that large class of illustrious individuals whose fame is confined to the select circle of their own acquaintance, and I find that they were to a man, whatever other differences may have existed between them, all delightful talkers. I am informed that they held forth entrancingly for hours together, at all times and seasons, and that I, the gentle, constant, and patient reader, am one of the most unfortunate and pitiable of human beings in never having enjoyed the luxury of hearing them: but, strangely enough, I am never told whether they were occasionally interrupted or not in the course of their outpourings. I am left to infer that their friends sat under them just as a congregation sits under a pulpit; and I ask myself amazedly (remembering what society is at the present day), whether human nature can have changed altogether since that time. Either the reports in the biographies are one-sided and imperfect, or the race of people whom I frequently meet with now–and whom I venture to call Talk-stoppers, because their business in life seems to be the obstructing, confusing, and interrupting of all conversation–must be the peculiar and portentous growth of our own degenerate era.
Perplexed by this dilemma, when I am reading in long biographies about great talkers, I do not find myself lamenting, like my seniors, that they have left no successors in our day, or doubting irreverently, like my juniors, whether the famous performers of conversational solos were really as well worth hearing as eulogistic report would fain have us believe. The one invariable question that I put to myself under these circumstances runs thus:–Could the great talkers, if they had lived in my time, have talked at all? And the answer I receive is:–In the vast majority of cases, certainly not.
Let me not unnecessarily mention names, but let me ask, for example, if some such famous talker as, say–the Great Glib–could have discoursed uninterruptedly for five minutes together in the presence of my friend Colonel Hopkirk?
The colonel goes a great deal into society; he is the kindest and gentlest of men; but he unconsciously stops, or confuses conversation everywhere, solely in consequence of his own sociable horror of ever differing in opinion with anybody. If A. should begin by declaring black to be black, Colonel Hopkirk would be sure to agree with him, before he had half done. If B. followed, and declared black to be white, the colonel would be on his side of the question, before he had argued it out; and, if C. peaceably endeavoured to calm the dispute with a truism, and trusted that every one would at least admit that black and white in combination made grey, my ever-compliant friend would pat him on the shoulder approvingly, all the while he was talking; would declare that C.’s conclusion was, after all, the common sense of the question; and would set A. and B. furiously disputing which of them he agreed or disagreed with now, and whether on the great Black, White, and Grey question, Colonel Hopkirk could really be said to have any opinion at all.
How could the Great Glib hold forth in the company of such a man as this? Let us suppose that delightful talker, with a few of his admirers (including, of course, the writer of his biography), and Colonel Hopkirk, to be all seated at the same table; and let us say that one of the admirers is anxious to get the mellifluous Glib to discourse on capital punishment for the benefit of the company. The admirer begins, of course, on the approved method of stating the objections to capital punishment, and starts the subject in this manner.
“I was dining out, the other day, Mr. Glib, where capital punishment turned up as a topic of conversation—-“
“Ah!” says Colonel Hopkirk, “a dreadful necessity–yes, yes, yes, I see–a dreadful necessity–Eh?”
“And the arguments for its abolition,” continues the admirer, without noticing the interruption, “were really handled with great dexterity by one of the gentlemen present, who started, of course, with the assertion that it is unlawful, under any circumstances, to take away life—-“
“Unlawful, of course!” cries the colonel. “Very well put. Yes, yes–unlawful–to be sure–so it is–unlawful, as you say.”
“Unlawful, sir?” begins the Great Glib, severely. “Have I lived to this time of day, to hear that it is unlawful to protect the lives of the community, by the only certain means—-?”
“No, no–O dear me, no!” says the compliant Hopkirk, with the most unblushing readiness. “Protect their lives, of course–as you say, protect their lives by the only certain means–yes, yes, I quite agree with you.”
“Allow me, colonel,” says another admirer, anxious to assist in starting the great talker, “allow me to remind our friend, before he takes this question in hand, that it is an argument of the abolitionists that perpetual imprisonment would answer the purpose of protecting society—-“
The colonel is so delighted with this last argument that he bounds on his chair, and rubs his hands in triumph. “My dear sir!” he cries, before the last speaker can say another word, “you have hit it–you have indeed! Perpetual imprisonment–that’s the thing–ah, yes, yes, yes, to be sure–perpetual imprisonment–the very thing, my dear sir–the very thing!”
“Excuse me,” says a third admirer, “but I think Mr. Glib was about to speak. You were saying, sir—-?”
“The whole question of capital punishment,” begins the delightful talker, leaning back luxuriously in his chair, “lies in a nutshell.” (“Very true,” from the colonel.) “I murder one of you–say Hopkirk here.” (“Ha! ha! ha!” loudly from the colonel, who thinks himself bound to laugh at a joke when he is only wanted to listen to an illustration.) “I murder Hopkirk. What is the first object of all the rest of you, who represent the community at large?” (“To have you hanged,” from the colonel. “Ah, yes, to be sure! to have you hanged. Quite right! quite right!”) “Is it to make me a reformed character, to teach me a trade, to wash my blood-stains off me delicately, and set me up again in society, looking as clean as the best of you? No!” (“No!” from the compliant colonel.) “Your object is clearly to prevent me from murdering any more of you. And how are you to do that most completely and certainly? Can you accomplish your object by perpetual imprisonment?” (“Ah! I thought we should all agree about it at last,” cries the colonel cheerfully. “Yes, yes–nothing else for it but perpetual imprisonment, as you say.”) “By perpetual imprisonment? But men have broken out of prison.” (“So they have,” from the colonel.) “Men have killed their gaolers; and there you have the commission of that very second murder that you wanted to prevent.” (“Quite right,” from the compliant Talk-Stopper. “A second murder–dreadful! dreadful!”) “Imprisonment is not your certain protective remedy, then, evidently. What is?”
“Hanging!!!” cries the colonel, with another bound in his chair, and a voice that can no longer be talked down. “Hanging, to be sure! I quite agree with you. Just what I said from the first. You have hit it, my dear sir. Hanging, as you say–hanging, by all manner of means!”
Has anybody ever met Colonel Hopkirk in society? And does anybody think that the Great Glib could possibly have held forth in the company of that persistently-compliant gentleman, as he is alleged, by his admiring biographer, to have held forth in the peculiar society of his own time? The thing is clearly impossible. Let us leave Glib, congratulating him on having died when the Hopkirks of these latter days were as yet hardly weaned; let us leave him, and ascertain how some other great talker might have got on in the society of some other modern obstructor of the flow of eloquent conversation.
I have just been reading the Life, Letters, Labours, Opinions, and Table-Talk of the matchless Mr. Oily; edited–as to the Life, by his mother-in-law; as to the Letters, by his grand-daughter’s husband; and as to the Labours, Opinions, and Table-Talk, by three of his intimate friends, who dined with him every other Sunday throughout the whole of his long and distinguished life. It is a very pretty book in a great many volumes, with pleasing anecdotes–not only of the eminent man himself, but of all his family connections as well. His shortest notes are preserved, and the shortest notes of others to him. “My dear O., how is your poor head? Yours, P.” “My dear P., hotter than ever. Yours, O.” And so on. Portraits of Oily, in infancy, childhood, youth, manhood, old age active, and old age infirm, concluding with a post-mortem mask, abound in the book–so do fac-similes of his handwriting, showing the curious modifications which it underwent when he occasionally exchanged a quill for a steel-pen. But it will be more to my present purpose to announce for the benefit of unfortunate people who have not yet read the Memoirs, that Oily was, as a matter of course, a delightful and incessant talker. He poured out words, and his audience imbibed the same perpetually three times a week from tea-time to past midnight. Women especially revelled in his conversation. They hung, so to speak, palpitating on his lips. All this is told me in the Memoirs at great length, and in several places; but not a word occurs anywhere tending to show that Oily ever met with the slightest interruption on any one of the thousand occasions when he held forth. In relation to him, as in relation to the Great Glib, I seem bound to infer that he was never staggered by an unexpected question, never affronted by a black sheep among the flock, in the shape of an inattentive listener, never silenced by some careless man capable of unconsciously cutting him short and starting another topic before he had half done with his own particular subject. I am bound to believe all this–and yet, when I look about me at society as it is constituted now, I could fill a room, at a day’s notice, with people who would shut up the mouth of Oily before it had been open five minutes, quite as a matter of course, and without the remotest suspicion that they were misbehaving themselves in the slightest degree. What (I ask myself), to take only one example, and that from the fair sex–what would have become of Oily’s delightful and incessant talk, if he had known my friend Mrs. Marblemug, and had taken her down to dinner in his enviable capacity of distinguished man?
Mrs. Marblemug has one subject of conversation–her own vices. On all other topics she is sarcastically indifferent and scornfully mute. General conversation she consequently never indulges in; but the person who sits next to her is sure to be interrupted as soon as he attracts her attention by talking to her, by receiving a confession of her vices–not made repentantly, or confusedly, or jocularly–but slowly declaimed with an ostentatious cynicism, with a hard eye, a hard voice, a hard–no, an adamantine–manner. In early youth, Mrs. Marblemug discovered that her business in life was to be eccentric and disagreeable, and she is one of the women of England who fulfils her mission.