Page images

is a capital Irish story, which has made the fortune of more than one dining-out story-teller, showing how the hero" was treated by the Beamishes :" in it, a perplexed shopkeeper, for the first time admitted to a gentleman's table, breaks his shins against every usage and etiquette, which he either mistakes or imitates perversely; so that he gets nothing he likes to eat, nothing to drink, save the contents of his own water-glass, and fancies himself huffed and neglected by every one at table, and by all the servants attending. This, though highly ludicrous in its colouring, is by no means an exaggeration of the pains and penalties which wait upon the nouveau riche who strives to break through the ring fence of exclusive society. The nicest observation, and the most perfect self-possession and address will not carry the parvenu successfully through the many minute shadings of etiquette which distinguish a man of perfect bon ton from mortals less elevated; what chance then has an ordinary and ungifted person of escaping from the absurdities attendant upon every step, under such circumstances ?

We know not whether in the strictness of speech it should be said that etiquette regulates the distinctions of language. Horace, indeed, expressly confers on usage the arbitrium et jus et norma loquendi ; but if all usages are not etiquettes, all etiquettes are, as we have shown, merely usages. Every one knows (that is, if he knows anything of the matter) that the highest circles possess a jargon of their own, perfectly distinctive: now, although the mere abstinence from its use would hardly be deemed a breach of etiquette, in one otherwise comme il faut ; yet the not understanding it, and, still worse, the mal-apropos application of its terms, like the not speaking French, would, in a parvenu, be deemed a proof of bad education, and a mark of having haunted inferior society. This is a regular pierre d'achopement to the uninitiated, and should, if possible, be avoided by a discreet silence, until close observation clears the matter up beyond the possibility of a doubt. Analogy in this case is a dangerous guide. According to its rule, for example, refinement being the characteristic of high breeding, there should appear to be little danger of error, in selecting the phraseology the most delicate. This is by no means universally safe. Among men of perfect bon-ton, for instance, the habitual use of indelicate expressions is, indeed, generally avoided; but when the occasion does occur for expressing certain ideas—to put on a sheepish air, and employ childishly mincing terms, or awkward periphrases, is a sure mark of under-breeding. If circumstances make a reference to the idea improper (such as the presence of females, or of persons decidedly of superior rank), men of good ton abstain altogether, and give to the conversation another turn; but when they think good to speak at all, they call a spade a spade, and have done with it. Let not the uninitiated suppose, however, that the opposite of wrong is necessarily right, and imagine that by being coarse he becomes polite. The man of true fashion is never coarse: there is a certain something in his manner (a sans façon perhaps, or haply a touch and go,) which detracts from the energy of the expression; so that nothing can be more different in effect, than the same language in the mouth of a gentleman, and in that of an under-bred fellow,

From the foregoing observations, our readers will be aware how much easier it is to pass muster in courts, than in good society. In the former, the etiquettes are facts, definable in the simplest terms-every step is

regulated with the greatest precision. “Never turn your back on royalty,” “never contradict it,are rules intelligible by the most obtuse; and “kneel and kiss the king's hand” is caught in a single lesson, even by sheriffs and common-councilmen. Not so, in the affairs of aristocratic high life. There, as the reader must, after following us thus far, be aware, all is nuunce, the poco meno and the poco piu—distinctions that may

be caught, but cannot be defined. How, for instance, can we explain by words the exact pitch of voice which is employed in good company? how regulate the exact intervals at which it is necessary to give a nobleman his title, or set down the exact circumstances that make it impertinent in one man to drop the distinctive title altogether? or what it is that renders it priggish in another to abstain from so doing? The general tendency of etiquette is to simplify the forms of suciety, and to render them as little demonstrable as possible; yet who will presume to determine beforehand the precise degree of deference which is still required in addressing each individual, or to lay down the law ex cathedrâ as to where a nod of recognition will suffice, and where a reverence more formal is required ?

Having said thus much, it is needless to add that the books of etiquette, the printed instructions for good behaviour, are not, and cannot be, other than downright traps; and that the very best of them are of no use to anybody but the bookseller. Even Lord Chesterfield's letters failed altogether in making a fine gentleman of the person to whom they were addressed. For the most part, such a synopsis of polite carriage turns upon the most simple facts :-as the not spitting upon a carpet, the not poking a neighbour's fork down his throat with your elbow; or it retails matters picked up at second-hand, and, therefore, misapplied. In a society, for instance, where every man's grade is distinctly marked by a title, and where all the parties are known to each other, what is more simple than the arrangement of precedence ? every man knows his own place and takes it. Whereas in a society of a less defined grade, what an awkward and troublesome thing is it for the mistress of the house to stand upon the order of her friends' going, meting out precedence, and making distinctions without differences, where all are essentially equal : and how absurd is it for two fools to stand bowing to each other while the meat cools, bandying humilities, such as “ not before you, Sir,”

by no means,” I insist, quite impossible,” &c. &c.; till, at last, both bolt at once, and succeed in tumbling together from the top to the bottom of the staircase. For those who stand in need of instructions to avoid such coarse errors, no books would mend their native boorishness; and, for keener observers, it is safer to trust their own impressions, than to fly to authorities which are no authorities whatever. Good nature, good feeling, and good sense, backed with a quick eye, will in a short space carry a man of sense through the very best society, so as to avoid ridicule-especially if he be not too much alive to his own self-importance, to be natural and at his ease. It is false and unfounded pretension alone, with its concomitant vanity and presumption, that makes itself absurdly conspicuous; and for those who seek to displace themselves, and run after associations for which their previous habits unfit them, no tuition will suffice for their protection. With every aid, that the best code of politeness can afford, they will never rise above the elegance of a master of the ceremonies, nor acquire more of the tone of good society, than a groom of the chambers.




It is with unaffected diffidence, not however amounting quite to reluctance, that I am about to sketch the character of an American. For it is not that I am myself at all sensitive on the subject, but I know that the Americans are so. There is an impetuous jealousy about them as to their own merits, a keenness of anxiety as to what is said and thought of them by other nations, strangely incompatible with their high sense of self-respect, and their just conviction of their own importance. They can ill bear a joke on any peculiarities of national or provincial dialect or custom. No people relish a jest at their own expense on these matters so much as the Irish-none tolerate it so badly as the Americans. I speak of them as they are to be met in Europe. I should much rather know them at home, for here they almost always appear to be acting. They are as though on the stage, and they generally either underdo or overdo their parts, in their uneasiness to be at their ease, in their efforts to show themselves, at least equal to Europeans in all the graces of civilisation, and the nonchalance of fashion. It is rarely that we meet a Transatlantic gentleman according to our notions of the word, and that simply because they are not content to let us see a specimen of one according to their own. Nature is the true gentility ; vulgarity is an art. It is the attempt to graft the insipid air of English ton on the plain stem of American independence that causes the failures I have observed so often. What a painful thing it is to see a free-born republican quail at the very look of a lord! To see American talent and station-and I have heard of such displays-crouch low before the morgue of European nobility! There are few things more odious than a plebeian aristocrat. The sickly fragrance of highbred dandyism does not revolt us half so much. The emasculate refinement of a hot-house plant is pleasing because it is in its place. But the rough-coated children of the open air are forced and unnatural under glass, and such is too frequently the aspect of the most cultivated American in a London or Paris saloon. But exceptions there are-and many glorious exceptions—which show Americans in their fitting character, and man in his true dignity. And it would be well if it was universally felt that that consists simply in having a proper pride in one's own station. What else is it that gives to noblemen in general so fine a tone of easy elegance? What else that makes many well-bred commoners quite equal in manners to the noble? What else that throws an inconceivable charm over many individuals born and brought up far ont of the circles of high life? What else that gives force of thought, gracefulness of mien, and true nobility of mind ? Is it mere title that can do this; or a servile prostration to rank that can supply its want; or the contortions of mimicry, or the meanness of adulation ? Every idolater is a slave, and none so base as the worshipper of rank. Did tuft-hunters and toad-eaters but know their own littleness, and how thoroughly they are despised by those who greedily accept their homage! But an American tuft-hunter!' What scale could shrink small enough to measure that most diminutive of beings ?

[ocr errors]

This is my greatest cause of quarrel with the American character, as it is sometimes exhibited in retail specimens in Europe; and, therefore, my great longing to know the Americans on their own soil, in wholesale masses, where they have fair play and moral elbow-room, and are not “ cribbed and cabined” in the narrow bounds of artificial life. No people can be thoroughly known by shreds and patches. Isolated individuals are not fair specimens. A brick is not enough to convey a just notion of a house, nor one man of a whole nation, nor a hundred bricks, nor a hundred men seen singly. No one removed from the associations of home, from the old habits and every-day sympathies of his natural circle, is a fair specimen of his kind. It is, moreover, an old and just observation, that nothing should be deemed as characteristic of a species but what is to be found among the best and most perfect individuals of it. Therefore we should be cautious not to form a hasty judgment from imperfect materials; and, therefore, my Bobadil is by no means to be considered as an exemplar of American character in general. He was, in fact, a being sui generis

“None but himself could be his parallel." But I have not come to him yet, nor can I, in justice to myself or my subject, suppress a few observations which rise up on the narrow prejudices propagated so broadly against the Americans by those who have seen them, as I have not, chez eux.

A traveller, if he possess expansion as well as acuteness of mind, will, instead of raising an outcry against national errors which annoy or revolt, endeavour philosophically to account for what he condemns, and see if they are not essential attributes of the nation and its well-being. The study of a people is not to be done by steam. Masses, even like individuals, may, from temporary causes, present an aspect totally different to their real character. Small groups, in hours of social intercourse particularly, are sure to display that wide variety of manners which makes up, in fact, the chief charm of society. Travellers are scarcely aware of their influence in producing those changes, or how very much their own peculiar bent in conversation and habits affects the domestic circles of a foreign country into which they are admitted. When a stranger of any note is invited to a party, a great deal of deference is almost sure to be accorded to him from the general politeness common to all civilised nations : he is most likely to give the tone to the conversation. If he be of a social turn, it is pretty sure that all will flow pleasantly and smoothly, that those around him will chat familiarly, and that he will find his entertainers amiable, cheerful, and without pretension. If, on the contrary, the disposition of the guest be arrogant and assuming, either on the merits of his country or of himself, if he turn everything into discussion, and embitter the general wells of conversation by everlasting argument, he is sure to impart his own harsh, disagreeable tone to those about him. He puts them on their metal: -they dispute the ground inch by inch they meet his querulousness with retorts-his questioning by boasts. The presumption and petulance which he sees at every turn are in reality nothing but the reflection of his own. Is it not then unfair, or at best peurile, in English travellers to be surprised or angry with the Americans for their extreme displays of national vanity? Have they not a right to consider them

selves one of the greatest nations existing ? and that point conceded, is it wonderful they should consider themselves the greatest? Why, then, those expressions of annoyance and disgust at this strongly-developed failing of Transatlantic character ? Let it be remembered that the United States of America have made for themselves a distinguished position in the scale of national greatness--they have fought for and gained their liberty from one of the most powerful people of Europe. In a later contest, they maintained gallantly what they at first so gloriously won. They see their population and their power every day increasing with almost incredible progression. Their greatness is all visible, while their remoteness from other countries leaves them without contrasts to show them their inferiority on minor points. They hear from one end of the Union to the other but the language of reciprocal praise. The voice of sarcasm or blame comes faintly across the Atlantic deeps ; and, when heard in feeble echoes, it sounds like envious whisperings rather than full-toned reproof. A blustering self-sufficiency is the inevitable consequence of all this internal combination; and a perpetual accession is given to it from outward sources. Every ship load of emigrants that reaches the American shores brings a fund of practical eulogy to increase the stock of American pride. Each new settler is a living tribute to the worth of the land ; and all who come predisposed to admire and flatter, soon become an integral part of the vanity they feed. The good opinion they at first formed for the country is not likely to decrease when it is converted into pride of themselves. Thus every additional settler abets the general disease, and few of the few travellers that Europe sends out to make a temporary sojourn, can have the ill-bred candour to combat the prevalent weakness of selfsatisfied millions: civilization alone can cure it. But is America likely ever to become a truly civilized nation, if civilization be taken to imply expansion of mind and refinement in manners and habits of thought? It is the constant contact with other countries that alone can rub off the asperities of national prejudice--the great bar to true refinement. Such a remedy America can never have until the days when her overgrown empire shall break into fragments of territorial separation. Then every rival State will discover faults in its neighbour which it never saw when their interest and feelings were in common, and jealousy will see defects in the very qualities that self-love considers as perfections. Northerns, southerns, monarchies and republics despots and oligarchs, will then, by opposing efforts, disperse the very prejudice they had while united upheld ; and every separate branch lopped from the great national tree will lessen the mass of congregated vanity which overshadows the land. But, until then, we must bear with the Americans, and even excuse them, while they say, and write, and believe their country to be

The wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best! But no one ever carried this extravagance so far as the Yankee Bobadil. When or where I fell in with this great original is of small moment. The locality or the epoch had nothing to do with the man: like the Exile in Moore's Melody, he might say (to himself)

“ Wherever thou art is my country to me;" for nobody ever knew so well how to make himself at home.

He car

« PreviousContinue »