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ditions; and of those who do, not one in a thousand possesses the requisite combination of physical, mental, and moral qualities. Some have powder and no ball, others ball and no powder. Some have great command of language and little of thought. With others the conditions are reversed. I have referred to our modern feverish life as being unfavourable to conversation. There are other social conditions to be considered. Just as a certain combination of gases, which we call the atmosphere, around us is necessary for human life, so a certain social atmosphere is requisite for good talk, and the greater or less amount of social oxygen makes all the difference between languid or commonplace exchange of words and brilliant conversation.


Amongst the chief social conditions are these. The members any social group must neither be too intimate, too numerous, nor too unequal. In family life, men and women, long familiar, are apt to know too much and to hope too little. Few indeed are the strictly domestic circles in which mental energy would be found for much sustained or animated conversation of the right sort. Some may be too selfish to exert themselves there. Others are chilled by their surroundings. They find themselves under-estimated; or, worse, they know everyone there so well-again and again have they travelled over each other's minds; or they perhaps remember the desolating saying that "there is in every man or woman something which, if you knew it, would make you hate them." For pur

poses of conversation a man will often find himself more at home when away from home, and amongst those who, as distinguished from relatives on the one hand and acquaintances on the other, are to be called friends.

Nor must the circle be too large. I say nothing of public banquets of strangers. They are a contradiction in terms. Big dinner-parties of ill-assorted guests also are failures from a conversationalist point of view. A fireside, or a table, round if possible, and, say, four or half-a-dozen guests, are sufficient. More will break up into separate knots, and fewer mean a tête-à-tête. "I had," says Thoreau, "at Walden, three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society." The hermit Thoreau in his hut at Walden was wiser than the man who looks for society in a crush. An unhappy husband, living in Portland Place, whose wife inflicted huge parties upon him, was standing in a very forlorn condition leaning against the chimney-piece. A gentleman came up to him and said, "Sir, as neither of us are acquainted with any of the people here, I think we had best go home." Social crowds must not

expect the great men amongst them to talk well. She must have been a most unreasonable person who was disappointed with Napoleon because, when a lot of ladies were presented to him, he only remarked to each of them how hot it was.

Nor for conversation, must society be very unequal. By inequality, I do not refer to the doubtful distinctions of banking accounts or family trees. So far as these are concerned, there is nothing so democratic as conversation. But it does demand some approach to a similarity-not in opinions with good temper these may very widely differ-but in manners and taste, and above all, in intellectual capacity. When people are brought together without care for these similarities we know what happens. If their number be large enough, they involuntarily split up, not by cold exclusiveness, but by natural selection, into mutually appreciative groups, of which each member has some affinity for the rest. Where this instinctive distribution is through smallness of numbers or the fussiness of a host, impossible, we may expect a dull time. All know Bret Harte's tale of a man who had never heard of Adam before, and asked "What was his other name?" But there have been talkers in real life also who had to endure much at the hands of the ignorant. Sir Walter Scott had a clever friend who was once utterly baffled by a stranger in a stage coach. The friend, who wished to converse, assailed the stranger on all hands, and at last expostulated, "I have talked to you, my friend," said he, "on all the ordinary subjects-literature, farming, merchandise, gaming, game-laws, horse races, suits at law, politics and swindling, blasphemy and philosophy; is there any one subject that you will favour me by opening upon?" "Sir," said he in reply," can you say anything clever about bend leather?" Most people, like Sir Walter, would confess they would have been as much nonplussed as his acquaintance. Perhaps the man who was only interested in "bend leather" was past hope for conversational purposes. Conversational art alone cannot cure ignorance, but even it is less fatal than intellectual feebleness. Men such as the Mr. Brook of George Eliot's "Middlemarch" would exasperate an Archbishop and depress an Archangel. Nor is another form of mental inequality less injurious to conversation. There are some people's wits which serve to remind us of the stars so remote that it takes their light thousands of years to reach us. They are like the "warranted genuine snark," which shows

Slowness in taking a jest ;

Should he happen to venture on one,

Will sigh like a thing which is deeply distressed;

And it always looks grave at a pun.

All that can be said of such very slow people is that it is their duty to avoid conversation and get through life as inoffensively as possible.

There is, however, another form of mental inequality most injurious to society in many ways, including conversation, and which is more within control. If from conversation women are excluded, it is a sign of the moral inferiority of the men or the mental inferiority of the women. Sir Robert Walpole excused or justified the obscenity of his talk because it was the one topic that everyone could understand. When we remember how, in the last century, the chaplain retired from the table with the ladies, we blame the men; and when, in our own time, women are excluded, we may also often blame the men. But sometimes, the women, or to speak more correctly, those who have had the control of their education, are to blame. "A handsome woman," says La Bruyère, "who possesses also the qualities of a man of culture, is the most agreeable acquaintance a man can have, for she unites the merits of both sexes." Unfortunately, this combination is rare. The inequality here is a very serious one for conversational purposes. There are stale old jokes about women talking too much. The misfortune of modern society is that in conversation, worthy of the name, they talk too little. A woman who differs is better than the one who is mute. Why is it so often observed that men will talk together on some subject worthy of human interest, but directly ladies join them they feel it necessary to be polite. But how? By bringing the newcomers into the intellectual circle? By no means. But rather by descending to very small talk. Anything which tends to raise the intellectual level amongst women will tend most powerfully to improve conversation. We may despair of attaining to the severe mental exercise described in "Martin Chuzzlewit" when the great Elijah Pogram got out of his depth instantly, and the three literary ladies were never in theirs. But it is desirable, in the interests as well of conversation as of even more important things, that women should, more often than they are, be so taught that they will be neither playthings nor walking encyclopædias, but the genuine companions of men.

When Diderot used to talk so long and eloquently on every conceivable topic with the Empress Catherine of Russia, even he would sometimes check himself as he recollected he was talking to a lady. Then Her Majesty would encourage him. "Allons," she cried, "entre hommes tout est permis." Genuine modesty-the modesty of the Venus of Melos as contrasted with that of the Venus de Medici-might flourish equally well if there were just a suspicion of

The Art of Conversation.


Catherine's frankness. In our time, anyone who seeks to improve conversation will soon find himself in the dilemma of modern painters and novelists. Burning to fill their works with a moral purpose, and desiring to deal frankly with the problems of our time, they find themselves confronted with the "British matron" and the American "young person." Now, these are the most devout worshippers at Mrs. Grundy's shrine. On the education of women they impose their superstitions. Hence men are apt to think that the presence of the average woman imposes a restraint, not really moral, but mental, and which tends to make conversation thin or unreal. Mrs. Wynne Finch asked of Madame Mohl (French in everything but birth) permission to bring a friend. "My dear," said Madame Mohl, " if your friend is a man, bring him without thinking twice about it; but if she is a woman think well before you bring her, for of all the creatures God ever created, none does spoil society like an English lady."

But these inequalities relate chiefly to the exterior or objective side of the case. What are the personal qualities required in the good talker? In these days the Colossus of physical science bestrides us, and demands attention to its methods in every problem. Perhaps, therefore, I ought, logically, here to deal with physical conditions. A cheerful spirit is, in truth, a prime factor of good conversation; and it is probable that the condition, if not the secret, of happiness is largely physical. It certainly does not seem to be the assured reward of any system of philosophy or of morals. Much of the power of the cheerful inspiriting talker must therefore defy analysis. But all which is so much beyond human control, even in the shape of liverpills or black draughts, we may here leave alone, and turn rather to things of the mind.

Conversation of course demands knowledge, and to say it could never have been carried very far without books, is but to say it could not have flourished without a record of the best, and, it must be said, the worst, which men have done, thought, and imagined. For us, of course, it is impossible to imagine life without such a record. Society has been called "a strong solution of books." Science and letters agree in representations of life without literature as life in which, not conversation, but coarser pleasures played the chief part. What conversation would be possible amongst the degraded Australian savages, referred to by Darwin, who use very few abstract words, and cannot count above four? Even the early Greeks themselves preferred good living. Feasting with music is declared by Ulysses the "fairest thing in the world." Conversation and literature

have grown up together, and like the "love birds," we cannot have one without the other. No sustained conversation goes far without some aid from books, no witty conversation would be intelligible without knowledge of them. Miss Lydia White, a brilliant Irishwoman and a Tory, used to give famous parties in those days, at the beginning of this century, when the Whigs were for a generation or more in a hopeless minority. At one of these parties all the guests were Whigs, and they were complaining of the sorry plight of their party. "Yes," said Sydney Smith, "we are in a most desperate condition—we must do something to help ourselves; I think we had better sacrifice a Tory virgin." Lydia White at once caught and applied the allusion to Iphigenia. "I believe," said she, "there is nothing the Whigs would not do to raise the wind."

But civilised society is always in danger of reading too much and thinking too little. There are lots of men in the world who have read more than is good for them. Literary seed sown in the best ground may spring up and bring forth men of whom Erasmus or Goethe are the most famous types, men in whom culture has produced that almost irritating absence of dogmatism, which Mr. Matthew Arnold called "sweet reasonableness." Books too may aid in producing clear intellects, like John Stuart Mill, whose mind has been compared to a perfect and exact machine into which one put a question and out came the right answer. Books will aid still more in developing men with the marvellous and learned memory of a Macaulay. All these classes of men may be good talkers of their several kinds. But literary culture alas! may also produce men whose talk is learned, yet feeble, inconsequent, and, worse still, lacking in human interest. They are rather books than men. They have laid so many volumes on their heads that their brains will not move. Literary feebleness is worse because more artificial than natural feebleness. Terrible are they who, without capacity for using knowledge skilfully, deem it their duty to seem learned and clever in society. An Oxford professor, when staying at a country house, used to know how much he owed to himself and how much was expected from him at dinner; and so, as everyone was made to understand, he retired to his room an hour or two beforehand in order to read up and so prepare the feast of wit and learning. That professor is dead now, and it says much for human endurance that he is understood to have died a natural death. But, according to another professor-Professor Mahaffy, of Dublin-there was, or perhaps still is, another such social evil roaming among us-a college don, who carried his own peculiar Joe Miller in his pocket, and used to peep

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