"On Manner" 1
It was the opinion of Lord Chesterfield, that manner is of more importance than matter. This opinion seems at least to be warranted by the practice of the world; nor do we think it so entirely without foundation as some persons of more solid than showy pretensions would make us believe. In the remarks which we are going to make, we can scarcely hope to have any party very warmly on our side; for the most superficial coxcomb would be thought to owe his success to sterling merit.
What any person says or does is one thing; the mode in which he says or does it is another. The last of these is what we understand by manner. In other words, manner is the involuntary or incidental expression given to our thoughts and sentiments by looks, tones, and gestures. Now, we are inclined in many cases to prefer this latter mode of judging of what passes in the mind to more positive and formal proof, were it for no other reason than that it is involuntary. ‘Look,’ says Lord Chesterfield, ‘in the face of the person to whom you are speaking, if you wish to know his real sentiments; for he can command his words more easily than his countenance.’ We may perform certain actions from design, or repeat certain professions by rote: the manner of doing either will in general be the best test of our sincerity. The mode of conferring a favour is often thought of more value than the favour itself. The actual obligation may spring from a variety of questionable motives, vanity, affectation, or interest: the cordiality with which the person from whom you have received it asks you how you do, or shakes you by the hand, does not admit of misinterpretation. The manner of doing any thing, is that which marks the degree and force of our internal impressions; it emanates most directly from our immediate or habitual feelings; it is that which stamps its life and character on any action; the rest may be performed by an automaton. What is it that makes the difference between the best and the worst actor, but the manner of going through the same part? The one has a perfect idea of the degree and force with which certain feelings operate in nature, and the other has no idea at all of the workings of passion. There would be no difference between the worst actor in the world and the best, placed in real circumstances, and under the influence of real passion. A writer may express the thoughts he has borrowed from another, but not with the same force, unless he enters into the true spirit of them. Otherwise he will resemble a person reading what he does not understand, whom you immediately detect by his wrong emphasis. His illustrations will be literally exact, but misplaced and awkward; he will not gradually warm with his subject, nor feel the force of what he says, nor produce the same effect on his readers. An author’s style is not less a criterion of his understanding than his sentiments. The same story told by two different persons shall, from the difference of the manner, either set the table in a roar, or not relax a feature in the whole company. We sometimes complain (perhaps rather unfairly) that particular persons possess more vivacity than wit. But we ought to take into the account, that their very vivacity arises from their enjoying the joke; and their humouring a story by drollery of gesture or archness of look, shews only that they are acquainted with the different ways in which the sense of the ludicrous expresses itself. It is not the mere dry jest, but the relish which the person himself has of it, with which we sympathise. For in all that tends to pleasure and excitement, the capacity for enjoyment is the principal point. One of the most pleasant and least tiresome persons of our acquaintance is a humourist, who has three or four quaint witticisms and proverbial phrases, which he always repeats over and over; but he does this with just the same vivacity and freshness as ever, so that you feel the same amusement with less effort than if he had startled his hearers with a succession of original conceits. Another friend of ours, who never fails to give vent to one or two real jeu-d’esprits every time you meet him, from the pain with which he is delivered of them, and the uneasiness he seems to suffer all the rest of the time, makes a much more interesting than comfortable companion. If you see a person in pain for himself, it naturally puts you in pain for him. The art of pleasing consists in being pleased. To be amiable is to be satisfied with one’s self and others. Good-humour is essential to pleasantry. It is this circumstance, among others, that renders the wit of Rabelais so much more delightful than that of Swift, who, with all his satire, is ‘as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage.’ In society, good-temper and animal spirits are nearly everything. They are of more importance than sallies of wit, or refinements of understanding. They give a general tone of cheerfulness and satisfaction to the company. The French have the advantage over us in external manners. They breathe a lighter air, and have a brisker circulation of the blood. They receive and communicate their impressions more freely. The interchange of ideas costs them less. Their constitutional gaiety is a kind of natural intoxication, which does not require any other stimulus. The English are not so well off in this respect; and Falstaff’s commendation on sack was evidently intended for his countrymen,—whose ‘learning is often a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till wine commences it, and sets it in act and use.’ More undertakings fail for want of spirit than for want of sense. Confidence gives a fool the advantage over a wise man. In general, a strong passion for any object will ensure success, for the desire of the end will point out the means. We apprehend that people usually complain, without reason, of not succeeding in various pursuits according to their deserts. Such persons, we will grant, may have great merit in all other respects; but in that in which they fail, it will almost invariably hold true, that they do not deserve to succeed. For instance, a person who has spent his life in thinking will acquire a habit of reflection; but he will neither become a dancer nor a singer, rich nor beautiful. In like manner, if any one complains of not succeeding in affairs of gallantry, we will venture to say, it is because he is not gallant. He has mistaken his talent—that’s all. If any person of exquisite sensibility makes love awkwardly, it is because he does not feel it as he should. One of these disappointed sentimentalists may very probably feel it upon reflection, may brood over it till he has worked himself up to a pitch of frenzy, and write his mistress the finest love-letters in the world, in her absence; but, be assured, he does not feel an atom of this passion in her presence. If, in paying her a compliment, he frowns with more than usual severity, or, in presenting her with a bunch of flowers, seems as if he was going to turn his back upon her, he can only expect to be laughed at for his pains; nor can he plead an excess of feeling as an excuse for want of common sense. She may say, ‘It is not with me you are in love, but with the ridiculous chimeras of your own brain. You are thinking of Sophia Western, or some other heroine, and not of me. Go and make love to your romances.’
Lord Chesterfield’s character of the Duke of Marlborough is a good illustration of his general theory. He says, ‘Of all the men I ever knew in my life, (and I knew him extremely well), the late Duke of Marlborough possessed the graces in the highest degree, not to say engrossed them; for I will venture (contrary to the custom of profound historians, who always assign deep causes for great events) to ascribe the better half of the Duke of Marlborough’s greatness and riches to those graces. He was eminently illiterate; wrote bad English, and spelt it worse. He had no share of what is commonly called parts; that is, no brightness, nothing shining in his genius. He had most undoubtedly an excellent good plain understanding with sound judgment. But these alone would probably have raised him but something higher than they found him, which was page to King James II.‘s Queen. There the Graces protected and promoted him; for while he was Ensign of the Guards, the Duchess of Cleveland, then favourite mistress of Charles II., struck by these very graces, gave him £5000, with which he immediately bought an annuity of £500 a year, which was the foundation of his subsequent fortune. His figure was beautiful, but his manner was irresistible by either man or woman. It was by this engaging, graceful manner, that he was enabled, during all his wars, to connect the various and jarring powers of the grand alliance, and to carry them on to the main object of the war, notwithstanding their private and separate views, jealousies, and wrongheadedness. Whatever court he went to (and he was often obliged to go himself to some resty and refractory ones), he as constantly prevailed, and brought them into his measures.’
Grace in women has more effect than beauty. We sometimes see a certain fine self-possession, an habitual voluptuousness of character, which reposes on its own sensations, and derives pleasure from all around it, that is more irresistible than any other attraction. There is an air of languid enjoyment in such persons, ‘in their eyes, in their arms, and their hands, and their faces,’ which robs us of ourselves, and draws us by a secret sympathy towards them. Their minds are a shrine where pleasure reposes. Their smile diffuses a sensation like the breath of spring. Petrarch’s description of Laura answers exactly to this character, which is indeed the Italian character. Titian’s portraits are full of it: they seem sustained by sentiment, or as if the persons whom he painted sat to music. There is one in the Louvre (or there was) which had the most of this expression we ever remember. It did not look downward; ‘it looked forward, beyond this world.’ It was a look that never passed away, but remained unalterable as the deep sentiment which gave birth to it. It is the same constitutional character (together with infinite activity of mind) which has enabled the greatest man in modern history to bear his reverses of fortune with gay magnanimity, and to submit to the loss of the empire of the world with as little discomposure as if he had been playing a game at chess.
Grace has been defined as the outward expression of the inward harmony of the soul. Foreigners have more of this than the English,—particularly the people of the southern and eastern countries. Their motions appear (like the expression of their countenances) to have a more immediate communication with their feelings. The inhabitants of the northern climates, compared with these children of the sun, are like hard inanimate machines, with difficulty set in motion. A strolling gipsy will offer to tell your fortune with a grace and an insinuation of address that would be admired in a court. The Hindoos that we see about the streets are another example of this. They are a different race of people from ourselves. They wander about in a luxurious dream. They are like part of a glittering procession,—like revellers in some gay carnival. Their life is a dance, a measure; they hardly seem to tread the earth, but are borne along in some more genial element, and bask in the radiance of brighter suns. We may understand this difference of climate by recollecting the difference of our own sensations at different times, in the fine glow of summer, or when we are pinched and dried up by a northeast wind. Even the foolish Chinese, who go about twirling their fans and their windmills, shew the same delight in them as the children they collect around them. The people of the East make it their business to sit and think and do nothing. They indulge in endless reverie; for the incapacity of enjoyment does not impose on them the necessity of action. There is a striking example of this passion for castle-building in the story of the glass-man in the Arabian Nights.
After all, we would not be understood to say that manner is every thing. Nor would we put Euclid or Sir Isaac Newton on a level with the first petit-maître we might happen to meet. We consider Æsop’s Fables to have been a greater work of genius than Fontaine’s translation of them; though we doubt whether we should not prefer Fontaine, for his style only, to Gay, who has shewn a great deal of original invention. The elegant manners of people of fashion have been objected to us to shew the frivolity of external accomplishments, and the facility with which they are acquired. As to the last point, we demur. There is no class of people who lead so laborious a life, or who take more pains to cultivate their minds as well as persons, than people of fashion. A young lady of quality, who has to devote so many hours a day to music, so many to dancing, so many to drawing, so many to French, Italian, etc., certainly does not pass her time in idleness; and these accomplishments are afterwards called into action by every kind of external or mental stimulus, by the excitements of pleasure, vanity, and interest. A Ministerial or Opposition lord goes through more drudgery than half a dozen literary hacks; nor does a reviewer by profession read half the same number of productions as a modern fine lady is obliged to labour through. We confess, however, we are not competent judges of the degree of elegance or refinement implied in the general tone of fashionable manners. The successful experiment made by Peregrine Pickle, in introducing his strolling mistress into genteel company, does not redound greatly to their credit. In point of elegance of external appearance, we see no difference between women of fashion and women of a different character, who dress in the same style.
1 Hazlitt's "On Manner" was one of the essays picked to go into his first book, The Round Table (1815-17); it appeared on Aug. 27th & Sep. 3rd, 1815.