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An essay by Jerome K Jerome

Should We Say What We Think, Or Think What We Say?

Title:     Should We Say What We Think, Or Think What We Say?
Author: Jerome K Jerome [More Titles by Jerome]

A mad friend of mine will have it that the characteristic of the age is Make-Believe. He argues that all social intercourse is founded on make-believe. A servant enters to say that Mr. and Mrs. Bore are in the drawing-room.

"Oh, damn!" says the man.

"Hush!" says the woman. "Shut the door, Susan. How often am I to tell you never to leave the door open?"

The man creeps upstairs on tiptoe and shuts himself in his study. The woman does things before a looking-glass, waits till she feels she is sufficiently mistress of herself not to show her feelings, and then enters the drawing-room with outstretched hands and the look of one welcoming an angel's visit. She says how delighted she is to see the Bores--how good it was of them to come. Why did they not bring more Bores with them? Where is naughty Bore junior? Why does he never come to see her now? She will have to be really angry with him. And sweet little Flossie Bore? Too young to pay calls! Nonsense. An "At Home" day is not worth having where all the Bores are not.

The Bores, who had hoped that she was out--who have only called because the etiquette book told them that they must call at least four times in the season, explain how they have been trying and trying to come.

"This afternoon," recounts Mrs. Bore, "we were determined to come. 'John, dear,' I said this morning, 'I shall go and see dear Mrs. Bounder this afternoon, no matter what happens.'"

The idea conveyed is that the Prince of Wales, on calling at the Bores, was told that he could not come in. He might call again in the evening or come some other day.

That afternoon the Bores were going to enjoy themselves in their own way; they were going to see Mrs. Bounder.

"And how is Mr. Bounder?" demands Mrs. Bore.

Mrs. Bounder remains mute for a moment, straining her ears. She can hear him creeping past the door on his way downstairs. She hears the front door softly opened and closed-to. She wakes, as from a dream. She has been thinking of the sorrow that will fall on Bounder when he returns home later and learns what he has missed.

And thus it is, not only with the Bores and Bounders, but even with us who are not Bores or Bounders. Society in all ranks is founded on the make-believe that everybody is charming; that we are delighted to see everybody; that everybody is delighted to see us; that it is so good of everybody to come; that we are desolate at the thought that they really must go now.

Which would we rather do--stop and finish our cigar or hasten into the drawing-room to hear Miss Screecher sing? Can you ask us? We tumble over each other in our hurry. Miss Screecher would really rather not sing; but if we insist--We do insist. Miss Screecher, with pretty reluctance, consents. We are careful not to look at one another. We sit with our eyes fixed on the ceiling. Miss Screecher finishes, and rises.

"But it was so short," we say, so soon as we can be heard above the applause. Is Miss Screecher quite sure that was the whole of it? Or has she been playing tricks upon us, the naughty lady, defrauding us of a verse? Miss Screecher assures us that the fault is the composer's. But she knows another. At this hint, our faces lighten again with gladness. We clamour for more.

Our host's wine is always the most extraordinary we have ever tasted. No, not another glass; we dare not--doctor's orders, very strict. Our host's cigar! We did not know they made such cigars in this workaday world. No, we really could not smoke another. Well, if he will be so pressing, may we put it in our pocket? The truth is, we are not used to high smoking. Our hostess's coffee! Would she confide to us her secret? The baby! We hardly trust ourselves to speak. The usual baby--we have seen it. As a rule, to be candid, we never could detect much beauty in babies--have always held the usual gush about them to be insincere. But this baby! We are almost on the point of asking them where they got it. It is just the kind we wanted for ourselves. Little Janet's recitation: "A Visit to the Dentist!" Hitherto the amateur reciter has not appealed to us. But this is genius, surely. She ought to be trained for the stage. Her mother does not altogether approve of the stage. We plead for the stage--that it may not be deprived of such talent.

Every bride is beautiful. Every bride looks charming in a simple costume of--for further particulars see local papers. Every marriage is a cause for universal rejoicing. With our wine-glass in our hand we picture the ideal life we know to be in store for them. How can it be otherwise? She, the daughter of her mother. (Cheers.) He-- well, we all know him. (More cheers.) Also involuntary guffaw from ill-regulated young man at end of table, promptly suppressed.

We carry our make-believe even into our religion. We sit in church, and in voices swelling with pride, mention to the Almighty, at stated intervals, that we are miserable worms--that there is no good in us. This sort of thing, we gather, is expected of us; it does us no harm, and is supposed to please.

We make-believe that every woman is good, that every man is honest-- until they insist on forcing us, against our will, to observe that they are not. Then we become very angry with them, and explain to them that they, being sinners, are not folk fit to mix with us perfect people. Our grief, when our rich aunt dies, is hardly to be borne. Drapers make fortunes, helping us to express feebly our desolation. Our only consolation is that she has gone to a better world.

Everybody goes to a better world when they have got all they can out of this one.

We stand around the open grave and tell each other so. The clergyman is so assured of it that, to save time, they have written out the formula for him and had it printed in a little book. As a child it used to surprise me--this fact that everybody went to heaven. Thinking of all the people that had died, I pictured the place overcrowded. Almost I felt sorry for the Devil, nobody ever coming his way, so to speak. I saw him in imagination, a lonely old gentleman, sitting at his gate day after day, hoping against hope, muttering to himself maybe that it hardly seemed worth while, from his point of view, keeping the show open. An old nurse whom I once took into my confidence was sure, if I continued talking in this sort of way, that he would get me anyhow. I must have been an evil- hearted youngster. The thought of how he would welcome me, the only human being that he had seen for years, had a certain fascination for me; for once in my existence I should be made a fuss about.

At every public meeting the chief speaker is always "a jolly good fellow." The man from Mars, reading our newspapers, would be convinced that every Member of Parliament was a jovial, kindly, high- hearted, generous-souled saint, with just sufficient humanity in him to prevent the angels from carrying him off bodily. Do not the entire audience, moved by one common impulse, declare him three times running, and in stentorian voice, to be this "jolly good fellow"? So say all of them. We have always listened with the most intense pleasure to the brilliant speech of our friend who has just sat down. When you thought we were yawning, we were drinking in his eloquence, open-mouthed.

The higher one ascends in the social scale, the wider becomes this necessary base of make-believe. When anything sad happens to a very big person, the lesser people round about him hardly care to go on living. Seeing that the world is somewhat overstocked with persons of importance, and that something or another generally is happening to them, one wonders sometimes how it is the world continues to exist.

Once upon a time there occurred an illness to a certain good and great man. I read in my daily paper that the whole nation was plunged in grief. People dining in public restaurants, on being told the news by the waiter, dropped their heads upon the table and sobbed. Strangers, meeting in the street, flung their arms about one another and cried like little children. I was abroad at the time, but on the point of returning home. I almost felt ashamed to go. I looked at myself in the glass, and was shocked at my own appearance: it was that of a man who had not been in trouble for weeks. I felt that to burst upon this grief-stricken nation with a countenance such as mine would be to add to their sorrow. It was borne in upon me that I must have a shallow, egotistical nature. I had had luck with a play in America, and for the life of me I could not look grief- stricken. There were moments when, if I was not keeping a watch over myself, I found myself whistling.

Had it been possible I would have remained abroad till some stroke of ill-fortune had rendered me more in tune with my fellow-countrymen. But business was pressing. The first man I talked to on Dover pier was a Customs House official. You might have thought sorrow would have made him indifferent to a mere matter of forty-eight cigars. Instead of which, he appeared quite pleased when he found them. He demanded three-and-fourpence, and chuckled when he got it. On Dover platform a little girl laughed because a lady dropped a handbox on a dog; but then children are always callous--or, perhaps, she had not heard the news.

What astonished me most, however, was to find in the railway carriage a respectable looking man reading a comic journal. True, he did not laugh much: he had got decency enough for that; but what was a grief-stricken citizen doing with a comic journal, anyhow? Before I had been in London an hour I had come to the conclusion that we English must be a people of wonderful self-control. The day before, according to the newspapers, the whole country was in serious danger of pining away and dying of a broken heart. In one day the nation had pulled itself together. "We have cried all day," they had said to themselves, "we have cried all night. It does not seem to have done much good. Now let us once again take up the burden of life." Some of them--I noticed it in the hotel dining-room that evening-- were taking quite kindly to their food again.

We make believe about quite serious things. In war, each country's soldiers are always the most courageous in the world. The other country's soldiers are always treacherous and tricky; that is why they sometimes win. Literature is the art of make-believe.

"Now all of you sit round and throw your pennies in the cap," says the author, "and I will pretend that there lives in Bayswater a young lady named Angelina, who is the most beautiful young lady that ever existed. And in Notting Hill, we will pretend, there resides a young man named Edwin, who is in love with Angelina."

And then, there being sufficient pennies in the cap, the author starts away, and pretends that Angelina thought this and said that, and that Edwin did all sorts of wonderful things. We know he is making it all up as he goes along. We know he is making up just what he thinks will please us. He, on the other hand, has to make-believe that he is doing it because he cannot help it, he being an artist. But we know well enough that, were we to stop throwing the pennies into the cap, he would find out precious soon that he could.

The theatrical manager bangs his drum.

"Walk up! walk up!" he cries, "we are going to pretend that Mrs. Johnson is a princess, and old man Johnson is going to pretend to be a pirate. Walk up, walk up, and be in time!"

So Mrs. Johnson, pretending to be a princess, comes out of a wobbly thing that we agree to pretend is a castle; and old man Johnson, pretending to be a pirate, is pushed up and down on another wobbly thing that we agree to pretend is the ocean. Mrs. Johnson pretends to be in love with him, which we know she is not. And Johnson pretends to be a very terrible person; and Mrs. Johnson pretends, till eleven o'clock, to believe it. And we pay prices, varying from a shilling to half-a-sovereign, to sit for two hours and listen to them.

But as I explained at the beginning, my friend is a mad sort of person.

[The end]
Jerome K Jerome's essay: Should We Say What We Think, Or Think What We Say?