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An essay by James Runciman


Title:     Friendship
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The memoirs that are now poured into the book-market certainly tend to breed cynicism in the minds of susceptible persons, for it appears that to many eminent men and women of our generation friendship was almost an unknown sentiment. As we read one spiteful paragraph after another, we begin to wonder whether the living men around us resemble the dead purveyors of scandal. The fashionable mode of proceeding nowadays is to leave diaries crammed with sarcasm, give some unhappy friend orders to wait until you are settled in the grave, and then confound your friends and foes by attacks which come to the light long after your ears are deaf to praise and blame. Samuel Wilberforce went into the choicest society that Britain could show; he was the confidant of many people, and he contrived to charm all but a few cross-grained critics. His good humour seemed inexhaustible; and those who saw his cherubic face beaming sweetly on the company at banquets or assemblies fancied that so delightful a man was never known before. But this suave, unctuous gentleman, who fascinated every one, from Queen to cottager, spent a pretty fair share of his life in writing vicious witticisms and scandals concerning the folk with whom he seemed to be on affectionate terms. At nights, after spending his days in working and bowing and smiling and winning the hearts of men, he went home and poured out all the venom that was in his heart. When his memoirs appeared, all the most select social circles in the country were driven into a serious flutter. No one was spared; and, as some of the statements made by Wilberforce were, to say the least, a little sweeping, a violent paper warfare began, which has hardly ceased raging even now. Happy and contented men who believed that the Bishop loved and admired them were surprised to find that he had disliked and despised them. Moreover, the naughty diarist had an ugly habit of recording men's private conversations; and thus a good many sayings which should have been kept secret became public property. A very irreverent wag wrote--

How blest was he who'd ne'er consent
With Wilberforce to walk,
Nor dined with Soapy Sam, nor let
The Bishop hear him talk!

and this crude epigram expressed the feelings of numbers of enraged and scandalized individuals. The wretched book gave us an ugly picture of a hollow society where kindness seemed non-existent, and where every man walked with his head in a cloud of poisonous flies. As more memoirs appeared, it was most funny to observe that, while Wilberforce was occupied in scarifying his dear friends, some of his dear friends were occupied in scarifying him. Thus we find Abraham Hayward, a polished leader of society, writing in the following way of Wilberforce, with whom ostensibly his relations were of the most affectionate description--"Wilberforce is really a low fellow. Again and again the committee of the Athenaeum Club have been obliged to reprove him for his vulgar selfishness." This is dreadful! No wonder that petty cynics snarl and rejoice; they say, "Look at your great men, and see what mean backbiters they are!" Alas!

Thomas Carlyle's memoirs are a kind of graveyard of reputations; and we can well understand the rage and horror with which many individuals protested against the fierce Scotchman's strictures. In the hearts of thousands of noble young people Carlyle's memory was cherished like that of some dear saint; and it was terrible to find that the strong prophet had been penetrated by such a virus of malice. Carlyle met all the best men and women in England; but the only ones whom he did not disparage were Tennyson, the Duke of Wellington, Mr. Froude, and Emerson. He could not talk even of Charles Darwin without calling him an imbecile; and his all-round hitting at his closest intimates is simply merciless. The same perversity which made him talk of Keats's "maudlin weak-eyed sensibility" caused him to describe his loyal, generous, high-bred friend Lord Houghton as a "nice little robin-redbreast of a man;" while Mrs. Basil Montagu, who cheered him and spared no pains to aid him in the darkest times, is now immortalized by one masterly venomous paragraph. Carlyle was great--very great--but really the cultivation of loyal friendships seems hardly to have been in his line. Men who know his works by heart, and who derived their noblest inspiration from him, cannot bear to read his memoirs twice over, for it sadly appears as though the Titan had defiled the very altar of friendship.

What shall we say of the cunning cat-like Charles Greville, who crept on tiptoe through the world, observing and recording the littleness of men? His stealthy eye missed nothing; and the men whom he flattered and used little thought that the wizened dandy who pleased them with his old-world courtesy was chronicling their weakness and baseness for all time. A nobly patriotic Ministry came before the world with a flourish of trumpets, and declared that England must fight Russia in defence of public law, freedom, and other holy things. But the wicked diarist had watched the secret proceedings of his dear friends; and he informs us that those beloved intimates were all sound asleep when a single Minister decided on the movement which cost us forty thousand men and one hundred millions of treasure. That close sly being used--to worm out the secrets of men's innermost hearts; and his impassive mask never showed a sign of emotion. To illustrate his mode of extracting the information of which he made such terrible use, I may tell one trivial anecdote which has never before been made public. When Greville was very old, he went to see a spiritualistic "medium" who was attracting fashionable London. The charlatan looked at the gray worn old man and thought himself safe; four other visitors attended the _seance_, but the "medium" bestowed all his attention on Greville. With much emotion he cried, "There is an aged lady behind your chair!" Greville remarked sweetly, "How interesting!" "She is very, very like you!" "Who can it be?" murmured Greville. "She lifts her hands to bless you. Her hands are now resting over your head!" shouted the medium; and the pallid emotionless man said, with a slight tremor in his voice, "Pray tell me who this mysterious visitant may be!" "It is your mother." "Oh," said Greville, "I am delighted to hear that!" "She says she is perfectly happy, and she watches you constantly." "Dear soul!" muttered the imperturbable one. "She tells me you will join her soon, and be happy with her." Then Greville said gravely, in dulcet tones, "That is extremely likely, for I am going to take tea with her at five o'clock!" He had led on the poor swindler in his usual fashion; and he never hinted at the fact that his mother was nearly a century old. His friends were "pumped" in the same subtle manner; and the immortally notorious memoirs are strewn with assassinated characters.

As we study the phenomena indicated by these memoirs, we begin to wonder whether friendship is or is not extinct. Men are gregarious, and flocks of them meet together at all hours of the day and night. They exchange conventional words of greeting, they wear happy smiles, they are apparently cordial and charming' one with another; and yet a rigidly accurate observer may look mournfully for signs of real friendship. How can it exist? The men and women who pass through the whirl of a London season cannot help regarding their fellow-creatures rather as lay figures than as human beings. They go to crowded balls and seething "receptions," not to hold any wise human converse, but only to be able to say that they were in such and such a room on a certain night. The glittering crowds fleet by like shadows, and no man has much chance of knowing his neighbour's heart.

How fast the flitting figures come--
The mild, the fierce, the stony face;
Some bright with thoughtless smiles, and some
Where secret tears have left their trace!

Ah, it is only the faces that the tired pleasure-seeker sees and knows; the real comrade, the human soul, is hidden away behind the mask!

Genuine heroic friendship cannot flourish in an artificial society; and that perhaps accounts for the fact that the curled darlings of our modern community spend much of their leisure in reading papers devoted to tattle and scandal. It seems as though the search after pleasure poisoned the very sources of nobleness in the nature of men. In our monstrous city a man may live without a quarrel for forty years; he may be popular, he may be received with genial greetings wherever he goes--and yet he has no friend. He lingers through his little day; and, when he passes away, the change is less heeded than would be the removal of a chair from a club smoking-room. When I see the callous indifference with which illness, misfortune, and death are regarded by the dainty classes, I can scarcely wonder when irate philosophers denounce polite society as a pestilent and demoralizing nuisance. Among the people airily and impudently called "the lower orders" noble friendships are by no means uncommon. "I can't bear that look on your face, Bill. I'm coming to save you or go with you!" said a rough sailor as he sprang into a raging sea to help his shipmate. "I'm coming, old fellow!" shouted the mate of a merchant-vessel; and he dived overboard among the mountainous seas that were rolling south of Cape Horn one January. For an hour this hero fought with the blinding water, and he saved his comrade at last. Strange to say, the lounging impassive dandies who regard the universe with a yawn, and who sneer at the very notion of friendship, develop the kindly and manly virtues when they are removed from the enervating atmosphere of Society and forced to lead a hard life. A man to whom emotion, passion, self-sacrifice, are things to be mentioned with a curl of the lip, departs on a campaign, and amid squalor, peril, and grim horrors he becomes totally unselfish. Men who have watched our splendid military officers in the field are apt to think that a society which converts such generous souls into self-seeking fribbles must be merely poisonous. The more we study the subject the more clearly we can see that where luxury flourishes friendship withers. In the vast suffering Russian nation friendships are at this very moment cherished to the heroic pitch. A mighty people are awakening, as it were, from sleep; the wicked and corrupt still sit in high places, but among the weltering masses of the populace purity and nobleness are spreading, and such friendships are fostered as never have been shadowed forth in story or song. Sophie Peroffsky mounts the scaffold with four other doomed mortals; she never thinks of her own approaching agony--she only longs to comfort her friends and she kisses them and greets them with cheering words until the last dread moment arrives. Poor little Marie Soubotine--sweetest of perverted children, noblest of rebels--refuses to purchase her own safety by uttering a word to betray her sworn friend. For three years she lingers on in an underground dungeon, and then she is sent on the wild road to Siberia; she dies amid gloom and deep suffering, but no torture can unseal her lips; she gladly gives her life to save another's. Antonoff endures the torture, but no agony can make him prove false to his friends. When his captors give him a respite from the thumbscrews and the red-hot wires that are thrust under his nails, he forgets his own torment, and scratches on his plate his cipher signals to his comrades. Those men and women in that awful country are lawless and dangerous, but they are heroic, and they are true friends one to another.

How far we proud islanders must have forsaken for a time the road to nobleness when we are able to exalt the saying "A full purse is the only true friend" into a representative English proverb! We do not rage and foam as Timon did--that would be ill-bred and ludicrous; we simply smile and utter delicate mockeries. In the plays that best please our golden youth nothing is so certain to win applause and laughter as a sentence about the treachery or greed of friends. Do those grinning, superlatively insolent cynics really represent the mighty Mother of Nations? Ah, no! If even the worst of them were thrust away into some region where life was hard for him, he would show something like nobility and manliness; it is the mephitic airs of ease and luxury that breed selfishness and scorn in his soul. At any rate, those effeminate people are not typical specimens of our steadfast friendly race. When the folk in the colliery village hear that deadly thud and feel the shudder of the earth which tell of disaster, Jack the hewer rushes to the pit's mouth and joins the search-party. He knows that the gas may grip him by the throat, and that the heavy current of dissolution may creep through his veins; but his mate is down there in the workings, and he must needs save him or die in the attempt. Greater love hath no man than this. Ah, yes--the poor collier is indeed ready to lay down his life for his friend! The fiery soldier, William Beresford, sees a comrade in peril; a horde of infuriated savages are rushing up, and there is only one pony to carry the two Englishmen. Beresford calls, "Jump up behind me!" but the friend answers, "No; save yourself! I can die, and I won't risk your life." Then the undignified but decidedly gallant Beresford observes, "If you don't come, I'll punch your head!" The pony canters heavily off; one stumble would mean death, but the dauntless fighting man brings in his friend safely, though only by the skin of his teeth. It is absolutely necessary for the saving of our moral health that we should turn away from the dreary flippancy of an effete society to such scenes as those. If we regarded only the pampered classes, then we might well think that true human fellowship had perished, and a starless darkness--worse almost than Atheism--would fall on the soul. But we are not all corrupt, and the strong brave heart of our people still beats true. Young men cherish manly affection for friends, and are not ashamed to show it; sweet girls form friendships that hold until the maidens become matrons and till the shining locks have turned to silver white. Wherever men are massed together the struggle for existence grows keen, and selfishness and cynicism thrust up their rank growths. "Pleasure" blunts the moral sense and converts the natural man into a noxious being; but happily our people are sound at the core, and it will be long ere cynicism and corruption are universal. The great healthy middle-class is made up of folk who would regard a writer of spiteful memoirs as a mere bravo; they have not perhaps the sweetness and light which Mr. Arnold wished to bestow on them, but at any rate they have a certain rough generosity, and they have also a share of that self-forgetfulness which alone forms the basis of friendship. Having that, they can do without Carlyle's learning and Wilberforce's polish, and they can certainly do without the sour malice of the historian and the prelate.

_July, 1887._

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Friendship