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An essay by Charles Lever

A Grumble

Title:     A Grumble
Author: Charles Lever [More Titles by Lever]

I wonder is the world as pleasant as it used to be? Not to myself, of course--I neither ask nor expect it; but I mean to those who are in the same position to enjoy it as I was--years ago. I am delicate about the figures, for Mrs O'D. occasionally reads these sketches, and might feel a wifelike antipathy to a record of this nature. I repeat--I wonder is life as good fun as it was when I made my first acquaintance with it? My impression is that it is not. I do not presume to say that all the same elements are not as abundant as heretofore. There are young people, and witty people, and, better, there are beautiful people, in abundance. There are great houses as of yore, maintained, perhaps, with even more than bygone splendour: the horses are as good--the dogs as good--the trout-streams as well stocked--the grouse as abundant--foreign travel is more easy--all travel is more facile--there are more books and more illustrated newspapers; and yet, with all these advantages--very tangible advantages too--I do not think the present occupants make the house as pleasant as their fathers did, and for the very simple reason, that they never try.

Indifferentism is the tone of the day. No one must be eager, pleased, displeased, interested, or anxious about anything. Life is to be treated as a tiresome sort of thing, but which is far too much beneath one to be thought of seriously--a wearisome performance, which good manners require you should sit out, though nothing obliges you to applaud or even approve of it. This is the theory, and we have been most successful in reducing it to practice. We are immensely bored, and we take good care so shall be our neighbour. Just as we have voted that there is nothing new, nothing strange, nothing amusing, we defy any one to differ with us, on pain of pronouncing him vulgar. North American Indians are not more case-hardened against any show of suffering under torture than are our well-bred people against any manifestation of showing pleasure in anything. "It wasn't bad," is about the highest expression of our praise; and I doubt if we would accord more to heaven--if we got there. The grand test of your modern Englishman is, to bear any amount of amusement without wincing: no pleasure is to wring a smile from him, nor is any expectancy to interest, or any unlooked-for event to astonish. He would admit that "the Governor"--meaning his father--was surprised; he would concede the fact, as recording some prejudice of a bygone age. As the tone of manners and observance has grown universal, so has the very expression of the features. They are intensely like each other. We are told that a shepherd will know the actual faces of all the sheep in his flock, distinguishing each from each at a glance. I am curious to know if the Bishop of London knows even the few lost sheep that browse about Rotten Eow of an afternoon, and who are so familiar to us in Leech's sketches. There they are--whiskered, bearded, and bored; fine-looking animals in their way, but just as much living creatures in 'Punch' as they are yonder. It is said that they only want the stimulus of a necessity, something of daring to tempt, or something of difficulty to provoke them, to be just as bold and energetic as ever their fathers were. I don't deny it. I am only complaining of the system which makes sheep of them, reduces life to a dreary table-land, making the stupid fellows the standard, and coming down to their level for the sake of uniformity. Formerly they who had more wit, more smartness, more worldly knowledge than their neighbours, enjoyed a certain pre-eminence; the flash of their agreeability lighted up the group they talked in, and they were valued and sought after. Now the very homage rendered, even in this small way, was at least a testimony that superiority was recognised and its claims admitted. What is the case now? Apathy is excellence, and the nearest approach to insensibility is the greatest eminence attainable.

In the Regency, when George IV. was Prince, the clever talkers certainly abounded; and men talk well or ill exactly as there is a demand for the article. The wittiest conversationalist that ever existed would be powerless in a circle of these modern "Unsurprised ones." Their vacant self-possession would put down all the Grattans and Currans and Jeffreys and Sydney Smiths in the world. I defy the most brilliant, the readiest, the most genial of talkers to vivify the mass of inert dulness he will find now at every dinner and in every drawing-room.

The code of modern manners is to make ease the first of all objects; and, in order that the stupidest man may be at his ease, the ablest is to be sacrificed. He who could bring vast stores of agreeability to the common stock must not show his wares, because there are a store of incapables who have nothing for the market.

They have a saying in Donegal, that "the water is so strong it requires two whiskies;" but I would ask what amount of "spirits" would enliven this dreariness; what infusion of pleasantry would make Brown and Jones endurable when multiplied by what algebraists call an _x_--an unknown quantity--of other Browns and Joneses?

We are constantly calling attention to the fact of the influence exerted over morals and manners in France by the prevailing tone of the lighter literature, and we mark the increasing licentiousness that has followed such works as those of Eugene Sue and the younger Dumas. Let us not forget to look at home, and see if, in the days when the Waverleys constituted almost all our lighter reading, the tone of society was not higher, the spirit more heroic, the current of thought and expression purer, than in these realistic days, when we turn for amusement to descriptions of every quaint vulgarity that makes up the life of the boarding-house or the strolling theatre.

The glorious heroism of Scott's novels was a fine stream to turn into the turbid river of our worldliness and money-seeking. It was of incalculable benefit to give men even a passing glance of noble devotion, high-hearted courage, and unsullied purity.

I can remember the time when, as freshmen in our first year, we went about talking to each other of 'Ivanhoe' and 'Kenilworth;' and I can remember, too, when the glorious spirit of those novels had so possessed us, that our romance elevated and warmed us to an unconscious imitation of the noble thoughts and deeds we had been reading.

Smile if you like at our boyish enthusiasm, it was better than the mocking spirit engendered by all this realism, or the insensate craving after stimulus taught by sensation novels.

Now, I am not old enough to remember the great talkers of the time when George III. was King, or those who made Carlton House famous; but I belonged to a generation where these men were remembered, and where it was common enough to hear stories of their Attic nights, those _noctes caenaeque deorum_ which really in brilliancy must have far transcended anything that Europe could boast of conversational power. The youth of the time I speak of were full of these traditions. "If I am not the rose, I grew near one," was no foolish boast; and certainly there was both in the tone of conversation and the temper of society a sentiment that showed how the great men had influenced their age, and how, even after their sun had gone down, a warm tint remained to remind the world of the glorious splendour that had departed.

Being an Irishman, it is to Ireland I must go for my illustration, and it is my pride to remember that I have seen some of those who were, in an age of no common convivial excellence, amongst the first and the greatest. They are gone, and I may speak of them by name--Lord Plunkett, the Chief-Justice Bushe, Mr Casey, Sir Philip Crampton, Barre Beresford--I need not go on. I have but to recall the leading men at the bar, to make up a list of the most brilliant talkers that ever delighted society. Nor was the soil exhausted with these; there came, so to say, a second crop--a younger order of men--less versed in affairs, it is true, less imbued with that vigorous conviviality that prevailed in their fathers' days--but of these I must not speak, for they have now grown up to great dignities and stations, they have risen to eminence and honour and repute, and might possibly be ashamed if it were known that they were once so agreeable. Let me, however, record one who is no more, but who possessed the charm of companionship to a degree I never knew equalled in all my varied experiences of life,--one who could bring the stores of a well-stocked mind, rich in scholarship, to bear upon any passing incident, blended with the fascination of a manner that was irresistible. Highly imaginative, and with a power of expression that was positively marvellous, he gave to ordinary conversation an elevation that actually conferred honour on those who were associated with it; and high above all these gifts and graces, a noble nature, generous, hopeful, and confiding. With an intellect that challenged any rivalry, he had, in all that touched worldly matters, the simplicity of a child. To my countrymen it is needless I should tell of whom I speak; to others, I say his name was Mortimer O'Sullivan. The mellow cadence of his winning voice, the beam of his honest eye, the generous smile that never knew scorn, are all before me as I write, and I will write no more.

[The end]
Charles Lever's essay: Grumble