I remember that when, with all the awkwardness and rust of Cambridge about me, I was first introduced into good company, I was frightened out of my wits. I was determined to be, what I thought, civil; I made fine low bows, and placed myself below everybody; but when I was spoken to, or attempted to speak myself, 'obstupui, steteruntque comae, et vox faucibus haesit'. If I saw people whisper, I was sure it was at me; and I thought myself the sole object of either the ridicule or the censure of the whole company, who, God knows, did not trouble their heads about me. In this way I suffered, for some time, like a criminal at the bar; and should certainly have renounced all polite company forever, if I had not been so convinced of the absolute necessity of forming my manners upon those of the best companies, that I determined to persevere and suffer anything, or everything, rather than not compass that point. Insensibly it grew easier to me; and I began not to bow so ridiculously low, and to answer questions without great hesitation or stammering: if, now and then, some charitable people, seeing my embarrassment, and being 'desoevre' themselves, came and spoke to me, I considered them as angels sent to comfort me, and that gave me a little courage. I got more soon afterward, and was intrepid enough to go up to a fine woman, and tell her that I thought it a warm day; she answered me, very civilly, that she thought so too; upon which the conversation ceased, on my part, for some time, till she, good-naturedly resuming it, spoke to me thus: "I see your embarrassment, and I am sure that the few words you said to me cost you a great deal; but do not be discouraged for that reason, and avoid good company. We see that you desire to please, and that is the main point; you want only the manner, and you think that you want it still more than you do. You must go through your noviciate before you can profess good- breeding: and, if you will be my novice, I will present you my acquaintance as such."
You will easily imagine how much this speech pleased me, and how awkwardly I answered it; I hemmed once or twice (for it gave me a bur in my throat) before I could tell her that I was very much obliged to her; that it was true, that I had a great deal of reason to distrust my own behavior, not being used to fine company; and that I should be proud of being her novice, and receiving her instructions.
As soon as I had fumbled out this answer, she called up three or four people to her, and said: Savez-vous (for she was a foreigner, and I was abroad) que j'ai entrepris ce jeune homme, et qu'il le faut rassurer? Pour moi, je crois en avoir fait---- [Do you know that I have undertaken this young man, and he must be encouraged? As for me, I think I have made a conquest of him; for he just now ventured to tell me, although tremblingly, that it is warm. You will assist me in polishing him. He must necessarily have a passion for somebody; if he does not think me worthy of being the object, he will seek out some other. However, my novice, do not disgrace yourself by frequenting opera girls and actresses; who will not require of you sentiments and politeness, but will be your ruin in every respect. I repeat it to you, my, friend, if you should get into low, mean company, you will be undone. Those creatures will destroy your fortune and your health, corrupt your morals, and you will never acquire the style of good company.]
The company laughed at this lecture, and I was stunned with it. I did not know whether she was serious or in jest. By turns I was pleased, ashamed, encouraged, and dejected. But when I found afterward, that both she, and those to whom she had presented me, countenanced and protected me in company, I gradually got more assurance, and began not to be ashamed of endeavoring to be civil. I copied the best masters, at first servilely, afterward more freely, and at last I joined habit and invention.
All this will happen to you, if you persevere in the desire of pleasing and shining as a man of the world; that part of your character is the only one about which I have at present the least doubt. I cannot entertain the least suspicion of your moral character; your learned character is out of question. Your polite character is now the only remaining object that gives me the least anxiety; and you are now in the right way of finishing it. Your constant collision with good company will, of course, smooth and polish you. I could wish that you would say, to the five or six men or women with whom you are the most acquainted, that you are sensible that, from youth and inexperience, you must make many mistakes in good-breeding; that you beg of them to correct you, without reserve, wherever they see you fail; and that you shall take such admonition as the strongest proofs of their friendship. Such a confession and application will be very engaging to those to whom you make them. They will tell others of them, who will be pleased with that disposition, and, in a friendly manner, tell you of any little slip or error. The Duke de Nivernois --[ At that time Ambassador from the Court of France to Rome.]-- would, I am sure, be charmed, if you dropped such a thing to him; adding, that you loved to address yourself always to the best masters. Observe also the different modes of good-breeding of several nations, and conform yourself to them respectively. Use an easy civility with the French, more ceremony with the Italians, and still more with the Germans; but let it be without embarrassment and with ease. Bring it by use to be habitual to you; for, if it seems unwilling and forced; it will never please. 'Omnis Aristippum decuit color, et res'. Acquire an easiness and versatility of manners, as well as of mind; and, like the chameleon, take the hue of the company you are with.
There is a sort of veteran women of condition, who having lived always in the 'grande monde', and having possibly had some gallantries, together with the experience of five-and-twenty, or thirty years, form a young fellow better than all the rules that can be given him. These women, being past their bloom, are extremely flattered by the least attention from a young fellow; and they will point out to him those manners and ATTENTIONS that pleased and engaged them, when they were in the pride of their youth and beauty. Wherever you go, make some of those women your friends; which a very little matter will do. Ask their advice, tell them your doubts or difficulties as to your behavior; but take great care not to drop one word of their experience; for experience implies age; and the suspicion of age, no woman, let her be ever so old, ever forgives. I long for your picture, which Mr. Harte tells me is now drawing. I want to see your countenance, your air, and even your dress; the better they all three are, the better I am not wise enough to despise any one of them. Your dress, at least, is in your own power, and I hope that you mind it to a proper degree. Yours, Adieu.
LONDON, January 18, O. S. 1750
MY DEAR FRIEND: I consider the solid part of your little edifice as so near being finished and completed, that my only remaining care is about the embellishments; and that must now be your principal care too. Adorn yourself with all those graces and accomplishments, which, without solidity, are frivolous; but without which solidity is, to a great degree, useless. Take one man, with a very moderate degree of knowledge, but with a pleasing figure, a prepossessing address, graceful in all that he says and does, polite, 'liant', and, in short, adorned with all the lesser talents: and take another man, with sound sense and profound knowledge, but without the above-mentioned advantages; the former will not only get the better of the latter, in every pursuit of every KIND, but in truth there will be no sort of competition between them. But can every man acquire these advantages? I say, Yes, if he please, suppose he is in a situation and in circumstances to frequent good company. Attention, observation, and imitation, will most infallibly do it.
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