I KNOW how to read and write, and I have a pretty knack at ciphering, in all the branches of that useful art which overshadow the human mind on this side of Vulgar Fractions. As to any attainments, however, beyond these, I think I may safely say (having due consideration for my superior station in life) that I am, out of all comparison, the most ignorant man in this country. I attribute my want of information on every subject under the sun, to the unnecessary and vexatious difficulties which beset the acquisition of knowledge in all directions. Everything else that I want, I can get easily. My apartments (furnished, in an excellent neighbourhood), my little tasteful dinner, my gentlemanly clothing, my comfortable reserved seat at public amusements; my neat carriage, to take me out and bring me from home; my servant, who bears with my small caprices, and takes troubles of all kinds off my hands—these accessories, which revolve round the great fact of my existence, come obediently at my call whenever I want them, and dance attendance, in excellent time, to the faintest jingle of my silver and gold. But Knowledge, scrubby Knowledge, declines to be summoned at five minutes’ notice; scorns an invitation from me, even when I deliver it myself at the end of my purse; wants my time instead of my money, and my patience instead of my patronage; expects me to follow, where I am accustomed to lead; meets me, in short, on audaciously equal terms, and, as a natural and proper consequence, fails to enjoy the honour of my acquaintance.

I had written thus far the day before yesterday, turning my sentences, I think, very prettily, with a soothing use of metaphor and a pleasing crispness in my arrangement of words—I had written thus far, when my brother (a very useful unassuming man) brought me a present of a little book, which informed me, the moment I opened it, that Knowledge had, so to speak, come to its senses at last, and had learnt the necessity of offering itself on reasonably easy terms to all persons of distinction who might desire to possess it.

The book in question is called Things Not Generally Known. It is short; it is portable; it may be taken up one minute and put down the next; it presents abstruse information ready cut and dried into short paragraphs on all subjects—on Domestic Manners, and Life and Death; on the Animal Kingdom, and Church and State; on the Marvels of the Heavens, and the Dignities of the Earth. I am much obliged to my brother (a well-meaning man, but without ambition or talents for society) for giving me this book. I am much obliged to Mr. John Timbs, the industrious person who put it together. I intend to recommend him. Why should I not? He saves me the trouble of digging up my own information out of the mine of Knowledge, just as my tailor saves me the trouble of making my own clothes; just as my cook saves me the trouble of preparing my own dinner. He also assists me in realising the one aspiration which my prosperous position in the World has left me free to form. Handsome, engaging, perfectly dressed, comfortably rich, the one thing I want to complete me is to be well-informed, without the inconvenience of preliminary study. My solitary deficiency is now supplied on the most easy and reasonable terms. I can rush forthwith, by a short cut, into the reputation of a man of vast knowledge, and a talker of unlimited capacity. I can silence all men; I can astonish and captivate all women, Is this mere idle boasting? Certainly not. I have my inestimable pocket Manual of ready-made wisdom, to fit all minds; I have modest assurance, and an excellent memory; I have a brother who will make himself useful as a prompter, and who can be depended on to lead all up to my favourite subjects. What follows, as a matter of course, from these advantages to start with? Conversation which is, by the very nature of it, a monologue, because it bristles at all points with Things Not Generally Known.

I am candour itself: I desire to conceal nothing; and I warn society that I am going to begin covering myself with glory, as a, great talker and a mine of information, on Thursday week. I have a dinner invitation on that day, to meet a posse of clever people. It is to be followed by a soirée with more clever people. I am not in the least afraid of this mass of intelligence. It may be formidable enough on its own customary ground of Things Generally Known; but I shall turn it topsy-turvy, in no time, with Things Not Generally Known. I shall take to this festival my inestimable pocket Manual, my modest assurance, my excellent memory, and my brother. On Thursday week, there will be the most remarkable dinner-party in all England. The Indian Mutiny, the Panic, the Leviathan, the new Parliament, the very weather itself, everything, in short, which is generally known, will be blown away from every mouth the instant I open my lips, and sow my Things Not Generally Known, broad-cast, among the company and the dishes, from the first course to the dessert.

For instance, let us say the cover is off the fish—cod’s head and shoulders, I know by anticipation. My brother (previously instructed, and a very trustworthy person in small matters) whispers to me, "Page thirteen, Jack; the Age of the Globe." My host (an old-fashioned man, who asks everybody what they will have, instead of leaving it to the servants) says, "Fish, my dear fellow?" I shudder, and turn from him with horror. "Good Heavens, Simpson! do you take me for a cannibal? "Simpson stares; the company stare; everybody is puzzled but my useful brother, who is behind the scenes. The opportunity is mine—and I let off my first Thing Not Generally Known, with a loud report, thus:—

"Fish!" I exclaim. "You eat fish, after the discovery of the great Demaillet, whose thoughts on the age of the globe are in the hands of every schoolboy? Is it possible that nobody here remembers the passage in which it is stated distinctly that man was originally a fish? Nay more, my dear madam, there are still fish to be met with in the ocean, which are half-men, on their progress to the perfect human shape, and whose descendants will, in process of time—you understand me, in process of time—become men. Ah, you smile, sir," I proceed, stopping a man at the lower end of the table, who is asking under his breath, for news from India, and letting off my second Thing at the same time. "You smile? Well, well, I am not bigoted about Demaillet’s theory. I grant you there may be something in Woodward’s idea that the deluge was occasioned by a momentary suspension of cohesion among the particles of mineral bodies—nor am I prepared to deny (as who is?) that Oken—may I trouble you for the salt?—that Oken has perhaps solved the great deluge problem in those five immortal words, ‘All is done by Polarisation.’ Short, you will say, doctor—but how full of meaning, how very full of meaning!"

I offer this as a specimen of the neat manner in which a Thing, so generally known as a Cod’s Head, may be made, as it were, to fire a mine of recondite information in the midst of an astonished company, thanks to my pocket Manual and to the industrious person who has put it together. But, if need be, I can do without dishes, and can use the people who eat from them to serve my purpose instead. I take it that a nervous old lady, neatly dressed in stiff black silk, who was a great beauty in some past century, and who is now a wonderful woman for her age is a Thing generally known at family dinner-parties. Nothing is more graceful and becoming in a young and dashing gentleman than a little delicate conversational attention, on his part, offered to Venerable age in the presence of a mixed company; and nothing is more difficult than to hit on an appropriate topic where a man’s mind is unprovided with a proper store of Things Not Generally Known. In my case, no such obstacle as this can possibly exist. I can stick a fact with which nobody is familiar into the head of the typical old woman, with whom everybody is familiar, and can set it a-light for the public benefit at a moment’s notice. Say, we are just assembling round the dinner-tab1e. The venerable lady is slow in getting to her chair, and nervous about sitting down in it. Her daughter says, "Dear mama, don’t hurry." I instantly groan, shake my head, and fix my eyes on Mrs. Methuselah. My brother (perfectly invaluable where nothing but mere watchfulness is wanted) whispers, "Page fifteen, Jack-the three motions of the earth!"—and off I go with another Thing, like a race-horse from the starting-post.

"Did I hear your daughter, ma’am, beg you not to hurry? "I begin with a faint smile. "Excuse me, but of all the vain requests she could possibly have addressed to you, this is the most utterly futile. You are hurrying at this very moment, ma’am, at the rate of a hundred and fifty millions of miles a-year towards a particular point in the heavens, a star in the constellation Hercules. We—or, if you like, our Earth, which comes to the same thing—have three Motions. Two, generally known, round our own axis and round the sun. A third, not at all generally known, and recently discovered by great astronomers, with which I have just had the pleasure of making you acquainted. Don’t be alarmed, ma’am, the sun and all the planets are rushing in our direction, and at our rate, and it is my private opinion that when we do come into collision with that star in the constellation Hercules, we shall probably smash it, and go on again smoothly as if nothing had happened."

Shall we get back again to the dishes, just to show how easily I can garnish any of them with Things Not Generally Known, as I garnished the Cod’s Head? The dinner is nearly over. The cheese has appeared; and the salad is being handed round. "Page twenty-six," my brother whispers, as the servant approaches me with the verdant bowl.

"Salad, sir?" "Any oil in it?" "Yes, sir!" "Take it away directly, then. So long as sea-sickness continues to torture humanity, I cannot reconcile it to my conscience uselessly to consume even the small quantity of oil which adheres to the leaf of a lettuce."

General astonishment—general anxiety to know what I mean. Down comes another Thing, directly, shaken out of my bottomless bag of ready-made information.

"What produces sea-sickness?" I ask, leaning back in my chair, and putting one hand impressively into my waistcoat. "The rolling of the sea, and the consequent pitching and tossing of the vessel that floats on it. Still the sea, and you still the vessel. Still the vessel, and you still the human stomach. But, who is to still the sea? Pooh! pooh! give me a boat, a vial of oil, and a Professor to pour it out—and the thing is done. You doubt that do you? Ah, dear! dear! this is what comes of Things not being generally known. It is a fact, with which few persons, unhappily, are familiar, that Professor Horsford (you see I don’t mind mentioning names)—that Professor Horsford, by emptying a vial of oil upon the sea in a stiff breeze, stilled the surface. After that, don’t talk to me about sea-sickness, and don’t expect a man who loves his species, to eat salad, and to waste oil which might be used in mitigating human suffering. Give me a row of boats from Dover to Calais, and a row of Professors in them (well wrapped up, for such men are precious), each armed with his vial of oil. Professor Number One empties his bottle, the moment the steamer leaves the harbour; Professor Number Two, at a proper interval, follows his example—and so on, all through the row, over to Calais. What is the inevitable consequence? A stiff breeze becomes known, to all future ages, only as a Horsford calm—the privileges of continental travel are thrown open to the most uproarious stomach in existence—and the children of the next generation, when they see the verb To Retch in the English Dictionary, look up innocently into our faces, and say, with a smile, ‘Papa, what does it mean?’"

Will that do, for dinner? If it will, I am ready to proceed up stairs, to join the soirée and to go on inexhaustibly scattering my Things about me, in that new sphere of toil. Youth of the fair sex, which shuns the sober dinner-table, floats in with the evening gathering (I despise the man who can speak of a young lady and not be poetical) like the beams of the young moon; like the rays of the rising sun (I throw this sort of thing off very easily); like the flood of gorgeous light from a chemist’s window when the gas is lit; like the sparkles from a diamond ring; like the welcome glow from a lighthouse that brightens the bosom of the deep; like —well , well, the reader may be out of breath by this time, though I am not: let us therefore wind our way back through the labyrinth of comparisons to our original starting-point of female youth and beauty.

It (female youth and beauty) comes to the soirée with its mama and its nosegay, and its smile and its precious dress, and its plump shoulders, and its captivating freshness in the matter of Things Not Generally Known. It sits down and looks innocently interested about nothing in particular. It receives compliments from male youth and beauty; and blushes and beams, and flirts its nosegay, and rustles its precious dress, responsive. But what compliments! Not the smallest atom of useful information wrapped up in my one of them. Not so much as the shadow of rivalry for me to dread, when I enter the field with my soft speech and my Thing Not Generally Known—my oil and vinegar; my nonsense and my knowledge—so mixed up together that no human art can ever separate them again. I bide my time till the eye of female youth and beauty catches mine, and beams indulgent recognition—then turn to my brother and whisper, interrogatively, "Compliment to a pretty girl?" he answers, directly, "Page Forty One: Phenomena of Vision,"—and I slide off forthwith to the corner where the charming creature sits twiddling her nosegay and bashfully expecting me.

"I saw you looking sympathetically at your sister-flowers," I begin, in that soft, murmuring, mysterious tone of voice, which we ladies’ men so perpetually and so successfully use in all our communications with the fair sex; "and I longed to be one of them,—this scarlet geranium, for instance. Do you know why I envy that one little flower with all my heart?"

"Because I like to look at it, I suppose, you selfish man!" says the young lady, little suspecting that, under cover of this apparent nonsense, there lies artfully in wait for her a Thing Not Generally Known.

"No, "I answer," not because you look at it, —though that is much,—but because it has the happy, the priceless privilege of making your eyes undulate four hundred and eighty-two millions of times in a second. Todd—do you know him?—states it as a scientific fact that you must undulate all those millions of times—in one second (pray: don’t forget that) before you can perceive a scarlet tint. Why, ah why, am I not of a scarlet tint?—or, better still, of a violet tint? For, believe me, I am not exaggerating when I tell you (on the authority of Todd, whose Cyclopædia may be procured at any of the libraries) that those laughing eyes must undergo seven hundred and seven millions of millions of undulatory movements, if they look at a violet tint. Out of all those vibrations might there not be one little on adventurous enough to stray from the eye to the heart? May I sacrifice all propriety by wearing a violet waistcoat, the next time we meet, and will you reward me for that outrage on good manners by looking at it, for one second? Not for my sake and in my name—ah, no, I dare not ask that!--but for the sake of Science and in the name of Todd!"

After this specimen—a very slight one--of what I can do with a young lady at an evening party, it would be a mere waste of time to offer any proofs of my power of overwhelming elderly people of both sexes and of all degrees of capacity. I must have written vainly, indeed, if I have not made it manifest by this time that I can really and truly (densely ignorant as I am) carry out my intention of becoming a great talker, a most amusing man, and a mine of rare information, all together and all of a sudden, on Thursday week. Confident, however, as I feel on this point—thanks to my toilsome gentleman who has provided me with my Things—I must confess to one little misgiving, which troubles me at this very moment, and which I have no objection to communicate immediately.

Perhaps the intelligent reader thinks he can guess at my misgiving, without the slightest assistance from me. Perhaps he thinks that I am apprehensive, when I am quite prepared with my whole list of Things Not Generally Known, of becoming, not only a great talker, but also a finished and complete bore. No such fear ever has, or ever can, enter into my head. I have no objection whatever to being a bore. My experience of the world has shown me that, upon the whole, a bore gets on much better in it, and is much more respected and permanently popular, than what is called a clever man. A few restless people, with an un-English appetite for perpetual variety, have combined to set up the bore as a species of bugbear to frighten themselves, and have rashly imagined that the large majority of their fellow-creatures could see clearly enough to look at the formidable creature with their eyes. Never did any small minority make any greater mistake as to the real extent of its influence! English society has a placid enjoyment in being bored. If any man tells me that this is a paradox, I, in return, defy him to account, on any other theory, for three-fourths of the so-called recreations which are accepted as at once useful and amusing by the British nation. Why are people always ready to give, and to go to parties? Why do they throng to certain Lectures and to certain Plays? What takes them to public meetings, and to the Strangers’ Gallery in the House of Commons? Why are the debates reported in full in the newspapers? Why are people on certain social occasions, always ready to leave off talking together, for the sake of making speeches and listening to them? Why is it that the few critics always discover the dullness of heavy books, and that the many readers never seem to be able to find it out? What, in short, to put the whole question into one sentence, is the secret of the notoriety and success of half the public men and half the public and private entertainments in this country? I answer, the steady indwelling element of Boredom: firmly-settled, long-established, widely-accepted Boredom. Let no young man, with an eye to getting on in the world, rashly despise the Bore: he is the only individual in this country who is sure of his position and safe with his public.

What is it, then, that I am afraid of? Plainly and only this:—I am afraid of being forestalled in the Deep Design on Society, which I have just been endeavouring to describe. On the title-page of my inestimable pocket Manual, I find these formidable words, "Sixteenth thousand." Are there sixteen thousand ignorant people who have bought this book, with the fell purpose of distinguishing themselves in society, as I propose to distinguish myself? It seems fearfully probable that there are; and, in that case it is more than likely that we may, some of us, meet round the same festive board, and jostle each other in a manner dreadful to think of. Can we not, my sixteen thousand ignorant brothers and sisters, come to some arrangement? Shall we have a public meeting and divide the inestimable pocket Manual among us fairly? I must have my subjects for Thursday week—I must, indeed. If any one of the sixteen thousand is going out to dinner on that day, I call upon him publicly to come forward, as I have publicly come forward in this paper, for the purpose of stating plainly what house he is going to, and how many Things Not Generally Known he means to use, and which they are. If he will meet me fairly, I will meet him fairly; and, what is more, I will even lead up to his choice bits, and throw my brother in to prompt. All I want is that we should be a united body, and that we should not interfere with each other. We have a sure game before us, if we only shuffle our cards proper1y. Let us be organised like other societies. Why should we not take a leaf out of the Freemasons’ book? I, for one, don’t mind sacrificing my own exclusive tastes, and walking in procession occasionally, with an apron round my loins, profusely decorated with symbols of Things Not Generally Known—supposing that ceremony to be essential, in our case (as it apparently is in that of the Freemasons), to the strict preservation of a secret. Let us forthwith have a mystic sign by which we may communicate privately, in the broadest glare of the public eye. Let us swear each other sixteen thousand times over to secresy on the subject of the pocket Manual. In one last word—for I must come to an end somewhere, inexhaustibly as I could run on, if I pleased—let us in the name of everything that is fraternal and fair and gentlemanly, combine to enjoy the good-Things-Not-Generally-Known-of-this-world, share and share alike. If we can do that, and if we can only keep the rest of the public out, we are sure of making out reputations, and sure of keeping our hold of society as long as we please.

Taken from Household Words 2 January 1858 XVII 49-53

go back to e-text list

go back to Wilkie Collins front page

visit the Paul Lewis front page

All material on these pages is © Paul Lewis 1997-2006