Piece by Wilkie Collins from Household Words, 2 January 1858, vol.XVII, no.406, pp49-53
Introduction to the text.

" Familiar in their Mouths as HOUSEHOLD WORDS."---SHAKESPEARE

H O U S E H O L D   W O R D S.



No. 406]                                             SATURDAY, JANUARY 2, 1858.                                       {PRICE 2d.
     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 compari-
son, 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 ca-
prices, 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 conse-
quence, fails to enjoy the honour of my
     I had written thus far the day before yes-
terday, 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 por-
table ; 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 Ani-
mal 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 infor-
mation 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. Hand-
some, engaging, perfectly dressed, comfortably
rich, the one thing I want to complete me is
to be well-informed, without the inconveni-
ence 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 asto-
nish 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 mono-
logue, 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 invita-
tion 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

50   [January 2, 1858.]                               HOUSEHOLD WORDS                               [Conducted by
least afraid of this mass of intelligence. It
may be formidable enough on its own cus-
tomary 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, every-
thing, 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 in-
structed, and a very trustworthy person in
small matters) whispers to me, "Page thir-
teen, 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 com-
pany 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 sus-
pension 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 im-
mortal 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 man-
ner 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 pur-
pose 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 be-
coming 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 every-
body 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-table.
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?"

  Charles Dickens.]                                  HOUSEHOLD WORDS                            [January 2, 1858.]    51
" 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 Hors-
ford (you see I don't mind mentioning
names)---that Professor Horsford, by empty-
ing 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 miti-
gating 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 inno-
cently 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 poeti-
cal) 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 com-
pliments 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 expect-
ing 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 suc-
cessfully 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 exagge-
rating 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
one adventurous enough to stray from the eye
to the heart ? May I sacrifice all propriety
by wearing a violet waistcoat, the next time

52   [January 2, 1858.]                               HOUSEHOLD WORDS                               [Conducted by
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 mis-
giving, which troubles me at this very mo-
ment, 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 com-
plete bore. No such fear ever has, or ever
can, enter into my head. I have no objec-
tion whatever to being a bore. My expe-
rience 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 ima-
gined 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 enjoy-
ment 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 de-
bates 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 listen-
ing 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 indi-
vidual 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 de-
scribe. 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 distinguish-
ing themselves in society, as I propose to dis-
tinguish 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 arrange-
ment ? 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 din-
ner on that day, I call upon him publicly to
come forward, as I have publicly come for-
ward 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 inter-
fere with each other. We have a sure game
before us, if we only shuffle our cards pro-
perly. 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 occasion-
ally, with an apron round my loins, profusely
decorated with symbols of Things Not Gene-
rally Known---supposing that ceremony to be
essential, in our case (as it apparently is in
that of the Freemasons), to the strict preser-
vation 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-

  Charles Dickens.]                                  HOUSEHOLD WORDS                            [January 2, 1858.]    53
share and share alike. If we can do that,
and if we can only keep the rest of the pub-
lic out, we are sure of making out reputa-
tions, and sure of keeping our hold of society
as long as we please.

Piece by Wilkie Collins from Household Words, 2 January 1858, vol.XVII, no.406, pp49-53
Introduction to the text.