Dear Lord Chesterfield,
I was recently watching a splendid film called ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (centuries ahead of your time, I’m afraid, old boy) and couldn’t help but cringe upon the following scene involving how to (or how not to) give delicate compliments.
Mr. Collins (the creepy toad): It’s been many years since I had such an exemplary vegetable.
Mr. Bennet: How happy for you, Mr. Collins, to possess a talent for flattering with such . . . delicacy.
Elizabeth Bennet (the serpent-tongued yet lovely chit): Do these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are they the result of previous study?
Mr. Collins: They arise chiefly from what is passing of the time. And though I do sometimes amuse myself with arranging such little elegant compliments, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.
Elizabeth Bennet: Oh, believe me, no one would suspect your manners to be rehearsed.
I trust you can see how I would positively shudder at being considered a Mr. Collins. Please do advise.
Lost in Austen
Dear Lost in Austen:
You will easily discover every man’s prevailing vanity by observing his favourite topic of conversation; for every man talks most of what he has most a mind to be thought to excel in. Touch him there, and you touch him to the quick.
Do not mistake me, and think that I mean to recommend you to abject and criminal flattery: no; flatter nobody’s vices or crimes: on the contrary, abhor and discourage them. But there is no living in the world without a complaisant indulgence for people’s weaknesses, and innocent, though ridiculous vanities. If a man has a mind to be thought wiser, and a woman handsomer, than they really are, their error is a comfortable one to themselves, and an innocent one with regard to other people; and I would rather make them my friends by indulging them in it, than my enemies by endeavouring (and that to no purpose) to undeceive them.
There are little attentions, likewise, which are infinitely engaging, and which sensibly affect that degree of pride and self-love, which is inseperable from human nature; as they are unquestionable proofs of the regard and consideration which we have for the persons to whom we pay them. As for example: to observe the little habits, the likings, the antipathies, and the tastes of those whom we would gain; and then take care to provide them with the one, and to secure them from the other; giving them genteely to understand, that you had ovserved to like such a dish or such a room; for which reason you had prepared it: or, on the contrary having observed they had an aversion to such a dish, dislike to such a person, etc., you had taken care to avoid presenting them. Such attention to such trifles flatters self-love much more than greater things, as it makes people think themselves almost the only objects of your care and thoughts.
So why did Mr. Collins blunder? First he asked which cousin to compliment on such a fine meal (An insult. The Bennet’s were well-off enough to have a cook. Harrumph!) Then, he proceeds to compliment them on boiled potatoes, calling such a basic and ordinary food exemplary. Yikes! Hopefully none of you endured this sort of exchange over Christmas dinner.
Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for Lord Chesterfield on Domestic Affairs!
Missed the previous day? Lord Chesterfield on Friendship.