Tea Table Talk

Author: Jerome K. Jerome

Chapter II

"What woman suffers from," said the Philosopher, "is over-praise. It has turned her head."

"You admit, then, that she has a head?" demanded the Girton Girl.

"It has always been a theory of mine," returned the Philosopher, "that by Nature she was intended to possess one. It is her admirers who have always represented her as brainless."

"Why is it that the brainy girl invariably has straight hair?" asked the Woman of the World.

"Because she doesn’t curl it," explained the Girton Girl. She spoke somewhat snappishly, it seemed to me.

"I never thought of that," murmured the Woman of the World.

"It is to be noted in connection with the argument," I ventured to remark, "that we hear but little concerning the wives of intellectual men. When we do, as in the case of the Carlyles, it is to wish we did not."

"When I was younger even than I am now," said the Minor Poet, "I thought a good deal of marriage—very young men do. My wife, I told myself, must be a woman of mind. Yet, curiously, of all the women I have ever loved, no single one has been remarkable for intellect— present company, as usual, of course excepted."

"Why is it," sighed the Philosopher, "that in the most serious business of our life, marriage, serious considerations count for next to nothing? A dimpled chin can, and often does, secure for a girl the best of husbands; while virtue and understanding combined cannot be relied upon to obtain her even one of the worst."

"I think the explanation is," replied the Minor Poet, "that as regards, let us say, the most natural business of our life, marriage, our natural instincts alone are brought into play. Marriage—clothe the naked fact in what flowers of rhetoric we will- -has to do with the purely animal part of our being. The man is drawn towards it by his primeval desires; the woman by her inborn craving towards motherhood."

The thin, white hands of the Old Maid fluttered, troubled, where they lay upon her lap. "Why should we seek to explain away all the beautiful things of life?" she said. She spoke with a heat unusual to her. "The blushing lad, so timid, so devotional, worshipping as at the shrine of some mystic saint; the young girl moving spellbound among dreams! They think of nothing but of one another."

"Tracing a mountain stream to its sombre source need not mar its music for us as it murmurs through the valley," expounded the Philosopher. "The hidden law of our being feeds each leaf of our life as sap runs through the tree. The transient blossom, the ripened fruit, is but its changing outward form."

"I hate going to the roots of things," said the Woman of the World. "Poor, dear papa was so fond of doing that. He would explain to us the genesis of oysters just when we were enjoying them. Poor mamma could never bring herself to touch them after that. While in the middle of dessert he would stop to argue with my Uncle Paul whether pig’s blood or bullock’s was the best for grape vines. I remember the year before Emily came out her favourite pony died; I have never known her so cut up about anything before or since. She asked papa if he would mind her having the poor creature buried in the garden. Her idea was that she would visit now and then its grave and weep awhile. Papa was awfully nice about it and stroked her hair. ’Certainly, my dear,’ he said, ’we will have him laid to rest in the new strawberry bed.’ Just then old Pardoe, the head gardener, came up to us and touched his hat. ’Well, I was just going to inquire of Miss Emily,’ he said, ’if she wouldn’t rather have the poor thing buried under one of the nectarine-trees. They ain’t been doing very well of late.’ He said it was a pretty spot, and that he would put up a sort of stone. Poor Emily didn’t seem to care much where the animal was buried by that time, so we left them arguing the question. I forget how it was settled; but I know we neither of us ate either strawberries or nectarines for the next two years."

"There is a time for everything," agreed the Philosopher. "With the lover, penning poetry to the wondrous red and white upon his mistress’ cheek, we do not discuss the subject of pigment in the blood, its cause and probable duration. Nevertheless, the subject is interesting."

"We men and women," continued the Minor Poet, "we are Nature’s favourites, her hope, for whom she has made sacrifice, putting aside so many of her own convictions, telling herself she is oldfashioned. She has let us go from her to the strange school where they laugh at all her notions. We have learnt new, strange ideas that bewilder the good dame. Yet, returning home it is curious to notice how little, in the few essential things of life, we differ from her other children, who have never wandered from her side. Our vocabulary has been extended and elaborated, yet face to face with the realities of existence it is unavailing. Clasping the living, standing beside the dead, our language still is but a cry. Our wants have grown more complicated; the ten-course banquet, with all that it involves, has substituted itself for the handful of fruits and nuts gathered without labour; the stalled ox and a world of trouble for the dinner of herbs and leisure therewith. Are we so far removed thereby above our little brother, who, having swallowed his simple, succulent worm, mounts a neighbouring twig and with easy digestion carols thanks to God? The square brick box about which we move, hampered at every step by wooden lumber, decked with many rags and strips of coloured paper, cumbered with odds and ends of melted flint and moulded clay, has replaced the cheap, convenient cave. We clothe ourselves in the skins of other animals instead of allowing our own to develop into a natural protection. We hang about us bits of stone and metal, but underneath it all we are little two-legged animals, struggling with the rest to live and breed. Beneath each hedgerow in the springtime we can read our own romances in the making—the first faint stirring of the blood, the roving eye, the sudden marvellous discovery of the indispensable She, the wooing, the denial, hope, coquetry, despair, contention, rivalry, hate, jealousy, love, bitterness, victory, and death. Our comedies, our tragedies, are being played upon each blade of grass. In fur and feather we run epitomised."

"I know," said the Woman of the World; "I have heard it all so often. It is nonsense; I can prove it to you."

"That is easy," observed the Philosopher. "The Sermon on the Mount itself has been proved nonsense—among others, by a bishop. Nonsense is the reverse side of the pattern—the tangled ends of the thread that Wisdom weaves."

"There was a Miss Askew at the College," said the Girton Girl. "She agreed with every one. With Marx she was a Socialist, with Carlyle a believer in benevolent despotism, with Spinoza a materialist, with Newman a fanatic. I had a long talk with her before she left, and tried to understand her; she was an interesting girl. ’I think,’ she said, ’I could choose among them if only they would answer one another. But they don’t. They won’t listen to one another. They only repeat their own case.’"

"There never is an answer," explained the Philosopher. "The kernel of every sincere opinion is truth. This life contains only the questions—the solutions to be published in a future issue."

"She was a curious sort of young woman," smiled the Girton Girl; "we used to laugh at her."

"I can quite believe it," commented the Philosopher.

"It is so like shopping," said the Old Maid.

"Like shopping!" exclaimed the Girton Girl.

The Old Maid blushed. "I was merely thinking," she said. "It sounds foolish. The idea occurred to me."

"You were thinking of the difficulty of choosing?" I suggested.

"Yes," answered the Old Maid. "They will show you so many different things, one is quite unable—at least, I know it is so in my own case. I get quite angry with myself. It seems so weak-minded, but I cannot help it. This very dress I have on now—"

"It is very charming," said the Woman of the World, "in itself. I have been admiring it. Though I confess I think you look even better in dark colours."

"You are quite right," replied the Old Maid; "myself, I hate it. But you know how it is. I seemed to have been all the morning in the shop. I felt so tired. If only—"

The Old Maid stopped abruptly. "I beg your pardon," she said, "I am afraid I’ve interrupted."

"I am so glad you told us," said the Philosopher. "Do you know that seems to me an explanation?"

"Of what?" asked the Girton Girl.

"Of how so many of us choose our views," returned the Philosopher; "we don’t like to come out of the shop without something."

"But you were about to explain," continued the Philosopher, turning to the Woman of the World, "—to prove a point."

"That I had been talking nonsense," reminded her the Minor Poet; "if you are sure it will not weary you."

"Not at all," answered the Woman of the World; "it is quite simple. The gifts of civilisation cannot be the meaningless rubbish you advocates of barbarism would make out. I remember Uncle Paul’s bringing us home a young monkey he had caught in Africa. With the aid of a few logs we fitted up a sort of stage-tree for this little brother of mine, as I suppose you would call him, in the gun-room. It was an admirable imitation of the thing to which he and his ancestors must have been for thousands of years accustomed; and for the first two nights he slept perched among its branches. On the third the little brute turned the poor cat out of its basket and slept on the eiderdown, after which no more tree for him, real or imitation. At the end of the three months, if we offered him monkey-nuts, he would snatch them from our hand and throw them at our head. He much preferred gingerbread and weak tea with plenty of sugar; and when we wanted him to leave the kitchen fire and enjoy a run in the garden, we had to carry him out swearing—I mean he was swearing, of course. I quite agree with him. I much prefer this chair on which I am sitting—this ’wooden lumber,’ as you term it— to the most comfortable lump of old red sandstone that the best furnished cave could possibly afford; and I am degenerate enough to fancy that I look very nice in this frock—much nicer than my brothers or sisters to whom it originally belonged: they didn’t know how to make the best of it."

"You would look charming anyhow," I murmured with conviction, "even- -"

"I know what you are going to say," interrupted the Woman of the World; "please don’t. It’s very shocking, and, besides, I don’t agree with you. I should have had a thick, coarse skin, with hair all over me and nothing by way of a change."

"I am contending," said the Minor Poet, "that what we choose to call civilisation has done little beyond pandering to our animal desires. Your argument confirms my theory. Your evidence in support of civilisation comes to this—that it can succeed in tickling the appetites of a monkey. You need not have gone back so far. The noble savage of today flings aside his clear spring water to snatch at the missionary’s gin. He will even discard his feathers, which at least were picturesque, for a chimney-pot hat innocent of nap. Plaid trousers and cheap champagne follow in due course. Where is the advancement? Civilisation provides us with more luxuries for our bodies. That I grant you. Has it brought us any real improvement that could not have been arrived at sooner by other roads?"

"It has given us Art," said the Girton Girl.

"When you say ’us,’" replied the Minor Poet, "I presume you are referring to the one person in half a million to whom Art is anything more than a name. Dismissing the countless hordes who have absolutely never heard the word, and confining attention to the few thousands scattered about Europe and America who prate of it, how many of even these do you think it really influences, entering into their lives, refining, broadening them? Watch the faces of the thin but conscientious crowd streaming wearily through our miles of picture galleries and art museums; gaping, with guide-book in hand, at ruined temple or cathedral tower; striving, with the spirit of the martyr, to feel enthusiasm for Old Masters at which, left to themselves, they would enjoy a good laugh—for chipped statues which, uninstructed, they would have mistaken for the damaged stock of a suburban tea-garden. Not more than one in twelve enjoys what he is looking at, and he by no means is bound to be the best of the dozen. Nero was a genuine lover of Art; and in modern times August the Strong, of Saxony, ’the man of sin,’ as Carlyle calls him, has left undeniable proof behind him that he was a connoisseur of the first water. One recalls names even still more recent. Are we so sure that Art does elevate?"

"You are talking for the sake of talking," told him the Girton Girl.

"One can talk for the sake of thinking also," reminded her the Minor Poet. "The argument is one that has to be faced. But admitting that Art has been of service to mankind on the whole, that it possesses one-tenth of the soul-forming properties claimed for it in the advertisement—which I take to be a generous estimate—its effect upon the world at large still remains infinitesimal."

"It works down," maintained the Girton Girl. "From the few it spreads to the many."

"The process appears to be somewhat slow," answered the Minor Poet. "The result, for whatever it may be worth, we might have obtained sooner by doing away with the middleman."

"What middleman?" demanded the Girton Girl.

"The artist," explained the Minor Poet; "the man who has turned the whole thing into a business, the shopman who sells emotions over the counter. A Corot, a Turner is, after all, but a poor apology compared with a walk in spring through the Black Forest or the view from Hampstead Heath on a November afternoon. Had we been less occupied acquiring ’the advantages of civilisation,’ working upward through the weary centuries to the city slum, the corrugated-ironroofed farm, we might have found time to learn to love the beauty of the world. As it is, we have been so busy ’civilising’ ourselves that we have forgotten to live. We are like an old lady I once shared a carriage with across the Simplon Pass."

"By the way," I remarked, "one is going to be saved all that bother in the future. They have nearly completed the new railway line. One will be able to go from Domo d’Orsola to Brieg in a little over the two hours. They tell me the tunnelling is wonderful."

"It will be very charming," sighed the Minor Poet. "I am looking forward to a future when, thanks to ’civilisation,’ travel will be done away with altogether. We shall be sewn up in a sack and shot there. At the time I speak of we still had to be content with the road winding through some of the most magnificent scenery in Switzerland. I rather enjoyed the drive myself, but my companion was quite unable to appreciate it. Not because she did not care for scenery. As she explained to me, she was passionately fond of it. But her luggage claimed all her attention. There were seventeen pieces of it altogether, and every time the ancient vehicle lurched or swayed, which on an average was once every thirty seconds, she was in terror lest one or more of them should be jerked out. Half her day was taken up in counting them and re-arranging them, and the only view in which she was interested was the cloud of dust behind us. One bonnet-box did contrive during the course of the journey to make its escape, after which she sat with her arms round as many of the remaining sixteen articles as she could encompass, and sighed."

"I knew an Italian countess," said the Woman of the World; "she had been at school with mamma. She never would go half a mile out of her way for scenery. ’Why should I?’ she would say. ’What are the painters for? If there is anything good, let them bring it to me and I will look at it. She said she preferred the picture to the real thing, it was so much more artistic. In the landscape itself, she complained, there was sure to be a chimney in the distance, or a restaurant in the foreground, that spoilt the whole effect. The artist left it out. If necessary, he could put in a cow or a pretty girl to help the thing. The actual cow, if it happened to be there at all, would probably be standing the wrong way round; the girl, in all likelihood, would be fat and plain, or be wearing the wrong hat. The artist knew precisely the sort of girl that ought to be there, and saw to it that she was there, with just the right sort of hat. She said she had found it so all through life—the poster was always an improvement on the play."

"It is rapidly coming to that," answered the Minor Poet. "Nature, as a well known painter once put it, is not ’creeping up’ fast enough to keep pace with our ideals. In advanced Germany they improve the waterfalls and ornament the rocks. In Paris they paint the babies’ faces."

"You can hardly lay the blame for that upon civilisation," pleaded the Girton Girl. "The ancient Briton had a pretty taste in woads."

"Man’s first feeble steps upon the upward path of Art," assented the Minor Poet, "culminating in the rouge-pot and the hair-dye."

"Come!" laughed the Old Maid, "you are narrow-minded. Civilisation has given us music. Surely you will admit that has been of help to us?"

"My dear lady," replied the Minor Poet, "you speak of the one accomplishment with which Civilisation has had little or nothing to do, the one art that Nature has bestowed upon man in common with the birds and insects, the one intellectual enjoyment we share with the entire animal creation, excepting only the canines; and even the howling of the dog—one cannot be sure—may be an honest, however unsatisfactory, attempt towards a music of his own. I had a fox terrier once who invariably howled in tune. Jubal hampered, not helped us. He it was who stifled music with the curse of professionalism; so that now, like shivering shop-boys paying gatemoney to watch games they cannot play, we sit mute in our stalls listening to the paid performer. But for the musician, music might have been universal. The human voice is still the finest instrument that we possess. We have allowed it to rust, the better to hear clever manipulators blow through tubes and twang wires. The musical world might have been a literal expression. Civilisation has contracted it to designate a coterie."

"By the way," said the Woman of the World, "talking of music, have you heard that last symphony of Grieg’s? It came in the last parcel. I have been practising it."

"Oh! do let us hear it," urged the Old Maid. "I love Grieg."

The Woman of the World rose and opened the piano.

"Myself, I have always been of opinion—" I remarked.

"Please don’t chatter," said the Minor Poet.


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Chicago: Jerome K. Jerome, "Chapter II," Tea Table Talk, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Evans, Sebastian in Tea Table Talk Original Sources, accessed August 9, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=48FDK4S8ZXMLICZ.

MLA: Jerome, Jerome K. "Chapter II." Tea Table Talk, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Evans, Sebastian, in Tea Table Talk, Original Sources. 9 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=48FDK4S8ZXMLICZ.

Harvard: Jerome, JK, 'Chapter II' in Tea Table Talk, ed. and trans. . cited in , Tea Table Talk. Original Sources, retrieved 9 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=48FDK4S8ZXMLICZ.