In the dozy hours, and other papers/Guests
A very charming and vivacious old lady, who had spent most of her early life in the country, once said to me that the keenest pleasure of her childhood was the occasional arrival of her mother's guests; the keenest regret, their inevitable and too speedy departure. "They seldom stayed more than a fortnight," she observed, plaintively; "though now and then some cousins prolonged their visits for another week. What I most enjoyed on these occasions was the increased good temper of my own family. Annoyances were laughed at, our noisy behavior was overlooked, conversation took an agreeable turn, and a delightful air of cheerfulness and good humor pervaded the entire household. It seemed to my infant eyes that life would be a matter of flawless enjoyment if we could only have visitors always in the house."
A little of this frankly expressed sentiment will find an echo in many hearts, and perhaps awaken some pangs of conscience on the way. It is the restraint we put upon ourselves, the honest effort we make at amiability, which renders social intercourse possible and pleasant. When the restraint grows irksome, the amiability a burden, we pay to those we love best on earth the dubious compliment of being perfectly natural in their company. "What is the use of having a family if you cannot be disagreeable in the bosom of it?" was the explicit acknowledgment I once overheard of a service which seldom meets with such clear and candid recognition. Hazlitt himself could have given no plainer expression to a thought which few of us would care to trick out in all the undisguised sincerity of language.
Guests are the delight of leisure, and the solace of ennui. It is the steady and merciless increase of occupations, the augmented speed at which we are always trying to live, the crowding of each day with more work and amusement than it can profitably hold, which have cost us, among other good things, the undisturbed enjoyment of our friends. Friendship takes time, and we have no time to give it. We have to go to so many teas, and lectures, and committee meetings; we have taken up so many interesting and exacting careers; we have assumed so many duties and responsibilities, that there is not a spare corner in our lives which we are free to fill up as we please. Society, philanthropy, and culture divide our waking hours. Defrauded friendship gets a few moments now and again, and is bidden to content itself, and please not to be troublesome any more. I once rashly asked a girl of twenty if she saw a great deal of a young married woman whom she had just declared to be her dearest and most cherished friend. "I never see her at all," was the satisfied answer, "except by chance, at a tea or a club meeting. We live so very far apart, as you know. It would take the heart of an afternoon to try and make her a visit."
Now, to understand the charm of leisurely and sympathetic intercourse, we should read the letters of Madame de Sévigné; to appreciate the resources of ennui, we should read the novels of Jane Austen. With Madame de Sévigné guests were not useful as an alleviation of boredom; they were valuable because they added to the interest, the beauty and the zest of life. It never occurred to this charming Frenchwoman, nor to her contemporaries, that time could be better spent than in entertaining or being entertained by friends. Conversation was not then small coin, to be paid our hastily like car-fare, merely in order to get from one necessary topic to another. It was the golden mean through which a generous regard, a graceful courtesy, or a sparkling wit lent beauty and distinction to every hour of intercourse. A little group of friends in a quiet countryside, with none of the robust diversions of English rural life. It has a sleepy sound; yet such was the pleasure-giving power of hostess and of guest that this leisurely companionship was fraught with fine delight, and its fruits are our inheritance to-day, lingering for us in the pages of those matchless letters from which time can never steal the charm.
It is Miss Austen, however, who, with relentless candor, has shown us how usefully guests may be employed as an antidote for the ennui of intellectual vacuity. They are the chosen relief for that direful dullness which country gentlemen "like Sir John Middleton," experience from lack of occupation and ideas; they are the solace of sickly, uninteresting women who desire some one to share with them the monotonous current of existence. The Middletons, we are assured, "lived in a style of equal hospitality and elegance. They were scarcely ever without some friends staying with them in the house, and they kept more company of every kind than any other family in the neighborhood." This indulgence, it appears, while equally welcome to host and hostess, was more necessary to Sir John's happiness than to his wife's; for she at least possessed one other source of continual and unflagging diversion. "Sir John was a sportsman, Lady Middleton a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humored her children; and these were their only resources. Lady Middleton, however, had the advantage of being able to spoil her children all the year round, while Sir John's independent employments were in existence only half the time."
Guests play an important part in Miss Austen's novels, as they did in Miss Austen's life, and in the lives of all the hospitable country-people of her time. Moreover, the visits her heroines and their friends pay are not little trifling modern affairs of a few days or a week. Distances counted for something when they had to be traveled in a carriage or a post-chaise; and when people came to see their friends in that fashion, they came to stay. Elizabeth Bennet and Maria Lucas spend six weeks with Charlotte Collins; and Lady Catherine, it will be remembered, does not at all approve of their returning home so quickly. "I expected you to stay two months," she says severely—they are not her guests at all—"I told Mrs. Collins so, before you came. There can be no occasion for your going so soon." Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood begin their visit to Mrs. Jennings the first week of January, and it is April before we find them setting forth on their return. Anne Elliot goes to Uppercross for two months, though the only inducement offered her is Mary Musgrove's prophetic remark that she does not expect to have a day's health all autumn; and her only pastime as a visitor appears to be the somewhat dubious diversion of making herself generally useful. It is a far cry from our busy age to either Miss Austen or Madame de Sévigné. The bounteous resources of a highly cultivated leisure have never been very clearly understood by the English-speaking race. The alleviations of inactivity and ennui are no longer with us a rigorous necessity. Our vices and our virtues conspire to defraud us of that charming and sustained social intercourse which is possible only when we have the undisturbed possession of our friends; when we are so happy as to be sheltered under the same roof, to pursue the same occupations, to enjoy the same pleasures, to exchange thoughts and sentiments with entire freedom and familiarity. "I cannot afford to speak much to my friend," says Emerson, meaning that it is a privilege he neither values nor desires. We cannot afford to speak much to our friends, though we may desire it with our whole hearts, because we have been foolish enough to persuade ourselves that we have other and better things to do.