Friday, March 28, 2014

The Man Who Refused To Laugh (And The Book That Laughed At Him)

by Stephen J. Gertz

On March 9, 1748 Philip Dormer Stanhope (1694-1773), 4th Earl of Chesterfield, wrote to his son:

"Having mentioned laughing, I must particularly warn you against it: and I could heartily wish, that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and in manners; it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things; and they call it being merry. In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter. True wit, or sense, never yet made anybody laugh; they are above it: They please the mind, and give a cheerfulness to the countenance. 

"But it is low buffoonery, or silly accidents, that always excite laughter; and that is what people of sense and breeding should show themselves above. A man's going to sit down, in the supposition that he has a chair behind him, and falling down upon his breech for want of one, sets a whole company a laughing, when all the wit in the world would not do it; a plain proof, in my mind, how low and unbecoming a thing laughter is: not to mention the disagreeable noise that it makes, and the shocking distortion of the face that it occasions. Laughter is easily restrained, by a very little reflection; but as it is generally connected with the idea of gaiety, people do not enough attend to its absurdity. 

"I am neither of a melancholy nor a cynical disposition, and am as willing and as apt to be pleased as anybody; but I am sure that, since I have had the full use of my reason, nobody has ever heard me laugh."

The letter is one of over four hundred written beginning 1737/1738 through the death of his son in 1768 and collected in Letters Written By the Late Right Honorable Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, to His Son, Philip Stanhope Esq. Published in 1774 by his son's widow, Eugenia, a year after Chesterfield's death, the majority of the letters were written between 1746 and 1754. 

Also known as Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, within Lord Chesterfield - yes, he of the eponymous sofa - with elegance, understated wit, and sharp observation discusses, amongst other issues including history and contemporary politics, the restraint in behavior and manners expected of the mid-18th century British upper class in general and gentlemen in particular.

His disdain for the manners of the general populace begged to be lampooned and thirty-seven years after Chesterfield's letters to his son were published caricaturist George Moutard Woodward ("Mustard George"), in 1808, gleefully rubbed his hands together and went to work, the great Thomas Rowlandson engraving Woodward's designs (as imprinted on plates but contrary to title page).

A satire of Lord Chesterfield's advice to his son, Chesterfield Travestie; or, School For Modern Manners presents "a new plan of education, on the principles of virtue and politeness in which is conveyed, such instructions as cannot fail to form the man of honour, the man of virtue, and the accomplished gentleman." In seven chapters illustrated by ten hand-colored plates it covers Rules for walking the Streets, and other Public Places; Behaviour at the Table; Directions respecting Apparel, &c; Short Directions respecting behavior at the Theatres; Rules for Conversation; Rules to be observed at Cards in private Families; and General Rules for Good Breeding on various Occasions. In short, all a swell has to know for good breeding to show, to wit:

"It is very becoming to break out into a violent fit of laughter, on the most rifling occasion. forming  your mouth into a grin like the lion's-head on a brass knocker; and more so to be continually simpering at every thing. like a country milk-maid at a statute fair" (Chapter 7, p. 47).

How To Walk The Streets.

"If, whilst you are walking, you see any person of your acquaintance passing, be sure to bawl and hem after them, like a butcher out of a public-house window; and leave the person you are walking with to run after them.

"In walking through a crowded street, throw your legs and arms about in every direction, as if you were rowing for Dogget's coat and badge. N.B. If you have a short thick stick, it will be of great advantage" (Chapter 1, p. 1).

How To Keep Up A Conversation With Yourself On The Public Streets.

"It is said that the emptiest vessels make the greatest noise; don't let that deter you from making a free exercise of your lungs; it is conducive to you health, therefore, in every conversation, however trivial it may be, be sure to bawl as loud as possible" (Chapter 5, p. 21).

How To Look Over Your Husband's Hand Of Cards And Find Fault With Him For Losing.

"It has a very good effect for a wife to look over her husband's hand while he is playing; at the same time, shewing evident marks of anger and discontent if he loses.

"When you lose, never pay before you are asked for it; it is quite time enough; and then do it with reluctance, so as to plainly shew you would much rather keep it in your pocket"  (Chapter 6, p. 43).

How To Break a Shop Window With An Umbrella.

"Should it be a rainy day, and you use an umbrella, pay no regard to breaking a few windows in your passage, &c., from your careless manner of carrying it" (Chapter I, p. 2).

A British statesman and diplomat, "Chesterfield’s winning manners, urbanity, and wit were praised by many of his leading contemporaries, and he was on familiar terms with Alexander Pope, John Gay, and Voltaire. He was the patron of many struggling authors but had unfortunate relations with one of them, Samuel Johnson, who condemned him in a famous letter (1755) attacking patrons. Johnson further damaged Chesterfield’s reputation when he described the Letters as teaching 'the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master.' Dickens later caricatured him as Sir John Chester in Barnaby Rudge (1841). The opinion of these two more popular writers—both of whom epitomized middle-class morality—has contributed to Chesterfield’s image as a cynical man of the world and a courtier. 

"Careful readers of Chesterfield’s letters, which were not written for publication, consider this an injustice. The strongest charge against his philosophy is that it leads to concentration on worldly ends. But within this limitation his advice is shrewd and presented with wit and elegance. Ironically, Chesterfield’s painstaking advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears: his son was described by contemporaries as 'loutish,' and his godson was described by Fanny Burney as having 'as little good breeding as any man I ever met'” (Encyclopedia Britannica).

As far as his refusal to laugh aloud is concerned, I imagine Lord Chesterfield being kidnapped and taken to a dark, dank basement room where he is strapped to a chair under a glaring spotlight and compelled to endure unmerciful torture by Mel Brooks until his smile, always firmly set to prevent an accidental discharge of guffaws, breaks, his sides split, his gut busts, a lifetime's worth of repressed laughter escapes in a torrent, and an eternal human truth becomes manifest:

Ludibrio ergo sum vivo.

WOODWARD, George Moutard (designer). ROWLANDSON, Thomas, (engraver). Chesterfield Travestie. or, School For Modern Manners. Embellished with Ten Caricatures, Engraved by Woodward from Original Drawings by Rowlandson. London & Edinburgh: Printed by T. Plummer...for Thomas Tegg, 1808.

First edition. Octavo (6 1/2 x 4 1/8 in; 166 x 104 mm). [1, half-title], [1, blank], iv, [2], 70, [2, adv.] pp.  Ten hand-colored plates (two folding) engraved by Rowlandson after drawings by Woodward (contrary to title), with tissue guards. Publisher's original printed boards.

Reprinted by Tegg in 1809, and again by Tegg in 1811 under the title "Chesterfield Burlesqued." American editions published in Philadelphia by M. Carey in 1812 and 1821.

The Plates:

1. Votaries of Fashion
2. How To Walk the Streets.
3. The Art of Quizzing.
4. How to Keep Up a Conversation with Yourself in the Public Streets.
5. How to break a Shop Window with an Umbrella.
6. Behaviour at Table.
7. Notoriety, &c.
8. Gentleman and Mad Author.
9. How to look over your Husband's Hand while at Cards.
10. The Nobleman and Little Shopkeeper.

Falk, 215-216, Grego, 115-117, Grolier, Rowlandson, 61, Hardie, p. 315. Gordon Library Catalog BC-19.

Book images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.


  1. Don't know whether it was the attractive blue sash, the wig or the lovely broach, but Chesterfied Travestie, had me thinking that I was about to read about the man's affinity for women's clothing - travesti being French for transvestite.

  2. O dear, the "broach" (as you interpret it) is the badge of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the most exclusive of English knighthoods, and together with the blue sash marks the Earl out as one of the highest in the land. However, it has to be admitted that the Earl had no heir, and the son to whom he wrote the letters of instruction was his bastard, and to suspect that his attempts to turn this young man into a gentleman were unsuccessful.

    1. Oh, I'm aware that the broach isn't really a broach. Just another son of the colonies having a go at the English aristocracy.


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