Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens

The Egotistical Couple

Egotism in couples is of two kinds. — It is our purpose to show this by two examples.

The egotistical couple may be young, old, middle-aged, well to do, or ill to do; they may have a small family, a large family, or no family at all. There is no outward sign by which an egotistical couple may be known and avoided. They come upon you unawares; there is no guarding against them. No man can of himself be forewarned or forearmed against an egotistical couple.

The egotistical couple have undergone every calamity, and experienced every pleasurable and painful sensation of which our nature is susceptible. You cannot by possibility tell the egotistical couple anything they don’t know, or describe to them anything they have not felt. They have been everything but dead. Sometimes we are tempted to wish they had been even that, but only in our uncharitable moments, which are few and far between.

We happened the other day, in the course of a morning call, to encounter an egotistical couple, nor were we suffered to remain long in ignorance of the fact, for our very first inquiry of the lady of the house brought them into active and vigorous operation. The inquiry was of course touching the lady’s health, and the answer happened to be, that she had not been very well. ‘Oh, my dear!’ said the egotistical lady, ‘don’t talk of not being well. We have been in SUCH a state since we saw you last!’ — The lady of the house happening to remark that her lord had not been well either, the egotistical gentleman struck in: ‘Never let Briggs complain of not being well — never let Briggs complain, my dear Mrs. Briggs, after what I have undergone within these six weeks. He doesn’t know what it is to be ill, he hasn’t the least idea of it; not the faintest conception.’ — ‘My dear,’ interposed his wife smiling, ‘you talk as if it were almost a crime in Mr. Briggs not to have been as ill as we have been, instead of feeling thankful to Providence that both he and our dear Mrs. Briggs are in such blissful ignorance of real suffering.’ — ‘My love,’ returned the egotistical gentleman, in a low and pious voice, ‘you mistake me; — I feel grateful — very grateful. I trust our friends may never purchase their experience as dearly as we have bought ours; I hope they never may!’

Having put down Mrs. Briggs upon this theme, and settled the question thus, the egotistical gentleman turned to us, and, after a few preliminary remarks, all tending towards and leading up to the point he had in his mind, inquired if we happened to be acquainted with the Dowager Lady Snorflerer. On our replying in the negative, he presumed we had often met Lord Slang, or beyond all doubt, that we were on intimate terms with Sir Chipkins Glogwog. Finding that we were equally unable to lay claim to either of these distinctions, he expressed great astonishment, and turning to his wife with a retrospective smile, inquired who it was that had told that capital story about the mashed potatoes. ‘Who, my dear?’ returned the egotistical lady, ‘why Sir Chipkins, of course; how can you ask! Don’t you remember his applying it to our cook, and saying that you and I were so like the Prince and Princess, that he could almost have sworn we were they?’ ‘To be sure, I remember that,’ said the egotistical gentleman, ‘but are you quite certain that didn’t apply to the other anecdote about the Emperor of Austria and the pump?’ ‘Upon my word then, I think it did,’ replied his wife. ‘To be sure it did,’ said the egotistical gentleman, ‘it was Slang’s story, I remember now, perfectly.’ However, it turned out, a few seconds afterwards, that the egotistical gentleman’s memory was rather treacherous, as he began to have a misgiving that the story had been told by the Dowager Lady Snorflerer the very last time they dined there; but there appearing, on further consideration, strong circumstantial evidence tending to show that this couldn’t be, inasmuch as the Dowager Lady Snorflerer had been, on the occasion in question, wholly engrossed by the egotistical lady, the egotistical gentleman recanted this opinion; and after laying the story at the doors of a great many great people, happily left it at last with the Duke of Scuttlewig:– observing that it was not extraordinary he had forgotten his Grace hitherto, as it often happened that the names of those with whom we were upon the most familiar footing were the very last to present themselves to our thoughts.

It not only appeared that the egotistical couple knew everybody, but that scarcely any event of importance or notoriety had occurred for many years with which they had not been in some way or other connected. Thus we learned that when the well-known attempt upon the life of George the Third was made by Hatfield in Drury Lane theatre, the egotistical gentleman’s grandfather sat upon his right hand and was the first man who collared him; and that the egotistical lady’s aunt, sitting within a few boxes of the royal party, was the only person in the audience who heard his Majesty exclaim, ‘Charlotte, Charlotte, don’t be frightened, don’t be frightened; they’re letting off squibs, they’re letting off squibs.’ When the fire broke out, which ended in the destruction of the two Houses of Parliament, the egotistical couple, being at the time at a drawing-room window on Blackheath, then and there simultaneously exclaimed, to the astonishment of a whole party — ‘It’s the House of Lords!’ Nor was this a solitary instance of their peculiar discernment, for chancing to be (as by a comparison of dates and circumstances they afterwards found) in the same omnibus with Mr. Greenacre, when he carried his victim’s head about town in a blue bag, they both remarked a singular twitching in the muscles of his countenance; and walking down Fish Street Hill, a few weeks since, the egotistical gentleman said to his lady — slightly casting up his eyes to the top of the Monument — ‘There’s a boy up there, my dear, reading a Bible. It’s very strange. I don’t like it. — In five seconds afterwards, Sir,’ says the egotistical gentleman, bringing his hands together with one violent clap — ‘the lad was over!’

Diversifying these topics by the introduction of many others of the same kind, and entertaining us between whiles with a minute account of what weather and diet agreed with them, and what weather and diet disagreed with them, and at what time they usually got up, and at what time went to bed, with many other particulars of their domestic economy too numerous to mention; the egotistical couple at length took their leave, and afforded us an opportunity of doing the same.

Mr. and Mrs. Sliverstone are an egotistical couple of another class, for all the lady’s egotism is about her husband, and all the gentleman’s about his wife. For example:–Mr. Sliverstone is a clerical gentleman, and occasionally writes sermons, as clerical gentlemen do. If you happen to obtain admission at the street-door while he is so engaged, Mrs. Sliverstone appears on tip-toe, and speaking in a solemn whisper, as if there were at least three or four particular friends up-stairs, all upon the point of death, implores you to be very silent, for Mr. Sliverstone is composing, and she need not say how very important it is that he should not be disturbed. Unwilling to interrupt anything so serious, you hasten to withdraw, with many apologies; but this Mrs. Sliverstone will by no means allow, observing, that she knows you would like to see him, as it is very natural you should, and that she is determined to make a trial for you, as you are a great favourite. So you are led up-stairs — still on tip-toe — to the door of a little back room, in which, as the lady informs you in a whisper, Mr. Sliverstone always writes. No answer being returned to a couple of soft taps, the lady opens the door, and there, sure enough, is Mr. Sliverstone, with dishevelled hair, powdering away with pen, ink, and paper, at a rate which, if he has any power of sustaining it, would settle the longest sermon in no time. At first he is too much absorbed to be roused by this intrusion; but presently looking up, says faintly, ‘Ah!’ and pointing to his desk with a weary and languid smile, extends his hand, and hopes you’ll forgive him. Then Mrs. Sliverstone sits down beside him, and taking his hand in hers, tells you how that Mr. Sliverstone has been shut up there ever since nine o’clock in the morning, (it is by this time twelve at noon,) and how she knows it cannot be good for his health, and is very uneasy about it. Unto this Mr. Sliverstone replies firmly, that ‘It must be done;’ which agonizes Mrs. Sliverstone still more, and she goes on to tell you that such were Mr. Sliverstone’s labours last week — what with the buryings, marryings, churchings, christenings, and all together, — that when he was going up the pulpit stairs on Sunday evening, he was obliged to hold on by the rails, or he would certainly have fallen over into his own pew. Mr. Sliverstone, who has been listening and smiling meekly, says, ‘Not quite so bad as that, not quite so bad!’ he admits though, on cross-examination, that he WAS very near falling upon the verger who was following him up to bolt the door; but adds, that it was his duty as a Christian to fall upon him, if need were, and that he, Mr. Sliverstone, and (possibly the verger too) ought to glory in it.

This sentiment communicates new impulse to Mrs. Sliverstone, who launches into new praises of Mr. Sliverstone’s worth and excellence, to which he listens in the same meek silence, save when he puts in a word of self-denial relative to some question of fact, as — ‘Not seventy-two christenings that week, my dear. Only seventy-one, only seventy-one.’ At length his lady has quite concluded, and then he says, Why should he repine, why should he give way, why should he suffer his heart to sink within him? Is it he alone who toils and suffers? What has she gone through, he should like to know? What does she go through every day for him and for society?

With such an exordium Mr. Sliverstone launches out into glowing praises of the conduct of Mrs. Sliverstone in the production of eight young children, and the subsequent rearing and fostering of the same; and thus the husband magnifies the wife, and the wife the husband.

This would be well enough if Mr. and Mrs. Sliverstone kept it to themselves, or even to themselves and a friend or two; but they do not. The more hearers they have, the more egotistical the couple become, and the more anxious they are to make believers in their merits. Perhaps this is the worst kind of egotism. It has not even the poor excuse of being spontaneous, but is the result of a deliberate system and malice aforethought. Mere empty-headed conceit excites our pity, but ostentatious hypocrisy awakens our disgust.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54sb/chapter80.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30