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Noise and Sound Reconciled: How London Clubs Shaped Conversation into a Social Art

La conversation dans les clubs londoniens : un art entre dissonance et harmonie
Valérie Capdeville

Résumés

Cet article a pour objectif de montrer le rôle décisif joué par les clubs londoniens dans la transformation de la conversation en art social. Il étudie, d’une part, l’évolution de la conversation en Angleterre comme concept culturel et comme pratique sociale dans un contexte d’émergence et d’essor des clubs au dix-huitième siècle. Au cœur des pratiques de sociabilité urbaine, la conversation fleurit tout particulièrement dans les coffee-houses de Londres dès la fin du dix-septième siècle. Au même moment, la conversation est théorisée, conceptualisée, érigée en modèle et débattue dans une littérature normative prolifique et variée. Cependant, la conversation qui anime les premiers cafés est-elle de même nature que celle qui prévaut dans les cercles exclusifs de la seconde moitié du dix-huitième siècle ? Cette étude vise, d’autre part, à mettre en avant les dissonances entre théorie et pratique de la conversation dans l’univers des clubs londoniens. Tandis que la conversation est considérée comme un rite de la sociabilité mondaine, dont les principes de raffinement devraient être maîtrisés par les membres du club, elle se révèle souvent bien éloignée du modèle harmonieux et poli auquel elle est censée se conformer. Dans quelle mesure Samuel Johnson, fondateur du célèbre Literary Club, et l’un des plus grands conversationnistes de son temps, a-t-il permis à la conversation de devenir un ‘art social’? Enfin, cette analyse entend démontrer que les clubs ont contribué à modeler la conversation selon de nouvelles modalités, faisant co-exister les discordances et réconciliant les paradoxes propres à la conversation des clubs.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Henry Fielding, An Essay on Conversation (1743), in Miscellanies by Henry Fielding, The Wesleyan Ed (...)
  • 2 Jon Mee, “Turning things around together: Enlightenment and conversation”, in Alexander Cook, Repre (...)

1In 1743, Henry Fielding defined conversation in the following terms: “the primitive and literal sense of this word is, I apprehend, to turn round together ; and in its more copious usage we intend by it that reciprocal interchange of ideas by which truth is examined, things are, in a manner, turned round and sifted, and all our knowledge communicated to each other.”1 While the intellectual function of conversation was clearly identified by Fielding through the communication and exchange of knowledge, its social purpose was also hinted at and further developed in his Essay on Conversation. In a chapter entitled “Turning things around together: Enlightenment and conversation”, Jon Mee recently argued that conversation was indeed “central to the Enlightenment’s project of improvement, as a practice and as a model for culture and society.”2

2Conversation in England was at the heart of urban sociability practices and especially flourished in the London coffee-houses of the end of the seventeenth century. In fact, the noisy discussions about the latest news reported in the press, the vociferous debates led by political factions, the lively literary gatherings around the town wits all enabled conversation to become the main activity and the major attraction of those institutions. Yet, at the same time, conversation was theorized, conceptualized, modeled and discussed in a variety of normative texts, ranging from treatises, conduct manuals, to pamphlets and periodical essays. The model of conversation was undoubtedly French, and though it was first admired and followed by the richest and most refined London circles, the validity of some of its principles was soon questioned, then strongly rejected.

  • 3 Michèle Cohen defined politeness and good breeding as a ‘language of the voice and of the body’, in (...)

3Conversation involves social interaction, as implied by the rather broad definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary: “the Manner of conducting oneself in the world or in society ; behaviour, mode or course of life.” Conversation in social spaces cannot be dissociated from language, manners, good breeding, as it was part of an ideal of politeness essential to the education of the gentleman.3 In the clubs of the capital, conversation was a rite of worldly sociability, which proved to be much more than simple rhetoric and whose refined principles clubmen were supposed to master. Yet club conversation often sounded far from the smooth and polite normative model to which it was expected to conform. To Samuel Johnson, himself a reputed clubman, conversation was an easy intercourse more than a pre-defined exercise, a social pleasure rather than a mandatory step towards a polite accomplishment. But his happiness as a conversationalist also depended on his reaching a certain form of truth through ‘frictive’ exchange and intellectual combat. To what extent was the founder of The Club a significant agent in the transformation of conversation in the eighteenth century?

  • 4 See recent studies on conversation: Jon Mee, ‘Turning Things Around Together: Enlightenment and Con (...)

4Building on recent scholarship on conversation and on the outcomes of my own previous work on London clubs, this essay aims to show how clubs played a decisive role in the shaping of conversation into a social art.4 It will first examine the evolution of conversation both as a cultural concept and as a social practice in the context of the emergence and success of club sociability throughout the eighteenth century, as it progressively became a major component of London social life. Was the conversation that animated the first London coffee-houses of the same nature as the conversation which prevailed in the exclusive aristocratic or intellectual circles of the second half of the eighteenth century? The analysis will then point at obvious dissonances between the theory and the practice of conversation within the world of London clubs. Finally, this study will claim that those very tensions contributed to shaping a new model of conversation in England, in which noise and sound could co-exist and thanks to which the paradoxes inherent in club conversation could be reconciled.

From buzzing noise to refined sound: the rise and promotion of conversation

  • 5 See the section ‘After Habermas’ in the introduction by Katie Halsey and Jane Slinn to The Concept (...)

5The reason why conversation became the central activity of eighteenth-century clubs such as the Royal Society Club, the Society of Dilettanti or even more symbolically Johnson’s Club, was that it animated the life of those institutions from their very origin, thriving before them in the numerous coffee-houses of London. The organic relationship between an intensifying political activity and a burgeoning literary press was characteristic of the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century, a period during which coffee-houses rapidly became major political and social arenas of the public sphere.5 There, conversation developed as a privileged medium for the circulation of news and the exchange of knowledge.

Coffee-house conversation: noise, news and wit

  • 6 Peter Clark, British Clubs and Societies, 1580-1800: the Origins of an Associational World, Oxford, (...)
  • 7 The Character of a Coffee-House, with the Symptoms of a Town-wit, London, Jonathan Edwin, 1673, p. (...)

6The historian Peter Clark considered the press as “a vital staple of conversation.”6 Indeed, since the end of censorship in 1695, the increasing circulation of newsletters, pamphlets and periodicals in coffee-houses fuelled the Londoners’ curiosity for a variety of topics. Customers were eager to be informed about the latest news, but they could also be instructed by listening to spirited men of letters. Those wits, who delighted in conversation and loved to be listened to, made of their favourite coffee-houses the most popular literary gathering places in town. When an enthusiast happened to raise his voice and show unusual signs of spirit or eloquence, he instantly attracted a group of admirers around him: “the further tables [were] abandoned ; and all the rest flock[ed] round.”7 Journalists and writers particularly enjoyed that multitude of conversations and liked to place themselves at the heart of the country’s social and intellectual life; hence their habit of frequenting coffee-houses where they derived their daily inspiration. As a matter of fact, periodical essays developed out of the various ‘conversation clubs’ that emerged after the Glorious Revolution and multiplied over the course of the eighteenth century.

7London coffee-houses were often crowded and so noisy that some contemporary observers easily associated them with the buzzing atmosphere of a beehive. For instance, Ned Ward, in a poem entitled The School of Politicks: or the Humours of a Coffee-house, described the turmoil generated by political discussions:

  • 8 Edward Ward, The School of Politicks: or the Humours of a Coffee-house. A Poem, London, Richard Bal (...)

The murmuring Buzz which through the Room was sent,
Did Bee-Hives noise exactly represent ;
[…] All tasting of the Honey Politick,
Call’d News, which they as greedily suck’d in,
As Nurses Milk young Babes were ever seen.8

  • 9 Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, The Spectator (1711-14), ed. D. F. Bond, 5 vols., 1965, Oxford, (...)

8This very Mandevillian comparison was quite common at the end of the seventeenth century and could still be found twenty years later in the Spectator: “I first called at St James’s, where I found the whole Room in a Buzz of Politics.”9 The increasing frequentation and the animation and noise that often reigned in coffee-houses were both the sign of the growing desire of the urban community for social exchanges in an emerging commercial society and the expression of a strong aspiration for more participation in the public debate and for cultural refinement.

  • 10 See Capdeville, op. cit., p. 68.
  • 11 Alexander Pope used the following metaphor: “True wit is Nature to Advantage drest / What oft was T (...)
  • 12 “The Conversations of which Places [the chief Coffee-houses] are carry’d on by Persons, each of who (...)
  • 13 D. Judson Milburn, The Age of Wit: 1650-1750, London, New York, Macmillan, 1966.
  • 14 Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. R. Latham and W. Matthews, 11 vols., London, Bell and (...)
  • 15 For a more detailed analysis of the organic link between the coffee-house, the press and the triump (...)
  • 16 “[Wit] has something too rustic in it to be considered without terror by men of politeness”, The Ta (...)

9Conversation in the first clubs, such as the Green Ribbon Club founded around 1675, was mostly political, though some early eighteenth-century institutions also shared a literary and social purpose: the Kit-Cat Club, being the most significant example, as it gathered prominent Whigs as well as men of letters.10 Literary conversation was then often characterized by ‘wit’. The term could be applied to an ingenuity or vivacity of the mind as well as to the individual who made an elegant use of it.11 A coffee-house would become the centre of literary life just because a renowned wit decided to settle there, surrounded by his flock of admirers.12 The literary community of the time, a true “republic of wit”, to borrow D. Judson Milburn’s phrase in The Age of Wit,13 was thus regrouped in the heart of the capital, more precisely concentrated in the Covent Garden area. In Samuel Pepys’ days, Will’s Coffee-House, located in Russell Street, was already the uncontested refuge of the poet Dryden. All the city wits gathered there, as Pepys recalled “a very witty and pleasant conversation”.14 Button’s then took the lead in 1712, thanks to Addison, who was the true master of the place and attracted around him writers and wits such as Pope, Arbuthnot, and Swift. The institution kept its prestige until the middle of the eighteenth century when it was dethroned by the Bedford Coffee-house, under the arcades of the Piazza.15 Considered as a quality that guaranteed literary, social and intellectual recognition, wit was nevertheless feared for being a potentially dreadful weapon.16

The rules of conversation: refining voice and manners

10The main characteristics and aims of conversation have been perfectly summed up by Benedetta Craveri in her introduction to The Age of Conversation:

  • 17 Benedetta Craveri, The Age of Conversation (2001), trans. Teresa Waugh, New York, 2005, xiii.

Developed as an entertaining end in itself, as a game for shared pleasure, conversation obeyed strict laws that guaranteed harmony based on perfect equality. These were laws of clarity, measure, elegance, and regard for the self-respect of others. A talent for listening was more appreciated than one for speaking. Exquisite courtesy restrained vehemence and prevented quarrels.17

  • 18 For bibliographical references on the English side, see Peter Burke, The Art of Conversation, Oxfor (...)

11In the eighteenth century, the art of conversation was still regulated by a variety of treatises and conduct manuals which, through a series of rules, lay the emphasis on the respect that each person must show to others.18 Good manners and conversation in particular had an almost unanimously acknowledged social function: that of pleasing.

  • 19 Similarly, Jean-Baptiste Morvan de Bellegarde published Réflexions sur ce qui peut plaire ou déplai (...)
  • 20 Several examples: Antoine Gombault, Chevalier de Méré, Discours de la conversation, Paris, D. Thier (...)

12It was in France that this ‘fashion’ appeared in the second half of the seventeenth century: as early as 1670, the art of pleasing in conversation and in society was the object of numerous treatises and reflections. It is therefore from French models that the contours of sociability and conversation in England were initially drawn. Most of the time, French conduct books were simply translated into English. One of the most famous ones, L’Art de plaire dans la conversation (1688) by Pierre Ortigue de Vaumorière, was translated in 1736 by John Ozell under the title The Art of Pleasing in Conversation.19 As for Les Règles de bienséance (1695) by Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, it was adapted in 1720 by Adam Petrie and entitled Rules of Good Deportment. In fact, conversation in England first tried to follow rules dictated by a series of French treatises.20

  • 21 James Puckle, The Club; or, A Dialogue between Father and Son, London, 1711, p. 69.
  • 22 The Spectator, n° 49 (26 Apr. 1711).

13The purpose of pleasing tied all the rules of conversation together, since the primary concern was never to offend others, to show them respect and to be the most agreeable possible. Thus, the degree of politeness of an individual really seemed to be measurable through his ability not in any way to upset his interlocutor. To converse was to perform ; a performance in which each one, in turn, played the actor and the spectator, the orator and the listener. First of all, each speaker was supposed to wait for his turn, never interrupting anyone, but, above all, showing his ability to listen. This advice was given by James Puckle in The Club; or, A Dialogue between Father and Son (1711) : “Be readier to hear than to speak: Your Eyes and Ears inform you, not your Tongue.”21 In the same year, the ability to listen in conversation was almost defined by Steele as a virtuous precept: “Here [in Coffee-houses] a Man of my Temper, is in his Element ; for, if he cannot talk, he can still be more agreeable to his Company, as well as pleased in himself, in being only an Hearer.”22

  • 23 Scudéry, ‘De parler trop ou trop peu’, op. cit.
  • 24 The Spectator, n° 428 (11 July 1712).
  • 25 Puckle, op. cit., p. 72.
  • 26 Fielding, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 145.
  • 27 Jonathan Swift, ‘Hints towards an Essay on Conversation’ (1763), in The Prose Writings of Jonathan (...)

14A well-educated man should neither speak too much, nor too little. This particular recommendation was made by Madeleine de Scudéry in France towards the end of the seventeenth century.23 Not long after this, in England, the same concern could be found in The Spectator: “It is an impertinent and unreasonable Fault in Conversation, for one Man to take up all the Discourse.”24 The recommendation not to talk about oneself recurs in a number of texts, for example in James Puckle’s essay: “Talk not much of yourself […] Self-praise is apt to disquiet and nauseate our Auditors, stir up Envy and Contempt, and occasion a severer Scrutiny into your personal lapses and natural Imperfections.”25 It is interesting to notice that the same ban was echoed by Fielding thirty years later: “A man is not to make himself the Subject of the Conversation, so neither is he to engross the whole to himself.”26 Such a requirement remained very important in prescriptive literature, and it was still developed in a set of condemned attitudes in conversation by Swift in “Hints towards an Essay on Conversation” (1763).27

  • 28 Puckle, op. cit., p. 74.
  • 29 Raillery was often associated with wit. Indecency and blasphemy were also considered as offensive t (...)
  • 30 Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), Sensus Communis, An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humo (...)
  • 31 Fielding, op. cit., p. 146.

15Finally, controlling one’s passions was an essential quality in the gentleman, in order to carefully avoid upsetting any susceptibility. Puckle also alludes to the faculty of self-discipline, as passions threaten to weaken us: “Take heed of Speaking when you are angry […] Passion is a sort of Fever in the Mind, which always leaves us weaker than it finds us.”28 In this respect, raillery, even if it was accepted by some, could be a terrible weapon, often perceived as a form of provocation: “Words are like arrows which wise Men don’t shoot at random.”29 Early eighteenth-century texts recommended to avoid quarrels or stances tainted with animosity. For instance, in Sensus Communis, An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour, in a Letter to a Friend (1709), the Earl of Shaftesbury expressed his will to avoid conflicts and to harmonize the relationships between individuals, by insisting on the equalizing function of conversation.30 However, it is worth underlining that after the 1740s, things seem to change and conversation as verbal jousting starts being praised because it could prove extremely productive. A few years before Johnson, Fielding had already encouraged “jocose Arguments, which often produce much Mirth ; and serious Disputes between Men of Learning which tend to the Propagation of Knowledge, and the Edification of the Company”,31 as a means to elevate the mind.

  • 32 Ibid., p. 123.
  • 33 Jon Mee, op. cit., title.

16Until the middle of the eighteenth century, pleasing through conversation remained a prominent objective, as part of education and social refinement. To Henry Fielding, the art of pleasing and good breeding were considered as almost similar: “by good breeding, I mean the Art of Pleasing, or contributing as much as possible to the Ease and Happiness of those with whom you converse.”32 In an attempt to tame and to educate the public of those new social arenas, an array of prescriptive texts on conversation had flourished through conduct manuals as well as periodical essays. Addison and Steele’s Spectator project was especially designed to offer a theoretical framework to regulate and to smoothen out this new “conversable world.”33 The parallel success and development of the coffee-houses and of the literary press undoubtedly promoted conversation both as a verbal talent and as a social virtue.

From prescriptive theory to club practice: variations and dissonances

Questioning the French model

  • 34 “L’idéal de la conversation devient une imposture, puisque la socialité y dégénère en désir de bril (...)
  • 35 “flattery is compounded of the most sordid, hateful Qualities incident to Mankind, viz. Lying, Serv (...)
  • 36 Spectator, n° 103 (28 June 1711) ; in the same article : “The Dialect of Conversation is now-a-days (...)

17As highlighted in this first section, conversation in England had been theorized from and modeled on French seventeenth-century discursive precepts and an ideal of politeness had been shaped accordingly. Nevertheless, from the beginning of the eighteenth century, a criticism against the French model of conversation began to develop in England. ‘L’art de plaire’, to use the French phrase, was increasingly condemned: for some, it was mere seduction and flattery, characteristic of French worldly circles, such as the Parisian salons. There, the ideal of conversation degenerated into a desire to shine.34 Conversation in French high society lacked flair and spontaneity; its use of flattery35 and preciosity was so frequent that Steele deplored “[its] great and general want of sincerity”.36 This art of compliment taken to an extreme was governed by a constant concern for the gaze of others, for their possible judgement, for the effect produced by a single gesture or word.

  • 37 “Conversation, like the Romish Religion, was so encumbered with Show and Ceremony, that it stood in (...)
  • 38 Abel Boyer, The English Theophrastus: or the Manners of the Age. Being the Modern Characters of the (...)
  • 39 Shaftesbury, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 153. In Dialogues on the Uses of Foreign Travel Considered as a P (...)

18Besides, the questioning of the French model was characterized by an attack on its excessive formality. In The Spectator n°119, Addison considered French conversation as “too stiff, formal and precise” and wrote in favour of a reform he compared to the Protestant Reformation.37 A few years before, Abel Boyer, in The English Theophrastus (1702), simply condemned the use of rules in conversation : “[it] should not be stated or determined by rules [since it depends] upon Usage and Custom, and varies according to the difference of Place, Time, Persons, Sex and Condition”.38 After admiring and imitating French fashion in conversation, a lot of English essayists clearly rejected it, together with the artificiality of discourses of politeness. More generally, following foreign fashions was to be avoided, as advised by Lord Shaftesbury: “To look abroad as little as possible ; contract our views within the narrowest Compass ; and despise all knowledge, Learning, or Manners which are not of a Home-Growth.”39

19Opposing national models is a valuable approach, yet another interesting method is to confront theory and practice in order to better understand the role played by club sociability in transforming conversation in the eighteenth century. Considering conversation as an educational or pedagogic tool for the polite clubman will reveal some tensions between the “ideal of the gentleman” and the reality of club practice.

The ‘gentleman ideal’ at stake

  • 40 Gabriel Tarde, L’Opinion et la foule [1901], Paris, PUF, 1989.
  • 41 Georg Simmel, Sociabilité et épistémologie, Paris, PUF, 1981, p. 131-132.

20First, conversation was not a purely a linguistic or rhetorical exercise submitted to a set of prescribed rules, it also proved to be a powerful instrument for refining men’s social skills. Language – by extension, conversation – was a crucial pillar of sociability, the commerce of words constituting the link which was inherent to any civil and domestic society. Sociologist Gabriel Tarde defined conversation as “l’exercice continu et universel de la sociabilité;”40 it is one of the essential components of life in society. If conversation made of society its favourite playground, the club providing one of the best examples, it was because eighteenth-century sociability enabled conversation to be a legitimate end in itself.41

21If society was the preferred vehicle for conversation, conversation itself was one of its most important engines, which favoured its improvement and its refinement. Lord Shaftesbury was probably the one who best expressed the social function of conversation: in his Sensus communis, he explicitly endowed conversation with the task of performing that feeling of sociability or that sense of community. As a consequence, it seems obvious that conversation found an ideal space in the club: an institution corresponding to a model of miniature society, to a community whose sense of belonging made conversation possible. The well-being that it generated reinforced social harmony, thus harmony among the members of the same club. However, those members were not simply linked together by their ‘sensus communis”, they also met to share their thoughts and stimulate their intellectual exchanges.

  • 42 Here are a few primary sources, which aimed to establish the great principles of the education of t (...)
  • 43 “[politeness as a] cultural ideology” is a phrase used by Lawrence E. Klein in his work on the subj (...)
  • 44 Philip Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800, London, Longman, 2001, p (...)

22Conversation was considered as one of the foundations of the gentleman’s education.42 Given that politeness was a notion that referred not only to the manners to be observed in public, to the instruction and also to the moral virtues of an individual, it was often understood as an art that alone comprised all these elements and opened all doors to the worldly, intellectual and political circles of the capital. Mastering the art of conversation was part of the “cultural ideology”43 of politeness, which must be the privilege of any well-educated man: “as the crucial means for uniting and engaging friends, professional associates or strangers, conversation was recognized as central to the polite ideal and a key requirement of the modern gentleman.”44

  • 45 Spectator, n° 49 (26 Apr. 1711) ; n° 169 (13 Sept. 1711).
  • 46 The Guardian, n° 34 (20 Apr. 1713), London, 1745.
  • 47 Chesterfield, op. cit., Letters to his Son, p. 268 (letter 112). John Locke had referred to this fo (...)

23The club functioned as a sort of laboratory of polite society: as a space for conversation, but above all as a place where social status and distinction were central. The Spectator tried to provide the best advice to his readers, describing, in several articles, the qualities requested to be a true gentleman.45 In The Guardian n° 34, Steele also painted the ideal portrait of the gentleman explaining what good manners were: “When I view the fine gentleman with regard to his manners methinks I see him modest without bashfulness, frank and affable without impertinence, obliging and complaisant without servility, cheerful and in good-humour without noise.”46 Those subtly balanced qualities also applied to conversation ; they composed a whole that surpassed the simple action of exchanging words. Lord Chesterfield, echoing John Locke’s similar reflection, tried to understand the ‘je ne sais quoi’ that emanated from a polite person : “the look, the tone of voice, the manner of speaking, the gestures, must all conspire to form that je ne sais quoi that everybody feels, although nobody can exactly describe.”47

Coming to terms with paradoxes

24In practice though, things were different since tensions inherent to the nature of clubs prevented theoretical principles from matching social reality. The perfection of life in society, towards which politeness as well as conversation tended, rested on several paradoxes characteristic of English sociability and more particularly of gentlemen’s clubs.

  • 48 L. E. Klein, ‘Politeness and the Interpretation of the British Eighteenth Century’, The Historical (...)

25Art works depicting conversation in club life are another means to confront the theoretical precepts of conversation to real club practice or at least to its aesthetic representations. Indeed, the visual media reflected the increasing fashion for conversation and for associating in clubs and societies from the beginning of the eighteenth century. Lawrence Klein considers that the particular genre of the ‘conversation piece’ “not only conveyed the idea that humans were fundamentally and radically social and cultural in character but also provided evidence of the practices of polite society.”48 If some group portraits like Joshua Reynolds’s ‘The Dilettanti Society’ (1777-1778) provided a perfect image of gentlemen engaged in conversation, extolling taste and refinement, completely different scenes were depicted in paintings by William Hogarth, such as ‘A Midnight Modern Conversation’ (1734) or in later caricatures by James Gillray, such as ‘The Union Club’ (1801). These two examples offer a glimpse at the potential excessive conviviality of club life and contrast with the smooth representation of polite conversation that generally prevailed in conversation pieces. From scenes of excessive drinking or bawdiness, of tension or dissidence transpired noisy atmospheres very likely filled with agitated verbal exchanges rather than the refined sound of polite conversations.

  • 49 Kate Davison, “Occasional Politeness and Gentlemen's Laughter in 18th C England”, The Historical Jo (...)
  • 50 James Boswell recalled the anecdote on November, 29th 1783: “I was in Scotland when this Club was f (...)
  • 51 See Capdeville, ‘Clubbability: a revolution in London sociability?’, Lumen, 35 (2016), p. 63-80.

26Building both on Lawrence Klein’s work on politeness and R. W. Connell’s work on masculinity, Kate Davison recently posed the question of the consistency of social reality and lifestyle of a supposedly polite society with prescriptive texts, in a thought-provoking study on ‘Occasional Laughter’.49 In the same way, the tension or dissonance identified in this essay has led us to question their validity, and to reassess the paradoxical nature of English sociability. In 1783, Johnson invented the adjective ‘clubable’,50 which seems to perfectly correspond to the English character. As a synonym of the word ‘sociable’, it was especially adapted to club sociability.51

Tensions reconciled: how clubs reinvented conversation as a social art

Polite conversation vs gendered sociability

  • 52 See Capdeville, ‘Gender at stake: the Role of Eighteenth-Century London Clubs in Shaping a New Mode (...)

27It is only in the second half of the eighteenth century that contemporaries started to realize that the ideal of politeness, as defined according to the French model, was incompatible with virility, such a key attribute of the English national character and so central to club life. French conversation and sociability were so much linked to femininity that, in order to preserve the masculine character, it was thought that new norms of politeness should be created, in England, to shape a model of sociability à l’anglaise.52 Clubs excluded women, whose sociability and conversation were judged inappropriate to the feminine character, which clearly corresponded to men’s intention to maintain women outside the universe of male affiliation.

  • 53 See Carolyn Lougee, Le Paradis des femmes: Women, Salons and Social Stratification in Seventeenth-C (...)
  • 54 “[it is] the Male that gives Charms to Womankind, that produces an Air in their Faces, a Grace in t (...)
  • 55 Swift, op. cit., vol. 4, p. 95.
  • 56 James Fordyce, Sermons to Young Women (1766), 1770, vol.1, p. 17.

28Indeed, how could conversation become one of the essential expressions of the male-dominated universe of English clubs? In France, women were considered indispensable to the refinement of manners, to politeness and sociability. The success of ‘ruelles’ and salons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries testify to their key roles within the public sphere. As cultivated and distinguished individuals, with a refined conversation and elegant manners, they gathered a skillful blend of the most renowned persons, either aristocrats, politicians, writers or artists.53 Conversation between men and women appeared as the best way to improve their politeness, their mutual contact having a positive influence on both sexes.54 Mixed conversation would help to erase, at least to soften, that roughness so much blamed on the English. For Swift the presence of women in society would have a salutary effect: “[it] would lay a Restraint upon those odious Topicks of Immodesty and Indecencies into which the Rudeness of our Northern Genius is so apt to fall”.55 In the later part of the century, James Fordyce also saw it as a real benefit: “nothing formed the manners of men so much as the turn of the women with whom they converse […] Such society, beyond anything else, rubs off the corners that give many of our sex an ungracious roughness.”56

Beyond the taciturn Englishman

29Studying the art of conversation in London clubs raises another paradox, which could seem, at first, totally incompatible with the nature of conversation itself. How could the Englishman, often reputed as taciturn and little inclined to society, make of the club a unique social space devoted to conversation and sociability? While a lot of foreign travellers denounced the brusqueness of his manners and his lack of politeness, the English gentleman was also often characterized as introverted and taciturn. The English language, because of its use of monosyllables, was also said to be deprived of all refinement. But thanks to a musical metaphor, Addison endeavoured to prove the contrary:

  • 57 Spectator, n° 135 (4 Aug. 1711).

As first of all by its abounding in Monosyllables, which gives us an Opportunity of delivering our Thoughts in few Sounds. This indeed takes off from the Elegance of our Tongue, but at the same time expresses our Ideas in the readiest manner, and consequently answers the first Design of Speech better than the Multitude of Syllables, which make the Words of other Languages more Tunable and Sonorous. The Sounds of our English Words are commonly like those of String Musick, short and transient, which rise and perish upon a single Touch; those of other Languages are like the Notes of Wind Instruments, sweet and swelling, and lengthen'd out into variety of Modulation.57

  • 58 “Our Discourse is not kept up in Conversation but falls into more Pauses and Intervals than in our (...)

30The silence the English seemed to observe and enjoy, or perhaps the difficulty they felt in talking to others appeared, in the eighteenth century, as distinctive elements of the national character.58

  • 59 Spectator, n° 135.

I think my self very happy in my Country, as the Language of it is wonderfully adapted to a Man who is sparing of his Words, and an Enemy to Loquacity. […] The English delight in Silence more than any other European Nation, if the Remarks which are made on us by Foreigners are true.”59

  • 60 Louis de Boissy, Le Français à Londres (1727), Théâtre des auteurs du second ordre : comédies en pr (...)
  • 61 Spectator, n° 9 (10 March 1711).
  • 62 “Il leur est ordinaire d’être d’abord réservez, and de ne s’ouvrir qu’à mesure qu’ils connaissent l (...)

31They were sometimes the objects of satire abroad. For example, a play by Louis de Boissy, a French Marquess, ironized on the conversation of the English: “Leur conversation ? Ils n’en ont point du tout. Ils sont une heure sans parler, et n’ont autre chose à vous dire que how do you…, cela fait un entretien bien amusant.”60 In England, the art of silence fully belonged to the art of conversation. Significantly enough, in Spectator n° 9, Addison described a multitude of clubs, real as well as imaginary ones, some of them devoted to silence: the Hum-Drum Club “was made up of very honest Gentlemen, of peaceable Dispositions, that used to sit together, smoak their Pipes, and say nothing 'till Midnight.” He also mentioned a Mum Club, “an Institution of the same Nature, and as great an Enemy to Noise.”61 But the first impressions that foreigners might have had of the English at the time could prove erroneous, as the Swiss Béat-Louis de Muralt observed: “It is usual for them to be reserved at first, easing only once they are better acquainted with the persons they are dealing with”.62 Thus, club life enabled them to overcome their initial inhibitions. Once the ice was broken and the environment tamed, Englishmen could adhere to a real spirit of community and enjoy free conversation.

‘Clubable’ Johnson: conversation as a social art

  • 63 See Pat Rogers, op. cit., p. 151-152.
  • 64 See Johnson’s definition of the word easiness: “freedom from harshness, formality, forced behaviour (...)
  • 65 Boswell, op. cit., p. 1246.

32Interestingly enough, the definition of the word “conversation” given by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of English Language, “familiar discourse ; chat ; easy talk ; opposed to a formal conference”, did not convey the elaborate system of politeness that prevailed among the circles of conversation that have been described.63 For the English lexicographer, conversation, stripped from all formality and pedantry, became “easiness”.64 Boswell described Samuel Johnson’s conversation as “easy and natural”.65 In fact, the lack of flair, mentioned earlier, counted among the most common grievances against those Boswell called ‘professed wits’. These individuals were:

  • 66 Boswell, An Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to That Island and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli, G (...)

[…] continually striving for smart remarks, and lively repartees, […] a company of artificers employed in some very nice and difficult work, which they are under a necessity of performing. [They] put themselves to much pain in order to please [and actually] please less than if they would just appear as they naturally feel themselves.66

  • 67 Boswell, op. cit., Life, p. 293, 300, 523, 542, 545, 912.
  • 68 Ibid., p. 1314.

33As for Johnson, he constantly deplored the fact that Goldsmith’s desire to shine made him forget the use of the naturalness necessary to any conversation.67 One day, a gentleman proved so devoid of this quality and was fidgeting so much that Johnson, irritated, threw at him one of his lexical inventions: “Don’t attitudenise”.68

34To excel in conversation, four dispositions were absolutely necessary to Samuel Johnson:

  • 69 Ibid., p. 1195.

There must, in the first place, be knowledge, there must be materials ; in the second place, there must be a command of words ; in the third place, there must be imagination, to place things in such views as they are commonly seen in ; and in the fourth place, there must be presence of mind, and a resolution that is not to be overcome by failures […].69

  • 70 The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, ed. Lars E. Troide, 3 vols., Oxford, Clarendon Pres (...)
  • 71 Boswell, op. cit., Life, p. 1150.

35His talent was to possess all four. Numerous contemporaries and friends praised his immense knowledge: not an in-depth knowledge in each particular domain but rather a wide and rich range of knowledge. Above all, it was this wise and moderate use of knowledge that was expected in the conversation of a gentleman. Samuel Johnson’s oratorical skills provoked the admiration of Fanny Burney who delighted in listening to him: “his conversation is so replete with instruction and entertainment, his wit is so ready, and his language at once so original and so comprehensive, that I hardly know any satisfaction I can receive, that is equal to listening to him.”70 Apart from the qualities indispensable to master the art of conversation according to Johnson, Boswell, choosing a musical metaphor, referred to the need to constantly “tune oneself” to one’s interlocutors. But the only weakness that Boswell and other contemporaries conceded to Johnson was certainly his lack of flexibility. This fault became his strength, as it enabled Johnson to lead his conversations like real combats. What he preferred in conversation was, above all, the confrontation of ideas, a duel between sharpened minds. It was for him a proof of intellectual vitality: “he had […] all his life habituated himself to consider conversation as a trial of intellectual vigour and skill”.71

  • 72 This aspect was developed by Jon Mee, Conversable Worlds. p. 91-94.
  • 73 Für Johnson war Konversation Diskussion, ein Konflikt, der mit den Waffen des Intellekts ausgetrag (...)
  • 74 Oliver Goldsmith, quoted in Colby H. Kullman, “James Boswell and the Art of Conversation”, Compendi (...)
  • 75 In Hauptprobleme der Philosophie, Leipzig, G. J. Göschen, 1910, Georg Simmel insisted on the value (...)

36During the years he spent in London, the last twenty years of his life, his love of conversation led him to belong to several clubs. In 1764, when his friend Joshua Reynolds suggested organizing regular meetings with a few other authors, scholars and statesmen, so as to dine and converse together, Johnson immediately accepted. It seemed entirely natural for him to create such an institution, in which his conversation would flourish freely. The Club provided an ideal space for sociability for Johnson’s animated conversations with Burke, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Beauclerk, Boswell, etc. They could be indeed “frictive”72 exchanges, which Boswell attempted to reproduce as faithfully as possible. Conversation was for Johnson a dispute, a conflict and the weapons he used were those of the intellect.73 Goldsmith considered that one could not emerge unharmed after a duel with Johnson: “There’s no arguing with Johnson, for if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt-end of it.”74 Despite some offensive remarks towards his adversaries, Johnson maintained a deep respect for the principle of equality in conversation. To converse among equals was then considered as a true pleasure.75

  • 76 The tavern, a place that he particularly loved, was “the throne of human felicity” ; the same phras (...)
  • 77 Formerly Miss Thrale.
  • 78 Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL. D.,… during the last twenty years of his Life, by Hester (...)
  • 79 On conversation as improvement and on the contentious nature of politeness, see an interesting anal (...)

37The art of conversation was, above all, the pleasure of conversing and so a quest for a certain form of happiness. The moments spent at The Club were most certainly, for Johnson, the happiest moments in his life.76 Moreover, his friend Mrs Piozzi77 remembered when he insisted on the “[….] idea that nothing promoted happiness so much as conversation.”78 Conversation had a truly civilizing function ; the conviviality and the freedom of speech among the London clubs not only encouraged solidarity, but also the social and personal accomplishment of its members. By making conversation more natural and less formal, as opposed to what was practiced in France and also in England in the first half of the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson succeeded in transforming it into a social art in which pleasure and intellectual improvement were inseparable. This helped to render The Club a central space for conviviality, discussion and exchange. The Club sheltered the rich and diverse discussions between the most renowned writers and artists of the time. Rather than a superficial exchange of idle remarks, conversation was considered more as an intellectual fight among equals. In this context, conversation earned its reputation for excellence.79

38To conclude, this essay has demonstrated that conversation in England has followed a progressive transformation since the buzzing noise of the first coffee-house discussions. Far from the formatted and artificial conversation of the coffee-house wits, conversation in the clubs of the second half of the century was more and more characterized by its freedom and authenticity. If the tensions inherent in club sociability could at first be identified as obstacles to polite and convivial exchange, this analysis has shown that such paradoxes could be reconciled and had a beneficial effect on club conversation itself: they helped to shape it into a really unique social experience.

  • 80 Davison, op. cit.
  • 81 ‘habitus’: the sets of bodily and intellectual ‘skills’ which allow people to accomplish particular (...)

39Far from negating the importance of discourse on polite conversation, it proved necessary for eighteenth-century gentlemen to adjust their individual behaviours to the ongoing discursive ideal and therefore to make it evolve. In that respect, I have found Kate Davison’s analysis of the concept of ‘occasional politeness’ particularly enlightening.80 The extent to which manners are dependent on social context proves the flexibility of behavioural practices. Company is thus seen as the factor determining the ‘habitus’ of a social encounter (based on Bourdieu’s theory),81 and hence what was considered “appropriate behaviour”. Gentlemen could show considerable flexibility in their adherence to polite standards depending on the familiarity they shared with their companions. They did not have fixed identities but were constantly refashioned by their relationships with others. This element adds to my conviction that the influence of London clubs on conversation, on politeness and on society in general was pivotal.

  • 82 On the Blue-Stockings, see Sylvia Harcstack Myers’ study, The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendshi (...)
  • 83 Quoted in Mrs. Montagu, ‘Queen of the Blues’: her letters and friendships from 1762 to 1800, ed. Re (...)

40Moreover, clubs made it possible to replace the ‘feminine’ model offered by French sociability with an English model of sociability, compatible with the masculine character. The exclusion of women from a model of conversation à l’anglaise was in part corrected with the creation of the Blue-Stocking Club by Elizabeth Montagu, mentioned for the first time in 1757 in her correspondence.82 The Blue-Stockings fulfilled a desire for social and intellectual intercourse and was more a ‘salon’ as it existed in France. Elizabeth Montagu was convinced of the necessity for women and men to socialize together, for the sake of conversation: “to speak sincerely, I think no society completely agreable if entirely male or female. The masculinisms of men, and the feminalistics of the women, if the first prevail they make conversation too rough, and austere, if the latter, too soft and weak.”83 This assembly first organized literary breakfasts, then the meetings became ‘conversation parties’, held in the evening. From the very beginning, their purpose was to promote literary conversation as one of the main pleasures of social life. The French-inspired ‘bel esprit’ was no longer a fashionable and refined sound in English ears and was firmly rejected, whereas conversation in England was enhanced by a new sense of community, conviviality and liberty.

41Finally, thanks to Samuel Johnson, conversation not only shifted from an elegant and coded verbiage to an intellectual performance or debate, but truly became a social art. Johnson could be considered as the one who cultivated the art of conversation at its best and who rendered it more lively and flexible. English conversation thus became closer to the notion of debate, essential to the foundation of conviviality, but also to the democratic tradition of the country.

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Notes

1 Henry Fielding, An Essay on Conversation (1743), in Miscellanies by Henry Fielding, The Wesleyan Edition of the Works of Henry Fielding, ed. Henry Knight Miller, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1972.

2 Jon Mee, “Turning things around together: Enlightenment and conversation”, in Alexander Cook, Representing Humanity in the Age of the Enlightenment, Routledge, 2015, p. 54-63, here p. 54.

3 Michèle Cohen defined politeness and good breeding as a ‘language of the voice and of the body’, in Fashioning Masculinity: National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century, London, New York, Routledge, 1996, p. 45.

4 See recent studies on conversation: Jon Mee, ‘Turning Things Around Together: Enlightenment and Conversation’ in Representing Humanity in the Age of Enlightenment, eds. Alexander Cook, Ned Curthoys and Shino Konishi, London and New York, Routledge, 2015, p. 53-64 ; Conversable Worlds. Literature, Contention, and Community 1762 to 1830, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011 ; Pat Rogers, ‘Conversation’ in Samuel Johnson in Context, ed. Jack Lynch, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 151-156 ; Stephen Miller, Conversation: a History of a Declining Art, New Haven, London, Yale University Press, 2008 ; Katie Halsey and Jane Slinn, The Concept and Practice of Conversation in the Long Eighteenth Century, 1688-1848, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008. On London clubs: Valérie Capdeville, L’Age d’or des clubs londoniens (1730-1784), Paris, Honoré Champion, 2008, especially p. 151-180.

5 See the section ‘After Habermas’ in the introduction by Katie Halsey and Jane Slinn to The Concept and Practice of Conversation in the Long Eighteenth Century, 1688-1848, p. xi-xiv. An important contribution to the history of coffee-houses was Brian Cowan, A Social History of Coffee: the Emergence of the British Coffeehouse, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2005.

6 Peter Clark, British Clubs and Societies, 1580-1800: the Origins of an Associational World, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2000, p. 229.

7 The Character of a Coffee-House, with the Symptoms of a Town-wit, London, Jonathan Edwin, 1673, p. 4.

8 Edward Ward, The School of Politicks: or the Humours of a Coffee-house. A Poem, London, Richard Balwin, 1690, p. 2.

9 Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, The Spectator (1711-14), ed. D. F. Bond, 5 vols., 1965, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1985, vol. 2, n° 403 (12 June 1712).

10 See Capdeville, op. cit., p. 68.

11 Alexander Pope used the following metaphor: “True wit is Nature to Advantage drest / What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest.”, Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism [1711], in The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. John Butt, 11 vols., London, Methuen and co.; New Haven, Yale University Press, 1961, vol. 1, p. 272.

12 “The Conversations of which Places [the chief Coffee-houses] are carry’d on by Persons, each of whom has his little Number of Followers and Admirers […]”, The Spectator, n° 478 (8 Sept. 1712).

13 D. Judson Milburn, The Age of Wit: 1650-1750, London, New York, Macmillan, 1966.

14 Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. R. Latham and W. Matthews, 11 vols., London, Bell and Hyman, 1970-83, vol. 5, p. 37.

15 For a more detailed analysis of the organic link between the coffee-house, the press and the triumph of wit in the first decades of the eighteenth century, see Capdeville, op. cit., p. 41-46.

16 “[Wit] has something too rustic in it to be considered without terror by men of politeness”, The Tatler, n°252 (18 Nov. 1710). Over half a century later, in 1774, Lord Chesterfield nostalgically encapsulated the complexity and artificiality of this discursive skill: “Wit is so shining a quality that everybody admires it ; most people aim at it, all people fear it, and few love it unless in themselves.” Lord Chesterfield (Philip Dormer Stanhope), Letters of Philip Dormer, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, to His Godson and Successor, ed. Earl of Carnarvon, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1890, p. 180 (Letter 136).

17 Benedetta Craveri, The Age of Conversation (2001), trans. Teresa Waugh, New York, 2005, xiii.

18 For bibliographical references on the English side, see Peter Burke, The Art of Conversation, Oxford, Polity Press, 1993. For example: [Simon Wagstaff] Jonathan Swift, A Treatise on Polite Conversation [1738] ; [Anon.] John Constable, The Conversation of Gentlemen [1738] ; Henry Fielding, An Essay on Conversation [1743] ; [Anon.], The Art of Conversation [1757].

19 Similarly, Jean-Baptiste Morvan de Bellegarde published Réflexions sur ce qui peut plaire ou déplaire dans le commerce du monde (1690) and Modèles de conversation pour les personnes polies (1697).

20 Several examples: Antoine Gombault, Chevalier de Méré, Discours de la conversation, Paris, D. Thierry and C. Barbin, 1677 ; Madeleine de Scudéry, ‘De la conversation’ et ‘De parler trop ou trop peu’, Conversations sur divers sujets, Paris, C. Barbin, 1680 ; François de Fenne, ‘De la conversation’, Entretiens familiers pour les amateurs de la langue françoise, Leyde, C. Boutesteyn, 1680 ; Jean de La Bruyère, ‘De la société et de la conversation’ [1688], Caractères, Paris, 1765 ; Antoine de Courtin, ‘Ce qui règle la conversation en compagnie’, Nouveau traité de la civilité qui se pratique en France parmi les honnestes gens, Paris, H. Josset, 1771.

21 James Puckle, The Club; or, A Dialogue between Father and Son, London, 1711, p. 69.

22 The Spectator, n° 49 (26 Apr. 1711).

23 Scudéry, ‘De parler trop ou trop peu’, op. cit.

24 The Spectator, n° 428 (11 July 1712).

25 Puckle, op. cit., p. 72.

26 Fielding, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 145.

27 Jonathan Swift, ‘Hints towards an Essay on Conversation’ (1763), in The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, ed. H. David, Oxford, 1973.

28 Puckle, op. cit., p. 74.

29 Raillery was often associated with wit. Indecency and blasphemy were also considered as offensive traits in conversation and as signs of disrespect: “Such language grates the ears of good men”, Ibid., p. 44, p. 70.

30 Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), Sensus Communis, An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour in a Letter to a Friend’, in Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, ed. Lawrence E. Klein, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999. See Fabienne Brugère, Théorie de l’art et philosophie de la sociabilité selon Shaftesbury, p. 113.

31 Fielding, op. cit., p. 146.

32 Ibid., p. 123.

33 Jon Mee, op. cit., title.

34 “L’idéal de la conversation devient une imposture, puisque la socialité y dégénère en désir de briller, l’esprit en jargon, et qu’elle se vide de son contenu”, Jean-Paul Sermain, “La Conversation au dix-huitième siècle: un théâtre pour les Lumières ?”, in Convivialité et politesse: du gigot, des mots et autres savoir-vivre, ed. Alain Montandon, Clermont-Ferrand, Faculté de lettres et sciences humaines de l’Université Blaise-Pascal, 1993, p. 127.

35 “flattery is compounded of the most sordid, hateful Qualities incident to Mankind, viz. Lying, Servility and Treachery”, J. Puckle, op. cit., p. 14.

36 Spectator, n° 103 (28 June 1711) ; in the same article : “The Dialect of Conversation is now-a-days so swell’d with Vanity and Compliment and so surfeited (as I may say) of Expressions of Kindness and Respect.”

37 “Conversation, like the Romish Religion, was so encumbered with Show and Ceremony, that it stood in need of a Reformation to retrench its Superfluities and restore it to its natural good Sense and Beauty”, Spectator, n° 119 (17 July 1711).

38 Abel Boyer, The English Theophrastus: or the Manners of the Age. Being the Modern Characters of the Court, the Town and the City, London, 1702. Even if the rules prescribed by those codes of behaviour were not always applied to the letter, those “traités de convenances” represented a specific literary genre and remained precious for analyzing the normative behaviours that a given society proposed to its members and according to which they were expected to be shaped.

39 Shaftesbury, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 153. In Dialogues on the Uses of Foreign Travel Considered as a Part of an English Gentleman’s Education: Between Lord Shaftesbury and Mr Locke, published in London in 1764, Richard Hurd later discussed the value and influence of foreign fashions on the education of the English gentleman.

40 Gabriel Tarde, L’Opinion et la foule [1901], Paris, PUF, 1989.

41 Georg Simmel, Sociabilité et épistémologie, Paris, PUF, 1981, p. 131-132.

42 Here are a few primary sources, which aimed to establish the great principles of the education of the gentleman : William Ramsay, The Gentleman’s Companion, London, 1669 ; William Darrell, A Gentleman Instructed in the Conduct of a Virtuous and Happy Life [1704], London, 1720 ; J. L. Cosketer, The Fine Gentleman or the Complete Education of a Young Nobleman, London, 1732.

43 “[politeness as a] cultural ideology” is a phrase used by Lawrence E. Klein in his work on the subject and particularly in his study entitled: Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

44 Philip Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800, London, Longman, 2001, p. 62.

45 Spectator, n° 49 (26 Apr. 1711) ; n° 169 (13 Sept. 1711).

46 The Guardian, n° 34 (20 Apr. 1713), London, 1745.

47 Chesterfield, op. cit., Letters to his Son, p. 268 (letter 112). John Locke had referred to this form of politeness in the same manner: “that decency and gracefulness of Looks, Voice, Words, Motions, Gestures, and of the whole outward Demeanour which takes in Company, and makes those with whom we converse, easie and well pleased”, Some Thoughts Concerning Education [1693], in The Clarendon Edition of the Works of John Locke, ed. J.W. and J. S. Yolton, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989, p. 200.

48 L. E. Klein, ‘Politeness and the Interpretation of the British Eighteenth Century’, The Historical Journal, 45.4 (2002), p. 869-898, here p. 877. On the ‘conversation piece’ in the context of polite culture, see David H. Solkin, Painting for Money. The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-century England, New Haven, London, Yale University Press, 1993, p. 48-106.

49 Kate Davison, “Occasional Politeness and Gentlemen's Laughter in 18th C England”, The Historical Journal, 57 (2014), pp 921-945, here p. 927 ; Davison refers to Philip Carter’s endeavour to highlight this disjuncture between the theory of polite manners and the practice of impoliteness, p. 938.

50 James Boswell recalled the anecdote on November, 29th 1783: “I was in Scotland when this Club was founded during all the winter. Johnson, however, declared I should be a member, and invented a word upon the occasion: ‘Boswell (said he) is a very clubable man’. When I came to town I was proposed to Mr. Barrington, and chosen”, James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. R. W. Chapman (1953), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 1260.

51 See Capdeville, ‘Clubbability: a revolution in London sociability?’, Lumen, 35 (2016), p. 63-80.

52 See Capdeville, ‘Gender at stake: the Role of Eighteenth-Century London Clubs in Shaping a New Model of English Masculinity’, Culture, Society & Masculinities, 4.1, 2012, p. 13-32.

53 See Carolyn Lougee, Le Paradis des femmes: Women, Salons and Social Stratification in Seventeenth-Century France, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1976, and a more general analysis by Roger Picard, Les Salons littéraires et la société française (1610-1789), New York, Brentano’s, 1943. A major study was published in 2005 by Antoine Lilti: Le Monde des salons. Sociabilité et mondanité à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Fayard, 2005.

54 “[it is] the Male that gives Charms to Womankind, that produces an Air in their Faces, a Grace in their Motions, a Softness in their Voices, and a Delicacy in their Complections. […] [without women], Men would be quite different Creatures from what they are at present ; their Endeavours to please the opposite Sex, polishes and refines them out of those Manners most natural to them […]”, Spectator, n° 433 (17 July 1712).

55 Swift, op. cit., vol. 4, p. 95.

56 James Fordyce, Sermons to Young Women (1766), 1770, vol.1, p. 17.

57 Spectator, n° 135 (4 Aug. 1711).

58 “Our Discourse is not kept up in Conversation but falls into more Pauses and Intervals than in our Neighbouring Countries.” Spectator, n° 135 (Aug. 4, 1711). That aspect was also developed by Thomas Wilson in The Many Advantages of a Good Language to any Nation, with an Examination of the present State of our own (1729), p. 30, 36.

59 Spectator, n° 135.

60 Louis de Boissy, Le Français à Londres (1727), Théâtre des auteurs du second ordre : comédies en prose, 40 vols., Paris, 1810, vol. 9.

61 Spectator, n° 9 (10 March 1711).

62 “Il leur est ordinaire d’être d’abord réservez, and de ne s’ouvrir qu’à mesure qu’ils connaissent les personnes à qui ils ont à faire”, Béat-Louis de Muralt, Lettres sur les Anglois et les François et les Voiages (1728), ed. Charles Gould, Paris, Champion, 1933, p. 143.

63 See Pat Rogers, op. cit., p. 151-152.

64 See Johnson’s definition of the word easiness: “freedom from harshness, formality, forced behaviour or conceits”, Dictionary of English Language (London, 1755).

65 Boswell, op. cit., p. 1246.

66 Boswell, An Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to That Island and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli, Glasgow, R. and A. Foulis, 1768, p. 351.

67 Boswell, op. cit., Life, p. 293, 300, 523, 542, 545, 912.

68 Ibid., p. 1314.

69 Ibid., p. 1195.

70 The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, ed. Lars E. Troide, 3 vols., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988 ; 1990 ; 1994, vol. 2, p. 74.

71 Boswell, op. cit., Life, p. 1150.

72 This aspect was developed by Jon Mee, Conversable Worlds. p. 91-94.

73 Für Johnson war Konversation Diskussion, ein Konflikt, der mit den Waffen des Intellekts ausgetragen werden musste, Dieter A. Berger, Konversationkunst in England, 1660-1740: Ein Sprechphänomen und seine Literarische Gestaltung, Munich, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1978, p. 115.

74 Oliver Goldsmith, quoted in Colby H. Kullman, “James Boswell and the Art of Conversation”, Compendious Conversations: The Method of Dialogue in the Early Enlightenment, ed. Kevin L. Cope, New York, Peter Lang, 1992, p. 82.

75 In Hauptprobleme der Philosophie, Leipzig, G. J. Göschen, 1910, Georg Simmel insisted on the value and pleasant character of convivial contacts between individuals of equal status, within the limits of a social group, for example.

76 The tavern, a place that he particularly loved, was “the throne of human felicity” ; the same phrase used by John Hawkins and quoted in Boswell, op. cit., Life, p. 697n ; and also “[…] so much happiness is produced […] by a good tavern”, p. 697.

77 Formerly Miss Thrale.

78 Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL. D.,… during the last twenty years of his Life, by Hester Lynch Piozzi, ed. S. C. Roberts, London, Cambridge University Press, 1925, p. 134.

79 On conversation as improvement and on the contentious nature of politeness, see an interesting analysis in Jon Mee’s Conversable Worlds, p. 37-80.

80 Davison, op. cit.

81 ‘habitus’: the sets of bodily and intellectual ‘skills’ which allow people to accomplish particular social tasks in specific social settings. Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1990, p. 52-65.

82 On the Blue-Stockings, see Sylvia Harcstack Myers’ study, The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendship and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990.

83 Quoted in Mrs. Montagu, ‘Queen of the Blues’: her letters and friendships from 1762 to 1800, ed. Reginald Blunt, 2 vols., London, Constable and Company Limited, 1923, vol. 2, p. 358.

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Valérie Capdeville, « Noise and Sound Reconciled: How London Clubs Shaped Conversation into a Social Art  », Études Épistémè [En ligne], 29 | 2016, mis en ligne le 20 juillet 2016, consulté le 20 septembre 2017. URL : http://episteme.revues.org/1208 ; DOI : 10.4000/episteme.1208

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Valérie Capdeville

Valérie Capdeville is a Senior Lecturer in British Civilisation at the University of Paris 13. She belongs to the PLEIADE (EA 7338) research laboratory and is a member of the Société d'Etudes Anglo-Américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (SEAA17-18). She has specialised in the social and cultural history of British clubs and sociability in the eighteenth century. She is the author of L'Age d'or des clubs londoniens (1730-1784) (Honoré Champion, 2008) and she co-edited La Sociabilité en France et en Grande-Bretagne au siècle des Lumières. Volume 3. Les Espaces de sociabilité (Paris: Le Manuscrit, 2014).

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