”If Horace Walpole was right—that the world is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel—the English were the most thoughtful people in the world. They were polite and considerate, not pushy or boastful; the self-confident took care not to humiliate the shy or timid; and even the most accomplished was aware that his achievements were a drop in the ocean of possibility, and might have been much greater if he had tried harder or been more talented.
Those characteristics had undoubted drawbacks. They could lead to complacency and philistinism, for if the world was a comedy, nothing was serious. They could easily slide into arrogance: the rest of the world can teach us nothing. The literary archetype of such arrogance was Mr. Podsnap in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, a man convinced that all that was British was best, and who “had even acquired a peculiar flourish of his right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems, by sweeping them behind him.’ ” ( Theodore Dalrymple )
Call it a stiff upper limp, but a highly quivering one at best. Private parties were not held in Bath until the latter part of the eighteenth century. Under the rule of Beau Nash, there had been only one society in his city; that of the Pump Room and the Assembly Rooms. It was not until after his death in 1761, in poverty and neglect, that each section of that varied society was also able to seek, in private parties, the company which it preferred. For, that the society of Bath was now an extremely diversified one, all accounts confirm.
There were fashionable visitors from London; there was the pious congregation of Methodists, patronized by the austere Countess of Huntingdon; there was the feverish world of the gamblers and the circles of the writers, artists and musicians. And, there was also, according to Smollet, ”Every upstart of fortune…Clerks and factors from the East Indies…planters, negro drivers, and hucksters, from our American plantations, enriched they know not how…usurers, brokers and jobbers of every kind; men of low birth and no breeding…and all of them hurry to Bath, because here, without any further qualification, they can mingle with the princes and nobles of the land.”
These societies mingled indeed, in the sense that they jostled each other in the baths and the Assembly Rooms; but they did not mix. The Methodists considered Bath to be, in Wesley’s phrase, ”Satans’s own heaquarters”. The great ladies from London thought the Methodists gloomy, sanctimonious and ill bred, and wondered that Lady Huntingdon should give them her support. ”It is monstrous,” the Duchess of Buckingham wrote to her, ”to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth…and I cannot but wonder what your Ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.”
The lively young people came to Bath chiefly for its balls, held twice a week in the Assembly Rooms, which began, as in Beau Nash’s time, with formal minuets. The gamblers lived in a world of their own, losing and winning enormous sums night after night at ombre and faro, and especially at a kind of roulette called EO, limiting their conversation, as Mrs. Montagu complained, to their health and their cards. Lord Chesterfield said that, while there were both sharpers and gentlemen among them, he himself preferred to play with sharpers, because the courtesies exchanged between gentlemen often ended in his not being paid at all.
aption-text">''This is a precursor to the infamous Edwardian country-house weekends (but in the pre-railway era of 1799, the whole occasion was likely to last longer than just a weekend). Some old handwriting on this copy of the print says that Cruikshank was parodying the celebration of the Duke of Rutland's coming of age.''