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The Lost Art of Table Talk

There was once a vogue for recording the things that writers and other ‘eminent figures’ said while they supped. These books, generally known as ‘table talk’, form a curious and now sadly extinct genre. Part gossip, part biography, they are also a variety of boastful memoir. As Samuel Rogers – poet, banker and echo chamber of the Regency dining room – puts it in the preface to Table-Talk, his recollections of the conversations of, among others, Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, Byron and the Duke of Wellington (recently republished by Notting Hill Editions), he personally ‘heard them talk as they did, when they were most at their ease’ and shared ‘what so few had the privilege of enjoying’. Lady Blessington and Thomas Medwin both promoted their acquaintance with Byron through their collections of his ‘Conversations’, just as Boswell drew himself up alongside the Great Cham in his Life of Samuel Johnson – the only example we have of biography as table talk.

Neither Rogers nor Boswell had an ear for the flatulent or self-regarding remark. Boswell’s Johnson is caught in asides rather than grand statements and the Charles James Fox of Rogers’s book is not the finest orator of the age but an unprepared, unbuttoned and modest melancholic who lets his fellow diners know that he finds ‘a Bat’s wing very beautiful’, that he ‘likes wild strawberries the best’, ‘can not bear the sight of honey-dew’ and thinks ‘water and all white wines improved by ice’. The comments about food are always the best; Wellington held that ‘all men require two pounds of food a day, the English not more than the French’.

Rogers hears what his speakers are unconscious of saying; he hears understatements rather than statements. He does not hear, in fact, so much as overhear. Collections of table talk always reinforce for me a sense of the past as more elegant than the present; even when no one was listening, these people said moving things. Or things that were moving because no one was listening.

Coleridge, whose table talk moves me to tears, was not one for the epigram. The challenge for those trying to capture his words is that he flowed on and on without hesitation or repetition but with a great deal of deviation. Coleridge’s table talk was entirely deviation; Rogers recalls a breakfast monologue that continued, without a clearly defined subject, for three hours. The contents page of Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by his nephew Henry Nelson Coleridge, contains over 700 topics, including ‘Ghosts’, ‘Dog’, ‘Quacks’, ‘Madness’, ‘Black’, ‘Flogging’ and ‘the Scottish’. (Coleridge ‘generally found a Scotchman with a little literature very disagreeable’.)

Not everyone enjoyed sharing a table with Coleridge. There were always those who fell asleep or drifted off. On one occasion Rogers and Wordsworth, dining with their friend, listened in silence to a sentence that spread itself over several hours. ‘Well,’ said Rogers on leaving the house, ‘for my own part, I could not make head nor tail of Coleridge’s oration. Pray, did you understand it?’ ‘Not one syllable,’ was Wordsworth’s reply.

Today we might consider such a guest to be a liability, but it was never suggested that Coleridge was rude. Did he do all this talking with his mouth stuffed full of bread and cheese? Collections of table talk capture the experience of listening at table rather than watching; there is no record to be found here of table manners. Rogers does, however, record Byron’s attention-seeking diets. Asked by his host if he would take soup, Byron replied that no, he never took soup. Would he take some fish? No, he never took fish. Mutton? No, he never ate mutton. Wine? No, he never took wine. He always dined, Byron said, on hard biscuits and soda water. Neither of these being available, Byron’s fellow guests watched him bruise down a plate of potatoes until the mash had absorbed the pool of vinegar in which they lay. Once the supper was over, Byron was seen entering a club in St James’s, where he ordered a hearty meat meal.

Johnson’s own observations about vinegar (‘a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out’) and about eating in general (‘A man is better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek’) were lifted from Boswell’s Life and repackaged in cut-and-paste books of table talk. What these pocket-sized collections elide is the visual context: fellow diners enjoyed Johnson’s wit after having watched him tear into his vittles like a beast at a kill. According to Boswell, Johnson’s expression when dining was riveted to his plate; he became ‘totally absorbed in the business of the moment’. He said not a word and ‘nor would he pay the least attention to what was said by others, till he had satisfied his appetite, which was so fierce, and indulged with such intenseness, that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled and generally a strong perspiration was visible’. Boswell doubted that Johnson’s presence at the table conformed with what was expected of a philosopher, but the horror of watching him satisfy his stomach did nothing to stem the flow of invitations. There is a reason for this: bad table manners are, we believe, a sign of high thinking.

Today we are more interested in the minutia of what we eat than in the etiquette of how to eat it or the things we say between, or during, mouthfuls. We are inundated with advice from celebrity chefs on how to make a memorable soufflé, but no one shares their tips on good table talk. There is still, however, a fascination with the theatre around food. What else explains the popularity – particularly among writers, many of whom consider themselves gourmands – of that mesmerising television programme Come Dine with Me? The quality of the cuisine in this dinner party competition is irrelevant: what we are gripped by is the banality of the contestants’ chat as they dine, five nights in succession, in one another’s homes. Their talk is mainly about food: what they like to eat; what they will not touch; the virtues or otherwise of vinegar, hard biscuits, cucumber, wild strawberries and honeydew. This is the spirit of the age.

r f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 4 | Literary Review 1

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