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I do not think there is any thing deserving the name of society to be found out of London: and that for the two following reasons. First, there is neighbourhood elsewhere, accidental or unavoidable acquaintance: people are thrown together by chance or grow together like trees; but you can pick your society nowhere but in London. The very persons that of all others you would wish to associate with in almost every line of life, (or at least of intellectual
pursuit,) are to be met with there. It is hard if out of a million of people you cannot find half a dozen to your liking. Individuals may seem lost and hid in the size of the place: but in fact from this very circumstance you are within two or three miles' reach of persons that without it you would be some hundreds apart from. Secondly, London is the only place in which each individual in company is treated according to his value in company, and to that only. In every other part of the kingdom he carries another character about with him, which supersedes the intellectual or social one. It is known in Manchester or Liverpool what every man in the room is worth in land or money; what are his connexions and prospects in life—and this gives a character of servility or arrogance, of mercenariness or impertinence to the whole of
provincial intercourse. You laugh not in proportion to a man's wit, but his wealth : you have to consider not what, but whom you contradict. You speak by the pound, and are heard by the rood. In the metropolis there is neither time nor inclination for these remote calculations. Every man depends on the quantity of sense, wit, or good manners he brings into society for the reception he meets with in it. A member of parliament soon finds his level as a commoner: the merchant and manufacturer cannot bring his goods to market here: the great landed proprietor shrinks from being the lord of acres into a pleasant companion or a dull fellow. When a visitor enters or leaves a room, it is not inquired whether he is rich or poor, whether he lives in a garret or a palace, or comes in his own or a hackney-coach, but whether he has a good expression of countenance, with an unaffected manner, and whether he is a man of understanding or a blockhead. These are the circumstances by which you make a favourable impression on the company, and by which they estimate you in the abstract. In the country, they consider whether you have a vote at the next election, or a place in your gift; and measure the capacity of others to instruct or entertain them by the strength of their pockets .
and their credit with their banker. Personal merit is at a prodigious discount in the provinces. I like the country very well, if I want to enjoy my own company: but London is the only place for equal society, or where a man can say a good thing or express an honest opinion without subjecting himself to being insulted, unless he first lays his purse on the table to back his pretensions to talent or independence of spirit. I speak from experience *.
* When I was young, I spent a good deal of
time at Manchester and Liverpool ; and I confess I give the preference to the former. There you were oppressed only by the aristocracy of wealth ; in the latter by the aristocracy of wealth and letters by turns. You could not help feeling that some of their great men were authors among merchants and merchants among authors. Their bread was buttered on both sides, and they had you at a disadvantage either way. The Manchester cotton-spinners, on the contrary, set up no pretensions beyond their looms, were hearty good fellows, and took any information or display of ingenuity on other subjects in good part. I remember well being introduced to a distinguished patron of art and rising merit at a little distance from Liverpool, and was received with every mark of attention and politeness, till the conversation turning on Italian literature, our host remarked that there was nothing in the English language corresponding to the severity of the Italian odeexcept perhaps Dryden's Alexander's Feast, and Pope's St. Cecilia ! I could no longer contain my desire to display my smattering in criticism, and began to maintain that Pope's
Ode was, as it appeared to me, far from an example of severity in writing. I soon perceived what I had done, but here am I writing Table-talks in consequence. Alas! I knew as little of the world then as I do now. I never could understand any thing beyond an abstract definition.