Extract from 'The Diary of a Nobody'
A classic of humorous literature, "The Diary of a Nobody" follows the trials of a Victorian middle-class man, Charles Pooter, as he attempts to make his way in society despite the handicap of having no sense of his own ridiculousness.
The chapter reproduced here includes a character, one Hardfur Huttle, who is apparently based on Frank Harris. Certainly his opinions and manner of expressing them are very much in the mode of Harris.
CHAPTER XX. Dinner at Franching's to meet Mr. Hardfur Huttle.
May 10. - Received a letter from Mr. Franching, of Peckham, asking us to dine with him to-night, at seven o'clock, to meet Mr. Hardfur Huttle, a very clever writer for the American papers. Franching apologised for the short notice; but said he had at the last moment been disappointed of two of his guests and regarded us as old friends who would not mind filling up the gap. Carrie rather demurred at the invitation; but I explained to her that Franching was very well off and influential, and we could not afford to offend him. "And we are sure to get a good dinner and a good glass of champagne." "Which never agrees with you!" Carrie replied, sharply. I regarded Carrie's observation as unsaid. Mr. Franching asked us to wire a reply. As he had said nothing about dress in the letter, I wired back: "With pleasure. Is it full dress?" and by leaving out our name, just got the message within the sixpence.
Got back early to give time to dress, which we received a telegram instructing us to do. I wanted Carrie to meet me at Franching's house; but she would not do so, so I had to go home to fetch her. What a long journey it is from Holloway to Peckham! Why do people live such a long way off? Having to change 'buses, I allowed plenty of time - in fact, too much; for we arrived at twenty minutes to seven, and Franching, so the servant said, had only just gone up to dress. However, he was down as the clock struck seven; he must have dressed very quickly.
I must say it was quite a distinguished party, and although we did not know anybody personally, they all seemed to be quite swells. Franching had got a professional waiter, and evidently spared no expense. There were flowers on the table round some fairy-lamps and the effect, I must say, was exquisite. The wine was good and there was plenty of champagne, concerning which Franching said he himself, never wished to taste better. We were ten in number, and a MENU card to each. One lady said she always preserved the MENU and got the guests to write their names on the back.
We all of us followed her example, except Mr. Huttle, who was of course the important guest.
The dinner-party consisted of Mr. Franching, Mr. Hardfur Huttle, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Hillbutter, Mrs. Field, Mr. and Mrs. Purdick, Mr. Pratt, Mr. R. Kent, and, last but not least, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Pooter. Franching said he was sorry he had no lady for me to take in to dinner. I replied that I preferred it, which I afterwards thought was a very uncomplimentary observation to make.
I sat next to Mrs. Field at dinner. She seemed a well-informed lady, but was very deaf. It did not much matter, for Mr. Hardfur Huttle did all the talking. He is a marvellously intellectual man and says things which from other people would seem quite alarming. How I wish I could remember even a quarter of his brilliant conversation. I made a few little reminding notes on the MENU card.
One observation struck me as being absolutely powerful - though not to my way of thinking of course. Mrs. Purdick happened to say "You are certainly unorthodox, Mr. Huttle." Mr. Huttle, with a peculiar expression (I can see it now) said in a slow rich voice: "Mrs. Purdick, 'orthodox' is a grandiloquent word implying sticking-in- the-mud. If Columbus and Stephenson had been orthodox, there would neither have been the discovery of America nor the steam-engine." There was quite a silence. It appeared to me that such teaching was absolutely dangerous, and yet I felt - in fact we must all have felt - there was no answer to the argument. A little later on, Mrs. Purdick, who is Franching's sister and also acted as hostess, rose from the table, and Mr. Huttle said: "Why, ladies, do you deprive us of your company so soon? Why not wait while we have our cigars?"
The effect was electrical. The ladies (including Carrie) were in no way inclined to be deprived of Mr. Huttle's fascinating society, and immediately resumed their seats, amid much laughter and a little chaff. Mr. Huttle said: "Well, that's a real good sign; you shall not be insulted by being called orthodox any longer." Mrs. Purdick, who seemed to be a bright and rather sharp woman, said: "Mr. Huttle, we will meet you half-way - that is, till you get half-way through your cigar. That, at all events, will be the happy medium."
I shall never forget the effect the words, "happy medium," had upon him. He was brilliant and most daring in his interpretation of the words. He positively alarmed me. He said something like the following: "Happy medium, indeed. Do you know 'happy medium' are two words which mean 'miserable mediocrity'? I say, go first class or third; marry a duchess or her kitchenmaid. The happy medium means respectability, and respectability means insipidness. Does it not, Mr. Pooter?"
I was so taken aback by being personally appealed to, that I could only bow apologetically, and say I feared I was not competent to offer an opinion. Carrie was about to say something; but she was interrupted, for which I was rather pleased, for she is not clever at argument, and one has to be extra clever to discuss a subject with a man like Mr. Huttle.
He continued, with an amazing eloquence that made his unwelcome opinions positively convincing: "The happy medium is nothing more or less than a vulgar half-measure. A man who loves champagne and, finding a pint too little, fears to face a whole bottle and has recourse to an imperial pint, will never build a Brooklyn Bridge or an Eiffel Tower. No, he is half-hearted, he is a half-measure - respectable - in fact, a happy medium, and will spend the rest of his days in a suburban villa with a stucco-column portico, resembling a four-post bedstead."
"That sort of thing," continued Mr. Huttle, "belongs to a soft man, with a soft beard with a soft head, with a made tie that hooks on."
This seemed rather personal and twice I caught myself looking in the glass of the cheffoniere; for I had on a tie that hooked on - and why not? If these remarks were not personal they were rather careless, and so were some of his subsequent observations, which must have made both Mr. Franching and his guests rather uncomfortable. I don't think Mr. Huttle meant to be personal, for he added; "We don't know that class here in this country: but we do in America, and I've no use for them."
Franching several times suggested that the wine should be passed round the table, which Mr. Huttle did not heed; but continued as if he were giving a lecture:
"What we want in America is your homes. We live on wheels. Your simple, quiet life and home, Mr. Franching, are charming. No display, no pretension! You make no difference in your dinner, I dare say, when you sit down by yourself and when you invite us. You have your own personal attendant - no hired waiter to breathe on the back of your head."
I saw Franching palpably wince at this.
Mr. Huttle continued: "Just a small dinner with a few good things, such as you have this evening. You don't insult your guests by sending to the grocer for champagne at six shillings a bottle."
I could not help thinking of "Jackson Freres" at three-and-six!
"In fact," said Mr. Huttle, "a man is little less than a murderer who does. That is the province of the milksop, who wastes his evening at home playing dominoes with his wife. I've heard of these people. We don't want them at this table. Our party is well selected. We've no use for deaf old women, who cannot follow intellectual conversation."
All our eyes were turned to Mrs. Field, who fortunately, being deaf, did not hear his remarks; but continued smiling approval.
"We have no representative at Mr. Franching's table," said Mr. Huttle, "of the unenlightened frivolous matron, who goes to a second class dance at Bayswater and fancies she is in Society. Society does not know her; it has no use for her."
Mr. Huttle paused for a moment and the opportunity was afforded for the ladies to rise. I asked Mr. Franching quietly to excuse me, as I did not wish to miss the last train, which we very nearly did, by-the-by, through Carrie having mislaid the little cloth cricket- cap which she wears when we go out.
It was very late when Carrie and I got home; but on entering the sitting-room I said: "Carrie, what do you think of Mr. Hardfur Huttle?" She simply answered: "How like Lupin!" The same idea occurred to me in the train. The comparison kept me awake half the night. Mr. Huttle was, of course, an older and more influential man; but he WAS like Lupin, and it made me think how dangerous Lupin would be if he were older and more influential. I feel proud to think Lupin DOES resemble Mr. Huttle in some ways. Lupin, like Mr. Huttle, has original and sometimes wonderful ideas; but it is those ideas that are so dangerous. They make men extremely rich or extremely poor. They make or break men. I always feel people are happier who live a simple unsophisticated life. I believe I am happy because I am not ambitious. Somehow I feel that Lupin, since he has been with Mr. Perkupp, has become content to settle down and follow the footsteps of his father. This is a comfort.