The historical consistency of 1601 indicates that Twain must have given the subject considerable thought. The author was careful to speak only of men who conceivably might have been in the Virgin Queen's closet and engaged in discourse with her.
At this time (1601) Queen Elizabeth was 68 years old. She speaks of having talked to "old Rabelais" in her youth. This might have been possible as Rabelais died in 1552, when the Queen was 19 years old.
Among those in the party were Shakespeare, at that time 37 years old; Ben Jonson, 27; and Sir Walter Raleigh, 49. Beaumont at the time was 17, not 16. He was admitted as a member of the Inner Temple in 1600, and his first translations, those from Ovid, were first published in 1602. Therefore, if one were holding strictly to the year date, neither by age nor by fame would Beaumont have been eligible to attend such a gathering of august personages in the year 1601; but the point is unimportant.
THE ELIZABETHAN WRITERS
In the Conversation Shakespeare speaks of Montaigne's Essays. These were first published in 1580 and successive editions were issued in the years following, the third volume being published in 1588. "In England Montaigne was early popular. It was long supposed that the autograph of Shakespeare in a copy of Florio's translation showed his study of the Essays. The autograph has been disputed, but divers passages, and especially one in The Tempest, show that at first or second hand the poet was acquainted with the essayist." (Encyclopedia Brittanica.)
The company at the Queen's fireside discoursed of Lilly (or Lyly), English dramatist and novelist of the Elizabethan era, whose novel, Euphues, published in two parts, 'Euphues', or the 'Anatomy of Wit' (1579) and 'Euphues and His England' (1580) was a literary sensation. It is said to have influenced literary style for more than a quarter of a century, and traces of its influence are found in Shakespeare. (Columbia Encyclopedia).
The introduction of Ben Jonson into the party was wholly appropriate, if one may call to witness some of Jonson's writings. The subject under discussion was one that Jonson was acquainted with, in The Alchemist:
Act. I, Scene I,
FACE: Believe't I will.
SUBTLE: Thy worst. I fart at thee.
DOL COMMON: Have you your wits? Why, gentlemen, for love——
Act. 2, Scene I,
SIR EPICURE MAMMON:....and then my poets, the same that writ so subtly of the fart, whom I shall entertain still for that subject and again in Bartholomew Fair
NIGHTENGALE: (sings a ballad)
Hear for your love, and buy for your money.
A delicate ballad o' the ferret and the coney.
A preservative again' the punk's evil.
Another goose-green starch, and the devil.
A dozen of divine points, and the godly garter
The fairing of good counsel, of an ell and three-quarters.
What is't you buy?
The windmill blown down by the witche's fart,
Or Saint George, that, O! did break the dragon's heart.
GOOD OLD ENGLISH CUSTOM
That certain types of English society have not changed materially in their freedom toward breaking wind in public can be noticed in some comparatively recent literature. Frank Harris in My Life, Vol. 2, Ch. XIII, tells of Lady Marriott, wife of a judge Advocate General, being compelled to leave her own table, at which she was entertaining Sir Robert Fowler, then the Lord Mayor of London, because of the suffocating and nauseating odors there. He also tells of an instance in parliament, and of a rather brilliant bon mot spoken upon that occasion.
"While Fowler was speaking Finch-Hatton had shewn signs of restlessness; towards the end of the speech he had moved some three yards away from the Baronet. As soon as Fowler sat down Finch-Hatton sprang up holding his handkerchief to his nose:
"'Mr. Speaker,' he began, and was at once acknowledged by the Speaker, for it was a maiden speech, and as such was entitled to precedence by the courteous custom of the House, 'I know why the Right Honourable Member from the City did not conclude his speech with a proposal. The only way to conclude such a speech appropriately would be with a motion!'"
But society had apparently degenerated sadly in modern times, and even in the era of Elizabeth, for at an earlier date it was a serious—nay, capital—offense to break wind in the presence of majesty. The Emperor Claudius, hearing that one who had suppressed the urge while paying him court had suffered greatly thereby, "intended to issue an edict, allowing to all people the liberty of giving vent at table to any distension occasioned by flatulence:"
Martial, too (Book XII, Epigram LXXVII), tells of the embarrassment of one who broke wind while praying in the Capitol,
"One day, while standing upright, addressing his prayers to Jupiter, Aethon farted in the Capitol. Men laughed, but the Father of the Gods, offended, condemned the guilty one to dine at home for three nights. Since that time, miserable Aethon, when he wishes to enter the Capitol, goes first to Paterclius' privies and farts ten or twenty times. Yet, in spite of this precautionary crepitation, he salutes Jove with constricted buttocks." Martial also (Book IV, Epigram LXXX), ridicules a woman who was subject to the habit, saying,
"Your Bassa, Fabullus, has always a child at her side, calling it her darling and her plaything; and yet—more wonder—she does not care for children. What is the reason then. Bassa is apt to fart. (For which she could blame the unsuspecting infant.)"
The tale is told, too, of a certain woman who performed an aeolian crepitation at a dinner attended by the witty Monsignieur Dupanloup, Bishop of Orleans, and that when, to cover up her lapse, she began to scrape her feet upon the floor, and to make similar noises, the Bishop said, "Do not trouble to find a rhyme, Madam!"
Nay, worthier names than those of any yet mentioned have discussed the matter. Herodotus tells of one such which was the precursor to the fall of an empire and a change of dynasty—that which Amasis discharges while on horseback, and bids the envoy of Apries, King of Egypt, catch and deliver to his royal master. Even the exact manner and posture of Amasis, author of this insult, is described.
St. Augustine (The City of God, XIV:24) cites the instance of a man who could command his rear trumpet to sound at will, which his learned commentator fortifies with the example of one who could do so in tune!
Benjamin Franklin, in his "Letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels" has canvassed suggested remedies for alleviating the stench attendant upon these discharges:
"My Prize Question therefore should be: To discover some Drug, wholesome and—not disagreeable, to be mixed with our common food, or sauces, that shall render the natural discharges of Wind from our Bodies not only inoffensive, but agreeable as Perfumes.
"That this is not a Chimerical Project & altogether impossible, may appear from these considerations. That we already have some knowledge of means capable of varying that smell. He that dines on stale Flesh, especially with much Addition of Onions, shall be able to afford a stink that no Company can tolerate; while he that has lived for some time on Vegetables only, shall have that Breath so pure as to be insensible of the most delicate Noses; and if he can manage so as to avoid the Report, he may anywhere give vent to his Griefs, unnoticed. But as there are many to whom an entire Vegetable Diet would be inconvenient, & as a little quick Lime thrown into a Jakes will correct the amazing Quantity of fetid Air arising from the vast Mass of putrid Matter contained in such Places, and render it pleasing to the Smell, who knows but that a little Powder of Lime (or some other equivalent) taken in our Food, or perhaps a Glass of Lime Water drank at Dinner, may have the same Effect on the Air produced in and issuing from our Bowels?"
One curious commentary on the text is that Elizabeth should be so fond of investigating into the authorship of the exhalation in question, when she was inordinately fond of strong and sweet perfumes; in fact, she was responsible for the tremendous increase in importations of scents into England during her reign.
"YE BOKE OF YE SIEUR MICHAEL DE MONTAINE"
There is a curious admixture of error and misunderstanding in this part of the sketch. In the first place, the story is borrowed from Montaigne, where it is told inaccurately, and then further corrupted in the telling.
It was not the good widows of Perigord who wore the phallus upon their coifs; it was the young married women, of the district near Montaigne's home, who paraded it to view upon their foreheads, as a symbol, says our essayist, "of the joy they derived therefrom." If they became widows, they reversed its position, and covered it up with the rest of their head-dress.
The "emperor" mentioned was not an emperor; he was Procolus, a native of Albengue, on the Genoese coast, who, with Bonosus, led the unsuccessful rebellion in Gaul against Emperor Probus. Even so keen a commentator as Cotton has failed to note the error.
The empress (Montaigne does not say "his empress") was Messalina, third wife of the Emperor Claudius, who was uncle of Caligula and foster-father to Nero. Furthermore, in her case the charge is that she copulated with twenty-five in a single night, and not twenty-two, as appears in the text. Montaigne is right in his statistics, if original sources are correct, whereas the author erred in transcribing the incident.
As for Proculus, it has been noted that he was associated with Bonosus, who was as renowned in the field of Bacchus as was Proculus in that of Venus (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). The feat of Proculus is told in his own words, in Vopiscus, (Hist. Augustine, p. 246) where he recounts having captured one hundred Sarmatian virgins, and unmaidened ten of them in one night, together with the happenings subsequent thereto.
Concerning Messalina, there appears to be no question but that she was a nymphomaniac, and that, while Empress of Rome, she participated in some fearful debaucheries. The question is what to believe, for much that we have heard about her is almost certainly apocryphal.
The author from whom Montaigne took his facts is the elder Pliny, who, in his Natural History, Book X, Chapter 83, says, "Other animals become sated with veneral pleasures; man hardly knows any satiety. Messalina, the wife of Claudius Caesar, thinking this a palm quite worthy of an empress, selected for the purpose of deciding the question, one of the most notorious women who followed the profession of a hired prostitute; and the empress outdid her, after continuous intercourse, night and day, at the twenty-fifth embrace."
But Pliny, notwithstanding his great attainments, was often a retailer of stale gossip, and in like case was Aurelius Victor, another writer who heaped much odium on her name. Again, there is a great hiatus in the Annals of Tacitus, a true historian, at the period covering the earlier days of the Empress; while Suetonius, bitter as he may be, is little more than an anecdotist. Juvenal, another of her detractors, is a prejudiced witness, for he started out to satirize female vice, and naturally aimed at high places. Dio also tells of Messalina's misdeeds, but his work is under the same limitations as that of Suetonius. Furthermore, none but Pliny mentions the excess under consideration.
However, "where there is much smoke there must be a little fire," and based upon the superimposed testimony of the writers of the period, there appears little doubt but that Messalina was a nymphomaniac, that she prostituted herself in the public stews, naked, and with gilded nipples, and that she did actually marry her chief adulterer, Silius, while Claudius was absent at Ostia, and that the wedding was consummated in the presence of a concourse of witnesses. This was "the straw that broke the camel's back." Claudius hastened back to Rome, Silius was dispatched, and Messalina, lacking the will-power to destroy herself, was killed when an officer ran a sword through her abdomen, just as it appeared that Claudius was about to relent.
"THEN SPAKE YE DAMNED WINDMILL, SIR WALTER"
Raleigh is thoroughly in character here; this observation is quite in keeping with the general veracity of his account of his travels in Guiana, one of the most mendacious accounts of adventure ever told. Naturally, the scholarly researches of Westermarck have failed to discover this people; perhaps Lady Helen might best be protected among the Jibaros of Ecuador, where the men marry when approaching forty.
Ben Jonson in his Conversations observed "That Sr. W. Raughlye esteemed more of fame than of conscience."
YE VIRGIN QUEENE
Grave historians have debated for centuries the pretensions of Elizabeth to the title, "The Virgin Queen," and it is utterly impossible to dispose of the issue in a note. However, the weight of opinion appears to be in the negative. Many and great were the difficulties attending the marriage of a Protestant princess in those troublous times, and Elizabeth finally announced that she would become wedded to the English nation, and she wore a ring in token thereof until her death. However, more or less open liaisons with Essex and Leicester, as well as a host of lesser courtiers, her ardent temperament, and her imperious temper, are indications that cannot be denied in determining any estimate upon the point in question.
Ben Jonson in his Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden says,
"Queen Elizabeth never saw herself after she became old in a true glass; they painted her, and sometymes would vermillion her nose. She had allwayes about Christmass evens set dice that threw sixes or five, and she knew not they were other, to make her win and esteame herself fortunate. That she had a membrana on her, which made her uncapable of man, though for her delight she tried many. At the coming over of Monsieur, there was a French Chirurgion who took in hand to cut it, yett fear stayed her, and his death."
It was a subject which again intrigued Clemens when he was abroad with W. H. Fisher, whom Mark employed to "nose up" everything pertaining to Queen Elizabeth's manly character.
"'BOCCACCIO HATH A STORY"
The author does not pay any great compliment to Raleigh's memory here. There is no such tale in all Boccaccio. The nearest related incident forms the subject matter of Dineo's novel (the fourth) of the First day of the Decameron.
OLD SR. NICHOLAS THROGMORTON
The incident referred to appears to be Sir Nicholas Throgmorton's trial for complicity in the attempt to make Lady Jane Grey Queen of England, a charge of which he was acquitted. This so angered Queen Mary that she imprisoned him in the Tower, and fined the jurors from one to two thousand pounds each. Her action terrified succeeding juries, so that Sir Nicholas's brother was condemned on no stronger evidence than that which had failed to prevail before. While Sir Nicholas's defense may have been brilliant, it must be admitted that the evidence was weak. He was later released from the Tower, and under Elizabeth was one of a group of commissioners sent by that princess into Scotland, to foment trouble with Mary, Queen of Scots. When the attempt became known, Elizabeth repudiated the acts of her agents, but Sir Nicholas, having anticipated this possibility, had sufficient foresight to secure endorsement of his plan by the Council, and so outwitted Elizabeth, who was playing a two-faced role, and Cecil, one of the greatest statesmen who ever held the post of principal minister. Perhaps it was this incident to which the company referred, which might in part explain Elizabeth's rejoinder. However, he had been restored to confidence ere this, and had served as ambassador to France.
"TO SAVE HIS DOTER'S MAIDENHEDDE"
Elizabeth Throckmorton (or Throgmorton), daughter of Sir Nicholas, was one of Elizabeth's maids of honor. When it was learned that she had been debauched by Raleigh, Sir Walter was recalled from his command at sea by the Queen, and compelled to marry the girl. This was not "in that olde daie," as the text has it, for it happened only eight years before the date of this purported "conversation," when Elizabeth was sixty years old.
The various printings of 1601 reveal how Mark Twain's 'Fireside Conversation' has become a part of the American printer's lore. But more important, its many printings indicate that it has become a popular bit of American folklore, particularly for men and women who have a feeling for Mark Twain. Apparently it appeals to the typographer, who devotes to it his worthy art, as well as to the job printer, who may pull a crudely printed proof. The gay procession of curious printings of 1601 is unique in the history of American printing.
Indeed, the story of the various printings of 1601 is almost legendary. In the days of the "jour." printer, so I am told, well-thumbed copies were carried from print shop to print shop. For more than a quarter century now it has been one of the chief sources of enjoyment for printers' devils; and many a young rascal has learned about life from this Fireside Conversation. It has been printed all over the country, and if report is to be believed, in foreign countries as well. Because of the many surreptitious and anonymous printings it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to compile a complete bibliography. Many printings lack the name of the publisher, the printer, the place or date of printing. In many instances some of the data, through the patient questioning of fellow collectors, has been obtained and supplied.
1. [Date, 1601.] Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors.
DESCRIPTION: Pamphlet, pp. [ 1 ]-8, without wrappers or cover, measuring 7x8 inches. The title is Set in caps. and small caps.
The excessively rare first printing, printed in Cleveland, 1880, at the instance of Alexander Gunn, friend of John Hay. Only four copies are believed to have been printed, of which, it is said now, the only known copy is located in the Willard S. Morse collection.
2. Date 1601. Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the time of the Tudors.
(Mem.—The following is supposed to be an extract from the diary of the Pepys of that day, the same being cup-bearer to Queen Elizabeth. It is supposed that he is of ancient and noble lineage; that he despises these literary canaille; that his soul consumes with wrath to see the Queen stooping to talk with such; and that the old man feels his nobility defiled by contact with Shakespeare, etc., and yet he has got to stay there till Her Majesty chooses to dismiss him.)
DESCRIPTION: Title as above, verso blank; pp. [i]-xi, text; verso p. xi blank. About 8 x 10 inches, printed on handmade linen paper soaked in weak coffee, wrappers. The title is set in caps and small caps.
COLOPHON: at the foot of p. xi: Done Att Ye Academie Preffe; M DCCC LXXX II.
The privately printed West Point edition, the first printing of the text authorized by Mark Twain, of which but fifty copies were printed. The story of this printing is fully told in the Introduction.
3. Conversation As It Was By The Social Fire-side In The Time Of The Tudors from Ye Diary of Ye Cupbearer to her Maisty Queen Elizabeth. [design] Imprinted by Ye Puritan Press At Ye Sign of Ye Jolly Virgin 1601.
DESCRIPTION: 2 blank leaves; p. [i] blank, p. [ii] fronds., p. [iii] title [as above], p. [iv] "Mem.", pp. 1-25 text, I blank leaf. 4 3/4 by 6 1/4 inches, printed in a modern version of the Caxton black letter type, on M.B.M. French handmade paper. The frontispiece, a woodcut by A. E. Curtis, is a portrait of the cup-bearer. Bound in buff-grey boards, buckram back. Cover title reads, in pale red ink, Caxton type, Conversation As It Was By The Social Fire-side In The Time Of The Tudors. [The Byway Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1901, 120 copies.]
Probably the first published edition.
Later, in 1916, a facsimile edition of this printing was published in Chicago from plates.