Penelope's English Experiences

Chapter IV. The English sense of humour.

I do not see why we hear that the Englishman is deficient in a sense of humour. His jokes may not be a matter of daily food to him, as they are to the American; he may not love whimsicality with the same passion, nor inhale the aroma of a witticism with as keen a relish; but he likes fun whenever he sees it, and he sees it as often as most people. It may be that we find the Englishman more receptive to our bits of feminine nonsense just now, simply because this is the day of the American woman in London, and, having been assured that she is an entertaining personage, young John Bull is willing to take it for granted so long as she does not try to marry him, and even this pleasure he will allow her on occasion,—if well paid for it.

The longer I live, the more I feel it an absurdity to label nations with national traits, and then endeavour to make individuals conform to the required standard. It is possible, I suppose, to draw certain broad distinctions, though even these are subject to change; but the habit of generalising from one particular, that mainstay of the cheap and obvious essayist, has rooted many fictions in the public mind. Nothing, for instance, can blot from my memory the profound, searching, and exhaustive analysis of a great nation which I learned in my small geography when I was a child, namely, 'The French are a gay and polite people, fond of dancing and light wines.'

One young Englishman whom I have met lately errs on the side of over-appreciation. He laughs before, during, and after every remark I make, unless it be a simple request for food or drink. This is an acquaintance of Willie Beresford, the Honourable Arthur Ponsonby, who was the 'whip' on our coach drive to Dorking,—dear, delightful, adorable Dorking, of hen celebrity.

Salemina insisted on my taking the box seat, in the hope that the Honourable Arthur would amuse me. She little knew him! He sapped me of all my ideas, and gave me none in exchange. Anything so unspeakably heavy I never encountered. It is very difficult for a woman who doesn't know a nigh horse from an off one, nor the wheelers from the headers (or is it the fronters?), to find subjects of conversation with a gentleman who spends three-fourths of his existence on a coach. It was the more difficult for me because I could not decide whether Willie Beresford was cross because I was devoting myself to the whip, or because Francesca had remained at home with a headache. This state of affairs continued for about fifteen miles, when it suddenly dawned upon the Honourable Arthur that, however mistaken my speech and manner, I was trying to be agreeable. This conception acted on the honest and amiable soul like magic. I gradually became comprehensible, and finally he gave himself up to the theory that, though eccentric, I was harmless and amusing, so we got on famously,—so famously that Willie Beresford grew ridiculously gloomy, and I decided that it could not be Francesca's headache.

The names of these English streets are a never-failing source of delight to me. In that one morning we drove past Pie, Pudding, and Petticoat Lanes, and later on we found ourselves in a 'Prudent Passage,' which opened, very inappropriately, into 'Huggin Lane.' Willie Beresford said it was the first time he had ever heard of anything so disagreeable as prudence terminating in anything so agreeable as huggin'. When he had been severely reprimanded by his mother for this shocking speech, I said to the Honourable Arthur:—

"I don't understand your business signs in England,—this 'Company, Limited,' and that 'Company, Limited.' That one, of course, is quite plain" (pointing to the front of a building on the village street), "'Goat's Milk Company, Limited'; I suppose they have but one or two goats, and necessarily the milk must be Limited."

Salemina says that this was not in the least funny, that it was absolutely flat; but it had quite the opposite effect upon the Honourable Arthur. He had no command over himself or his horses for some minutes; and at intervals during the afternoon the full felicity of the idea would steal upon him, and the smile of reminiscence would flit across his ruddy face.

The next day, at the Eton and Harrow games at Lord's cricket-ground, he presented three flowers of British aristocracy to our party, and asked me each time to tell the goat-story, which he had previously told himself, and probably murdered in the telling. Not content with this arrant flattery, he begged to be allowed to recount some of my international episodes to a literary friend who writes for Punch. I demurred decidedly, but Salemina said that perhaps I ought to be willing to lower myself a trifle for the sake of elevating Punch! This home-thrust so delighted the Honourable Arthur that it remained his favourite joke for days, and the overworked goat was permitted to enjoy that oblivion from which Salemina insists it should never have emerged.

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