This afternoon while enjoying Edna O'Brien's fun, gossipy Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life (2009)*, I was struck by one of the few mundane scenes in Lord Byron's whole sordid life, his first meeting with the parents of his wife-to-be, Annabella Milbanke. After dithering in ridiculous fashion** for nearly two months following the acceptance of his proposal, Byron finally set out for the Milbanke family seat in the "God-forsaken hamlet" of Seaham, where--having arrived two days later than even his amended schedule had led the family to expect--for one evening he acted the part of a typical prospective son-in-law:
Yet he rallied at dinner, listened to Sir Ralph's stockpile of jokes, familially known as "pothooks," jokes about fleas and frogs and electioneering and a shoulder of mutton.Given the horrors he would soon inflict on Annabella, and the countless other lives he ruined through the years, it's rare that one has much sympathy for Byron; however, imagining a hoary, time-worn "leg of mutton" joke following hard on the heels of a similar joke about a flea--all laid atop a gout-inducing English dinner--does elicit at least a cringing twinge of that emotion.
The scene stood out in part because it reminded me of another, much worse account of dinners endured by James Boswell. In late November of 1786, Boswell was pleasantly surprised when a representative of Lord Lonsdale, one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom, asked him to come to Carlisle to serve as counsel for the Lord in the upcoming election; Boswell, hoping to secure Lonsdale as a political patron, jumped at the chance. He arrived in Carlisle, where he met Lonsdale, and--as Adam Sisman recounts in his wonderful Boswell's Presumptuous Task (2000),
Lonsdale received Boswell courteously, and . . . they dined with half a dozen others in a local public house. Lonsdale did all the talking. Three of his MPs were present, all of whom were utterly quiet. . . . Boswell dined with Lonsdale every day, and every day the pattern was the same. Lonsdale harangued, and when anyone ventured to speak, even to express agreement, Lonsdale silenced him, ordering, "You shall hear." One of Lonsdale's cronies whistled like a bird when Lonsdale treated him with contempt. No private conversation was tolerated. He snapped at a servant who made a noise. He declaimed forcefully on subjects of his own choosing, and recited his favourite poetry at inordinate length. Boswell was struck by the force of Lonsdale's physiognomy, his utterance, his memory. He perceived that several of his fellow-diners took refuge in sleep. Lonsdale himself sometimes appeared to doze off, though Boswell was warned not to relax his guard, as this could be a pretence.Believe it or not--and Sisman deserves praise for structuring his telling this way--it gets worse:
Lonsdale surrounded himself with hangers-on, all dependent on him, united in fear and greed. Boswell was amazed when Lonsdale at a whole plate of fresh oysters without offering anybody else one. Most insulting of all, Lonsdale denied his guests wine, while drinking it himself. When a new guest naively asked for some white wine, Lonsdale replied, "No. That has never been asked for here."At those moments, how dreadfully stark must have been the contrast between Boswell's present company and that of his late friend Dr. Johnson! Is it any wonder that when he limped back home after a month in Lonsdale's clutches he once again summoned up the energy to dive back into work on his Life?