Page images
PDF
EPUB

ABOUT PEOPLE WHO CAN'T SAY NO.

READINGS OF CHARACTER.

BY FRANCIS Jacox.

[ocr errors]

On the Princess Caroline of Brunswick's coming over to England to be wedded to the Prince of Wales, it was a matter of discussion at a party, where Lady Charlotte Lindsay was present, so we read in Moore's Diary, on the authority of Lord Brougham,—what one word of English her Royal Highness, who was totally ignorant of the language, should be first taught to speak. The whole company agreed that "yes" was the most useful word, except Lady Charlotte, who suggested that "no" was twice as useful, as it so often stood for “yes.” “ This story Brougham said he once made use of in court, in commenting on the manner in which a witness had said · no.' What suggested it to him, now,” adds Moore, “ was my describing the manner in which Grattan said, Why, no,' one day when Rogers asked him whether he and I could manage another bottle of claret.”* Not to name, with the deaf poet and humorist,

-the mischievous quizzers, Sharp as knives, but double as scissors, Who get you to answer, quite by guess,

Yes for No, and No for Yes. Not to name, either, those high-polite colloquists who made Sir Philip Francis so wrathful,—he being wont to say that he had nearly survived the good manly words of assent and denial, the yes and no of our ancestors, and could now hear nothing but “unquestionably," "certainly, “undeniably," or "by no means,” and “I rather think not ;" forms of speech to which he gave the most odious and contemptible names, as effeminate and emasculated, and which he would turn into ridicule by caricaturing the pronunciation of the words. It was in his appeal to

I Lord John Russell to have done with dexterity and finesse, and to cultivate rather "those fine manly historico-Russell qualities he most undoubtedly possesses,” that Sydney Smith pointedly said : “ There are two beautiful words in the English language, -Yes and No; he must pronounce them boldly and emphatically; stick to Yes and No to the death; for Yes and No lay his head down upon the scaffold, where his ancestors have laid their heads before, and cling to his Yes and No in spite of "S political foes and flatterers all and sundry. What the pungent pamphleteer wanted Lord John, on the present occasion, to say No to, like a man,—No, short and stern ; No, rough and ready; No, pure and

[ocr errors]

66

[ocr errors]

* Diary of Thomas Moore, Dec. 17, 1831. † Hood, a Tale of a Trumpet. * “ Thus he would drawl out 'unquestionably' in a faint, childish tone, and

[with an adjuration more emphatic than reverent] ... 'does, he mean yes ? Then why not say so at once, like a man?' "-Statesmen of Time of George III., vol. iii., Sir Philip Francis.

§ Sydney Smith on the Ballot.

then say

[ocr errors]

simple ;-was the Ballot. For his lordship showed signs of dallying with the question, if not making it an open one ; and was evidently suspected by his witty censor of a tendency to complacent acquiescence in the lax moral of the fabulist :

Sometimes in mutual sly disguise,
Let Ay's seem No's, and No's seem Ay's;
Ay's be in courts denials meant,

And No's in Bishops give consent.* But Lady Charlotte Lindsay was probably right, in another sense than the one she smartly suggested, when she urged the advantage of learning to say No, especially to one of her Royal Highness's position and prospects. People who can't say No, are not uncommonly, in the long run, a burden to themselves and to others. Chamfort does not scruple to assert that nearly all men are bondsmen, for lack of the power to say No: to be able to articulate that momentous syllable distinctly, he accounts one of the two only means of preserving one's freedom and individual character—the other being a capacity for living alone in the world.“ Presque tous les hommes sont esclaves, par la raison que les Spartiates donnaient de la servitude des Perses, faute de savoir prononcer la syllabe non. Savoir prononcer ce mot et savoir vivre seul, sont les deux seuls moyens de conserver sa liberté et son caractère.”+ Goldsmith moralises on the mischievous results arising to young people from the endeavour to please all, so that they comply with every request, and come to have no will of their own, but, like wax, catch every contiguous impression. So Johnson warns against the dangers of " timid compliance and tame resignation,"S whereby soft and fearful tempers give themselves up to the will of the more wilful, who get from them a facile or faltering Yes when the only safe and sound answer is a peremptory No.

Many, like Desdemona,|| are of “so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition,” that they hold it a vice in their goodness not to do more than they are requested, even when the request itself is overmuch. Many, like that bon bourgeois, Chrysale, in the Femmes Savantes, say Yes as often as ever you please, while practically they make a mere negative of the prompt affirmative.

Mon père est d'une humeur à consentir à tout;

Mais il met peu de poids aux choses qu'il résout. I Chesterfield admonishes his son that there is commonly, in young people, a facility that makes them unwilling to refuse anything that is asked of them; a mauvaise honte, that makes them ashamed to refuse. **

year later his lordship returns to the charge : “ I have known many a

a

Nearly

a

* Gay's Fables, part ii., “ Ay and No."
† Maximes et Pensées de Chamfort, & iii.
* Citizen of the World, letter lxi.

f The Rambler, No. lvi. !!

For 'tis most easy
The inclining Desdemona to subdue
In any honest suit; she's framed as fruitful
As the free elements.

Othello, Act II. Sc. 3.
Molière, Les Femmes Savantes, Acte I. Sc. 3.
** Letters, May 15, O.S., 1749.

refuse."*

young fellow seduced by a mauvaise honte, that made him ashamed to

And yet again, a few weeks later: “A young fellow who seems to have no will of his own, and who does everything that is asked of him, is called a very good-natured, but at the same time is thought a very silly fellow.”+ Cicero pronounces this to be the first law to be established in friendship, that neither may we ask of others aught which is dishonourable, nor ourselves do it when asked : Hæc prima lex in amicitiâ sanciatur, ut neque rogemus res turpes, nec faciamus rogati. I

Plutarch is presumed to have considered that the defect which he calls Dysopia (downia), -- an unhappy facility of being put out of coun

() tenance-shamefacedness, in fact, or shyness—consists chiefly in the difficulty of saying No; and his stock of anecdotes is drawn upon in illustration of the tragic consequences which may result from that pusillanimous characteristic of Shyness. “It not only subjects us to the loss of our money when a slippery acquaintance asks us for a loan which we are perfectly aware he never intends to repay, but sometimes life itself is the penalty of that cowardly shyness which cannot say No to a disagreeable invitation.” As in the case of Antipater invited to an entertainment by Demetrius, ashamed to decline, but going forebodingly to the shambles; and of Hercules, Alexander's son by Barsina, asked to supper (and killed at it) by Polysperchon. Young Hercules could excuse himself as long as Polysperchon did not urge his odious invitation in person. “Just like me !" professes the Caxton essayist on Shyness : “ Send me an invitation to dinner to which I can reply by note or message, and if I wish to say 'No,' I can say it like a man; but invaded in my own house, or waylaid in the street, clapped on the shoulder, accosted vigorously, with a hypocritical frankness, "Fie, my dear sir—not dine with me? What are you afraid of ? Do

you
think I shall give you

the Gladstone claret ?'—then Dusopia seizes me at once ; I succumb like the son of Alexander. And every man entitled to call himself Shy, would, if similarly pressed, prove as weak as Hercules and I.

“ Whole communities have been enslaved by shyness. Plutarch quotes the saying that the people of Asia only submitted to a single despot because they were too bashful to pronounce the word No."

Indeed, Sir E. Bulwer Lytton charges us sturdy English, ourselves, with a fit of that cowardly but well-bred Dysopia on the Restoration of Charles II. It was Shyness, he alleges, and nothing else, that made the bashful conquerors in the Great Rebellion so delicately silent about themselves in the welcome they gave to the courteous and elegant exile. They have no other excuse; or, as Sir Edward pundingly puts it, " they were shy, and they shied away their liberties."S In another

essay
from his

pen may be read an emphatic counsel to every young reader, be he patrician or plebeian, to say No at once to whatever charming acquaintance would coax him into putting his name to a bill. The worst that the “ No" can inflict on its utterer, is a privation- -a want-always short of starvation. So, “Be contented! Say

And manage to say it, as Sir Edward writes it, with the em* Letters, March 8, O.S., 1750.

† April 26, O.S., 1750. I Cic. de Amicit.

Caxtoniana: Essays on Life, Literature, and Manners; vol. i. pp. 69 sq.
Essay on the Management of Money.

6

[ocr errors]

No !''ll

[ocr errors]

phasis and decision of a note of admiration, to back it, clioch it, drive it well and truly home.

Mr. Pepys enters approvingly in his Diary a “rule” or “proverb” he one day hears—to wit, that a man who “cannot say no (that is, that is of so good a nature that he cannot deny anything, or cross another in doing anything), is not fit for business.” Which, adds self-scrutinising Samuel, “ which is a very great fault of mine, which I must amend in." The historian of the Dutch Republic tells us of President Hopper-a mere man of routine, pliable as wax in the plastic hands of Margaret of Parma —that his manners were as cringing as his intellect was narrow, and that as he never by any chance opposed the Duchess, his colleagues in the council of state always called him Councillor Yes Madamt-so inconceivable was it that he should ever articulate a wholesome but perhaps compromising No. He appears to have been a parallel personage to Pope's Phryne, in this one respect:

Her learning and good-breeding such,
Whether th' Italian or the Dutch,

Spaniards or French came to her ;
To all obliging she'd appear:
'Twas Si signor, 'twas Yaw Mynheer,

'Twas s'il vous plaist, Monsieur. I Sir Walter Scott declares Henry Erskine to have been the bestnatured man he ever knew, thoroughly a gentleman, and with but one fault—" he could not say no, and thus sometimes misled those who trusted him."? In another entry in Sir Walter's diary, we find the expression of a wish that his girls—then with him at Portsmouth-and mad with the craze of seeing sights, would be moderate in their demands on naval officers' complaisance. They little know how inconvenient are such seizures. A sailor in particular is a bad refuser, and before he can turn three times round, he is bound by a triple knot to all sorts of nonsense.”|| Scott was then about to embark for Italy; and it was on the eve of his return, still a shattered invalid, that being requested by a lady to do something which was specially disagreeable to him, and being asked whether he had consented, Scott replied, “ Yes.” He was then questioned why he had agreed to do what was so inconvenient to him :-“Why,” said he, “as I am now good for nothing else, I think it as well to be good natured.”T Moral : not till a man comes to be good for nothing else, is it excusable in him to be unable to say No.

Pertinent to the subject is what Sir Walter had long before said of the then youthful Duke of Buccleugh, whose guest he was in 1826; that he would have him not quite so soft natured as his grandfather, whose kindness sometimes mastered his excellent understanding. “His father had a temper which jumped better with my humour. Enough of ill nature to keep your good nature from being abused, is no bad ingredient in their disposition who have favours to bestow."**

a

a

[ocr errors]

* Diary of Samuel Pepys, Aug. 8, 1662.
† Motley, Rise of the Dutch Republic, part ii. ch. v.

Pope's Imitations of English Poets.
Diary of Sir Walter Scott, April 20, 1829.
Ibid., Oct. 24, 1831.

Memoranda by Sir Wm. Gell, 1832.
*** Ibid., Aug 25, 1826.

Lord Byron, when on the Drury Lane Committee, found his reluctance to say No, to eager petitioners, a highly inconvenient disposition, and was only too thankful to transfer the duty to a better qualified friend. “As I am really a civil and polite person,” he writes," and do bate giving pain when it can be avoided, I sent them up to Douglas Kinnaird, — who is a man of business, and sufficiently ready with a negative."*— The late Dr. Andrew Combe used often to comment on the shallow friendship of a class of people who are friendly only when they want a favour ; but he was himself their victim notwithstanding, and would rate himself for allowing them to “ accomplish their objects at his expense, especially as he understood them perfectly, and was not taken by surprise by their demands; but he felt it difficult to say nay,' to a person who unhesitatingly threw himself on his good nature for a kindness.”+ How inscrutable to this type of mind must be the letter and spirit of a sentence of La Bruyère's: “La chose la plus prompte, et qui se présente d'abord, c'est le refus ; et l'on n'accorde que par réflexion.”+

To withstand solicitations for loans is often, observes Mr. Henry Taylor, a great trial of firminess : the refusal which he pronounces to be at once the most safe from vacillation, and perhaps as little apt to give offence as any, is the point blank refusal, without reasons assigned. -- Acquiescence is more easily given in the decisions of a strong will, than in reasons, which weak men, under the bias of self-love, will always imagine themselves competent to controvert.”S Do not, Mr. Arthur Helps advises, resort to evasive answers for the purpose only of bringing the interview to a close; nor shrink from giving a distinct denial, merely because the person to whom you ought to give it is before you, and you would have to witness any pain which it might occasion. 1 Crabbe's

William was kind and easy; he complied

With all requests, or grieved when he denied; still it was to William's credit, and comfort, ultimately, that on occasion he could deny, and did. A contrast, so far, to Goldsmith's too Goodnatured Man, of whom, to Sir William Honeywood's puzzled query, “Money! how is he able to supply others, who has scarce any for himself?” the old steward gives this explanatory account: Why, there it is; he has no money, that's true; but then, as he never said No to any request in his life, he has given them a bill,"** &c. &c., we know all

— about the sequel, of course, the inevitable bailiffs included.

Inability to say No is indicated as a main cause of the ruined fortunes of Newman Noggs, as that indigent creature is exhibited to us by Mr. Dickens, tt-No, being a word which in all his life he had never said at the right time, either to himself or to any one else.

Even Owen Feltham, who, in opposition to what we have seen recommended by Mr. Henry Taylor, insists that to a friend one ought never

;

* Moore's Life of Byron, ch. xxiv.

Life of Andrew Combe, M.D., p. 117.

Les Caractères de La Bruyère, ch. xi., De l'Homme. Š Notes from Life, by Henry Taylor, p. 26.

Essays Written in the Intervals of Business: On the Treatment of Suitors. | The Borough, letter viii.

** The Good-natured Man, Act III. ft Nicholas Nickleby, ch. xiv.

« EelmineJätka »