On Vanity and Vanities by Jerome K. Jerome

All is vanity and everybody’s vain. Women are terribly vain. So are men—more so, if possible. So are children, particularly children. One of them at this very moment is hammering upon my legs. She wants to know what I think of her new shoes. Candidly I don’t think much of them. They lack symmetry and curve and possess an indescribable appearance of lumpiness (I believe, too, they’ve put them on the wrong feet). But I don’t say this. It is not criticism, but flattery that she wants; and I gush over them with what I feel to myself to be degrading effusiveness. Nothing else would satisfy this self-opinionated cherub. I tried the conscientious-friend dodge with her on one occasion, but it was not a success. She had requested my judgment upon her general conduct and behavior, the exact case submitted being, “Wot oo tink of me? Oo peased wi’ me?” and I had thought it a good opportunity to make a few salutary remarks upon her late moral career, and said: “No, I am not pleased with you.” I recalled to her mind the events of that very morning, and I put it to her how she, as a Christian child, could expect a wise and good uncle to be satisfied with the carryings on of an infant who that very day had roused the whole house at five AM.; had upset a water-jug and tumbled downstairs after it at seven; had endeavored to put the cat in the bath at eight; and sat on her own father’s hat at nine thirty-five.

What did she do? Was she grateful to me for my plain speaking? Did she ponder upon my words and determine to profit by them and to lead from that hour a better and nobler life?

No! she howled.

That done, she became abusive. She said:

“Oo naughty—oo naughty, bad unkie—oo bad man—me tell MAR.”

And she did, too.

Since then, when my views have been called for I have kept my real sentiments more to myself like, preferring to express unbounded admiration of this young person’s actions, irrespective of their actual merits. And she nods her head approvingly and trots off to advertise my opinion to the rest of the household. She appears to employ it as a sort of testimonial for mercenary purposes, for I subsequently hear distant sounds of “Unkie says me dood dirl—me dot to have two bikkies [biscuits].”

There she goes, now, gazing rapturously at her own toes and murmuring “pittie”—two-foot-ten of conceit and vanity, to say nothing of other wickednesses.

They are all alike. I remember sitting in a garden one sunny afternoon in the suburbs of London. Suddenly I heard a shrill treble voice calling from a top-story window to some unseen being, presumably in one of the other gardens, “Gamma, me dood boy, me wery good boy, gamma; me dot on Bob’s knickiebockies.”

Why, even animals are vain. I saw a great Newfoundland dog the other day sitting in front of a mirror at the entrance to a shop in Regent’s Circus, and examining himself with an amount of smug satisfaction that I have never seen equaled elsewhere outside a vestry meeting.

I was at a farm-house once when some high holiday was being celebrated. I don’t remember what the occasion was, but it was something festive, a May Day or Quarter Day, or something of that sort, and they put a garland of flowers round the head of one of the cows. Well, that absurd quadruped went about all day as perky as a schoolgirl in a new frock; and when they took the wreath off she became quite sulky, and they had to put it on again before she would stand still to be milked. This is not a Percy anecdote. It is plain, sober truth.

As for cats, they nearly equal human beings for vanity. I have known a cat get up and walk out of the room on a remark derogatory to her species being made by a visitor, while a neatly turned compliment will set them purring for an hour.

I do like cats. They are so unconsciously amusing. There is such a comic dignity about them, such a “How dare you!” “Go away, don’t touch me” sort of air. Now, there is nothing haughty about a dog. They are “Hail, fellow, well met” with every Tom, Dick, or Harry that they come across. When I meet a dog of my acquaintance I slap his head, call him opprobrious epithets, and roll him over on his back; and there he lies, gaping at me, and doesn’t mind it a bit.

Fancy carrying on like that with a cat! Why, she would never speak to you again as long as you lived. No, when you want to win the approbation of a cat you must mind what you are about and work your way carefully. If you don’t know the cat, you had best begin by saying, “Poor pussy.” After which add “did ‘ums” in a tone of soothing sympathy. You don’t know what you mean any more than the cat does, but the sentiment seems to imply a proper spirit on your part, and generally touches her feelings to such an extent that if you are of good manners and passable appearance she will stick her back up and rub her nose against you. Matters having reached this stage, you may venture to chuck her under the chin and tickle the side of her head, and the intelligent creature will then stick her claws into your legs; and all is friendship and affection, as so sweetly expressed in the beautiful lines—

“I love little pussy, her coat is so warm,
And if I don’t tease her she’ll do me no harm;
So I’ll stroke her, and pat her, and feed her with food,
And pussy will love me because I am good.”

The last two lines of the stanza give us a pretty true insight into pussy’s notions of human goodness. It is evident that in her opinion goodness consists of stroking her, and patting her, and feeding her with food. I fear this narrow-minded view of virtue, though, is not confined to pussies. We are all inclined to adopt a similar standard of merit in our estimate of other people. A good man is a man who is good to us, and a bad man is a man who doesn’t do what we want him to. The truth is, we each of us have an inborn conviction that the whole world, with everybody and everything in it, was created as a sort of necessary appendage to ourselves. Our fellow men and women were made to admire us and to minister to our various requirements. You and I, dear reader, are each the center of the universe in our respective opinions. You, as I understand it, were brought into being by a considerate Providence in order that you might read and pay me for what I write; while I, in your opinion, am an article sent into the world to write something for you to read. The stars—as we term the myriad other worlds that are rushing down beside us through the eternal silence—were put into the heavens to make the sky look interesting for us at night; and the moon with its dark mysteries and ever-hidden face is an arrangement for us to flirt under.

I fear we are most of us like Mrs. Poyser’s bantam cock, who fancied the sun got up every morning to hear him crow. “‘Tis vanity that makes the world go round.” I don’t believe any man ever existed without vanity, and if he did he would be an extremely uncomfortable person to have anything to do with. He would, of course, be a very good man, and we should respect him very much. He would be a very admirable man—a man to be put under a glass case and shown round as a specimen—a man to be stuck upon a pedestal and copied, like a school exercise—a man to be reverenced, but not a man to be loved, not a human brother whose hand we should care to grip. Angels may be very excellent sort of folk in their way, but we, poor mortals, in our present state, would probably find them precious slow company. Even mere good people are rather depressing. It is in our faults and failings, not in our virtues, that we touch one another and find sympathy. We differ widely enough in our nobler qualities. It is in our follies that we are at one. Some of us are pious, some of us are generous. Some few of us are honest, comparatively speaking; and some, fewer still, may possibly be truthful. But in vanity and kindred weaknesses we can all join hands. Vanity is one of those touches of nature that make the whole world kin. From the Indian hunter, proud of his belt of scalps, to the European general, swelling beneath his row of stars and medals; from the Chinese, gleeful at the length of his pigtail, to the “professional beauty,” suffering tortures in order that her waist may resemble a peg-top; from draggle-tailed little Polly Stiggins, strutting through Seven Dials with a tattered parasol over her head, to the princess sweeping through a drawing-room with a train of four yards long; from ‘Arry, winning by vulgar chaff the loud laughter of his pals, to the statesman whose ears are tickled by the cheers that greet his high-sounding periods; from the dark-skinned African, bartering his rare oils and ivory for a few glass beads to hang about his neck, to the Christian maiden selling her white body for a score of tiny stones and an empty title to tack before her name—all march, and fight, and bleed, and die beneath its tawdry flag.

Ay, ay, vanity is truly the motive-power that moves humanity, and it is flattery that greases the wheels. If you want to win affection and respect in this world, you must flatter people. Flatter high and low, and rich and poor, and silly and wise. You will get on famously. Praise this man’s virtues and that man’s vices. Compliment everybody upon everything, and especially upon what they haven’t got. Admire guys for their beauty, fools for their wit, and boors for their breeding. Your discernment and intelligence will be extolled to the skies.

Every one can be got over by flattery. The belted earl—”belted earl” is the correct phrase, I believe. I don’t know what it means, unless it be an earl that wears a belt instead of braces. Some men do. I don’t like it myself. You have to keep the thing so tight for it to be of any use, and that is uncomfortable. Anyhow, whatever particular kind of an earl a belted earl may be, he is, I assert, get-overable by flattery; just as every other human being is, from a duchess to a cat’s-meat man, from a plow boy to a poet—and the poet far easier than the plowboy, for butter sinks better into wheaten bread than into oaten cakes.

As for love, flattery is its very life-blood. Fill a person with love for themselves, and what runs over will be your share, says a certain witty and truthful Frenchman whose name I can’t for the life of me remember. (Confound it! I never can remember names when I want to.) Tell a girl she is an angel, only more angelic than an angel; that she is a goddess, only more graceful, queenly, and heavenly than the average goddess; that she is more fairy-like than Titania, more beautiful than Venus, more enchanting than Parthenope; more adorable, lovely, and radiant, in short, than any other woman that ever did live, does live, or could live, and you will make a very favorable impression upon her trusting little heart. Sweet innocent! she will believe every word you say. It is so easy to deceive a woman—in this way.

Dear little souls, they hate flattery, so they tell you; and when you say, “Ah, darling, it isn’t flattery in your case, it’s plain, sober truth; you really are, without exaggeration, the most beautiful, the most good, the most charming, the most divine, the most perfect human creature that ever trod this earth,” they will smile a quiet, approving smile, and, leaning against your manly shoulder, murmur that you are a dear good fellow after all.

By Jove! fancy a man trying to make love on strictly truthful principles, determining never to utter a word of mere compliment or hyperbole, but to scrupulously confine himself to exact fact! Fancy his gazing rapturously into his mistress’ eyes and whispering softly to her that she wasn’t, on the whole, bad-looking, as girls went! Fancy his holding up her little hand and assuring her that it was of a light drab color shot with red; and telling her as he pressed her to his heart that her nose, for a turned-up one, seemed rather pretty; and that her eyes appeared to him, as far as he could judge, to be quite up to the average standard of such things!

A nice chance he would stand against the man who would tell her that her face was like a fresh blush rose, that her hair was a wandering sunbeam imprisoned by her smiles, and her eyes like two evening stars.

There are various ways of flattering, and, of course, you must adapt your style to your subject. Some people like it laid on with a trowel, and this requires very little art. With sensible persons, however, it needs to be done very delicately, and more by suggestion than actual words. A good many like it wrapped up in the form of an insult, as—”Oh, you are a perfect fool, you are. You would give your last sixpence to the first hungry-looking beggar you met;” while others will swallow it only when administered through the medium of a third person, so that if C wishes to get at an A of this sort, he must confide to A’s particular friend B that he thinks A a splendid fellow, and beg him, B, not to mention it, especially to A. Be careful that B is a reliable man, though, otherwise he won’t.

Those fine, sturdy John Bulls who “hate flattery, sir,” “Never let anybody get over me by flattery,” etc., etc., are very simply managed. Flatter them enough upon their absence of vanity, and you can do what you like with them.

After all, vanity is as much a virtue as a vice. It is easy to recite copy-book maxims against its sinfulness, but it is a passion that can move us to good as well as to evil. Ambition is only vanity ennobled. We want to win praise and admiration—or fame as we prefer to name it—and so we write great books, and paint grand pictures, and sing sweet songs; and toil with willing hands in study, loom, and laboratory.

We wish to become rich men, not in order to enjoy ease and comfort—all that any one man can taste of those may be purchased anywhere for 200 pounds per annum—but that our houses may be bigger and more gaudily furnished than our neighbors’; that our horses and servants may be more numerous; that we may dress our wives and daughters in absurd but expensive clothes; and that we may give costly dinners of which we ourselves individually do not eat a shilling’s worth. And to do this we aid the world’s work with clear and busy brain, spreading commerce among its peoples, carrying civilization to its remotest corners.

Do not let us abuse vanity, therefore. Rather let us use it. Honor itself is but the highest form of vanity. The instinct is not confined solely to Beau Brummels and Dolly Vardens. There is the vanity of the peacock and the vanity of the eagle. Snobs are vain. But so, too, are heroes. Come, oh! my young brother bucks, let us be vain together. Let us join hands and help each other to increase our vanity. Let us be vain, not of our trousers and hair, but of brave hearts and working hands, of truth, of purity, of nobility. Let us be too vain to stoop to aught that is mean or base, too vain for petty selfishness and little-minded envy, too vain to say an unkind word or do an unkind act. Let us be vain of being single-hearted, upright gentlemen in the midst of a world of knaves. Let us pride ourselves upon thinking high thoughts, achieving great deeds, living good lives.

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