Chapter 2. The Formal Couple

by Charles Dickens

The formal couple are the most prim, cold, immovable, and unsatisfactory people on the face of the earth.  Their faces, voices, dress, house, furniture, walk, and manner, are all the essence of formality, unrelieved by one redeeming touch of frankness, heartiness, or nature.

Everything with the formal couple resolves itself into a matter of form.  They don’t call upon you on your account, but their own; not to see how you are, but to show how they are: it is not a ceremony to do honour to you, but to themselves,—not due to your position, but to theirs.  If one of a friend’s children die, the formal couple are as sure and punctual in sending to the house as the undertaker; if a friend’s family be increased, the monthly nurse is not more attentive than they.  The formal couple, in fact, joyfully seize all occasions of testifying their good-breeding and precise observance of the little usages of society; and for you, who are the means to this end, they care as much as a man does for the tailor who has enabled him to cut a figure, or a woman for the milliner who has assisted her to a conquest.

Having an extensive connexion among that kind of people who make acquaintances and eschew friends, the formal gentleman attends from time to time a great many funerals, to which he is formally invited, and to which he formally goes, as returning a call for the last time.  Here his deportment is of the most faultless description; he knows the exact pitch of voice it is proper to assume, the sombre look he ought to wear, the melancholy tread which should be his gait for the day.  He is perfectly acquainted with all the dreary courtesies to be observed in a mourning-coach; knows when to sigh, and when to hide his nose in the white handkerchief; and looks into the grave and shakes his head when the ceremony is concluded, with the sad formality of a mute.

‘What kind of funeral was it?’ says the formal lady, when he returns home.  ‘Oh!’ replies the formal gentleman, ‘there never was such a gross and disgusting impropriety; there were no feathers.’  ‘No feathers!’ cries the lady, as if on wings of black feathers dead people fly to Heaven, and, lacking them, they must of necessity go elsewhere.  Her husband shakes his head; and further adds, that they had seed-cake instead of plum-cake, and that it was all white wine.  ‘All white wine!’ exclaims his wife.  ‘Nothing but sherry and madeira,’ says the husband.  ‘What! no port?’  ‘Not a drop.’  No port, no plums, and no feathers!  ‘You will recollect, my dear,’ says the formal lady, in a voice of stately reproof, ‘that when we first met this poor man who is now dead and gone, and he took that very strange course of addressing me at dinner without being previously introduced, I ventured to express my opinion that the family were quite ignorant of etiquette, and very imperfectly acquainted with the decencies of life.  You have now had a good opportunity of judging for yourself, and all I have to say is, that I trust you will never go to a funeral there again.’  ‘My dear,’ replies the formal gentleman, ‘I never will.’  So the informal deceased is cut in his grave; and the formal couple, when they tell the story of the funeral, shake their heads, and wonder what some people’s feelings are made of, and what their notions of propriety can be!

If the formal couple have a family (which they sometimes have), they are not children, but little, pale, sour, sharp-nosed men and women; and so exquisitely brought up, that they might be very old dwarfs for anything that appeareth to the contrary.  Indeed, they are so acquainted with forms and conventionalities, and conduct themselves with such strict decorum, that to see the little girl break a looking-glass in some wild outbreak, or the little boy kick his parents, would be to any visitor an unspeakable relief and consolation.

The formal couple are always sticklers for what is rigidly proper, and have a great readiness in detecting hidden impropriety of speech or thought, which by less scrupulous people would be wholly unsuspected.  Thus, if they pay a visit to the theatre, they sit all night in a perfect agony lest anything improper or immoral should proceed from the stage; and if anything should happen to be said which admits of a double construction, they never fail to take it up directly, and to express by their looks the great outrage which their feelings have sustained.  Perhaps this is their chief reason for absenting themselves almost entirely from places of public amusement.  They go sometimes to the Exhibition of the Royal Academy;—but that is often more shocking than the stage itself, and the formal lady thinks that it really is high time Mr. Etty was prosecuted and made a public example of.

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