A continuing series by Persuasion’s Mary Musgrove
Literature searches, focus groups, and personal interviews. These are ways people supposedly obtain information, and perhaps in your era they are effective.
I have my own methods for staying informed, and they do not involve the newspapers.
Frankly, what is going on in the wide world makes for dull conversation. People do not care about politics. What matters most is what one’s neighbors are up to.
That is to say, who is doing what and with whom. Here is how I stay “in the know” … without appearing to.
Letters and other memorabilia: It is surprising what people will leave lying about, either on top of a table or sandwiched in pages of a novel they’re reading, or in drawers. In most houses, letters to be sent out in that day’s post are left on a table in the vestibule. These are excellent cues for conversational questions.
Eyes and ears: People love to talk, and the temptation to crow about accomplishments to a trusted friend is simply too tempting. One must pay careful attention, even if the confidence was not meant for you to hear. I say whatever is not whispered is fair game. Those who are hard of hearing are excellent sources for secondhand news.
Flattery and guesswork: People adore being part of an inner circle, and their reactions to your wide-of-the-mark guesses can be quite telling. Guesswork that is deliberately stupid, used alongside flattery, encourage people to set you straight. With practice, you will learn how not to smirk.
Gifts and special favors: It is helpful to give presents to servants in exchange for the latest gossip. Relating the latest tidbits allows your maid to feel that she is superior, and it you present her with nice cast-offs (a cap or a scarf or a bottle of scent), she will be motivated to take an active part in collecting news. Similarly, if you ask a younger woman to tea (especially if she is openly in awe of you), she will spill a wealth of neighborhood gossip.
Children: Children are excellent observers because no one minds them. A bit of breezy questioning will often turn up a surprising amount of information. A ready supply of candies serve as rewards and encourage a child (either your own or one from the village) to speak often with you.
I trust these hints will be helpful. After all, no one wants to cut a figure as a gossipmonger. So unattractive and vulgar! On the other hand, a lady simply must stay informed…
Mary Elliot Musgrove
Daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, Bart.
Future Mistress of Uppercross
Mary’s “portrait” is Afternoon Stroll by Giovanni Boldini