Anyone who is well versed in matters of the 19th century literature and mannerisms, will come across our predecessors sharp wit. Wit is the keen perception and cleverly apt expression of those connections between ideas that awaken amusement and pleasure. It is often a pointed remark or jab and often used in some of the best insults. However, being witty can just be ironic and not necessarily callous. The British have raised the ironic wit to an art form, but our American forbearers were rather witty in their own right.
Wit is considered the intellects weapon of choice. It is almost a polite insult that is delivered in a calm nonchalant manner. There is no need for raised voices or profanity. The best remarks are in which the victim is unaware or unsure of what just transpired. It does make one feel a bit smug. Two points to the wittiest man or woman.
In modern parlance this equated with the “burn.” If someone insults or “gets” another person to the point the victim is left struggling to retort, a bystander might yell, “Burn!” Similar concept.
Many wonderful examples can be lifted from British television, 19th century literature, or period films. While wit is not extinct in America by any means, it does seem to be in rather short supply in comparison to the abundance supplied in British productions. Let us not leave everything to the English, my dear readers.
From a true written account in 1803 the French brothers and siblings of “Citizen King” Louis XVIII who were exiled in America . . .
The royal exile-and half the single men in Philadelphia-was said to have been infatuated with Maria Bingham, whose extravagant displays of charm and figure were legendary in the city. Unimpressed, her father, William Bingham scotched the alliance, reply to the Comte de Beaujolais, now a nobleman in exile, “Should you ever be restored to your hereditary position, you will be too great a match for her; if not, she is too great a match for you.
Or in the case of Downton Abbey’s case; when the wealthy American Martha Levinson comes to visit England, the Dowager Countess Gratham states drolly “Every time your mother comes to visit, I am reminded of the virtues of the English.”
The last example comes from the movie Lincoln where Mary Todd Lincoln is rather displeased Chairmen Stevens is investigating her White House refurbishing funds. All said in a faux cheerful disposition, “Oh! Oh, I’m detaining you, and more importantly, the people behind you. How the people love my husband, they flock to see him, by their thousands on public days. They will never love you the way they love him. How difficult it must be for you to know that. And yet how important to remember it.”