The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.

I've seen this attributed to Dorothy Nevill and to Benjamin Franklin, but without a source. Who was it?


It comes from Lady Dorothy Nevill's book Under Five Reigns.

This book was edited by her son Ralph Nevill and first published in 1910. The "Introductory Note" establishes the purpose of the book: "further notes and letters connected with the social life of the Victorian and Edwardian eras". The full text is freely available from the Internet Archive and can also be read in PDF form from Forgotten Books. Here is the quote you seek, in its original setting with the context of the paragraphs immediately before and after it, from the section "Conversationalists" in Chapter V:

As regards conversation in general, there is a good deal more of it than formerly, though the quality has, I think, deteriorated. In old days a number of people kept practically silent and listened ; now every one talks, or tries to talk, and no one seems to devote any particular attention to what is said, their main endeavour being to get in a word them- selves. At the same time it must be acknowledged that the range of subjects discussed is far wider, and people have a greater number of interests than in old days, when collecting and artistic tastes, now so popular, were looked upon, more or less, as being highly eccentric fads.

The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing in the right place, but, far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.

The professional conversationalist of the past was at best rather a contemptible figure — when I say professional conversationalist, I refer to people who were asked out to dine on the tacit understanding that they should amuse the other guests. I am not speaking of conversationalists of the type of Bernal Osborne, whose flow of talk sprang from his own natural vivacity. Up to about forty or fifty years ago there still survived a class which somewhat approximated to the jesters of the Middle Ages, who were expected to amuse the company.

I was eventually lucky enough to find this, after searching through full texts of Leaves from the Note-Books of Lady Dorothy Nevill and The Life & Letters of Lady Dorothy Nevill without success. Exeter University's Hardy and Heritage site attributes the quote to Nevill during a page about her correspondence with Thomas Hardy. Ultimately, the web search which led me to the correct source Under Five Reigns was "nevill" "hardy" to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment -quote but that might have been pure luck.

  • Awesome! Thanks so much!
    – 0xDBFB7
    Jan 10 at 22:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.