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I recently started reading C.S. Lewis's book That Hideous Strength, the third in his Space Trilogy (and I'm devouring it - what a story!) The following passage, from when Mark first meets Miss "Fairy" Hardcastle, isn't quite clear to me:

It would be misleading to say that he liked her. She had indeed excited in him all the distaste which a young man feels at the proximity of something rankly, even insolently, sexed and at the same time wholly unattractive. And something in her cold eye had told him that she was well aware of this reaction and found it amusing. She had told him a good many smoking-room stories. Often before now Mark had shuddered at the clumsy efforts of the emancipated female to indulge in this kind of humour, but his shudders had always been consoled by a sense of superiority. This time he had the feeling that he was the butt; this woman was exasperating male prudery for her diversion.

-- Chapter 3 (emphasis mine; full text available at Project Gutenberg)

I've tried searching the internet for smoking-room stories, but the results are things like this or this which aren't useful at all. What does this phrase mean? It seems to be part of the characterisation of Miss Hardcastle, so I'd like to understand it better, even though by now I've got far enough to know exactly what kind of person she is.

  • Is this story set in a time were smoking was (starting to be) seen as uncool? Because if that is the case, then 'men who went to smoking rooms' might have meant riffraff or something similar. And the stories that these people share: comparable to sharing 'rough' stories. – MalayTheDynamo Jan 1 '18 at 17:02
  • The story is set in the 1940's I think; it was published in 1945. This predates the modern prejudice against smoking. – kimchi lover Jan 1 '18 at 17:12
  • @MalayTheDynamo The setting of the story is some time after, but not many years after, WW2: probably late 40s or early 50s. Judging from the amount of casual smoking by 'respectable' characters in the book, no, I don't think smoking was seen as 'uncool' by then. – Rand al'Thor Jan 1 '18 at 18:14
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Wordy, but fun to write.

From context, "smoking-room stories" means something like off-color stories, dirty stories, steamy stories. One dictionary entry for the adjectival form of "smoking-room" glosses it as "Marked by indecency; obscene: smoking-room humor."

If you google "smoking-room humor" you will get many relevant hits, of varying degrees of sordidness. (All subsequent examples were found this way.)

At one extreme, an odd 1899 novel My smoking room companions by William King, apparently devoid of sordidness but full of piffle. Only slightly more relevant but more fun to read is Mark Twain's 1898 Following the equator, where in chapter 1 he describes the captain of an ocean liner:

Our young captain was a very handsome man, tall and perfectly formed, the very figure to show up a smart uniform’s finest effects. ... He avoided the smoking room. He had no vices. He did not smoke or chew tobacco or take snuff; he did not swear, or use slang or rude, or coarse, or indelicate language, or make puns, or tell anecdotes, or laugh intemperately, or raise his voice above the moderate pitch enjoined by the canons of good form. When he gave an order, his manner modified it into a request. After dinner he and his officers joined the ladies and gentlemen in the ladies’ saloon, and shared in the singing and piano playing, and helped turn the music. ... The electric lights burned there as late as the ladies and their friends might desire; but they were not allowed to burn in the smoking-room after eleven.

Here there is no statement of anything improper in the smoking room, but the fact that the captain preferred the gentilities of the ladies' saloon to the smoking room does allow us to surmise that tobacco, slang, puns and anecdotes, etc. might be found there. (Chapter 2 also has a smoking room episode.)

Other hits are more to the point. Jean Harrell's 1995 Caravagio and his two cardinals has this zinger:

Perhaps the most generic token of how group nudity evokes boasting is the phrase "locker room humor," which seems to survive, while the synonym "smoking room humor" has faded as women took to smoking.

This usage is found in a 1990 report of a 1943 law case against Esquire magazine:

Postal authorities called only nine witnesses, drawn largely from Washington society, to prove its claim that Esquire's smoking-room humor overstepped the bounds of mailability. Clergy played an important role. Among the many clippings in the case file is one that shows the Methodist resident bishop of Washington, Edwin Hughes, eyeing the Varga girl for April 1943. The bishop is quoted as saying "I wouldn't care to exhibit this in my Sunday School class."

From all of this I would conclude that Harrell's description is close to what Lewis had in mind.

  • +1 Smoking-room stories are the old-fashioned version of "locker-room talk." – MissMonicaE Jan 4 '18 at 20:49

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