There was once a vogue for recording the things that writers and other ‘eminent figures’ said while they supped. These books, generally known as ‘table talk’, form a curious and now sadly extinct genre. Part gossip, part biography, they are also a variety of boastful memoir. As Samuel Rogers – poet, banker and echo chamber of the Regency dining room – puts it in the preface to Table-Talk, his recollections of the conversations of, among others, Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, Byron and the Duke of Wellington (recently republished by Notting Hill Editions), he personally ‘heard them talk as they did, when they were most at their ease’ and shared ‘what so few had the privilege of enjoying’. Lady Blessington and Thomas Medwin both promoted their acquaintance with Byron through their collections of his ‘Conversations’, just as Boswell drew himself up alongside the Great Cham in his Life of Samuel Johnson – the only example we have of biography as table talk.
Neither Rogers nor Boswell had an ear for the flatulent or self-regarding remark. Boswell’s Johnson is caught in asides rather than grand statements and the Charles James Fox of Rogers’s book is not the finest orator of the age but an unprepared, unbuttoned and modest melancholic who lets his fellow