Let others weep over Little Dorrit or Little Nell. In Miss Manners opinion, the most poignant scene in all of dear Charles Dickens' writing occurs in "The Pickwick Papers," after Large Pickwick has enjoyed a merry evening:
"There was a glorious supper down-stairs, notwithstanding, and a good long sitting after it; when Mr. Pickwick awoke, late the next morning, he had a confused recollection of having, severally and confidentially, invited somewhere about five-and-forty people to dine with him at the George and Vulture, the very first time they came to London; which Mr. Pickwick rightly considered a pretty certain indication of his having taken something besides exercise, on the previous night."
Whatever Mr. Pickwick took -- and Miss Manners has always believed the Pickwickian day-after explanation that "It was the salmon" that made gentlemen ill, and not whatever was necessary to wash the salmon downstream -- his malady is a common one that needs no outside stimulant.
Many unfortunate people suffer from Excessive Fits of Hospitality.
Now Miss Manners believes that hospitality is a wonderful, indeed a sacred, thing. She is all for joviality and largess, the open hearth, the lavish larder and that sort of thing.
But of course, she advocates nothing in excess, not even salmon.
Excessive hospitality is the impulse to entertain people one does not want to entertain or who do not want to be so entertained, or the impulse to entertain people to an extent one does not really want to, or they do not really want.
An excessive fit of hospitality may be something as small as refusing to hear of dinner guests' departing, even though the evening has run its course for everyone; or as large as suddenly insisting that new acquaintances become house guests or casual friends sign on as vacation partners.
The open-ended invitation -- "Feel free to use our pool (ski lodge, lawn mower, services as a baby sitter) whenever you like" -- is a sure sign of it. The fact is that people generally do not want those outside of their very intimate circles to "feel free" to partake of what they themselves should retain the rights to offer as they see fit, and to have regarded as generosity each time, not as a standing obligation.
Entertaining that the prospective host regards as obligatory, rather than pleasant, should be scrutinized for the element of excess. Chances are that the people you dread inviting because you have nothing to say to them, also dread the invitation because they have nothing to say to you. But they may feel as obliged to accept as you feel to issue the invitation, and then they owe you, issue another invitation, and you feel obliged to accept.
The result is either misspent time or the vague misery of social guilt.
Those subject to Pickwickian fits probably already know that, not only from sad experience but because their spouses, forced to participate in the results, keep them. What they don't know is how to stop. Miss Manners will just have to instruct them.
The first step is to examine ruthlessly what one's true duties are to people whom one does not really enjoy. If they are relatives or outgrown friends, there are obligations, but these should be kept within reasonable bounds, such as holiday visits or the occasional letter.
Cutting back on hospitality may in this case mean the difference between preserving amicability and engendering irritation.
Other apparent duties may, under scrutiny, disappear. Two evenings with the neighbors are adequate to establish that you would be happier smiling across the fence than across a dinner table. Somebody should call a halt, by not issuing, or not accepting that third invitation.
Or a pattern may need to be broken entirely. What are perceived as business-social obligations often aren't -- just because the boss has always given a staff party doesn't mean the staff haven't always wished they didn't have to spend an evening being on their best behavior while pretending to be having a good time.
Those who suffer from spontaneous fits, such as Mr. Pickwick's, must force themselves to learn two techniques.
1. Never skip a stage in the development of friendship. Dinner invitations must come before weekend invitations, and weekend invitations must come before offers to buy a holiday house together.
2. Never carry a datebook. By knowing that you are not fully authorized to make engagements -- until you check with spouse, office or private calendar -- you may curb your dangerous tendency. And at the least, it will give you something to blame the next day, when you have to call back and cancel.