‘My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.’So what did ‘clever’ mean? Our old friend Samuel Johnson first defined the word as ‘dextrous, skilful’; his second definition was ‘just, fit, proper, commodious’; and finally, ‘well-shaped, handsome’. Austen’s ‘clever’ company was, therefore, not so much vulpine as perfectly adapted to polite company, in both mental fitness, social appropriateness, and aesthetic appeal. Were such people ‘well-informed’, they would be devastatingly interesting. Their ‘great deal of conversation’ would not be mere artfulness around ladies, but a supreme engagement with the world and the like minds around them. The best company is sympathetic, challenging, and fair.
‘You are mistaken,’ said he gently, ‘that is not good company; that is the best…’
(Jane Austen, Persuasion, 1818).
You may keep your clever people. I will take the best.