The Magazine

To Manners Born

The English version of civility.

Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By SARA LODGE
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While early books on manners were directed squarely at men and had little to say concerning women except that they should be as modest and unobtrusive as possible, by the 18th century, women were both authors and readers of texts on polite behavior. A delightful spoof conduct book by Jane Collier, An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting (1753), offers sage advice on how to annoy one’s friends: “If you have no children, keep as large a quantity of tame animals as you conveniently can .  .  . of the most troublesome and mischievous sort.” She especially recommends squirrels and monkeys. 

Collier’s ironic enjoyment in instructing people to “remember always to do unto everyone, what you would least wish to have done unto yourself” signals the beginning of a backlash against the power-play invoked in prose about propriety. And no wonder. Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son Philip, widely circulated as canny, sometimes caustic, guidance to the man-about-town, argued that women were “only children of a larger growth” and that men should only “trifle” and “play” with them. He also suggested that a gentleman should often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh. At a time of dreadful dentistry, doubtless this advice spared onlookers the spectacle of cavities measureless to man. But it deservedly inspired resistance from those, like Jane Collier, who chose to have a good guffaw at the egotism of manners-mongers who took themselves far too seriously.

The social purpose of civility was, in the 18th century, the subject of intense philosophical debate, and Hitchings is at his most interesting when discussing the differences of opinion expounded by those, like Chesterfield, who saw manners as a veneer—an act performed wholly cynically in order to get on in life—and those, like the Earl of Shaftesbury, who saw manners as a form of morality writ small, a way of behaving that treats everyone well regardless of status and improves all concerned. As Shaftesbury argues: “All politeness is owing to liberty. We polish one another and rub off our corners and rough sides by a sort of amicable collision.” 

Hitchings, one senses, sympathizes with the latter view, while also acknowledging that “manners express power relationships,” often reinforcing the social similarities and differences they appear to seek to erase, and that “assiduously practicing equality, displaying one’s commitment to it, is itself an act of dominance.” Among the many paradoxes that the study of manners exposes is the fact that an act of ostentatious deference—such as opening a door for an employee one has just fired—can also be an act of assertion. The Victorians understood this: Thomas Hood, a popular 19th-century humorist, produced a cartoon called “Civil War,” in which the soldiers are fighting while expressing irreproachably polite sentiments. “After you,” calls one, as he pursues his fleeing foe. “Don’t rise,” says another as he bayonets a man to the ground. The punning double meanings, which may amuse or appall us, highlight the inner conflict, embedded in language, between our “civil” and “uncivil” impulses.

Nineteenth-century accounts of manners often expose both anxious xenophobia and class warfare. Britain had long complacently contrasted its own social habits with those current in France, which were mocked as overly flamboyant, foppish, “vain and effeminate.” Their very expertise at cookery was suspect. Frenchmen, after all, refused to drink out of glasses used by other people and insisted on using napkins when dining. Eww! The French retorted that the English were anti-intellectual, gruff, and loutish. 

By the time Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) was published, Britain had found a new target for its jokes at the expense of other nations’ behavior. Trollope, a working mother who struggled to support a large brood of children, didn’t enjoy her three-and-a-half years in the United States, and when she returned to England, she turned enmity into pen-mity. The Americans were Philistines, she reported; they didn’t read books, only trashy newspapers. They were vulgar in other ways, too: Money was spent and discussed too freely; they were coarse and familiar in address (she regarded the fact that her neighbors called her children “honey” as an affront of “violent intimacy”); and they were guilty of “overweening .  .  . self-esteem, both national and individual.”