Thursday, December 11, 2008

Brother, can you spare a writ?

My third-grade teacher read us the story of a fashionable gentleman of the early 19th century, who approached a shabbily dressed old man and offered him a dollar to carry his parcels. The old man turned out to be Chief Justice John Marshall.

I think I've found the original of that story in The Laws of Etiquette, published in 1836. I like the author's overall tone:

We must here stop to point out an error which is often committed both in practice and opinion, and which consists in confounding together the gentleman and the man of fashion. No two characters can be more distinct than these. Good sense and self-respect are the foundations of the one—notoriety and influence the objects of the other. Men of fashion are to be seen everywhere: a pure and mere gentleman is the rarest thing alive. Brummel was a man of fashion; but it would be a perversion of terms to apply to him "a very expressive word in our language—a word, denoting an assemblage of many real virtues and of many qualities approaching to virtues, and an union of manners at once pleasing and commanding respect—the word gentleman."* The requisites to compose this last character are natural ease of manner, and an acquaintance with the "outward habit of encounter"—dignity and self-possession—a respect for all the decencies of life, and perfect freedom from all affectation. Dr. Johnson's bearing during his interview with the king showed him to be a thorough gentleman, and demonstrates how rare and elevated that character is. When his majesty expressed in the language of compliment his high opinion of Johnson's merits, the latter bowed in silence.

I'm glad John F. Kennedy made hats unnecessary, but I still like this passage:

If an individual of the lowest rank, or without any rank at all, takes off his hat to you, you should do the same in return. A bow, says La Fontaine, is a note drawn at sight. If you acknowledge it, you must pay the full amount. The two best-bred men in England, Charles the Second and George the Fourth, never failed to take off their hats to the meanest of their subjects.

And this is one of my favorite passages out of the whole work:

Sir Joshua Reynolds once received from two noblemen invitations to visit them on Sunday morning. The first, whom he waited upon, welcomed him with the most obsequious condescension, treated him with all the attention in the world, professed that he was so desirous of seeing him, that he had mentioned Sunday as the time for his visit, supposing him to be too much engaged during the week, to spare time enough for the purpose, concluded his compliments by an eulogy on painting, and smiled him affectionately to the door. Sir Joshua left him, to call upon the other. That one received him with respectful civility, and behaved to him as he would have behaved to an equal in the peerage: said nothing about Raphael nor Correggio, but conversed with ease about literature and men. This nobleman was the Earl of Chesterfield. Sir Joshua felt, that though the one had said that he respected him, the other had proved that he did, and went away from this one gratified rather than from the first.

The anonymous author is sometimes sardonic ("A funeral in the morning, a ball in the evening, so runs the world away") but very perceptive; his book can be finished in a couple of hours and could be profitably read alongside Emerson's "Social Aims."

The author declares that there is only one example of the true gentleman in literature: the character of Mr. Paulet in the novel Sydenham, published in 1833, and its sequel, Alice Paulet. Curious about his claim, I casually searched for the books online for a couple of years but could only find copies through rare book sites, being offered from the libraries of English country houses at about £700, which is roughly £690 more than I could afford, so thank goodness for Google Books.

The two novels, by one W. Massie, read like Jane Austen without the genius. Sir Matthew Sydenham, the narrator, is a wealthy young man from the lower ranks of the English aristocracy, entering London society and observing its foibles; he believes he is above the fashionable and foolish people he mingles with until he suddenly encounters a group that is outside the fashionable set but even more exclusive, and with a sort of inner refinement that leaves him uneasy and embarrassed. Here are his first observations on Mr. Paulet:

The obtrusive self-confidence and vanity of the coxcomb seemed unknown to this celestial gentleman; yet I could perceive in his air a calm consciousness of propriety and a sense of equality, at least with all who moved in the society which he frequented. The refined humanity of manner, the easy gracefulness of movement which, when seen in other men, are evidently achieved by elaborate study, and preserved by vigilant care, appeared in Mr. Paulet to be the actions of his nature, which would be violated by a different behavior.

I read about half the book today and am curious to see where this all leads; the word "celestial" in the author's description of Paulet is a little too apt, since it seems he is at risk for erecting a figure of such high ideals that mortals can't follow it.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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