The Descent of Manners: Etiquette, Rules and the Victorians 
by Andrew St George.
Chatto, 330 pp., £20, July 1993, 0 7011 3623 5
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In the sixth year of Queen Victoria’s reign two well-bred brothers-in-law faced each other with pistols in the fields of Camden Town and one shot the other dead. The survivor, who had issued the challenge, was sure that his Merciful and All-Seeing Maker would hold him guiltless, for he had been grievously wronged: in the course of a business dispute he had been ordered out of the other man’s house in front of a servant. Both parties were officers and gentlemen, and at this level a breach of good manners could carry the death penalty. ‘Satisfaction’ could be demanded for an accusation of lying or cowardice, for eyeing a woman, for derisive laughter or taking a pinch of someone’s snuff without permission. Such rules did not apply, of course, to solicitors or tradesmen, though editors and even contributors could find themselves called out. The affair of the brothers-in-law greatly perturbed nation, government, church and throne. Thereafter the rate of duelling fell to a trickle, but there were many who saw its decline as a fatal blow to the maintenance of good behaviour.

The ‘Christless code’ of pistols at dawn does not rate a mention in Andrew St George’s The Descent of Manners, a study of ‘the subtle binding codes that ruled all aspects of 19th-century life’. His concern is only with the middle classes, who had their own sense of honour but were less ready to create widows and orphans when insulted. Many of them aspired to rise into those hazardous higher ranks, where the risk was not so much the bullet as the snub. How could they prepare themselves for the life of the salon and the grand table? Up to a point, as this book shows, they could allow themselves to be guided, or brainwashed, by manuals of etiquette, supported by the precepts of Martin Tupper and the self-help exhortations of Samuel Smiles. One essential was to know the rules of good conversation. In their earlier years these strivers might well have learned the basics of the art from the recycled works of that universal publisher, Dr John Trusler (d. 1820): ‘Be not dark or mysterious; Affect not absence of mind; Punch no one in conversation; Hold no one by the button; Spit not on the carpet; Dare to be prudish; Avoid mauvaise honte.’ (‘What’s mauvaise honte, Mamma?’ – ‘Oh, ask Papa.’) But the times had moved on and new standards were being set; it was not enough to stock up beforehand on safe topics and avoid slang. As St George relates, evangelists were on hand to explain that good conversation was a way of glorifying God and that ‘one end for which our tongues were given us was that we might correct and improve each other’ (but not in high society, perhaps). In the great gin palaces and on the excursion trains to the hanging a merciful ignorance of such imperatives prevailed.

Some of us may doubt whether the Victorious, at any social level, took their etiquette books seriously. Such works may have been found in every middle-class home, but had they any higher standing than Joe Miller’s jest-book in an earlier day? All the compilers copied from each other and some were suspected of being upper servants. Priggishness prevailed and imbecilities abounded. St George has obviously studied masses of these works and has passed on some diverting discoveries, while sparing us the silliest. Did he ever come across those warnings to young ladies not to flirt during an engagement, since the onrush of remorse could lead to madness? Or the advice to a courting swain to drop his fiancée if ever he failed to see ‘the holiness of religion, like a sanctifying dove’ hovering above her head?

The Descent of Manners comes with pre-publication commendations for its range of knowledge and originality of treatment (‘daringly original’, claims the blurb). Certainly it sparks provocative ideas and is one of those books likely to be hailed as ‘fizzing with insights’. But the ineffable Martin Tupper (about whom the author has much of interest to say) would have been pulled up short to learn that he had a voice which mediated between phylogeny and ontogeny (there’s too much mediating going on in these pages). It is hard to know why anyone should wish to support, or illuminate, an argument with this passage from Marshall McLuhan; ‘As the 19th century heated up the mechanical and dissociative procedures of technical fragmentation, the entire attention of men turned to the associative and the corporate.’

St George has much to say about the Victorian home, as sanctuary, ‘domestic shrine’ and regulator of moral behaviour. He gives us many pages on the Great Exhibition of 1851, which he sees, rather oddly, as symbolising the nation’s ideal home. It had furniture designed to keep intrusive talkers at bay and bedrooms ‘fit to grow old and die in’. Good, but why did he have to tell us that the Crystal Palace contained 3300 columns. 2300 girders and one million square feet of glass? On a more abstract level he asserts that the Exhibition was ‘the ideal which exemplified the procedures followed not only by home design, but by men’s designs on women [as by keeping them at home]. The home needed to define itself against the outside, cherish the importance of here by recognising the importance of elsewhere.’ This is immediately followed by the statement: ‘It was concern about correct behaviour which extended home values on to the streets in the guise of the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s.’

But was it? The Contagious Diseases Acts, with which St George seems curiously obsessed, and on which we are given copious information, introduced compulsory medical examination for prostitutes in certain naval and military garrisons, in order to reduce infection among sailors and soldiers. It was not the proudest experiment in our history, but it was essentially a public health measure, and is not easily linked with manners. St George says the Acts drove the Victorians to their rule-books, but which rule-books were those? ‘If the home was a place for the Victorians to keep some women in,’ he says, ‘it was also the place to keep other women out.’ This suggests that at other periods the Englishman’s home was Liberty Hall. Josephine Butler boldly attacked the Acts, condemning the moral codes which governed attitudes to prostitution, but she is unlikely to have seen the issue as one of manners. When the Acts were scrapped after twenty years life went on as before; no codes had changed or values altered. The author could have got just as much mileage out of the Married Women’s Property Acts, which were designed, among other things, to stop a man using his best behaviour to acquire a wife, instal her secure in a domestic shrine, and then use her money to maintain his mistress.

It is difficult, again, to follow the author in his attempt to link the theme of manners with a series of major frauds which occurred in mid-century. Much space is given to the activities of a handful of rogues, of the Mr Merdle variety, who used their social graces and knowledge of decent behaviour to beguile their victims (as crooks always did, and still do). ‘Money behaviour,’ we read, ‘formed an arena in which attitude, behaviour and actuality drew together to form an environment of manners; this consisted of beliefs about riches, poverty, trust, fraud, success, failure, decency and probity. Money meant the practical implementation of religious beliefs; and financial dealings, like social relations, had their own cast of etiquette.’ Elsewhere, writing en clair, St George says; ‘Fraud was simple misbehaviour, bad manners of the worst kind.’ But if fraud was bad manners, so was murder. Perhaps we have reached the daringly original bit. There were prescriptive manuals telling young men how to get on in business, but the advice seems to have boiled down to ‘Be diligent. Be honest.’ One of them included a doggerel poem, quoted at length, in which the upwardly mobile young businessman is urged to write home more often. Well, that at least is good manners.

The democratic ways of the Americans make for a more satisfying study. Charles Dickens dutifully followed the familiar trail of brown spittle winding through the New World, Fanny Trollope having charted it ten years earlier. He found a law court in which judge, crier, witness and prisoner had their own spittoons, as did the jurors and spectators. Did etiquette books and moral maxims play any part in weaning America from her spittoon culture? If St George found any clues he does not divulge them (today’s etiquette books sometimes make a feeble attempt to regulate gum-chewing). It would have been instructive, too, to see what advice was given on the treatment of servants in a land where, as Carlyle points out, ‘one half prefer hiring their servants for life, and the other by the hour.’ In a mobile, westward-thrusting society the etiquette writers sensibly made a feature of behaviour in hotels, and also on the railroads. ‘Passengers should not gaze at one another in an embarrassing way,’ said one guide, ‘and yet should not look as if they dislike to see one another at all.’ There was a possible lift from Dr Trusler in an 1860 Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette: ‘Avoid any air of mystery when speaking to those next you; it is ill-bred and in excessively bad taste.’ In Washington more formal codes of behaviour prevailed. Even in hard-spitting days the rules of refinement could be quite elaborate. In 1853, we learn, a ‘Mrs Manners’ wrote: ‘It is considered polite, in ordinary letters of friendship, to write to the middle of the fourth page, leaving that part of the letter, which will be outside when folded, a blank; but that is a mere matter of etiquette.’

The book begins and ends with John Stuart Mill, from whom the author plucks many a challenging text. It was Mill who complained that the English, more than any other nation, not only acted but felt according to rule, that they were farther from a state of nature than any other people. Was this a good or bad thing? Was it stifling individuality, choking the national genius? Some were to wonder whether manners were inhibiting evolution, others whether they were holding back reform. Inevitably there was a literary rebellion against thinking to rule, a competition to push back ‘the boundaries of the sayable’. Browning claimed that his interest lay in ‘the dangerous edge of things, / The honest thief, the gentle murderer’. St George enjoys himself shaking down glossy conkers from the literary groves, along with dead twigs and the odd lump of something nasty. We are given Christina Rossetti’s over-excited suctional passage from ‘Goblin Market’, not the sort of thing to go down well if read aloud in polite company. John Morley, we are reminded, raised this objection to Swinburne’s output. What drawing-room, he asked, could stomach such Sapphic excesses as

The shameless nameless love that makes
  Hell’s iron gin
Shut on you like a trap that breaks
  The soul, Faustine

The nomination for ‘the ultimate misbehaviour book’ falls on Huysmans’s A Rebours, from which we have an extract about a virginal youth, picked up in Paris by an aristocrat, being handed over to an initiatrice; by no means the sort of behaviour encouraged in English rule-books.

The last chapter is headed ‘The End of Manners’, suggesting that by the Nineties the decadents had won a famous victory. We are told nothing about the new ‘hearty’ codes fostered on the playing-fields and the civilising (some would say ennobling) influence of cricket; a boring subject, admittedly. In practice the old social codes still held well into the next reign. In 1894, in a fine flurry of excitement, the Empire Theatre was made to close (temporarily at least) its notorious promenade, one of many such arenas in which well-mannered prostitutes paraded, unregulated by any Contagious Diseases Acts. In the same year Parliament, anxious still further to refine the nation’s manners, passed the utterly forgotten (and utterly useless) Slander of Women Act, under which a woman who was called a whore, tart, slut, demirep, soiled dove or any of the other names in Roget could sue for damages, always supposing she could prove she was none of those things (a man could not she for being called a goal or a lecher). Still, the legislators meant well. When did Parliament last pass an Act designed to lead to the improvement, rather than the debasement, of manners?

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