MANY who scoff at a book of etiquette would be shocked to hear the least expression of levity touching the Ten Commandments. But the Commandments do not always prevent such virtuous scoffers from dealings with their neighbor of which no gentleman could be capable and retain his claim to the title. Though it may require ingenuity to reconcile their actions with the Decaloguethe ingenuity is always forthcoming. There is no intention in this remark to intimate that there is any higher rule of life than the Ten Commandments; only it is illuminating as showing the relationship between manners and morals, which is too often overlooked. The polished gentleman of sentimental fiction has so long served as the type of smooth and conscienceless depravity that urbanity of demeanor inspires distrust in ruder minds. On the other hand, the blunt, unpolished hero of melodrama and romantic fiction has lifted brusqueness and pushfulness to a pedestal not wholly merited. Consequently, the kinship between conduct that keeps us within the law and conduct that makes civilized life worthy to be called such, deserves to be noted with emphasis. The Chinese sage, Confucius, could not tolerate the suggestion that virtue is in itself enough without politeness, for he viewed them as inseparable and saw courtesies as coming from the heart, maintaining that when they are practised with all the heart, a moral elevation ensues.
People who ridicule etiquette as a mass of trivial and arbitrary conventions, extremely troublesome to those who practise them and insupportable to everybody else, seem to forget the long, slow progress of social intercourse in the upward climb of man from the primeval state. Conventions were established from the first to regulate the rights of the individual and the tribe. They were and are the rules of the game of life and must be followed if we would play the game. Ages before man felt the need of indigestion remedies, he ate his food solitary and furtive in some corner, hoping he would not be espied by any stronger and hungrier fellow. It was a long, long time before the habit of eating in common was acquired; and it is obvious that the practise could not have been taken up with safety until the individuals of the race knew enough about one another and about the food resources to be sure that there was food sufficient for all. When eating in common became the vogue, table manners made their appearance and they have been waging an uphill struggle ever since. The custom of raising the hat when meeting an acquaintance derives from the old rule that friendly knights in accosting each other should raise the visor for mutual recognition in amity. In the knightly years, it must be remembered, it was important to know whether one was meeting friend or foe. Meeting a foe meant fighting on the spot. Thus, it is evident that the conventions of courtesy not only tend to make the wheels of life run more smoothly, but also act as safeguards in human relationship. Imagine the Paris Peace Conference, or any of the later conferences in Europe, without the protective armor of diplomatic etiquette!
Nevertheless, to some the very word etiquette is an irritant. It implies a great pother about trifles, these conscientious objectors assure us, and trifles are unimportant. Trifles are unimportant, it is true, but then life is made up of trifles. To those who dislike the word, it suggests all that is finical and superfluous. It means a garish embroidery on the big scheme of life; a clog on the forward march of a strong and courageous nation. To such as these, the words etiquette and politeness connote weakness and timidity. Their notion of a really polite man is a dancing master or a man milliner. They were always willing to admit that the French were the politest nation in Europe and equally ready to assert that the French were the weakest and least valorous, until the war opened their eyes in amazement. Yet, that manners and fighting can go hand in hand appears in the following anecdote:
In the midst of the war, some French soldiers and some non-French of the Allied forces were receiving their rations in a village back of the lines. The non-French fighters belonged to an Army that supplied rations plentifully. They grabbed their allotments and stood about while hastily eating, uninterrupted by conversation or other concern. The French soldiers took their very meager portions of food, improvised a kind of table on the top of a flat rock, and having laid out the rations, including the small quantity of wine that formed part of the repast, sat down in comfort and began their meal amid a chatter of talk. One of the non-French soldiers, all of whom had finished their large supply of food before the French had begun eating, asked sardonically: Why do you fellows make such a lot of fuss over the little bit of grub they give you to eat? The Frenchman replied: Well, we are making war for civilization, are we not? Very well, we are. Therefore, we eat in a civilized way.
To the French we owe the word etiquette, and it is amusing to discover its origin in the commonplace familiar warningKeep off the grass. It happened in the reign of Louis XIV, when the gardens of Versailles were being laid out, that the master gardener, an old Scotsman, was sorely tried because his newly seeded lawns were being continually trampled upon. To keep trespassers off, he put up warning signs or ticketsetiquetteson which was indicated the path along which to pass. But the courtiers paid no attention to these directions and so the determined Scot complained to the King in such convincing manner that His Majesty issued an edict commanding everyone at Court to keep within the etiquettes. Gradually the term came to cover all the rules for correct demeanor and deportment in court circles; and thus through the centuries it has grown into use to describe the conventions sanctioned for the purpose of smoothing personal contacts and developing tact and good manners in social intercourse. With the decline of feudal courts and the rise of empires of industry, much of the ceremony of life was discarded for plain and less formal dealing. Trousers and coats supplanted doublets and hose, and the change in costume was not more extreme than the change in social ideas. The court ceased to be the arbiter of manners, though the aristocracy of the land remained the high exemplar of good breeding.
Yet, even so courtly and materialistic a mind as Lord Chesterfields acknowledged a connection between manners and morality, of which latter the courts of Europe seemed so sparing. In one of the famous Letters to His Son he writes: Moral virtues are the foundation of society in general, and of friendship in particular; but attentions, manners, and graces, both adorn and strengthen them. Again he says: Great merit, or great failings, will make you respected or despised; but trifles, little attentions, mere nothings, either done or reflected, will make you either liked or disliked, in the general run of the world. For all the wisdom and brilliancy of his worldly knowledge, perhaps no other writer has done so much to bring disrepute on the manners and graces as Lord Chesterfield, and this, it is charged, because he debased them so heavily by considering them merely as the machinery of a successful career. To the moralists, the fact that the moral standards of society in Lord Chesterfields day were very different from those of the present era rather adds to the odium that has become associated with his attitude. His severest critics, however, do concede that he is candid and outspoken, and many admit that his social strategy is widely practised even in these days.
But the aims of the world in which he moved were routed by the onrush of the ideals of democratic equality, fraternity, and liberty. With the prosperity of the newer shibboleths, the old-time notion of aristocracy, gentility, and high breeding became more and more a curio to be framed suitably in gold and kept in the glass case of an art museum. The crashing advance of the industrial age of gold thrust all courts and their sinuous graces aside for the unmistakable ledger balance of the counting-house. This new order of things had been a long time in process, when, in the first year of this century, a distinguished English social historian, the late The Right Honorable G. W. E. Russell, wrote: Probably in all ages of history men have liked money, but a hundred years ago they did not talk about it in society... Birth, breeding, rank, accomplishments, eminence in literature, eminence in art, eminence in public serviceall these things still count for something in society. But when combined they are only as the dust of the balance when weighed against the all-prevalent power of money. The worship of the Golden Calf is the characteristic cult of modern society. In the Elizabethan Age of mighty glory, three hundred years before this was said, Ben Jonson had railed against money as a thin membrane of honor, groaning: How hath all true reputation fallen since money began to have any! Now the very fact that the debasing effect of money on the social organism has been so constantly reprehended, from Scriptural days onward, proves the instinctive yearning of mankind for a system of life regulated by good taste, high intelligence and sound affections. But, it remains true that, in the succession of great commercial epochs, coincident with the progress of modern science and invention, almost everything can be bought and sold, and so almost everything is rated by the standard of money.
Yet, this standard is precisely not the ultimate test of the Christianity on which we have been pluming ourselves through the centuries. Still, no one can get along without money; and few of us get along very well with what we have. At least we think sobecause everybody else seems to think that way. We Americans are members of the nation which, materially, is the richest, most prosperous and most promising in the world. This idea is dinned into our heads continually by foreign observers, and publicly we own the soft impeachment. Privately, each individual American seems driven with the decision that he must live up to the general conception of the nation as a whole. And he does, but in less strenuous moments he might profitably ponder the counsel of Gladstone to his countrymen: Let us respect the ancient manners and recollect that, if the true soul of chivalry has died among us, with it all that is good in society has died. Let us cherish a sober mind; take for granted that in our best performances there are latent many errors which in their own time will come to light.
America, too, has her ancient manners to remember and respect; but, in the rapid assimilation of new peoples into her economic and social organism, more pressing concerns take up nearly all her time. The perfection of manners by intensive cultivation of good taste, some believe, would be the greatest aid possible to the moralists who are alarmed over the decadence of the younger generation. Good taste may not make men or women really virtuous, but it will often save them from what theologians call occasions of sin. We may note, too, that grossness in manners forms a large proportion of the offenses that fanatical reformers foam about. Besides grossness, there is also the meaner selfishness. Selfishness is at the polar remove from the worldly manners of the old school, according to which, as Dr. Pusey wrote, others were preferred to self, pain was given to no one, no one was neglected, deference was shown to the weak and the aged, and unconscious courtesy extended to all inferiors. Such was the beauty of the old manners, which he felt consisted in acting upon Christian principle, and if in any case it became soulless, as apart from Christianity, the beautiful form was there, into which the real life might re-enter.
As a study of all that is admirable in American manners, and as a guide to behavior in the simplest as well as the most complex requirements of life day by day, whether we are at home or away from it, there can be no happier choice than the present volume. It is conceived in the belief that etiquette in its broader sense means the technique of human conduct under all circumstances in life. Yet all minutiæ of correct manners are included and no detail is too small to be explained, from the selection of a visiting card to the mystery of eating corn on the cob. Matters of clothes for men and women are treated with the same fullness of information and accuracy of taste as are questions of the furnishing of their houses and the training of their minds to social intercourse. But there is no exaggeration of the minor details at the expense of the more important spirit of personal conduct and attitude of mind. To dwell on formal trivialities, the author holds, is like measuring the letters of the sign-boards by the roadside instead of profiting by the directions they offer. She would have us know also that it is not the people who make small technical mistakes or even blunders, who are barred from the paths of good society, but those of sham and pretense whose veneered vulgarity at every step tramples the flowers in the gardens of cultivation. To her mind the structure of etiquette is comparable to that of a house, of which the foundation is ethics and the rest good taste, correct speech, quiet, unassuming behavior, and a proper pride of dignity.
To such as entertain the mistaken notion that politeness implies all give and little or no return, it is well to recall Coleridges definition of a gentleman: We feel the gentlemanly character present with us, he said, whenever, under all circumstances of social intercourse, the trivial, not less than the important, through the whole detail of his manners and deportment, and with the ease of a habit, a person shows respect to others in such a way as at the same time implies, in his own feelings, and habitually, an assured anticipation of reciprocal respect from them to himself. In short, the gentlemanly character arises out of the feeling of equality acting as a habit, yet flexible to the varieties of rank, and modified without being disturbed or superseded by them. Definitions of a gentleman are numerous, and some of them famous; but we do not find such copiousness for choice in definitions of a lady. Perhaps it has been understood all along that the admirable and just characteristics of a gentleman should of necessity be those also of a lady, with the charm of womanhood combined. And, in these days, with the added responsibility of the vote.
Besides the significance of this volume as an indubitable authority on manners, it should be pointed out that as a social document, it is without precedent in American literature. In order that we may better realize the behavior and environment of well-bred people, the distinguished author has introduced actual persons and places in fictional guise. They are the persons and the places of her own world; and whether we can or can not penetrate the incognito of the Worldlys, the Gildings, the Kindharts, the Oldnames, and the others, is of no importance. Fictionally, they are real enough for us to be interested and instructed in their way of living. That they happen to move in what is known as Society is incidental, for, as the author declares at the very outset: Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted birth; but it is an association of gentlefolk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members.
The immediate fact is that the characters of this book are thoroughbred Americans, representative of various sections of the country and free from the slightest tinge of snobbery. Not all of them are even well-to-do, in the post-war sense; and their devices of economy in household outlay, dress and entertainment are a revelation in the science of ways and means. There are parents, children, relatives and friends all passing before us in the pageant of life from the cradle to the grave. No circumstance, from an introduction to a wedding, is overlooked in this panorama and the spectator has beside him a cicerone in the person of the author who clears every doubt and answers every question. In course, the conviction grows upon him that etiquette is no flummery of poseurs aping the manners of their betters, nor a code of snobs, who divide their time between licking the boots of those above them and kicking at those below, but a system of rules of conduct based on respect of self coupled with respect of others. Meanwhile, to guard against conceit in his new knowledge, he may at odd moments recall Ben Jonsons lines:
Nor stand so much on your gentility,
Which is an airy, and mere borrowed thing,
From dead mens dust, and bones: And none of yours
Except you make, or hold it.