Manners and social usages,


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In these days, amid what has been strongly stated as “the prevailing mediocrity of manners,” a study of the manners of the past would seem to reveal to us the fact that in those days of ceremony a man who was beset with shyness need then have suffered less than he would do now in these days of impertinence and brass.

A man was not then expected to enter a room and to dash at once into a lively conversation. The stately influence of the minuet de la cour was upon him; he deliberately entered a room, made a low bow, and sat down, waiting to be spoken to.

Indeed, we may go farther back and imagine ourselves at the court of Louis XIV., when the world was broadly separated into the two classes–the noble and the bourgeois. That world which Molière divided in his dramatis personoe into the courtier, the provincial noble, and the plain gentleman; and secondly, into the men of law and medicine, the merchant, and the shopkeeper. These divisions shall be for a moment considered. Now, all these men knew exactly, from the day when they reached ten years of age, how they were expected to behave in the sphere of life to which they were called. The marquis was instructed in

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every art of graceful behavior, the bel air was taught him as we teach our boys how to dance, even more thoroughly. The grand seigneur of those days, the man who would not arrange the folds of his own cravat with his own hands, and who exacted an observance as punctilious from his valets as if he were the king himself, that marquis of whom the great Molière makes such fun, the courtier whom even the grand monarque liked to see ridiculed–this man had, nevertheless, good manners. We see him reflected with marvellous fidelity in those wonderful comedies of the French Shakespeare; he is more than the fashion of an epoch–he is one of the eternal types of truman nature. We learn what a man becomes whose business is “deportment.” Even despicable as he is in “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”—flattering, borrowing money, cheating the poor citizen, and using his rank as a mask and excuse for his vices–we still read that it was such a one as he who took poor Molière’s cold hands in his and put them in his muff, when, on the last dreadful day of the actor’s life (with a liberality which does his memory immortal honor), he strove to play, “that fifty poor workmen might receive their daily pay.” It was such a one as this who was kind to poor Molière. There was in these gens de cour a copy of fine feeling, even if they had it not, They were polite and elegant, making the people about them feel better for the moment, doing graceful acts courteously, and gilding vice with the polish of perfect manners. The bourgeois, according to Molière, was as bad a man as the courtier, but he had, besides, brutal manners; and as for the magistrates and merchants,

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they were harsh and surly, and very sparing of civility. No wonder, when the French Revolution came, that one of the victims, regretting the not-yet-forgotten marquis, desired the return of the aristocracy; for, said he, “I would rather be trampled upon by a velvet slipper than a wooden shoe.”

It is the best definition of manners–“a velvet slipper rather than a wooden shoe.” We ask very little of the people whom we casually meet but that the salutation be pleasant; and as we remember how many crimes and misfortunes have arisen from sudden anger, caused sometimes by pure breaches of good manners, we almost agree with Burke that “manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend.”

Some one calls politeness “benevolence in trifles, the preference of others to ourselves in little, daily, hourly occurrences in the business of life, a better place, a more commodious seat, priority in being helped at table,” etc.

Now, in all these minor morals the marquis was a benevolent man; he was affable and both well and fair spoken, “and would use strange sweetness and blandishment of words when he desired to affect or persuade anything that he took to heart”–that is, with his equals. It is well to study this man, and to remember that he was not always vile. The Prince of Condè had these manners and a generous, great heart as well. Gentleness really belongs to virtue, and a sycophant can hardly imitate it well. The perfect gentleman is he who has a strong heart under the silken doublet of a perfect manner.

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We do not want all the decent drapery of life torn off; we do not want to be told that we are full of defects; we do not wish people to show us a latent antagonism; and if we have in ourselves the elements of roughness, severity of judgment, a critical eye which sees defects rather than virtues, we are bound to study how to tone down that native, disagreeable temper–just as we are bound to try to break the icy formality of a reserved manner, and to cultivate a cordiality which we do not feel. Such a command over the shortcomings of our own natures is not insincerity, as we often find that the effort to make ourselves agreeable towards some one whom we dislike ends in leading us to like the offending person. We find that we have really been the offender, going about with a moral tape-measure graduated by ourselves, and measuring the opposite party with a serene conceit which has called itself principle or honor, or some high-sounding name, while it was really nothing but prejudice.

We should try to carry entertainment with us, and to seem entertained with our company. A friendly behavior often conciliates and pleases more than wit or brilliancy; and here we come back to those polished manners of the past, which were a perfect drapery, and therefore should be studied, and perhaps in a degree copied, by the awkward and the shy, who cannot depend upon themselves for inspirations of agreeability. Emerson says that “fashion is good-sense entertaining company; it hates corners and sharp points of character, hates quarrelsome, egotistical, solitary, and gloomy people, hates whatever can interfere with total

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blending of parties, while it values all particularities as in the highest degree refreshing which can consist with good-fellowship.”

It does the awkward and the shy good to contemplate these words. It may not immediately help them to become graceful and self-possessed, but it will certainly have a very good effect in inducing them to try.

We find that the successful man of the world has studied the temper of the finest sword. He can bend easily, he is flexible, he is pliant, and yet he has not lost the bravery and the power of his weapon. Men of the bar, for instance, have been at the trouble to construct a system of politeness, in which even an offensive self-estimation takes on the garb of humility. The harmony is preserved, a trial goes on with an appearance of deference and respect each to the other, highly, most highly, commendable, and producing law and order where otherwise we might find strife, hatred, and warfare. Although this may be a mimic humility, although the compliments may be judged insincere, they are still the shadows of the very highest virtues. The man who is guarding his speech is ruling his spirit; he is keeping his temper, that furnace of all affliction, and the lofty chambers of his brain are cool and full of fresh air.

A man who is by nature clownish, and who has what he calls a “noble sincerity,” is very apt to do injustice to the polished man; he should, however, remember that “the manner of a vulgar man has freedom without ease, and that the manner of a gentleman has ease without freedom.” A man with an

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obliging, agreeable address may be just as sincere as if he had the noble art of treading on everybody’s toes. The “putter-down-upon-system” man is quite as often urged by love of display as by a love of truth; he is ungenerous, combative, and ungenial; he is the “bravo of society.”

To some people a fine manner is the gift of nature. We see a young person enter a room, make himself charming, go through the transition period of boy to man, always graceful, and at man’s estate aim to still possess that unconscious and flattering grace, that “most exquisite taste of politeness,” which is a gift from the gods. He is exactly formed to please, this lucky creature, and all this is done for him by nature. We are disposed to abuse Mother Nature when we think of this boy’s heritage of joy compared with her step-son, to whom she has given the burning blushes, the awkward step, the heavy self-consciousness, the uncourtly gait, the hesitating speech, and the bashful demeanor.

But nothing would be omitted by either parent or child to cure the boy if he had a twisted ankle, so nothing should be omitted that can, cure the twist of shyness, and therefore a shy young person should not be expected to confront such a trial.

And to those who have the bringing up of shy young persons we commend these excellent words of Whately: “There are many otherwise sensible people who seek to cure a young person of that very common complaint–shyness–by exhorting him not to be shy, telling him what an awkward appearance it has, and that it prevents his doing himself justice,

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all of which is manifestly pouring oil on the fire to quench it; for the very cause of shyness is an over-anxiety as to what people are thinking of you, a morbid attention to your own appearance. The course, therefore, that ought to be pursued is exactly the reverse. The sufferer should be exhorted to think as little as possible about himself and the opinion formed of him, to be assured that most of the company do not trouble their heads about him, and to harden him against any impertinent criticisms that he supposed to be going on, taking care only to do what is right, leaving Others to say and to think what they will.”

All this philosophy is excellent, and is like the sensible archbishop. But the presence of a set of carefully cultivated, artificial manners, or a hat to hold in one’s hand, will better help the shy person when he is first under fire, and when his senses are about deserting him, than any moral maxims can be expected to do.

Carlyle speaks of the fine manners of his peasant father (which he does not seem to have inherited), and he says: “I think-that they came from his having, early in life, worked for Maxwell, of Keir, a Scotch gentleman of great dignity and worth, who gave to all those under him a fine impression of the governing classes.” Old Carlyle had no shame in standing with his hat off as his landlord passed; he had no truckling spirit either of paying court to those whose lot in life it was to be his superiors.

Those manners of the past were studied; they had, no doubt, much about them which we should now call stiff, formal, and affected, but they were a great help to the awkward and the shy.

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In the past our ancestors had the help of costume, which we have not. Nothing is more defenceless than a being in a dress-coat, with no pockets allowable in which he can put his hands. If a man is in a costume he forgets the sufferings of the coat and pantaloon. He has a sense of being in a fortress. A military man once said that he always fought better in his uniform–that a fashionably cut coat and an every-day hat took all heroism out of him.

Women, particularly shy ones, feel the effect of handsome clothes as a reinforcement. “There is an appui in a good gown,” said Madame de Staël. Therefore, the awkward and the shy, in attempting to conquer the manners of artificial society, should dress as well as possible. Perhaps to their taste in dress do Frenchmen owe much of their easy civility and their success in social politics; and herein women are very much more fortunate than men, for they can always ask, “Is it becoming?” and can add the handkerchief, fan, muff, or mantle as a refuge for trembling hands. A man has only his pockets; he does not wish to always appear with his hands in them.

Taste is said to be the instantaneous, ready appreciation of the fitness of things. To most of us who may regret the want of it in ourselves, it seems to be the instinct of the fortunate few. Some women look as if they had simply blossomed out of their inner consciousness into a beautiful toilet; others are the creatures of chance, and look as if their clothes had been hurled at them by a tornado.

Some women, otherwise good and true, have a sort of moral want of taste, and wear too bright colors,

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too many glass beads, too much hair, and a combination of discordant materials which causes the heart of a good dresser to ache with anguish. This want of taste runs across the character like an intellectual bar-sinister, forcing us to -believe that their conclusions are anything but legitimate. People who say innocently things which shock you, who put the listeners at a dinner-table upon tenter-hooks, are either wanting in taste or their minds are confused with shyness.

A person thus does great injustice to his own moral qualities when he permits himself to be misrepresented by that disease of which we speak. Shyness perverts the speech more than vice even. But if a man or a woman can look down on a well-fitting, becoming dress (even if it is the barren and forlorn dress which men wore to parties in 1882), it is still an appui. We know how it offends us to see a person in a dress which is inappropriate. A chief-justice in the war-paint and feathers of an Indian chief would scarcely be listened to, even if his utterances were those of a Marshall or a Jay.

It takes a great person, a courageous person, to bear the shame of unbecoming dress; and, no doubt, to a nature shy, passionate, proud, and poor, the necessity of wearing poor or unbecoming clothes has been an injury for life. He despised himself for his weakness, but the weakness remained. When the French Revolution came in with its sans-culotteism, and republican simplicity found its perfect expression in Thomas Jefferson, still, the prejudices of powdered hair and stiff brocades remained. They gradually disappeared,

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and the man of the nineteenth century lost the advantages of becoming dress, and began anew the battle of life stripped of all his trappings. Manners went with these flowing accessaries, and the abrupt speech, curt bow, and rather exaggerated simplicity of the present day came in.

But it is a not unworthy study–these manners of the past. We are returning, at least on the feminine side, to a great and magnificent “princess,” or queenly, style of dress. It is becoming the fashion to make a courtesy, to flourish a fan, to bear one’s self with dignity when in this fine costume. Cannot the elegance, the repose, and the respectfulness of the past return also?