WHEN I took my passage for Liverpool I naturally inquired what kind of man he was in whose charge and under whose command I was to be for some ten days upon the ocean. I was told that he was an excellent seaman and a good shipmaster, but that he was unsociable and surly, in fact positively disagreeable, had English manners, and was in brief a perfect John Bull. I took all this with some grains of allowance, and was content to be in the hands of a good seaman and commander. For as to unsociability on the part of a man who had upon his mind the responsibility for a great steamship and her cargo, and a thousand or twelve hundred souls upon the storm-vexed, fog-shrouded Atlantic, I could not only make allowance for it, but respect it, having some knowledge, although at second hand, of the way in which “ the captain ” is often pestered by the he and she gadflies among his passengers. And therefore, although the sea was calm and the skies were bright, and we went smoothly and swiftly on under steam and sails, I did not for several days speak to any officer of the vessel, except the purser and the surgeon. When I passed the captain I merely bowed silently in acknowledgment of his position, and of mine as his subordinate and dependent. I should have been better pleased if he had made some acknowledgment, however slight, of my salute, of which he took not the least notice. But even this indifference, although it was quite new to me, even in the commander of a man-of-war, I should have passed by without setting it down against him, had it not been that I observed that he made himself deferentially agreeable to a passenger who was connected in some manner with the British embassy, and who seemed to have no superior claim to exceptional attention. Other passengers complained outright of the surly indifference of his manner even to ladies; and one of the latter, a very gracious and agreeable woman, of such social position that she could have safely snubbed the whole British embassy, and of such spirit that upon good occasion she would have done so, told me that he had replied to a civil and simple question of hers so rudely that she did not mean to pass over the offense unnoticed.
One day, as we were just passing out of the Gulf Stream, I saw him standing near me, and stepping up to him and raising my hat I said, “ I beg pardon for interrupting you, captain [he was doing nothing], but will you be kind enough to tell me how wide the Gulf Stream is where we cross it?” He replied very curtly and gruffly, “ Indeed, I don’t know. It ’s a matter I ’ve never thought about, — don’t know anything at all about it.” The manner was more than the words. It was not insulting; I could not complain of it; but it was insolent, and insolent in a way which showed that the speaker was an ill conditioned person who did not know how to behave himself. And if the reply was true, it was amazing. For the Gulf Stream is a very important fact in navigation; and here was an accomplished seaman who for years had been crossing it twenty times and more in a year, and yet he had, as he said, not even thought how many miles of it he had to pass over. If what he said was true, it was an astonishing exposition of Philistinism, or something worse. For as to the information for which I asked, I soon got at that easily by an examination of a chart and a brief and simple calculation. The reply was, however, probably a simple exposition of personal character. But the feeling aroused among the passengers by our commander’s behavior (although most of them were his countrymen) was such that there was some talk of sending to the owners a formal complaint against it; and although this project was abandoned, the lady whom I have mentioned did not forget her determination.
She got up one of those little entertainments by which the tedium of a voyage is not unfrequently relieved, making herself hostess, and providing a little supper. To this she invited every passenger with whom she or any one of her party had exchanged a word, and by special note every officer of the ship, except the captain, who was pointedly omitted. The slight was extreme, and I am not prepared to say that it was quite defensible, for, whatever his manners, he was the commanding officer of the vessel ; but it was generally regarded as fully justified by his conduct, and as permissible on the part of a woman. His captainship, surly sea-dog as he was, felt the cut very deeply, and was furious; and in the midst of our little festival, at which all the officers not on duty were present, he sent in orders for them to appear on deck. Of course they were obliged to go ; but none the less the lady had accomplished her purpose.
Some years before my voyage to England, I had an experience of this sort of English manners, the story of which is not here inappropriate, and may be instructive. I knew and was on the pleasantest terms with an English gentleman of a very different sort from Captain —, a man whom I had respected, liked, and even admired. He was a man of intelligence, of wide information, and of remarkably good-breeding, — a man distinguished in person and in manner. When he applied to me to perform a certain responsible duty for him during his absence, I was pleased at such a mark of his confidence, and I accepted his proposal. While he was away a gentleman connected with him in business thought that he had reason to be dissatisfied with some of my arrangements, and on my declining to admit any interference with my discharge of the duties which I had undertaken, he took the responsibility of breaking the agreement, to which, for peace’ sake, I assented, on the understanding that my rights in the matter were to be held in abeyance until the return of my friend from England. When he did return we met in the pleasantest way; and after waiting until he was well settled again I brought the matter to his attention briefly by letter, and asked his decision. To my surprise, and I may almost say to my grief, I received a very curt reply, in which he said that he did not propose to trouble himself at all about the past. The purpose of his response was so plain, and its utter lack of consideration was so manifest and so insufferable, that in sorrow and without a disrespectful word I wrote to him that our acquaintance must cease immediately.
I determined, of course, that the matter should not drop there; but on looking for the letters in which his proposals were made and the terms of our agreement settled, I could not find them. They were carefully preserved, but had been mislaid, and many months passed before they were discovered. During this time his partner became convinced that, however correct his judgment might have been, I was right in the position which I had taken; and in a courteous note he inclosed me a check for his half of what was due to me under the agreement. This cheek I returned to him, telling him, with thanks, that the question on my part was not one of money.
When I found the letters I wrote to my former friend, bringing the matter again to his attention, and asking his consideration of it. He took no notice of my letter. I then brought a suit against him, which he defended. I was very sorry for the whole affair, and just before the trial was coming on I went to a common acquaintance, and, showing him the whole matter, said, “ This case ought not to be tried. I don’t want - to pay me a dollar. Go to him from me and say so, and see if you can’t induce him to behave differently.” He agreed with me, and did what I asked. But his intercession was in vain ; Sir John Bull refused to hear a word about the matter. The trial came on ; and after the evidence was all in my counsel offered to submit the case to the jury without argument, but the other side refused. The judge charged briefly, and the jury, after a minute’s consultation without leaving their seats, gave a verdict in my favor for the full amount claimed, to which the judge added the largest permissible “ allowance,” And thus ended the only suit in which I, although bred to the bar, and the loser of not a little muchneeded money, was ever plaintiff. If my former friend had treated me with the consideration which one man — I shall not say one gentleman— owes to another; if he had merely said to me, even at the last moment, “My position in this matter is such that I cannot without great inconvenience interfere in anything that passed during my absence; I am sorry that it is so,” that would have been an end of the affair. His arrogance and his ignorance of me except as a man of letters led him to take a position which proved untenable and costly. By many persons, perhaps by most persons who were not born and bred in England, his conduct will be regarded as thoroughly English, and as a typical example of English manners.
To a certain extent it was typical of English manners, but only of one narrow strongly marked phase of them; and although I had had other opportunities, in some of which I was, but in others of which I was not, directly interested, of observing similar conduct on the part of Englishmen, I had refused to accept these as evidence against a whole people, and a people in whom, apart from all considerations of kindred, which to me were great and abiding, I felt an interest which I had felt in no other. It will be seen, however, that when I stepped from the deck of my steamer upon soil which my forefather had left two hundred and fifty years before, I did so with sufficient reason for some prejudice against the manners of my British kinsmen.
I found, however, good reason to be glad that my experience of certain individuals had not led me into a foregone conclusion against a nation. Those who have read what I have written heretofore about England will not be surprised at my saving now that I found the manners of the people there in most respects pleasing and admirable. And by manners I mean not merely the attitude and the action and the speech which appear upon the mere surface of social intercourse, but the motive feeling which underlies this surface, and which influences the actual conduct, as well as the bearing of man toward man. Moreover, the distinction between manners and manner must be constantly kept in mind.
It is a trite remark that the English manner lacks warmth and grace. Indeed, as a people, the English have no manner. I would not say, as Malvolio says of Viola in her page’s dress, that their manner is “a very ill manner.” There is simply the absence of pleasing outward demonstration, a reserve so absolute and yet so unconscious (unconscious, perhaps, through long habit and continued practice) that it seems to be indifference. But even to this judgment there must be made many exceptions,— exceptions so numerous that sometimes it seems as if, like the exceptions to the conjugation of French verbs, they almost invalidate the rule. Certainly, I have never seen, nor could I desire to see, more show of heartiness and warmth than I have met in Englishmen. And even as to polish of manner I could hardly deny that the finest examples of it that I have met with were afforded by Englishmen, although these were few in number. It would seem as if the hard, tough material had, like some agates, under its natural rough coating the possibility of a smoothness and transparency of surface which shows all the beauty of the structure beneath, and which yet will turn an edge of hardest steel. You cannot polish soft things so. On the other hand it is not often that you find that union of simplicity and courtesy, that lack of self-assertion and that thoughtfulness for others’ feelings, which was not uncommon among New England folk of the best breeding in the last generation (for, alas, we have lost it, rubbed rudely down as it has been by the rush of railway trains, and war, and the flood of wealth and emigration), and which seemed to be the outward manifestation of a gentle, kindly, fine-fibred nature.1 But of well-purposed good-breeding, accompanied by a manifest consciousness of superior position and of its duties, it is hard to imagine finer examples than may be found among the higher classes in England.
English people impress you first of all by a sense of the genuineness of their actions and of their speech. Warm or cold they may be, gracious or ungracious, arrogant or considerate, but you feel that they are real. Englishmen adulterate their goods, but not their conduct. If an Englishman makes you welcome, you feel at home; and you know that, within reason, and often out of reason, he will look after your comfort, — that for your well-being while you are under his roof he considers himself responsible. And yet he does not thrust himself upon you, and you may do almost what you choose, and go almost whither you will. If he wants you to come to him, he will take more trouble to bring you than you will to go, and yet make no fuss about it any more than he does about the sun’s rising, without which he would be in darkness. If he meets you and gives you two fingers, it means only two fingers; if his whole hand grasps yours, you have his hand, and you have it most warmly at your parting. His speech is like his action. His social word is his social bond; you may trust him for all that it promises, and commonly for more. If you do not understand him well, you may suppose at first that he is indifferent and careless, until something is done for you, or suggested to you, that shows you that his friend and his friend’s welfare has been upon his mind.
There are, indeed, people in English society, and not a few of them, to whom social intercourse is a matter of calculation, a means to an end. But such people are in all societies, and of them in particular I do not speak. It seems to me that there are comparatively fewer of such people in England than there are elsewhere; and indeed it is better for society that there should be fewer, for they do this business rather awkwardly. Social finesse is not the forte of the English people, although it is the foible of some Englishwomen. Society as an art comes naturally to all French people, whatever their condition of life, and, as I believe from what I have heard, to the Viennese; but the art of society does not flourish in England. English efforts in that way are stiff and heavy, and remind one of those of the German who practiced jumping over chairs that he might learn to be lively. One does sometimes wish that there was a little less stiffness in the social joints of England ; but after all, in the long run suppleness is a poor substitute for solid strength. In the society of Englishmen you at least feel safe. It is remarkable, in connection with this view of our subject, that although the English manner in real life is quiet and undemonstrative almost to affectation, English acting is rude and extravagant; and that, on the other hand, while the French manner in daily intercourse is nervous and demonstrative, French acting is distinguished by delicacy, calm, and reserve. Each seems to seek upon the stage the complement of its daily acted life, as people whose existence is one of commonplace drudgery and of pinching poverty like to read descriptions of romantic adventure and of the splendor and magnificence attainable by the lavish use of fabulous wealth.
The god of English social life next in dignity to mammon is propriety. Now propriety rightly worshiped is a very good god; his very rites are sweetness, order, decency, and in their practice they involve that consideration for others which is the highest form of morality, and even of piety. But the British Philistine (and all England is more or less given over to Philistinism, which invades the very social regions in which it is most dreaded and decried) makes propriety a Moloch, before whom he prostrates himself, and before whom he often makes his very children sacrifice some of the beauty of their youthful lives. The highest social aim, the greatest social law, to this sort of Englishman is to do the correct thing. Having attained this, he feels that he has absolved himself of every social duty, and clothed his soul in panoply of proof. Whether the correct thing be really the right thing he does not know, does not seek to know. That so it has been and that so it is are for him both logic and religion. In his mouth the greatest reproach is “ unprecedented;” the mere statement of the fact that an act has not been done before, that a word has not been spoken before, being to him its condemnation. Wherefore he lives his life surrounded by dead, shriveled forms, eyeless, brainless, bloodless, whose only voice is from the grave of a dead past. If he breaks away from this oppression, he is likely to run into extremes which violate all decency, all decorum, all propriety. Freed from his accustomed restraint, he is apt to add a grossness to vice which makes it more hideous, if not more harmful.
This general consideration of our subject, however, is likely to be of less interest and perhaps of less real instructiveness than some report of particular external manners among Englishmen. In this respect I was impressed at once, even before I had left the steamer, with the good behavior of the English people, from the lowest to the highest. I found them to be kindly, respectful, considerate, showing, with rare exceptions, that union of deference to others and selfrespect which I have spoken of before. The custom-house officers, with three of whom I was brought into contact before I went on shore, seemed to me to have in perfection the manners fit for their position. They were quiet, civil, pleasant, considerate, and firm. They seemed to wish to do their duty as agreeably as possible, and they did not even give me a chance to offer a “ tip.” Such was their manner in general; but having reason to suspect one passenger, they searched one of his trunks thoroughly, and then, finding that he had several hundreds more of cigars than they thought a private gentleman should carry, they “ went through ” him without pity, yet with politeness. Just so pleasant and so worthy of respect I found the London policemen, whose quiet, good-natured ways, unpretending civility, and unofficious readiness brought me to look upon them as friends. Wherever and whenever I saw them in my wanderings over the great city, it was with pleasure and with personal interest. Their honest, cheery English faces and their English speech were grateful to me ; and the more so because of their unlikeness to Misther John Kelly’s constituents who, excepting those big, goodnatured dandies, the Broadway squad, fill the ranks of the New York force.
I had been in England more than a month, going about everywhere in city and in country alone, and doing this, it should be remembered, as an Englishman, for I found it always assumed as a matter of course that I was English born and bred, and there was no occasion that I should wear a ticket on my hat telling that I was a Yankee, — for some weeks, then, I went about thus before I had one uncivil or even one unpleasant word spoken to me; and when the word came it was from a ’bus conductor, and I was really in fault. Wishing to go to Hyde Park near Prince’s Gate, I hailed a ’bus that was driving rapidly through Regent Street with “Hyde Park” upon its panels. Just as I was mounting to the top it occurred to me to ask the conductor if he passed Prince’s Gate. “ No, I don’t,” he replied, somewhat, snappishly, “ and a gentleman like you bought; to know there ’s two sides to ’Yde Park, an’ that they ’re a mile apart,” I did know that as well as he did, and therefore asked my question. What I had not learned was how to distinguish the ’buses that ran on one side from those that ran on the other. I remembered that I had stopped him for nothing in full career, and when he was perhaps behind time, and I thought his fretfulness very excusable. Now this piece of mild incivility was not only my first but my only experience of the kind in England, where I found among those whose business it was to serve me not only general civility and a deferential demeanor, but a cheerfulness of manner and a pleasant alacrity to which an American is unaccustomed.
Not in omnibuses nor in any other public vehicles are you subjected to the incivility of being summoned to pay your fare as soon as you enter. There is no thumping upon windows or jangling of bells to call your attention to this duty. You pay just as you go out; or after a reasonable time a conductor comes and civilly takes your money. Nor does he then turn a crank and clang a great gong, or touch a spring and kling a little one, to announce to the world that you have paid and that he has received your twopence or threepence. The standing passenger rubbing against your knees and treading upon your toes is not the only familiar annoyance from which you will find yourself freed. Do not the companies lose some fares by this simple method of procedure? Perhaps they do. But the saving of money to the proprietors is not regarded as the one great object to be attained. The convenience and comfort of the passenger is the first consideration, and for that he pays. But to put him to inconvenience, or to subject him to unpleasantness, that he may thereby correct the consequences of the possible dishonesty of the company’s servants, after the New York fashion, is an imposition unthought of. Englishmen would not submit to it for a day.
It is pleasant, too, to be able to make a purchase at a shop and to pay for it on the spot to the person who sells it to you, and to go away, if you choose to do so, immediately. The system of checks by which, if you take a glass of soda-water or buy a paper of pins, you receive an order to pay five cents at some desk more or less remote is unknown in England. So is the waiting for some trifle until a salesman makes three entries, and a cash boy makes as many, and a cashier as many, and your tiny parcel is wrapped up at the proper counter and “entered” there and numbered and what not, and then brought solemnly to you. At the very eating - houses you pay the waiter who serves you, and he, if necessary, makes change for you out of his own pocket. For his general civility I will answer freely, but for his cleanliness I can say little. He is even in the morning discovered in a dresscoat and an untidy, dingy white tie, which makes him look as if he had been up all night. In his hand he carries a napkin, which even early in the day is so limp and smutched and unctuous that you dread lest he should wipe your plate or your knife and fork with it. He is very attentive, however, and at breakfast bustles about to find you a newspaper before he takes your order. And in so trifling a matter as a newspaper your minutest comfort is looked after. I remarked that in the coffee-rooms of hotels and in good restaurants the newspapers had a little triangular piece cut diagonally off the top of the middle fold ; by this the annoying little wrinkle which otherwise is apt to form there and to prevent the paper from opening and shutting easily is avoided. The papers on the news-stands, too, are cut open. And all this is done not by a folding-machine or a cutting-machine at the newspaper offices, but personally by the people who serve you, and who do all that they can do to please you. The fashion recently adopted here of folding newspapers by machinery, as they are printed, in such a way that the reader is obliged to unfold and then refold them, is an example of a system of life and of manners the exact reverse of that which is practiced in England. But what matter to what inconvenience the American newspaper publisher puts the public, if by so doing he can save ten cents on a thousand copies! Does not the public in America exist for the benefit of railway companies and other corporations, of machine politicians, and of publishers of newspapers? Verily for little else.
One trait of English manners was first brought to my attention at the Birmingham Musical Festival. As we went out after the morning performance, we found at each door a nicely-dressed and pleasant-looking young woman holding in her hand a plate such as those in which collections of money are taken up in churches. This was to receive gifts for some favorite charitable institution of the town, and as we passed the girls they rattled the money in their plates to attract attention. It was a new way to me of asking and receiving alms ; but what I chiefly remarked was that these young ladies for every addition made to the money in their plates said pointedly, “ Thank you.” Afterwards in London, on a certain saint’s day, I found girls ensconced in chairs, and if it rained with umbrellas spread, in very public places, having plates before them to receive the alms of wayfarers for certain public charities; and these also, I observed, for every gift said, “Thank you.” There is always in England some one to say personally “ Thank you ” for a benefit conferred; and this is the more easily and constantly done because there is in general a more direct personal contact than there is among us between all persons concerned in charitable works, whether as principals or as intermediaries. Not only, however, in return for alms, but for favor shown in any way, in making a purchase, or even in giving an order, this acknowledgment is made. It seemed to me that “Thank you” must be heard a thousand times a day in England for once that it is heard in America. I was thanked for my very cab-toll every time I crossed Waterloo bridge.
Notwithstanding this trait of civility and considerateness in English manners, and notwithstanding the genuineness and, beneath its artificial surface, the heartiness of the English character, it has without doubt its repellent side. Englishmen themselves will hardly deny that too many of them are arrogant, insolent, and overbearing. And yet, as I write this, I am almost ashamed to do so, remembering what I never can forget, and would grieve and shame to forget, the kindness, the gentleness, the sweetness of nature, the almost tender thoughtfulness for others, that I have seen in so many Englishmen, not only in England, but here before I ever met them on their native soil. It has been my good fortune to render some of them some very trifling services, and these were not only accepted in a way that enhanced greatly the pleasure of rendering them, but were ever afterward remembered and acknowledged in a way so frank and simple and charming that I was both delighted and ashamed at such a recognition. I therefore do protest with all my heart against the Duke of Green Erin as a type of his race, or (although I have known no dukes) as a fair representative of his rank. And yet, without doubt, he is a very possible Englishman, and a possible duke. His insolence does not pertain to his rank; it may be found in all ranks; but of course a duke who is by nature insolent may and will insult with greater freedom and impunity than is possible to a person of inferior position. Indeed, this trait of English manners manifests itself most readily and strongly in persons of rank and in authority. That it should do so is only to be expected. Such persons have more temptations than others have, as well as better opportunities, for the exhibition of an overbearing nature. This disregard of others does by no means always accompany a coarse and brutal organization. My captain was a coarse man; but my English friend who compelled me to bring him to book was one of the most refined and courteous of gentlemen. He merely took advantage of his position to rid himself of some trouble by setting quietly aside a man of whom he in fact knew very little. Perhaps this is not really an English trait. Not improbably there are just such men in France, in Germany, or in Japan. From what we know of Prince Bismarck, I am inclined to think that under like circumstances he would behave much in the same way. Mr. Trollope has admirably illustrated this unpleasant side of English character in the Duke of Omnium and the Marquis of Brotherton. It is not that these men were bad, but that they were deliberately insolent in their manner, so that in the case of the marquis we are all inclined to cheer when Dean Lovelace flings him into the grate.
The influence of aristocracy and of the constant pressure upward of the inferior ranks is the cause of much of the forbidding manner of English gentlemen. They show this manner more among themselves than they do to others. The Marquis of Brotherton, because he was marquis and the head of his family, was insolent to his younger brother. And for this same reason Englishmen are suspicious of each other when they are not in the same rank of life. The meeting of two Englishmen who are strangers, knowing little or nothing of each other, and who have occasion to make acquaintance, — the doubt, the coldness, the holding out of hesitating hands, — is not a cheering sight. But if they find each other “ all right,” they will in a few days be mutually using their surnames without the Mr., or their titles without the “handle,” and their intercourse will be much more hearty and informal than if they were Americans under the same circumstances.
The daily intercourse of families and friends in England is hearty and warm, although not effusive. They are not ready to give the hand to strangers; but very commonly all of a family, including the guests, shake hands on parting for the night; and on meeting in the morning the same greeting is hardly less common. It was charming to see two middle-aged men, who lived in the same house, meet in the breakfast room, and, shaking hands warmly, say, “ Goodmorning, brother.” When I saw all this and was admitted to be a part of it, I wondered where the English coldness was of which we hear so much.
Salutation is so common even between passing strangers, except of course in towns, that I was reminded of the manners of New England in my early boyhood. Men on leaving a railway car, either first class or second class, will say “ Good morning” or “ Good evening ” although they have exchanged hardly a word with you on the route,—which, however, is rare; and this habit, which has come down from stage-coach times, and has been preserved on the railway by the small carriages, is one of the reliefs and pleasures of that unnatural mode of travel. The porter or guard who puts you into your carriage and hands you your bag, hurried, yet finds time to say, “ Good morning, sir.” If you are walking on a country road, those whom you meet salute you. The country folk, old and young, male and female, do so always. In Essex the rustic boys have a pretty way of waving their hands in the air by way of salutation as you pass. To see a knot of little fellows execute this flourish is very charming.
One day, as I was walking in Sussex through a beautiful lane sunk deep between its green sides, where wild flowers grew at the feet of hollies with polished leaves and of other little trees that stood so thick that they reduced noonday to twilight, I met a woman of the lower class, almost of the lowest. She was very handsome, in the prime of life, with a grand figure, and dark, bright, melancholy eyes. She looked more like a Roman than like an English woman; and I do believe that her dark, noble face had come straight down to her from some Roman soldier, perhaps in Cæsar’s legions. She had a child in her arms, and another walked by her side, holding her hand. As I passed her she paused in her walk, and courtesying, said, “Good morning, sir;” and her sweet voice was English, although her face was not. I returned her salutation, and walked on, asking myself, Why should this woman, who never saw me before, stop and courtesy to me because I am a “gentleman”? For unmistakably there was deference in her salutation, and a recognition of the difference of our conditions. I was ashamed that I had not stopped and given her something that might have added a little to her comfort. Perhaps she expected the gentleman to do so. But she was too noble in mien and carriage, she impressed me too much, for me to offer her a trifling alms, lowly as her condition was. I turned my head, and if I had found that she was looking after me I should have gone back to give her more, perhaps, than I could afford. But I saw only her back, as she walked erectly and slowly on, with a grace which her burden and her condition could not repress, and which her poor garments rather revealed; and at a turn in the lane she disappeared into its cool, clear twilight, and I only wished her health and happiness.
I have heretofore remarked that the dress of English gentlemen is very plain and simple. Eor although Macaulay bought many embroidered waistcoats, in which he arrayed himself with great delight, this personal trait must be regarded as one of the eccentricities of genius. In its simplicity the Englishman’s dress is not unlike that of gentlemen of corresponding condition in this country, but in his manner of wearing it there is a difference. Tidiness seems to be the most important point of dress in the eyes of a well-eared-for Englishman. Everything about him is snug. He is like a horse well groomed and harnessed. His morning coat, be it frock or “ cutaway,” is never flying loose, but is buttoned closely. This tidiness and completeness of apparel is a sort of religion. I remember being in a railway carriage with a young man who was very correct at all points. The day, which had opened gloomily, had suddenly cleared and become very warm. He was dressed in a heavy brown tweed suit, and every button of his coat was sent well home into its proper button-hole. Another gentleman and myself relieved ourselves by unbuttoning our coats, and I, as there was no lady there, opened my waistcoat; for the air was damp as well as warm, and we were sweltering. But he would plainly have endured martyrdom rather than be guilty of such looseness, and he sat impassible, bolt upright and tightly buttoned. He suffered and was strong, I wished that he had been less true to his religion.
The Englishman comes down in the morning completely dressed in this tight, tidy way. He does not even indulge himself in the great luxury of easy life, a slippered breakfast, but comes wearing, in addition to his buttoned coat, strong, brightly-polished shoes. While I was in England I did not see one gentleman in slippers outside of his bedroom. This strait-lacedness has its merits. English gentlemen at all times, unless they are recognized slovens, look trim, well set up, presentable, and ready for service, whether business or pleasure. Nor do gentlemen in England of good position look as if their clothes were all bought, ready-made, at one “ establishment,” and as if they had slept in them the night before in a “palace-car.” The same praise cannot be given to Englishwomen, who, although they dress elaborately for the evening, go about in the morning, too many of them, with hair and dress the reverse of snug and tidy.
Dinner is the great fact of English daily life. “ Dine with me” is the Englishman’s first request, if he likes you, or if he wishes to show you any attention. A letter of introduction is honored by an invitation to dinner, and that given nothing more is regarded as necessary; anything else depends on kindness and personal liking. To some Americans this dining, which is always formal, becomes oppressive. A Yankee friend of mine, a man of intelligence and charming manners, who looks much more like the commonly entertained idea of a handsome. Englishman than most of the Englishmen I met, went to England well provided with letters, and was soon so wearied with these inevitable invitations to formal dinners that he stopped the presentation of his credentials, and kept himself to himself. “ I was bored to death,” he said to me, “ with the constant recurrence of the regular routine, and the dull succession of eating and drinking in full dress. I did n’t want their dinners; I wanted to see them at their houses, in an easy, informal way. As I could n’t do that, I cut the matter short, and depended upon my own resources.” As for myself, having taken no letters, I escaped these obligation dinners from strangers; and in the half dozen dinner parties at which I was present, I was more fortunate than he. Yet I saw enough of the heavy formality of these entertainments to be in some sympathy with him.
Dinner talking is a much more formidable affair in England than it is with us. It is an “ institution.” Men prepare themselves for it as they do to make a speech. Host and hostess even arrange what subjects shall be started to bring out certain guests; and the table is hushed while this or that clever man discourses, in sentences sometimes rather too carefully constructed, upon a subject which is as slyly but as deliberately dragged before him as a cork and string before a kitten, and which he jumps at much as his feline prototype does at the mimic mouse. There is something of this kind with us among dinner givers of the more cultivated sort, but nothing to be compared with the formidable colloquies of the formal English dinner. There is found, moreover, the dinner soliloquist, whom I cannot but regard as a dreadful form of the social bore. I remember one such man at a dinner party of some twenty people. He began to talk after be had spooned his soup for a moment or two, and as he talked very pleasantly his sonorous voice, going forth to the whole table, was a welcome help over the threshold of our entertainment. But he went on, until his talk became a discourse. At each fall of his voice I supposed that he would stop; but he managed to link one sentence upon another until he bound us all up in an endless chain of words. Although not aged, he was too old a man to snub, and also too good natured and too well informed. And he was tyrannical in asserting himself; the sonority of his voice and the weight of his manner bore down all opposition and thrust aside all auxiliaries. There was no conversation possible except little fragmentary tête-à-têtes with one’s next neighbor. Straight through dinner and through dessert did that dreadful man hold forth. How he managed to eat, how to breathe, was a mystery. When the ladies had retired, he resumed his seat with a sentence beginning with an ‘ and,’ that connected it with what he was saying when our hostess rose; and he ceased not to pour down his flood of words upon us until we found refuge in the drawing-room. Such men are tolerated in England, perhaps, because they are useful in the performance of that most tedious and oppressive of all social solemnities, a formal dinner party. I was about to say that such talkers would not be tolerated here; but do we not listen to after-dinner speeches? What, then, is the limit of our endurance?
Dinner, even daily family dinner, is such a religious rite in England that above a certain condition of life a special dress for it is absolutely required. Full evening dress at dinner is in England the mark of gentry. I once made a mistake in this respect. Being invited to a country house, some thirty miles from London, where I had time to stay but one day, and being a traveler, I thought that I might venture to go with only a small hand bag, and to appear at dinner in a dark frock and white waistcoat. But I found that I might better have brought my portmanteau, my dressingcase, and my valet, if I had had one. It would be impossible for me to say how I knew this, but I felt it in a way that could not be mistaken. The very flames of the wax candles in the great, silver candelabra seemed to look askance at me, as I dared to sit there in my plebeian costume. The feeling amused me; for I have little real respect for mere social conventionalities, least of all for those which concern dress. That a gentleman should be scrupulously nice in his person at all times, and that it is well for him to dress becomingly and appropriately, need not be said; but that he, as well as the butler and the waiters, should put on such a queer garment as a black swallow - tailed dress-coat and a white neck-tie, and that a lady should make herself uncomfortable by her full dress (for, ladies, it does make you uncomfortable; you know it does), because they are going to eat and drink together, as they eat and drink every day, is not with me an article of saving faith. Such is the social righteousness of these English people that it was edifying to an unregenerate creature like me to see them at any time violate any one of their unwritten commandments; and I took great comfort, one day, at seeing a belated honorable (that is, the son of a peer) come hastily in and sit down to dinner, like a profane mortal, in his tweed cutaway coat.
I also could not avoid observing that men who were very scrupulous about evening dress were less fastidious upon other points of manners which could hardly be called conventional. I have seen a peer, who would almost as soon dine in his shirt and trousers as in a morning coat, sit after dinner in the drawing-room talking with a lady, and, taking his foot upon his knee to nurse, gradually run his hand half-way up his trousers that he might scratch his leg; and his was not a solitary instance of performances somewhat of this kind. To me, a “ salvage man ” as I am, born and bred in the wilderness of New York, and wont to roam with untutored mind from my native haunts over the waste places of New England, there did nevertheless seem to be some incongruity in the code of manners which prescribed swallow-tails, but permitted scratching, and which required buttoned coats and laced-up boots at breakfast tables at which there were no napkins.
Once more I must leave a subject but half exhausted.
Richard Grant White.
- To most of my readers I need hardly say that in my parenthetical censure I am not one of Horace’s praisers of the manners of their own times. But all they whose social experience began like mine in railway times, and who yet had youthful glimpses of the fading charm of old New England manners among those whose sons have since gone West or South, will agree with me in my admiring and reverential memories.↩