The Amenities in America

England’s leading satirists, EVELYN WAUGH was born in 1903 and educaled at Lancing School and Oxford. After graduation he spent a year in London studying arts wrote a critical biography of Dante Gabriel Rossettis and then embarked on those mordant and hilarious novels, Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), and Black Mischief (1932), which took English Society for such a ride as it had not enjoyed since Thackeray. Mr. Waugh served in the Commandos during the war, and the novel which he wrote on his return, Bridesliead Revisited, marks a new depth and power in his work.


IN a stable society, such as nowadays exists nowhere in the world, people live and die in the place and condition of their birth, and social custom is inculcated by precept and example from earliest childhood until it seems to be instinctive. Each nation, religion, class, and trade has its own traditional etiquette — the label frankly proclaiming a man’s social status. Such a society has no need for written manuals of etiquette. They are needed by restless and rootless people who have to adapt themselves to strange ways — in fact by most people today.

Mrs. Millieent Fenwick, in Vogue’s Rook of Eliquette (Simon and Schuster, $5.00), has accomplished a clever feat of editorship. The large volume is clearly arranged, illustrated and cross-referenced. She has, moreover, achieved something unique in the literature of etiquette. She has written a book that is not funny. I mean it is not “funny-ha-ha”; it is “funny-peculiar in many respects, as when (p. 42) she states that debutantes with wise parents are “allowed not to drink ; but she nowhere provokes the deep laughter for which we treasured her predecessors’ works. Such lapidary ordinances as: “If you break a glass, apologize, but do not offer to pay and Never touch the fruit; a practiced eye should easily discern the best on the dish, have no place in this studious work. Moreover she professes a different motive from her predecessors’. Their task was frankly to instruct people of low origins in the social habits of their superiors. Not so Mrs. Fenwick, who claims that “the new standards of behavior are based on what, millions of people have accepted as right and wrong. Etiquette is a forum of citizens open to anyone who cares about the amenities of living.”
On the face of it this seemed to be exactly the kind of book which I, as a foreigner who wished to render himself inoffensive in a strange land, particularly needed. I studied il earnestly and learned much. For example, in England we employ ihe toothpick unashamedly. Mrs. Fenwick teaches me that it is intolerable to touch the teeth at all. In England, too, we speak of “the bathroom” as the place where we have baths, and employ the euphemism “lavatory” for the privy. Mrs. Fenwick gives welcome advice against this habit. As I read more deeply, however, I found myself increasingly disconcerted by the contradiction between Mrs. Fenwick’s avowed aims and her accomplishment.
One does not have to travel far in the United States to observe that millions of good citizens who care about the amenities of life do in fact outrage Mrs. Fenwick’s rules every hour of the day. They say “highball” for whisky and soda, “home" for house, “phone” for telephone, and pronounce tomato, “tomayto.” Then there is the matter of hand-shaking. In a few days visit I have had my hand seized and squeezed by the cutter at a tailors shop, the desk clerk at the hotel, and by an intoxicated master-baker in an elevator. Here I thought was a friendly, egalitarian habit which I must cultivate. But on turning up Mrs. Fenwick’s passage on the subject I learn that even in the case of social introductions it is wrong for the man of inferior rank to be the first to offer his hand. Well I daresay master-bakers and novelists are on an equality, but I cannot help thinking that a customer in a shop or hotel must (so far as their particular, temporary relationship goes) rank above the employee.
Then in the matter of men’s clothes: in my youth London, Eng., was the seat of authority. Now we are in shreds and patches, and looking about me it seemed that the United States, freed from convention, is well on the way to developing a distinctive, indeed a flamboyant, style of national dress. But Mrs. Fenwick’s chapter on the subject reads like the regulations issued to officers of the Brigade of Guards by their adjutants, for correct plain clothes during the season of His Majesty’s residence in London. Almost the only eccentricity she allows is the odd one of instructing valets to lay out an evening tic on the back of a chair instead of in its normal place on the dressing-table.
Slowly, as I read, a suspicion grew that Mrs. Fenwick was really following traditional lines. All the preliminary talk about the forum of millions of citizens was mere appeasement. Her task was still that of her predecessors: to impose the habits of a small upper class upon ihe humble majority.
This opened a new line of inquiry and I read more critically, with the result that I flushed some very grave mistakes. On page 587 she writes: “the widow of a Viscount is Angela, Viscountess of Avonmore.”Now this is an entirely impossible title. There is not the smallest reason why American citizens should bother about such archaic minutiae but if they are to be told, let them be told correctly. You cannot be Viscount of anything. You can be Viscount (or Viscountess) Fenwick or Viscount Fenwick of Manhattan. You cannot be Viscount of Manhattan.
So also of heraldry. An American citizen can, of course, embellish his writing paper with any device he chooses and describe it in whatever words he likes, without reference to the Earl Marshal of England. But if he derives his coat-ofarms from a grant made under the English Crown he presumably prefers to be correct in speaking of if. The sentence: “A widow uses her father’s shield and her husband’s; the lozenge is divided in half vertically and the husband’s shield is impaled at the left, the father’s at the right ” is frankly out rageous.
A much graver sin is committed in the treatment of wine. The ravages ot prohibition still afflict the American palate and it is welcome to find Mrs, Fenwick assuming (as I know with pain is far from being the case) that wine is always served at dinner. But having gone so far into the right way, she should really have gone a little farther — or rather should not have strayed so wantonly. She confuses Amontillado with Tio Pepe and Manzanilla. She writes fatuously of the Sauternes, which include four or five of the finest chateaux in the Bordeaux, as less useful than white Burgundy. She supposes, as many do, that, all Graves are white; in fact, most of them, and the best, are red. Worst of all, she describes Rhine Wine, which includes the very heaviest and richest wines in the world (fortified wines excepted), succinctly as “very light.”Elsewhere she remarks of foreigners that they are so peculiar as to drink for taste.” Could not she, who is so severe about the pronunciation of “tomato, have shown a little more rectitude in this matter?
And then, browsing happily, I came on the startling sentence: “It has been generally agreed that conversation is a lost art,” and suddenly I thought, “Then what on earth is the reason for giving a party at all? Why all these elaborate rules for invitation and acceptance, for serving and eating if, when your guests are assembled, they know nothing of the fundamental delight of social intercourse?”
Bod forbid that os a guest in this country I should insult my hosts by hinting at even the faintest agreement with Mrs. Fenwick. But one thing I will note. Americans seem to listen very little. They talk brilliantly and wisely, with deep knowledge and apt illustration, and I think, looking round the table, how lucky we are to be here. And looking round I notice on every face except the speaker’s a rapt nun-like contemplative calm. They are paying no attention at all. Surely here is an amenity of living with which the citizens forum might concern itself? All good conversation depends on timing and agility, not on the importance of the subject. Each contribution must be sharply apropos and must develop the theme. To ensure that, keen attention is necessary. But in all Mrs. Fenwick’s 650 pages I have found no suggestion of this.