Domestic Manners of the English

M rs. Frances Trollope, who lived in America for nearly four years, kept a journal and later wrote a popular book about the peculiarities of the natives whom she met, Domestic Manners of the Americans. It begins:

On the 4th of November, 1827, I sailed from London, accompanied by my son and two daughters; and after a favorable, though somewhat tedious voyage, arrived on Christmas-day at the mouth of the Mississippi.

It is time to return the compliment. On the 26th of December, 1964, I flew from Washington, accompanied by my husband, my two daughters, and my son, and after a favorable flight arrived the same day, Boxing Day, in London, to stay for nearly nine years. Sir Winston Churchill died a month later, and my journalist husband was caught up in describing the rituals. Those Scottish pipers, those huge cranes dipping as the barge moved slowly up the Thames, those long lines of mourners shuffling past the bier in Westminster Hall, clinched it for him. Always something of an Anglophile, he loved those Brits with a love that never faltered, and they loved him. I was less sure and gave my heart more timidly and was loved eventually, I suppose, by a select company of the truly discerning. One or two at least.

Shortly after we arrived we were asked to luncheon at the home of a courtly gentleman who became a good friend. To my right sat a pudgy, mischievous member of Parliament who opened the proceedings by saying, “How can you bear to be an American?” Stunned, I mumbled some placatory nonsense about an individual citizen not being responsible for all of the failures of her government, but it was the wrong answer. For two weeks I found myself making up better ones. I should have remembered, from my reading of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, that the point was to keep the shuttlecock up in the air, to respond to teasing insult with teasing insult, to package the frippery with fancy wrappings, to amuse.

Among the upper-class English, to be amusing is to be invited out, while to be boring is to be consigned to perdition. Take the case of a public figure of whom it was said, “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” He said it himself, over and over, and he got his wife to say it for him. We invited them to dinner and they accepted. Two days before the event she called and rather apologetically asked who else would be coming. “He can’t stand bores, you know.” Hostesses were expected to take precautions, as they would for an arachniphobe. I was annoyed that the woman would allow herself to do his dirty work for him, but it was as nothing to the way I felt when I closed the door behind them after an evening of unpardonable rudenesses.

On a recent visit to England we went to the House of Commons to have dinner with a favorite MP who had a tight schedule and could not be away for more than an hour. The man who couldn’t stand bores asked her if he might join us. He was late, and we waited while he had a hurried drink; on our way into the dining room he berated his colleague for delaying him when she knew his time was limited. “It was you, dear, not me,” she said. Unrepentant, he continued to be disagreeable until the little, round, gray-haired waitress asked for his order. “Eggs Florentine,” he said. “I shouldn’t have that, if I was you,” she said. “It’s not nice.” Minister: “But I love poached eggs, and my wife won’t make them for me.” Waitress: “Have the chicken.” Minister: “I’ll have baked beans and potatoes.” Waitress: “No you won’t, because we haven’t got ‘em.” Minister: “Eggs, then.” Waitress: “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He grinned, and seemed almost human for a moment. Naughty boys can always be tamed by competent nannies.

Naughty boys and notorious rogues, newly arrived Americans and bitchy, parasitic, empty-headed, cryptofascists, all may be worth inviting for the sake of “amusement.” “He’s an odious man, I believe, but I quite enjoy his company,” became a familiar refrain. When, at dinner parties, I blathered, or twitted, or flirted, I got on well enough, but once in a while I was tempted beyond endurance and would talk about something that really mattered to me—modern dance, marriage, some project I was working on, my parents or my children. Immediately, the little shutters came down, my dinner partner’s eyes glazed, and I knew I was being boring. “Ah, yeess,” he would drawl. “Yeeesss. . . ,” which really meant, “No! I turn you off.” To play the game successfully one has never to mention families and children, good works, what one does for a living, one’s health, one’s feelings. It helps to say “one” a lot.

To call oneself “one” is to deflect powerful feelings, to bury the possible embarrassment of a “me” under the blanket culpability of all mankind. I reckoned it was a function of severe, premature toilet training. “Who made that mess on the floor?” Not “I did,” or “Me,” but, “One is apt to make messes on the floor when one’s one.” Perhaps the ultimate “one” sentence was uttered by a homosexual Tory MP, being interviewed on the radio. “One would hope that one’s feelings about one’s mother would not betray one.” Yeeesss.

You all know who I mean, of course. Or you would in England. It is, bless us, a very small country, and the members of the ruling elite know everything about everyone worth knowing anything about. Gossipy lunches, the usual round of evening activities, a small number of widely read magazines, Vogue and Private Eye among them, keep the legends alive. Although they may be mocked or maligned in Private Eye, a grown-up schoolboy’s scandal sheet, they all buy it, laugh at it, sigh with relief when they have gotten off lightly, sue it sometimes. That bad-mannered publication could never succeed in a country where not everyone knew who was meant by Dame Harry, The Grocer, Wislon, the Milk Snatcher, the Poison Dwarves, the Snowshoes.

Of course, what may look like bad manners to an outsider may be considered good clean fun to the happy few who went together to Eton and Oxford and Cambridge before they became publishers and bankers and diplomats and politicians, or retired to their Stately Homes to devote themselves to estate management and sportive diversions. This is what it was like at school. This is how the game has always been played —brutally, without mercy. The object is to survive, to bury the hurt and become less vulnerable by learning the techniques of thrust and parry, to build a wall of words, a manner of indifference. Sincerity, dependence, cooperation, tenderness—all a bit dull.

It began to happen to me. I began to worry about how well I was doing at playing the game. I hated myself when I knew I was being prolix or provincial, heavy-footed or overly committed or especially “American.” From Paris in 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend of the dubious benefits of travel abroad:

If [a man] goes to England, he learns drinking, horse-racing and boxing. ... He acquires a fondness for European luxury and dissipation, and a contempt for the simplicity of his own country. He is fascinated with the privileges of the European aristocrats. . . .

Lady K., a well-known silly, calls up my weekend hostess. “Have you anyone really choice, Lily dear?” At dinner that night, she turns to the editor, whose views she already knows: “I absolutely believe in euthanasia, don’t you?” Editor: “Maybe for you, Lady K., not for me.” Overheard by the entire company, he realizes it has come out awkwardly and starts to say that what he really meant was something else; but, catching the scent, the pack is already after him. “John! How extraordinary! Just how do you propose to dispatch Lady K.?” Shrieks of laughter. Lady K. pouts prettily and doesn’t seem to mind a bit.

At another country weekend in a big house among friends who have grown up together there is a good deal of buffoonery and horseplay. Our favorite hostess, a beautiful widow, has three large sons who chaff her continually, pulling and pushing, mock-throttling, throwing her hat into the air and shooting at it. She protests, but they pay no attention. “You are tiresome,” she says, mildly. One of the guests tries to put her on a tray and serve her, I forget why, and she chases him around the house, manages to remove his jacket and put it on him back to front. He wears it that way all day. “They’re cousins, you know,” another guest says to me. Cute, I say to myself.

At dinner that night, tipsy peer to a famous portrait photographer, nodding at the pretty girl across the table, married, mother of two, dressed in a velvet trouser suit: “There, I told you she was one.” The photographer tells me he has a fiver that says she is not a lesbian. I am horrified, and say so, but I am also entertained. Later that evening the tipsy peer, possessor of one of the finest collections of paintings in private hands, sits too heavily and suddenly on a small table and breaks it, spilling himself and various objets d’art over the floor in a messy way. His old school chum looks down at him. “Charles,” he says, calmly, “this never would have happened if you had been brought up among beautiful things.” His wife scarcely seems to notice.

Ribbing and razzing, pranks and high jinks, sexual speculation if not sexual adventure are pleasant enough ways to pass the time, especially if the domain one inhabits seems to be shrinking, if one can hear the wolves howling at the outer limits of the fortress. Having eschewed industry and commerce for the most part, the aristocratic young do not have many outlets for their energy. They go exploring in remote corners of the world and come home to become rare-book experts or photographers, to back restaurants or nightclubs or zoos or racing cars, agricultural communes or rock bands. Commerce and industry are less amusing than almost anything else one can think of, after all.

The upper-class English are encouraged to play down important feelings: anguish, anxiety, delight, triumph. Laced into the language are expressions of constraint. “Ekchewily, our drawing room ceiling’s rawther fun,” says one gent blandly to another, of an exquisitely detailed, perfectly preserved Adam original. Young man, holding his fiancee’s hand: “It’s so boring, really, trying to decide when to marry.” Response to commiseration, from woman who has been in a near-fatal car crash: “Yes, it was a bit of a bore.” “With great respect . . .” means “Wrong again, dummy,” as does “If I may say so . . .” Wife, whose husband has just verbally roasted her dearest friend: “You are naughty, Willie.”

And so am I, to exaggerate the foibles of a few, to bite the hands that fed me tidbits I relished at the time. Like Frances Trollope, I may be afflicted by what her critics called “female rheum,” be guilty of equally “mendacious assertions, superficial observation, and hasty apprehension.” So why do I do it? William Makepeace Thackeray, in The Book of Snobs, put it nicely.

There was a time in my life when the consciousness of having eaten a man’s salt rendered me dumb regarding his demerits, and I thought it a wicked act and a breach of hospitality to speak ill of him.

But why should a saddle-of-mutton blind you, or a turbot and lobster-sauce shut your mouth for ever? With advancing age, men see their duties more clearly.

Duty compels me to say that elitism is as often a problem in post-Jeffersonian America as it is in England, that the English neither eat with their table knives nor pick their teeth with their pocket knives, as did the vulgar wretches who so upset Mrs. Trollope, that I am conscious of having received countless kindnesses from many, many people, and that I value verbal agility, gaity, and gallantry, and the kind of courage that may occasionally stiffen upper lips. While there are undoubtedly, in pockets of English society, some of the most accomplished people-witherers, the most capricious, provocative spoiled brats on earth, while snobbery, the “pox Britannica,” remains as much a problem now as it was in Frances Trollope’s day, suffering the odd boor is not too high a price to pay for the multiple pleasures of living in England.