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Response to Review no. 195

First let me begin by thanking Tim Hitchcock for his generous and stimulating review; it is particularly pleasing to receive such a response from someone who has himself done much to promote early modern men and manhood as a subjects of academic enquiry.

Three aspects of his review were especially welcome. First, his provision of equal weight to the two main themes of the book: manliness and polite society. It was never my intention to offer a study of Hanoverian manhood per se, but rather of a specific and important eighteenth-century relationship – that between being manly (an age old value) and being polite (a distinctly modern quality) – which placed then established notions of manhood and gentlemanliness under close scrutiny by commentators who variously welcomed, feared, and tried to enact the possibilities of this synthesis.

While there has recently been much scholarly interest in the eighteenth century as a determinedly refined age, much of this attention has concentrated on the rise and development of distinctly British theories of politeness. At the same time, with the exception of Susan Whyman’s excellent and meticulous study of the Verneys, still relatively little is known about the day-to-day mechanics of politeness – notably its capacity for constant reinterpretation and renewal in the name of modishness, and hence its ever vibrant place within generational tensions, its impact on established class boundaries and its actual deployment in the polite public spaces we think we know well. Tim Hitchcock is generous to suggest that the book offers a clear statement on what it ‘meant to be polite’ in the eighteenth century; in fact, I would suggest that it really does no more than pose (albeit useful and so-far unposed) questions on how historians might think, as would-be eighteenth-century gentlemen did, about the practicalities of refined behaviour within circumstances and relations shot through with rival identities of age, social status, religious and political affiliation. There is, therefore, still much to be said about the workings and implications of politeness, and a variety of under-tapped research options by which to explore the subject: first-hand accounts in diaries and correspondence; detailed explorations (like those by Helen Berry) of specific locations – coffee-houses and assembly rooms, for example; historiographically informed biographies of the beau-monde; studies of the arbitration and enforcement of polite codes through work on ‘polite’ professionals such as the master of ceremonies or celebrated impresarios like Beau Nash or John Marsh, and so on.

Secondly, I agree with Dr Hitchcock that historians have as yet a particularly patchy understanding of sensibility as a social, as opposed to a uniquely literary or philosophical, phenomenon. As regards this subject, my aim was to suggest the significance and richness of a sentimental code too readily equated with the emotional outpourings of the Mackenzian ‘man of feeling’. In the context of this simplification it seemed timely to highlight a couple of issues: one, the breadth of a discussion which took place across a range of high-brow and popular literary categories and which addressed a series of social functions; and, two, the vigorous nature of the debate over the degree and nuance of feeling which sentimental commentators deemed appropriate for retaining the reasoned independence of traditional man while stimulating the sympathetic compassion demanded of new man. However, if we know relatively little about the pragmatics of being polite, then there is currently a greater gap in historians’ understanding of what it meant – both on personal and societal terms – to be sentimental. This, a sizeable research project in itself, was not something I tackled head-on in the book, though – as Sarah Knott’s work on sentimental Philadelphia shows – it promises to be a fruitful and stimulating line of enquiry.

My own attempt to fuse the cultural and social histories of polite society came in the case studies which conclude the book, the third issue to which Tim Hitchcock draws attention in his review. Deliberately chosen for their active engagement with the texts and debates considered in earlier chapters, these individuals can in no way offer a representative selection of the would-be gentleman in action. It is, of course, pleasing that Dr Hitchcock finds them a useful means of pointing up the difficulties and pitfalls faced by men in search of a polite reputation. While writing this section of the book I was a little concerned that the problematic nature of the quest undermined, and even invalidated, the relevance of the proceeding analysis of the literature of gentlemanliness. On reflection the existence and tone of this dissonance seems to be the most interesting feature of these biographical sketches; identifying at one and the same time the meaningfulness as well as the limits and possible dispensability of polite codes often in competition with alternative expressions of personality. The challenge now must be how best to draw general social historical conclusions from these and similar studies of politeness in the particular – especially since, as Dr Hitchcock rightly points out, new forms of autobiographical writing provided an important drive towards ever greater levels of self-conscious individuality.

To an extent Tim Hitchcock does feel able to draw general conclusion from these cases, notably in his identification of gentlemanly politeness as a power source sufficient to rule wives, estates, nations and waves. Certainly I do not believe that my material – concerned with points of predominantly leisured sociability – qualified me to consider the relationship of manners to state development. It remains, none the less, a stimulating idea, tackled, of course, for the earlier period, first by Norbert Elias and, more recently, Michael Braddick. There may well be something to be said for adding a fourth ‘p’ (for politeness) to the parliaments, profits and Protestantism on which debates on eighteenth-century state formation often focus, and much to be gained from studies of regional political and polite culture such as the ‘Nationalising Taste’ project ongoing at Northumbria. Yet equally politeness as power was not a relationship I felt I overlooked, though it was one – perhaps with too firm a focus on my handful of diarists – considered in the context of quotidian interpersonal relations and personal identity. The readiness by which individual proponents of benevolent and complaisant Addisonian manners transformed sociability into snobbery is a theme explored in the final quarter of the book. Moreover, it is worth stating that this competitiveness existed, at least in these studies, primarily as a source of infra-class struggle; precisely between those men and women who ostensibly shared a common social status and where the mutability of politeness might prove so effective in gaining the upper hand.

Yet while mutability offered the potential for personal victories, it also left eighteenth-century men vulnerable to the risk of defeat and social embarrassment. At least on the evidence of this book, the dominant tone of the would-be refined was less one of self-conscious authority than anxious and unresolveable self-scrutiny, even neurosis. Equally, as a model of behaviour Spectatorial politeness was in many ways too ‘generous’ and sociable an ideal for its adherents to distinguish themselves by means of social exclusion (indeed, with the exception of a small number of ‘how-to-bow- books, the language of class is noticeably absent from eighteenth-century accounts of refinement). It is perhaps not until the early nineteenth-century concept of ‘etiquette’, complete with its social dos and don’ts, that we find a code actively designed to demonstrate the inherent ‘niceness’ of the middling sort in specified social settings. To mention politeness’ subsequent transformation is also to highlight the still under -researched shift from eighteenth- to nineteenth-century standards of manners and manhood. Certainly the early 1800s appear to have witnessed the break up of the ideals and social spaces central to Hanoverian polite society. Yet the extent of this transformation requires closer inspection, as does our understanding of some of the well- and not so well established legacies of eighteenth-century gender and social performance. What, for example, was the real influence of an essentially sociable sentimental code on solipsistic romanticism; or Smithean self-command on later neo-stoical ideals; of the manly, polite or sentimental Christ on muscular Christianity; or of the eighteenth-century’s desire to internalise and moralise gentlemanliness with Victorian models of the ‘man of character’?

And so to those anxious wannabe six-packed, six-figure salaried men with which Tim Hitchcock began his review. What, if anything, do they or more accurately their media-friendly sponsors, have in common with a Dudley Ryder, John Penrose or James Boswell picking their way between gentlemanliness and foppery, manliness and effeminacy? More than might be expected it seems. For now, as then, the watchword of reformed and refined manhood is the flexibility and adaptability of gender relations, a potential for which nineteenth- and early twentieth-century models of sexual essentialism had little time. But if modern man enjoys a list of accessible, though self-perpetuating, titles to ease his development he might well look enviously on the social and cultural structures which enlightenment commentators identified and promoted as key components of Hanoverian polite society. What price now even the idea of an inclusive, democratic, commercially compatible public sphere at a time when traditional male activities are Stiffed by the falsehoods of big business, when communities fracture to leave lone bowlers, and, thanks to the mobile phone, the sociable and anti-social are as one.