Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain, 1660-1800
Harlow, Longman, 2000, ISBN: 582319870X; 240pp.; Price: £19.99
University of Hertfordshire
Date accessed: 1 June, 2023
Even the most self-pitying modern man, besieged on all sides by the forces emasculation and objectification (at least if he believes our Sunday newspapers), must think themselves lucky not to be forced to practise the difficult art of eighteenth-century manliness. While a six-pack, a sensitive way with children and the ability to 'communicate', when combined with a six figure salary and a side line in laddish bonhomie will satisfy the most stringent of modern critics, their eighteenth-century counterpart had to navigate the treacherous waters of 'politeness'. When to cry in public, how many flourishes to add to every bow, how to be well dressed without being a fop, and most difficult of all, how to be sure that you felt 'politeness', felt the sentiments it was meant to encompass to your very soul, were just a few of the conundrums which exercised eighteenth-century men. And while modern men have recourse to the well stocked shelves of their local newsagent, groaning with glossy magazines which recycle month by month the same old articles on exercise, skin care and sexual technique, eighteenth-century men had to be satisfied with the writings of John Locke, Addison and Steele, Hume, Samuel Johnson and Adam Smith. Fortunately, we are now possessed of a growing and increasingly sophisticated literature on eighteenth-century manliness which has begun to make sense of this complex landscape of gender definition. Philip Carter's contribution to this literature is both timely and important.
Carter charts the content of a new genre of advice literature and cultural guides from its origins in the writings of Locke and pre-eminently in The Spectator; describing the attempt to refashion Englishmen (and in its early incarnations at least, politeness is a resolutely English rather than British phenomenon), into a new hybrid beast. This new zebra of a man was to be of easy conversation, and of polished (but not affected) manners. He was to be able to interact comfortably with both men and women, with both the high and low born. He was to be learned, without being pedantic, and able to discuss a wide range of topics, without committing the cardinal sin of expressing a strongly held opinion. He was Mr Spectator.
Carter dissects this new breed, describing its urban haunts, and the internal contradictions that plagued normal men's attempts to acclimatise to its habitats. In the process he gives us perhaps our clearest statement of what it was to be 'polite' in the early eighteenth century. Extending the work of historians such as Lawrence Klein and Michèle Cohen, Carter explores the role of women in the construction of politeness, and the extent to which the category of the polite gentleman was at odds with the older construction of the Court and the tradition of courtly manners, and the increasingly demanding character of the 'Citt'. In the process, Carter draws our attention to a range of issues which are of wider interest to historians of the period. The practise of politeness, for instance, particularly in the coffeehouse, is central to the creation of Jürgen Habermas' 'public sphere'. Carter's exploration of the problems associated with expressing political and religious views in a 'polite' manner sheds new light on the tensions that accompanied political discourse in this formative period. More than this, his explanation of the role of manners helps to re-insert a sense of class and social division into a historical discussion which has too often been characterised by an apparent blindness to the boundaries which defined the 'public sphere'.
Similarly, Carter's exploration of the character of the 'fop' addresses directly a large literature on the history of homosexuality which has taken contemporary complaints about fops and foppery as evidence of the centrality of effeminate homosexuality to the construction of a new sexual regime. Historians such as Randolph Trumbach have placed concerns around effeminacy at the centre of a meta-narrative in which sexual self-identity and homophobia drive the creation of 'modern' sexual categories. By explaining the complex inter-relationship between the all-important role of women in the creation of politeness (a theme most fully explored by Michèle Cohen), and the dangers of effeminacy that this role presented to men, Carter blows apart the easy conflation of foppery and molly house culture. In the process the eighteenth-century fop is exposed as a primarily literary concoction, emerging from the Restoration stage, whose characteristics included a perhaps surprising heterosexual adventurism, in combination with the more familiar characteristics of vanity and behavioural precision. Carter's reassessment is both welcome and long overdue.
But, perhaps the most significant histioriographical contribution made by this book, lies in its discussion of the development of 'sentiment' as a central facet of politeness. In a comprehensive and illuminating discussion of the debate surrounding the fourth earl of Chesterfield's, Letters to His Son (1774), and a further direct analysis of the evolution of the notion of the 'sentimental', Carter charts the gradual development of the requirement that, not only should men behave politely, but that they should do so at the behest of a tender inner feeling. In the process, the apparently absurd debates that pre-occupy so many eighteenth-century writers about when to cry in public and how to appear at the opera and at a funeral are made intelligible. And a central link between early forms of politeness and the later extremes of Romanticism is made manifest.
This discussion is particularly important as it provides a bridge between a narrative that has been explored largely in relation to literary criticism, and the development of a parallel set of ideas in an historical context. The notion of the internalisation of the self, and the rise of the autobiographical subject are core themes in the history of the novel. What Carter provides is a means of linking that development to the actual behaviour, beliefs and writings of individual men. The demands which sentimental politeness made on individual men was that they should become 'men of feeling', should interrogate their motivations, and treasure the nub of emotion which lay inside them. While the fourth earl of Chesterfield might be satisfied with a concept of politeness that was restricted to the self-serving enactment of a dumb show of manners, the vast majority of commentators from the mid-century onwards were certain that the only forms of behaviour which could be truly trusted were those which sprang from an internally consistent, vigilantly examined and obsessively practised self-hood. In other words, politeness came to place new demands on the individual psyche, and provided a template within which men struggled to articulate an emotional, as well as behavioural landscape. Carter's examination of politeness and its emotional dynamic could well stand for a historically consistent psychology of the eighteenth-century, middling sort, male mind. In the process, he helps explain why literary critics find in this period a new kind of individual, newly engaged in the project of secular naval gazing. It helps explain in relatively concrete historical terms, how an 'internalised self' and 'autobiographical subject' might be created, and why they should appear when they did.
Three quarters of the book is taken up with an examination of the literature produced to guide men through the troubled journey to polite manliness. In this project Carter is extremely successful, but perhaps the most enjoyable section of the volume comes in the final quarter in which the lives and personal writings of Dudly Ryder, John Penrose and James Boswell are painstakingly dissected. Ryder and Boswell are, of course, familiar figures in the pantheon of the polite, but the addition of a study of the less well known John Penrose, along with an approach which highlights the sense of self-construction and anxiety suffered by these men, helps to shed new light on the process of growing up male in the period. And as Penrose is a mature and gouty fifty when he commits his thoughts to paper, these studies also begin to give us access to the very different meanings of politeness for the young and the middle aged.
What emerges is the extent to which individual eighteenth-century men really did worry about their behaviour. They interrogated their emotions in a way reminiscent of the religious self-obsession of a previous century. Now, however, the focus of their anxieties was how to dress and how to cry, how to chat amiably, and how to interpret affect and eschew affectation. If they appear occasionally absurd and pathetic, this can not take away the real and visceral fear that emerges so strongly from these studies - the fear of appearing, or rather of being a booby and a fop.
In its own terms, therefore, this is a tremendously successful study, which provides a newly consistent story for male manners in this period. It unpicks a difficult literature, and gives it a new consistency, packaged for a broader historical audience. But for this reader it did something more, something that was perhaps not intended by the author, or at least is not treated directly by him. Much of the discussion is couched in general terms, avoiding specificities of class and locale (although the author is well aware of the limited audience for the literature he uses). At the same time 'politeness' as described here must be seen as a part of the creation of a new class identity that was directly driven by the specific economic and social imperatives of eighteenth-century urban life. The values which underpin politeness are as much about power as they are about personality. The ability to appear comfortable in all types of company can be read as a facet of command as well as sociability; while the profound desire to avoid foppery reflects the need to display wealth to one's social inferiors (and hence claim authority) without becoming an object of their derision. In other words, the story of polite male manners is not simply one concerned with a self-serving gentry, but illuminates the sharp boundaries of power and authority which were being reconstructed in this period. As much as being about the self, the topic of this volume is the creation of a group of people who could be comfortable ruling their wives, their estates, their country, the Empire.
At the same time, this material also seems to have specific implications for a more defined political history. The linking of a code of manners, and later a 'code of being', to the coffeehouse and drawing room at least implies an important role for these forms of behaviour in the creation of a new kind of political nation. This is a nation in which the 'public sphere' is influential in government decision making, and in which a hierarchy of politeness (and hence authority) can be mapped onto the patchwork quilt boundaries which make up the eighteenth-century British state. The growing authority of Scotland in the later eighteenth century, for example, must in part be seen as a reflection of the success of Scotland's writers in defining manliness and behaving accordingly. While the relative insignificance of Wales in this same period can in part be ascribed to the extent to which it was impossible to be both polite and Welsh.
What is implied by the history of politeness is a larger narrative of historical development in which the state and class (defined in both cultural and economic terms) are in the throws of profound change. If historians have yet to fully contain the subtle inter-relationships that characterise the developments of culture, class and power in this period, Philip Carter's work helps provide an important strand in the story.
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.