Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Manners


Some French philosopher, in his work called—but I have no library, and never had a memory to which I can refer;—however, somebody says somewhere, that to enable an observing traveller to discover the dominant power in a state, he has only to look from his window and to notice who or what occupies le haut du pavé.

In a despotic government, although the traveller cannot always have the pleasure of seeing the Emperor in the middle of the street, for there are many streets and only one Emperor, or the Pope, or the President of the Republic (and there are such things as despotic Republics), yet he can detect the implements of a despotism exhibited in a regiment marching in the very middle of the street, with as broad a front as the street will allow; or in a procession of priests putting an end to the traffic, probably not much, but whatever there is. In England we see trade dominant, exemplified in a string of drays laden with cotton, stopping the carriage of her Majesty’s minister on his road to dine with the Lord Mayor, or cutting in two a funeral procession, or driving the Queen’s Guards into single file on the edge of the pavement.

Now, I have another method by which the traveller may, without asking a question, learn who or what rules in a state; and that is, by placing himself at a window overlooking the grande place, or the market-place, or other great thoroughfare, and by observing the courtesies, or want of them, between man and man. The more courteous men are to each other, the more despotic is the government; and vice versa. Thus, to take two extremes, when the traveller from his window observes the natives pushing and jostling, and grunting salutes with their hands in their pockets, as they do in England and the United States, he may be sure that the institutions of the country are free and enlightened; and he may be sure of the contrary when he sees men wearing out the rims of their hats in courteous salutations.

There is, in fact, a sort of sliding scale between good manners and free institutions, in which scale an enlightened citizen of England or of the United States must accept a rather humiliating alternative, when he trots out his own glorious constitution in the eyes of a people who are trodden under foot, but whose manners are perfectly charming. Do what he will, he cannot escape the alternative, for the causes which teach men manners are beyond his control, and he can no more refine the manners of his own countrymen than he can make a courtier of one that wants no favours. A man is naturally afraid of those who have authority over his life and property—a feeling that engenders a courteous, conciliating tone, which is not a little apt to dwindle into a fawning, double-faced manner. Now the best of good manners being to appear impressed with the superiority of any one, either in rank, appearance, or intellect, the transition is easy from courtier to refined gentleman; indeed the two professions are identical in manners.

When spies are abroad, and a man lives in daily peril on account of what he says, or may be said for him, he becomes reserved and prudent. When he does talk, it is in language which may mean anything, except disrespect for those in authority. The first remark which a Russian or a Neapolitan makes, when speaking of the English, is the imprudence of our conversation. The truth is, they must be prudent in their conversation; I need not. They must be courtiers to every one of their thousand superiors; I need only be conciliating to mine when I want anything. If they were to say at their own fire-sides what I can say with impunity at a public meeting, one of them would be sent to Siberia, and the other to the dungeons of the Procida for the rest of their lives.

A courteous, deferential manner once assumed for so good a reason as necessity, and heightened by the knowledge that more flies are caught with treacle than with vinegar, soon becomes a habit, and is used to every one above and below us. And this is the good manner which is found to perfection in the French and the Italians, and many of the Asiatic nations. Though the habits and customs of Eastern nations may not be according to our standard of propriety and decorum, yet no one who has been in the East—in India, for instance—can have done otherwise than remark the composed and dignified manners of all classes of Hindoos and Mahomedans; so respectful is their address, so easy, and yet so deferential, is their pose. A servant of the lowest caste approaches and speaks to his superior in a way which in England would be called the height of good address.

There is nothing that strikes a travelled Englishman on his return home, after even a few months on the Continent, so much as the manners, or rather the want of them, in his fellow-countrymen. He is fresh from Italy, or France, or Spain, where the natives have easy and graceful manners; each country in its own peculiar way. They study forms of politeness, and practise them even in the common intercourse of life, without any regard to difference in rank or station.

The heart of a Frenchman is the size of a rabbit’s, but it beats in the palm of his hand, as we see it depicted in the badge of a friendly society, and there it makes a great show. You might almost think he would take off his coat for you on a cold day, which is a mistake; but it is pleasant to live in such a delusion. He lives on greetings which mean nothing; he grows fat on civilities which cost nothing. Thus a Frenchman, of whatever rank, on entering a shop of whatever description, raises his hat one inch to the man behind the counter, or to the female at the bureau, who returns the compliment by a slight bow; and after buying a cigar—perhaps at three sous—the same forms are gone through on his leaving.

And thus when I am promenading, en voiture, with my friend, Count Isidore de B——, and we meet the Marquise de C——, a friend of his, but unbeknown to me, not only does he raise his hat in a style adopted in England only by royal dukes, but without looking at her, and “without prejudice,” as the lawyers say, I raise my hat several inches, the signal to me being Isidore raising his, and no regard being had to the fact of my looking out of one window of the carriage and the Count looking at the Marquise from the other. And when the heat of summer has driven the Marquise and her husband, and me, from Paris to the sea-side, and still unbeknown, after sitting opposite to them at the table-d’hôte, where we discuss all sorts of subjects from our complaints downwards (and upwards and in all directions), we meet next day on the sands, where Monsieur and Madame make me a gracious bow and are most affable, from which I might be led to suppose that they were impressed with not a little regard for me; whereas, my knowledge of foreign ways tells me that they do not know my name, and would be very much astonished if, on meeting them in Paris, I were to stop them with tender inquiries about their health and the health of all the little C.’s.

Foreigners in general are also well-behaved and courteous to each other in the streets. In London, the person with his right-hand to the wall is entitled to keep it, and even then he will get knocked about a good deal towards the City. In Paris the promenaders take the wall, or not, as it suits them; and yet, in the business parts of Paris, men seldom jostle each other, and when they do, both parties may be seen hurrying on, but bowing with hats off and muttering apologies long after they have passed each other. And in a theatre, or other public place, men not only are as courteous to females as in a drawing-room, but extend the same urbanity to each other.

However much we may surpass our neighbours in our respect for political order, they show as much, if not more, respect for social order. Though their blood may be boiling at the acts of the police, in its political capacity, their submission is seldom asked twice when the police is employed for the purposes of social order in the streets, at a race-course, or in a theatre. In this cause the interference of the French police is tolerated to an extent which would not be borne for a moment in England.

The effect of the degree of liberty enjoyed by nations on their manners is strongly marked in travelling through the different states of Europe. Let us travel from the south of Italy, where men do not know their lives are their own, and where manners are so soft and pleasing, through Switzerland, where men are free and their manners brusque and startling. Then to descend the Rhine, through some of the German states, where manners improve a little—but only a little—into Belgium, where the natives have not had a liberal constitution long enough to shake off their imitation French politeness. But already the Belgians are beginning to prove how a little liberty spoils good manners; for a man of the middle-class may now be seen wishing his friend good morning with both hands under his blouse and in his trowsers-pockets, a thing no Frenchman of any class would ever think of doing.

Then to enter France, where the whole people are more courteous and more expressively mannered than in any other country in the world; and to cross a narrow channel into England, where men are so free, and their manners so alarming; and, last of all, to cross the Atlantic to the United States, where there is both liberty and licence, and no manners at all.

We must not be surprised at men of refined or literary or social tastes preferring to live in countries where men are more obedient to social order—where society is easier and less formal, and where the amenities of life are more practised than in England.

How often do we hear a thorough Englishman express his dislike to foreign ways on his first visit to the Continent; his state of fret and irritability at the constant demand for his passport by a gendarme who will not be put out of temper; his contempt for the light dinners and acid wines, and his disgust at a want of cleanliness in things about which his countrymen are so particular; and then to watch him growing first, not to dislike the ways as much as he did, then to be reconciled to them, till at last he settles among his new friends—for good, perhaps—and nothing English remains of him but his name.