02 Jul 2016

The English Gentleman


Richard Verney, 19th Baron Willoughby de Broke, 1869-1923.

Noel Annan, Our Age: English Intellectuals Between the World Wars: A Group Portrait:

The ideal that Our Age was taught to admire when they were children was the ideal of English gentleman. The ideal of those pre-1914 days has been caricatured for so long, and sometimes amusingly, that one forgets this was the ethos that Churchill invoked in 1940. It went back to the eighteenth century. Wellington embodied it, Waterloo exhibited it. According to this code an Englishman should be guided by an overpowering sense of civic duty and diligence. Every man’s first loyalty should be to the country of his birth and the institution in which he served. Loyalty to institutions came before loyalty to people. Individuals should sacrifice their careers, their family, and certainly their personal happiness or whims, to the regiment, the college, the school, the services, the ministry, the profession or the firm. Service was an acknowledgment that there were other communities or territories which it was now the duty of the British to rule. Ruling other men and other races did not mean discovering and complying with their wishes. Their wishes would almost certainly be self-interested pleas for ephemeral ends often a mask for the duplicity of would-be politicians, demagogues and agitators. While the rest of the world feared the will to power that was behind the missionary force of the Empire, the British, whose administrators exported the life of the motherland in their clothes, their food, their sport and pipe-smoking, could never be brought to admit they were in danger. They were indignant when told that they exploited idealistic movement such as anti-slavery and Zionism as ways of getting others to do their work for them, or that they betrayed idealists such as E. D. Morel in the Belgian Congo or T.E. Lawrence in Arabia. Plutarch gave them examples of the type to admire: Lycurgus rather than Pericles, Julius Caesar rather than Pompey or Brutus; never Cleon or Catiline.

The gentleman was someone who developed his latent qualities by engaging in gentlemanly pursuits. An officer acquired an eye for country by riding to hounds, and thus learnt the art of moving his infantry platoon into dead ground to hide them from the enemy. Provided he excelled as a sportsman and played games fearlessly, his men would follow him anywhere. At Waterloo, officers courted danger to encourage their men much the same way as naval officers at Trafalgar strolled up and down the quarterdeck regardless of sharpshooters or grapeshot. In the early days both of the Boer war and the Great War to take cover was thought to be a bit iffy. A gentleman disguised his abilities as much as he disguised his emotions: not to do so was to show side and drop one’s guard. When Tony Chevenix Trench, later a public school headmaster, emerged from a Japanese prisoner of war camp, he was greeted by his brother with the words, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect to find you alive.’ The key to recognition was good manners – unceremonious, relaxed behavior designed to put friends at ease. The temptation to intellectualize about one’s calling was unwise and people who had theories needed to be watched. To reduce tradition and custom to dry principles, to become too reliant on technology, was to forget that character was more important than hare-brained schemes. Men should be judged by their conduct rather than their ideas. Mark Anthony was an example of self-indulgence and that weakness of character which tempts a man to desert duty for pleasure. Women were a potential snare and they should be treated warily. But good women were romantic objects and, because they were good, could be treated as such. The young were full of good stuff but callow. They would be all the better for being snubbed and put in their place.

People wanted to show that they too knew what leisure pursuits to follow, what matters to copy. This is how others would recognize that you are incorporated within society. Perhaps it is not going too far to say that a man and his family came to be regarded as citizens by the degree to which they were able to conform to the code of the governing class and to the part of the country they belonged. Before 1914 you had to assimilate as far as your means allowed to the governing class’s way of life to be received within the social pale. Servants indicated status, and it is astonishing how many of those with modest incomes and jobs had servants until one remembers the kitchen ranges, coal fires instead of Central heating, the copper instead of a washing machine, created so much work that there was a real inducement to economize on consumer goods and employ servants. A housemaid needed to be paid only thirty pounds a year. Clothes no less than servants were the clue to your social standing. A hat was a symbol of being socialized. That was one reason why even the poorest wore one: they were staking claim to being a citizen even if they had no vote. Only the self-confident could neglect the requirements of fashion, like the Cecils who dressed in shapeless garments or the intellectuals who climbed mountains and communed with nature on thirty-mile walks. Invited in 1929 to Bicton for a country house party, Alan Pryce-Jones, twenty-one years old and impecunious, descended for dinner wearing a black tie to find the other men wearing tail coats. ‘Which footman have you got?’ asked his uncle and host when he apologized. ‘It is not the fault of the footman,’ he replied, ‘I haven’t brought a white tie.’ Putting a hand on his shoulder, his host proposed the only remedy. ‘My dear fellow, sack your man.’ He was not invited again. …

Like Dickens, Trollope thought that making money and decent ambition in life were desirable: his gentry and clergy talk money all the time. His crooked financiers were guilty not because they pursued wealth but because they overrode the law and morality. But if a gentleman goes in for politics he should not act the prig when he finds he has to bribe his electors. Compromise and dissimulation are part of the game. You stand by your leader even if you don’t like him because personal likes or dislikes should be beneath the gentleman in politics. It is ignoble to claim you are a fly caught in the wheel of history or whine that you had a hard upbringing. Nor is it corrupt to show deference to rank and position. No doubt there are plenty of silly, vain and pompous aristocrats in Trollope’s pages but formal differences in society will always exist. The deference a scientist might show to a Nobel Prize winner or journalist to his editor is no more than tribute to sagacity and know-how. Social distinctions are not barriers, they are signposts which can be disregarded for good cause; but in a country which had no signposts it will be hard to find one’s way.

There were other virtues that the true gentleman required. He should not be too spontaneous in his conduct. That virtue which Castiglione had so admired had become suspect. Like a game fox a man should run straight. Predictability was a virtue. To strain to be original was a sign of side, conceit, vanity and showing off. To be determined to distinguish oneself from one’s fellows was considered disagreeable. A dandy could get by, an aesthete was fishy. Of course, the notion of the gentleman is bound up with social status: indeed it held within it the assumption that a gentleman was responsible for others, for his tenants, the soldiers under his command, his flock in the parish, his servants: but only rarely the hands in his mill. He would command, but off duty he would be courteous.

In his entertaining book on the subject Philip Mason maintains that Protestant Christianity said so impossibly high standard of conduct that the cult of the gentleman had to be substituted to provide a realizable ideal.

2 Feedbacks on "The English Gentleman"


I say, old boy. Rum stuff, what?


Yes, and it was this mental and moral rigidity that convinced England turn a minor incident and local war into WWI. They simply had to be the one and only hegemonic state in the world. Germany was simply getting too big for her britches. Everything else was a post hoc excuse for a maintaining a certain order, a mind-set that compelled status above all else including honesty, morality, law and, in the end, even simple human decency. Millions dead, another World War because the first one was so unjust, a few bloody revolutions followed almost as part of one script. So it was with man, a story telling creature, and so it shall always be.


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