How Should a Gent Behave?

The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct

by Shirley Robin Letwin
Harvard University Press, 303 pp., $20.00

Shirley Letwin has written the best book on Trollope that I read during the past centenary year of his death. But her book is not only about Trollope. It is a subversive book about England—subversive, that is to say, of those who until very recently brought about a consensus between the center and the left of the Conservative Party and the center and right of the Labour Party. Her book explores Trollope’s treatment of the characters in his novels but it also has undertones about the assumptions that Englishmen once made about the way people ought to behave at home, in love, in business, and in the House of Commons. Shirley Letwin is an American living in London who has a fondness for some British institutions and manners. But she gets exasperated when good old class-ridden England takes to the egalitarian bottle and has tipsy affairs with such foreign whores as socialism, sociology, scientism, and others who when you go to bed with them pick your pocket.

Englishmen used once to be admired—even if they were also mocked by foreigners—for claiming to be gentlemen. Today in England no one in the press or television would dream of calling anyone by such an offensive name: it would be to suggest that he was trying to behave like Bulldog Drummond or Bertie Wooster. And yet less than two hundred years ago Madame de Staël and Tocqueville both praised Britain for being the one European country with open entry to its aristocracy and for having invented the useful word “gentleman,” which was regarded abroad as untranslatable.

It was untranslatable because it did not designate some rank or status in society. In Victorian times there were innumerable books of etiquette which purported to describe the criteria for being a gentleman. Some maintained that it depended on birth, others thought the right education was sufficient. No one got acknowledged as a gentleman simply because he married an earl’s daughter. But if a girl married an earl’s son she was in. The tutor of an earl’s son would be treated as a gentleman, but the governess of his daughters would not be treated as a lady. Some argued that a profession only became respectable when one of its leading members was knighted—the first surgeon was knighted in 1778, the first engineer in 1841, and the first dentist in 1886. All these talismans were fraudulent.

Conduct—how you behaved—was the real criterion for being considered a gentleman. How can one describe good conduct? Clearly it means more than manners—though I think Trollope concealed from himself how such manners mattered. Clearly such devices as casuistry cannot explain morality any more than grammar and idioms express the nuances of a living language. A crib, such as Castiglione’s description of the courtier, is just as unable to describe how we should behave. The triumph of the novel was that it could do so. It could explain why judgments ordinary …

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Letters

Trollope & Marriage April 14, 1983