Ladies & Gentlemen
What does it mean to be a gentleman? Born and raised outside the U.K., I was led to construct an idea of this male archetype, nourished by TV shows, Hollywood films and novels. As I was growing up, my impressionable adolescent mind was mixing-up information to form an idealized image of what a gentleman should be like: A sharp-eyed man, as witty as Simon Templar and canny as Arsene Lupin, the so-called gentleman-thief. Elegant but never flashy, my gentleman would be dressed in the finest tweeds like Sherlock Holmes and order James Bond’s martinis, shaken not stirred. For his fancy walks he would wear a bowler’s hat and carry a bamboo cane stick like John Steed in the Avengers. He would spend his weekends playing polo in a country estate like Darlington Hall in Ivory’s film adaptation of The Remains of the Day. He would have an excellent taste, a passion for history, and a freshly-ironed newspaper waiting for him on a lap tray every morning at 6, sharp. See the power of show business?
On my first trip to London, I was on the lookout for the contemporary gentleman. The first man that fitted my romanticized portrait was found sitting at the terrace of an elegant restaurant on Jermyn Street. His suit was perfectly tailored with a pocket square, and he was wearing matching socks. I was thrilled, not only by his attention to detail, but also by the fact that he wasn’t expecting anyone: this gentleman was all dressed-up, reading his newspaper while savoring his lunch and a glass of champagne for his own pleasure. Hats off!
I came across several men of the same impeccable look. I thought that, if the real thing looks so close to my adolescent portrait, then I may be starting to grasp the essence of English gentlemanly. And then, I stumbled upon Marcel Proust. The sleek Parisian novelist wrote a letter to his friend Willie Heath, a young English dandy, to express his admiration: “your elegance is to be found less in your outfit, but more in your body; and the body itself seems to have received it from the soul”. If Proust was right and one must look beyond the tailored suits and the good manners, then what sort of character, what kind of soul fits to a gentleman?
Hippolyte Taine has a well-studied opinion. This 19th-century critic and historian, Taine was known for his observing eye and obsession with accuracy. His work reportedly influenced the French realism, a literary movement conceived to depict the life and local customs with the precision of a photograph. In his Notes of England, Taine draws an in-depth image of the English society, portraying some of the most recognizable archetypes of London, such as the gentleman: a man of conscience, ready to sacrifice himself for those he guides.
British writer and literary critic Victor Pritchett was a master of the short narrative, recognized by the Royal Society of Literature. In London Perceived, he delivers an insightful analysis of the socio-economic factors that have defined the Londoner’s personality. Here, Sir Pritchett drafts a summary of the gentleman’s talk: light, personal and elusive. In another extract, he reminds us of Beau Brummell, an iconic dandy of the 19th century whose unconventional lifestyle revolutionized English customs.
If Taine suggests that a gentleman is, above all, a man of integrity, independently of his material comfort, Paul Morand has another take on the matter. In a delightful dialogue between a lady and his butler, the 19th-century writer and diplomat summarizes what he perceives as the main raison d’être of a gentleman: a man able to affirm to himself, at any moment, that money is not everything -only, as long as he is not deprived of it.
What makes a gentleman?
I try to understand this very crucial word: a gentleman; it keeps coming back, and contains a host of ideas, all of them English. The vital question about a man always arises like this: “Is he a gentleman?” Likewise about a woman: “Is she a lady?” In both cases, it is meant that the person in question belongs to the upper class; this class is recognized; a worker, a peasant, a shopkeeper do not try to cross the boundary line. But how do we recognize that a person is a member of the upper class?
In France, we do not have the word because we did not have the described situation, and these three syllables from across the Channel summarize the history of English society. The nobles by birth, the squires, the barons, the feudal chiefs did not become, as under Louis XV, merely privileged, ornamental parasites, in the end harmful, unpopular, odious […] henceforth without influence […]. They stayed in touch with the people; they opened their ranks to talents […]; they remained the commanding characters, rulers, or, at least, influential persons of the town and the State. For this, they have come to terms with their century and their role; they were administrators, bosses, promoters of reform, good managers of public affairs, diligent, educated, capable men; the most enlightened, the most independent, the most useful citizens of the nation.
This very pattern gave birth to the idea of the gentleman, which is quite distinct from that of the gentilhomme (note: noble by birth). The gentilhomme awakens ideas of elegance, finesse, tact, exquisite politeness, and dignified honor […]; these were the salient features of the upper class in France. Likewise, the gentleman brings together the distinctive features of the upper class in England, the most visible ones first, those which strike the coarse eyes: For example, an independent fortune, a lifestyle, a certain look, luxurious habits and material comfort; very often, in the eyes of the common people, especially in the eyes of the butlers, this surface suffices. […] But for the real judges, the essence of this figure lies in the heart. […]
For them, a real gentleman is a true nobleman, a man worthy to command, a man of integrity, selfless, capable of exposing himself, even of sacrificing himself for those he guides; not only a man of honor, but also a man of conscience […] who, by acting well by nature, acts even better out of principle.
In this ideal portrait, you will recognize the accomplished chef; add English nuances to it, self-control, continuous coolness, perseverance under adverse circumstances, natural seriousness, dignity of manners, and avoidance of all affectation or boast: you will have the superior model […].
A novelist portrayed him (note: the gentleman) under the name of John Halifax gentleman; it is about a poor, abandoned kid who ends up becoming the respected leader of his district. One single phrase sets the tone of the book: when, after great adventures, John reaches a certain material comfort and buys a house and a car, his son exclaims:
– “Finally, we became…gentlemen!”
– “We have always been (gentlemen), child. »
What must have amazed the foreign visitor to London between, say, 1790 and 1830 was the elegance, the splash and the grandeur of the new London. […] One manifestation, whose influence was more than temporary, was Byronism. All Europe, even Russia, adopted it. Another was dandyism in the genius of Beau Brummell.
Beau Brummell is often presented to us as a man who spent his morning tying a neckcloth, and therefore the epitome of extravagant folly. He was not. Puritanically, he brought good sense and simplicity into dress and manners.
He also introduced the notion that personal cleanliness was important.[…] Born in 1778, he was the son of a man who became private secretary to Lord North, went to Eton, and inherited a large fortune. But he was the grandson of a man who let lodgings to the nobility in St James’s, and, reverting perhaps to a good servant’s sense of what is proper, became an arbiter of dress and manners to his betters. […] He stood quite alone, determined to be undefeatable by royalty, aristocracy and anyone else, on their own ground.
He instituted the notion, at least in dress, that the duty of a gentleman was to be inconspicuous.
After the Napoleonic wars, the English became the fashion in France; dandyism was absorbed by them into the Romantic movement: one became a London dandy, bored, impassive, androgynous, insolent and keen on horses. It was known as dressing à la Valtre-Scott! Dandyism became, of course, conceptualized in France […] and was in fact an anti-bourgeois movement.
In England it started as a Puritan protest – for that is what Brummell’s campaign was, London manners always being in need of improvement or, at any rate, of being pointed up like London brick. The important difference between the dandyism of London and that of Paris is that London took the lesson and regarded the rest as useless, superficial and foolish; whereas the French saw it as a revolutionary gesture.
London Perceived, The Hogarth Press, 1986
By the 19th century, clubs had become conformist and respectable. It was not done to talk politics or religion freely, and the smooth arts of gentlemanly evasion and persiflage were invented. Certain subjects were excluded, just as certain people were excluded from the conversation of the upper middle class…The gentleman was not speechless, but he was committed to a conversational formulae. […] The 18th century lay down a manner of talk that has never quite died. […]
Good London talk – if we can risk a definition – is, before anything else, light, sociable, discursive, enquiring, personal without vulgar reserves, prone to fantasy, never too serious, avoids entering the wilderness of the merely informative, the expert and the didactic – a bore is the man who tells you everything. […]
It sedulously avoids the professional, never harangues and is enhanced -or ruined, according to your view – by the amateur spirit. London talk has a horror of conclusions, and some foreigners have been exasperated by its fundamental eccentricity, though they have been charmed by its skillful evasions.
London Perceived, The Hogarth Press, 1986
“No, thank you.”
The Belgravia district stretches behind Brompton Road and Knightsbridge, where the Peerage has, around Eaton Square, monotonous cream hotels with stucco columns, due to that dry post-Napoleonic architecture that can be found all over Europe, except in France.
In very cold lounges under their covers, adorned with Hindu silver bowls and a flowerpot hollowed out of an elephant’s foot, old ladies, withered already under King Edward, lead a simple and withdrawn life, which seems modest until the day after their death, when the Times suddenly reveal the enormity of their incomes. For these wrinkled people, preserved in the cold draughts that slide on the parquet floor and go up through a small fireplace, decorated with a white paper fan, the only heat comes from the teapot, covered with a quilted hood, next to the three-floor plate rack for sandwiches.
An old butler in black tie serves them, in their solitude, as we serve the Mass.
– Stanley … the cheese?
Stanley, who had read in the Morning Post that time had come to save up, replies:
– Your Ladyship refuses the cheese every day; I took the liberty to delete it.
– That was wrong, Stanley; as from tomorrow you will give me the pleasure to resume its service.
The next day at lunch, the butler passes the aged cheese, and, like every day for the past 35 years, the old lady calmly responds:
– No, thank you.
[…] If a notary, frightened by the spending habits of some old Lord of Belgravia -who happens to be his client-, suggests him to remove the two Italian pastry chefs who assist the cook, the Lord, shocked, answers:
– Hasn’t a gentleman no longer the right to have a cookie with his sherry?
Londres, Plon, 1962
London of the gentlemen
Elegant places to be pampered like a gentleman.