Ladies & Gentlemen
What does it mean to be a gentleman? Growing up outside the U.K., my perception of this male archetype was shaped by TV shows, Hollywood films, and novels. An idealized image formed in my adolescent mind—a sharp-eyed, witty man, a gentleman-thief like Simon Templar or Arsene Lupin, the so-called gentleman-thief. Elegant but not flashy, “my” gentleman was dressed in the finest tweeds like Sherlock Holmes, ordering James Bond’s martinis, shaken not stirred. For his fancy walks, he wore a bowler’s hat and carried a bamboo cane stick like John Steed in The Avengers. He spent his weekends playing polo in a country estate like Darlington Hall in Ivory’s film adaptation of The Remains of the Day. By all means, he had excellent taste, a passion for history, and a freshly-ironed newspaper waiting on a lap tray every morning at 6, sharp. The power of show business was at play.
On my first trip to London, I sought the contemporary gentleman. I found a representation of my romanticized portrait sitting at the terrace of an elegant restaurant on Jermyn Street. His suit was perfectly tailored with a pocket square and 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 lunch and a glass of champagne for his own pleasure. Hats off!
Encountering several men with the same impeccable look, I thought I was grasping the essence of the English gentleman. Then, I stumbled upon Marcel Proust. The sleek Parisian novelist, in a letter to his friend Willie Heath, a young English dandy, expressed 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 tailored suits and good manners, what character, what kind of soul, befits a gentleman?
Hippolyte Taine (1828 – 1893) offers a well-studied reply. As a 19th-century critic and historian, Taine is renowned for his keen observation and commitment to accuracy. His work is credited with influencing French realism, a literary movement dedicated to portraying life and local customs with the precision of a photograph. In his Notes of England, Taine provides a comprehensive depiction of English society, capturing some of London’s most recognizable archetypes, including the gentleman. According to Taine, the gentleman embodies a sense of conscience, demonstrating a readiness to sacrifice himself for the well-being of those he guides. Taine’s insightful perspective offers a nuanced understanding of the social fabric of 19th-century England.
Sir Victor Sawdon Pritchett (1900 – 1997), a distinguished British writer and literary critic, was a master of the short narrative, earning recognition from the Royal Society of Literature. In his work, “London Perceived,” Pritchett provides an insightful analysis of the socio-economic factors shaping the Londoner’s personality. Here, he skillfully drafts a summary of the gentleman’s talk—light, personal, and elusive. In another extract, he brings to light the iconic dandy of the 19th century, Beau Brummell, whose unconventional lifestyle revolutionized English customs. Pritchett’s narratives offer a vivid exploration of both the subtleties of conversation and the historical figures that have left an indelible mark on English society.
While Taine suggests that a gentleman is primarily a man of integrity, independent of material comfort, Paul Morand (1888 – 1976) presents a different perspective. In a charming dialogue between a lady and his butler, the 19th-century writer and diplomat encapsulates what he sees as the chief raison d’être of a gentleman: a man capable of affirming to himself, at any moment, that money is not everything—of course, as long as he is not deprived of it. Morand’s viewpoint adds a nuanced layer to the definition of a gentleman, intertwining it with a delicate balance of financial security and personal philosophy.
What makes a gentleman?
I am attempting to grasp the significance of a profoundly important term: a gentleman. It consistently resurfaces, encapsulating a multitude of distinctly English concepts. The pivotal question surrounding an individual often takes the form of, “Is he a gentleman?” Similarly, for a woman, the query may be, “Is she a lady?” In both instances, the implication is that the person belongs to the upper class, a class readily identifiable; there is no attempt by a worker, a peasant, or a shopkeeper to breach this boundary. But how does one discern that a person is a member of the upper class?
In France, we lack this term because we did not undergo the described societal evolution, and these three syllables from across the Channel encapsulate the narrative of English society. Unlike in France, where nobles by birth, squires, barons, and feudal chiefs, under Louis XV, devolved into mere privileged, ornamental parasites—ultimately harmful, unpopular, and odious […]- English upper-class individuals maintained their connection with the people. They opened their ranks to talent […], continuing to be commanding figures, leaders, or at the very least, influential individuals within the town and the State. To achieve this, they reconciled with the demands of their era and their roles. They assumed positions as administrators, leaders, champions of reform, adept managers of public affairs—diligent, educated, capable individuals. In essence, they became the most enlightened, independent, and valuable citizens of the nation.
This very framework gave rise to the concept of the gentleman, distinctly separate from that of the gentilhomme (noted as noble by birth). The gentilhomme evokes notions of elegance, finesse, tact, exquisite politeness, and dignified honor—characteristics emblematic of the upper class in France. Similarly, the gentleman embodies the distinctive traits of the English upper class, starting with the most conspicuous ones, those that catch the less refined eye: an independent fortune, a particular lifestyle, a specific appearance, opulent habits, and material comfort. Often, in the eyes of the common people, especially those of the butlers, this external facade suffices. […] However, for those who truly understand, the essence of this figure resides in the heart. […]
For these discerning individuals, a genuine gentleman is a bona fide nobleman—someone worthy of leadership, a person of integrity and selflessness, capable of putting himself at risk, even sacrificing himself for those under his guidance. He is not merely a man of honor but also a man of conscience […] someone who, by nature, conducts himself commendably and, guided by principle, acts even more virtuously.
In this ideal portrayal, one would recognize the consummate leader; infuse it with English nuances—self-control, unwavering composure, perseverance in the face of adversity, innate seriousness, dignity in behavior, and an aversion to all affectation or boasting—and you will have the epitome […].
A novelist depicted this ideal figure under the name of John Halifax, gentleman; the character is that of a destitute, abandoned child who ultimately becomes the respected leader of his community. One singular phrase sets the tone of the book: when, after numerous trials, John achieves a certain material comfort, purchasing a house and a carriage, his son exclaims:
– “Finally, we became gentlemen!”
– “We have always been gentlemen, my 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 extends beyond Brompton Road and Knightsbridge, where the Peerage boasts monotonous cream-colored hotels with stucco columns, particularly around Eaton Square, reflecting that dry post-Napoleonic architecture prevalent throughout Europe, except in France.
An old butler dressed in black tie, attends to them in their solitude, akin to how we serve during Mass.
– Stanley … the cheese?
Stanley, having read in the Morning Post it was time to economize, responds:
– Your Ladyship has been declining the cheese every day; I took the liberty of discontinuing it.
– That was a mistake, Stanley; starting tomorrow, you will have the pleasure of reinstating its service.
The following day at lunch, the butler presents the aged cheese, and, just like every day for the past 35 years, the elderly lady calmly declines, saying, “No, thank you.”
[…] If a notary, concerned by the spending habits of an old Lord of Belgravia -who coincidentally is his client- suggests eliminating the two Italian pastry chefs assisting the cook, the Lord, appalled, responds:
– Doesn’t a gentleman have the right to enjoy a cookie with his sherry anymore?
Londres, Plon, 1962
London of the gentlemen
Elegant places to be pampered like a gentleman.