IT has been the custom for many years—probably ever since the grandchildren of Adam captured their first slave—to deplore the increasingly bad manners of the “lower classes.” During the past week a lady has published a book in which she describes the horrid effects which residence in America has upon the manners of an English servant-girl. Almost immediately, in the acid-laden air of democracy, the girl begins to address her mistress in a half-syllable as “m’m”; at the end of a few weeks she has flung even the last least appendix of “sir” and “madam” into the Atlantic Ocean. Now a world without “sirs” and “madams” is to many people a world without stars; it is, at any rate, a world without satellites. It is the dark herald of a mutilated cosmos. Other apostles of manners declare that the world of manners is going to pieces on even more negligible grounds. When Lord Rosebery a short time ago raised the question of the decay of manners, someone—we think it was Mr. G. W. E. Russell—hastened into print to express his grief that young people of the present day frequently say “Sorry” instead of “I beg your pardon.” We sympathise intensely with these pessimists who see the firmament of the graces collapsing about their ears. We sympathise all the more sincerely since the day, a few years ago, when a young monkey in a house-agent’s ofﬁce observed that he supposed we should like to get into our new house “as soon as poss.” We never recognised the full indignity of all contractions, abbreviations, and modernisms till that moment. “As soon as poss.” was not merely a personal affront to ourselves: it was an outrage upon the language of Shakespeare, Milton, and Mr. Maseﬁeld. It was a phrase to bring thrones tottering. One was surprised to find the evening papers coming out as usual, cheerfully retailing the news of a cricketing and horse-racing world just as if nothing had happened. One expected at least an eclipse of the moon that night to signify Nature’s disapproval of the vile phrase that had been born. And yet Swift seems to us nowadays rather ridiculous because he objected to the word “mob” as a vulgar contraction. Similarly, not so very long ago ladies and gentlemen with the graces of an earlier generation used obtrusively to speak of “omnibuses” where we in these clipping years content ourselves with “buses.” This makes us foresee the possibility that in a century or so even the lips of scholars and lovers will be saying “as soon as poss.” as naturally as they now split inﬁnitives. And the world will survive.
On the whole, however, when people complain of the decay of manners they have in mind not the impudent abbreviations of the crowd, but the decline in bowing and scraping and in speaking of one’s employer as “the master.” What the rich mean by the good manners of the poor is usually not civility, but servility. We have often thought that a part at least of the reputation of the Irish peasant for good manners dates from a time when the spirit had been crushed out of him by pauperism and hunger, and he had to grimace obligingly in order to live. We have noticed in books of memoirs by Irish landlords and their hangers-on occasional laments over the corruption of Irish manners in recent times. The truth is manners of the old sort have gone. Ever since Fenianism brought the Irish-American with all the insolence of the rights of man on his forehead back into Ireland there has been a great decrease in the pulling of the forelock, in the dofﬁng of the caubeen. One of the older generation of Irish writers told us recently that, when he was a boy, the people of the neighbourhood in which he was brought up used to slink humbly off the footpath at the approach of a man wearing a collar; and everybody knows how in some places the landlords compelled their tenants to remove not only their hats, but their boots, in the holy precinct of the rent-ofﬁce. The boys from America changed all that. Instead of getting out of your way on the road they jostled you as likely as not if there was any question of one having to make room for the other. They nodded to you curtly, challengingly, with covered heads. There are, it may be admitted, relics still to be found of the older kind of servility. It is not long since we were driving with a young farmer in Donegal and happened to come up close behind the carriage of the landlord’s lady. Our farmer slowed down and drove at a respectful distance in the rear, and we felt no resentment, for one farmer often does as much out of courtesy to another. When, however, the landlord’s horse got a stone in the landlord’s horse’s foot, and, the carriage coming to a halt, the farmer brought us to a halt too and kept us standing there till the stone had been removed, on the ground that it would never do to drive past the gentry, our blood boiled—at least, it bubbled in the veins of our head—for the betrayed honour of the human race. The farmer, it is true, got his reward in a stately bow from the carriage as it drove off again, and we felt sure that in one comfortable bosom at least the reputation of the Irish peasant for good manners was safe. We have often heard ladies in England purring in a comparable way over the beautiful manners of some poor servant girl who never forgot to cross the “t’s” in “master” and “mistress”—who was inclined to cross them, indeed, a dozen times over in ink of the blackest humbleness. Well, for our part, we detest the delight in being called “the master ” and “the mistress.” We always rejoice when we hear of some bold hussy who speaks of her employers as disrespectfully as if they were her father and her mother. Not that we have not ourselves thoroughly enjoyed the luxury of being addressed as “sir”—not the “sir” of equality, but the “sir” of servility—“sirvility,” as it might be written. Mr. Kipling’s gentlemen-rankers, it will be remembered, got a keen pleasure from the humility of the fellow-Tommy who, recognising his betters,
Blacked your boots and sometimes called you “sir.”
Obviously it is pleasant to be made a king of, even in a kitchen, and it is because of our desire to be made kings that we are so desperately eager to preserve the manners of the present servile State. Moreover, if one must have servants it makes things simpler for us that they should be servile. Employers like a servant, as they say, to be a servant, just as servants often like an employer to be an employer. In other words, the present sort of society has its codes for every class, and if we want society to continue as it is, we shall hate every breach of these codes as an opening of ruin. Well, we do not wish society to continue along its present lines. We loathe this servile State of ours, and its codes will have to go overboard like its capitalism. We do not want to see an end of discipline in human relations; as a matter of fact, we want to see a new discipline taking the place of the present arbitrary disciplining of human beings by the greedy children of rich men. Meanwhile, however, while the older disciplines are dwindling we are likely to be rather uncomfortable. Our servants will approach freedom through cheekiness, and already they threaten to be not our equals, but our tyrants. Still—we say it hesitatingly and tremulously—we rejoice. It is a transition stage that has to be got over on the way towards the New Jerusalem of good manners where every Jack will be a gentleman. Better the bad manners of a free man or woman than the good manners of a slave.
On the other hand, it may be questioned whether such a transition stage of bad manners is really necessary. Are the poor taking to bad manners in defence of their liberties or in imitation of the manners of the rich? On the whole, the rich men of England are an unpolished lot. They know, to a certain extent, how to treat each other; but never in all their history did they learn how to treat those beneath them. This is not absolutely true, of course, but anyone who has ever watched how an English gentleman treats a railway porter has had a lesson in bad and arrogant manners. It is a case of a gentleman ordering about a chattel. One sees the whole spirit of the thing beautifully exempliﬁed in Mr. Galsworthy’s new play, The Fugitive, where a roomful of ladies and gentlemen is horrified by the conduct of a Bohemian man of letters who helps the butler to move a table into another room. The worst of it is our sympathies are largely with the ladies and gentlemen. We, too, are horriﬁed by little lapses like that from the drawing-room and dining-room conventions. We know in our own hearts the resentment of the man in Getting Married against somebody who eats rice pudding with a spoon. We even feel like rising to prophetic denunciations of those over-reﬁned persons who call a table-napkin a serviette. We do not demand truthfulness or chastity in our acquaintances, but we do demand that they shall not drink tea out of a saucer or eat peas off a knife. We feel that the real hedge which guards the comfortable against the poor is made up of the minor conventions. The poor can equal us, if they do not give us a sound beating, in morality. We dare not challenge them on that score. But on such matters as whether one ought to tuck the corner of one’s napkin into one’s waistcoat—ah, there at least we are conﬁdent of our superiority! That is why we prefer to judge a gentleman by his manners rather than his soul. But to return to the question whether the poor have not learned their bad manners from the rich, is it not true that a duke’s butler is more like a duke than you or I or Mr. Asquith is like a duke? And is it not true that a rich boor’s ofﬁce-boy is more like him than his shadow? Everyone who has ever had to do the rounds of London ofﬁces in search of work knows how an ofﬁce-boy with his nose tilted aloft to ape his master’s can make one feel a sudden horrible consuming desire to exterminate the whole race of office-boys. In a society of a hundred grades, each grade feels that it is raising itself by imitating the insolence of the grade above it, and society might be shown in diagram as the harmonic progression of a sneer. One feels justiﬁed in hating and abominating bad manners that are simply pretentiousness. Bad manners of this kind are the merest monkey-tricks. Bad manners in order to be beautiful must be original, born of the soil. Whether the man who trod on our foot the other day as he forced his way rudely on to a motor-bus at Golder’s Green, and made our left boot filthy with ’bus-oil, was a monkey or a beautiful person we have not yet decided. We have been puzzled ever since whether to curse him as a villain or to glorify him as a herald of the new age.