Manners and Formality

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aristocratic exclusiveness
bourgeois aspirations
gender and propriety
working-class sociability

Across the societies of Europe, manners drew intense and growing interest throughout the nineteenth century. While the elaborate courtly rituals once associated with the aristocracy were generally simplified, the subtle shades of etiquette preoccupied the ranks of an expanding bourgeoisie bent on upward social mobility. The hurrying throngs that jostled for space on crowded thoroughfares and modern forms of transport posed new challenges to public order. Not surprisingly, the period saw an explosion of guides to the manners and usage of good society and rules to govern conduct in public places.

aristocratic exclusiveness

After 1789 the economic and political dominance of the aristocracy throughout Europe was challenged by the rapid expansion of industrial, mercantile, and commercial wealth. Thrown on the defensive, the nobility were affronted by the efforts of the vulgar to break into their exclusive social circles. But many were forced to adopt a conciliatory attitude in the interests of survival, some positively allured by the prospect of repairing battered patrician fortunes through strategic alliances. Regional variation between and within European countries saw some enclaves of hereditary aristocracy hold aloof from the upper bourgeoisie and survive as a distinct and influential element in society while others sought fusion with the wealth and power of a new plutocracy. Treading the fine line between social distinctiveness and economic survival, the aristocracy invoked an arsenal of manners. Formal observance of etiquette was the price they demanded for their toleration of the aspirational classes; innate courtesy was the ground on which they proclaimed their own indefinable but immutable superiority. For the French nobility, the difference was between savoir-vivre (literally, knowing how to live)—which anyone might acquire with study—and savoir-être (knowing how to be), which must be instilled from birth.

bourgeois aspirations

Manners held a different significance for the bourgeoisie. It was they who sought to define the indefinable, to convert the innate refinement of the cultivated elite into a series of rules to guide conduct. If manners could be reduced to rules, then the rules could be learned by heart and systematically applied. Guides to etiquette proliferated throughout the century and were avidly consumed by an expanding middle class. But to gain admission to an elite circle meant little unless that circle still remained ostensibly exclusive. Despite a rhetoric of liberalism, the bourgeoisie was riven by an obsession with social hierarchy, and the desire to believe that the rules could never be successfully learned by those below them in the social scale. The same person might simultaneously embody the "parvenu," eagerly reaching for acceptance in the social elite, and the "snob," fastidiously preserving social distance from the masses. An ostentatious display of formal manners equally served both ends.

The codification of conduct served another purpose too. The expansion of the middle class was accompanied by a new profusion of things. The home of a wealthy tradesman or burgher could be crammed with china and ornaments, pictures, screens and occasional tables, and elaborate sets of cutlery and crockery for family or hospitable use. The rituals of tea-drinking demanded a bewildering array of pots and jugs, spoons and strainers, cups and saucers. Should sandwiches be offered? How should they be presented? Should a doily be used on the plate? How might a hapless guest manage cup, saucer, plate, cake-fork, and gloves all at the same time? Should she remove her hat before attempting the challenge? Daily life had never been so complicated for the middle classes, and etiquette books offered a reassuringly authoritative guide to dealing with its unfamiliar complexities.

gender and propriety

While the thirst for upward social mobility produced a widespread obsession with formal etiquette, it was complicated by the introduction of specifically bourgeois values: an ideal, if not actual, segregation between public life and the intimate concerns of family, a separation of the responsibilities of men and women, and a preoccupation with the propriety of bodily behavior. Increasingly the formal manners of nineteenth-century high society were infused with moral preoccupations bordering on prudishness. Etiquette manuals warned young ladies not to blush when a "warm" joke was told in their hearing: it was wiser to pretend to incomprehension or, if that were impossible, to deafness.

For it was women who primarily had to enact and police manners and propriety. On women fell many time-consuming social duties that were impractical for men preoccupied with their professional lives. The elegant fripperies adorning women's homes and attire proclaimed their status and that of their families; they monitored and protected social position through the guarded inclusion implied by a call returned, or the polite snub conveyed by a card. They protected the visible purity of their own sexual conduct and that of their daughters, while their gossip policed and condemned the moral lapses of those around them. For men, reputation was less incompatible with sexual experience. To them fell the duty of defining

and redefining the world of masculine honor and the rules of engagement governing political and personal strife. By the early years of the twentieth century an ideal of virile masculinity was increasingly at war with the convention of women's prudishness and obsession with the social "littleness" of manners. The tensions gradually forced new accommodations over the standards demanded of both sexes.

working-class sociability

Formal manners remained the preserve of the wealthy. Elaborate domestic rituals implied the presence of a plethora of equipment that lay well beyond the means of the average working-class family; the mannered exchanges of calls depended on a leisure time equally unattainable. But if formal manners were an instrument of exclusion, the bourgeoisie had a vested interest in extending throughout society their rigidly moral codes of conduct and comportment. In rural communities the peasantry sustained a plethora of careful domestic rituals, but in the spaces of the growing cities a less structured working-class culture emerged. Here, too, alternative codes of conduct regulated social exchange, but to the affronted eyes of the bourgeoisie, working-class sociability was most notable for its rowdy camaraderie and free association between the sexes. More troubling still in this urban scene were the bohemians and demimonde, to whom the boundaries of an ordered society were meaningless and the rules of good conduct merely a source of mirth.

At stake was not only the maintenance of public order, not only the regulation and discipline of the bodies that constituted the labor force. The language of orderly, civilized behavior had particular resonance in European countries with imperial ambitions. In the colonies, the idea of a "civil" society was extended to demarcate the boundaries of white society and to shore up the racial identification and exclusion of the "savage." At home, concepts of savagery and civility were simultaneously and ambiguously present in the language of class distinctions and the language of racial unity. Like the lore of "good manners" and formal usage, such terms could be employed strategically to include or to exclude, as occasion seemed to demand.

See alsoAristocracy; Body; Bourgeoisie; Dueling; Imperialism; Leisure; Working Class.


Bramsted, Ernest K. Aristocracy and the Middle-Classes in Germany: Social Types in German Literature, 1830–1900. Chicago, 1964.

Cannadine, David. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. New Haven, Conn., 1990.

Cardoza, Anthony L. Aristocrats in Bourgeois Italy: The Piedmontese Nobility, 1861–1930. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Davidoff, Leonore. The Best Circles: Society, Etiquette, and the Season. London, 1973.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. 2 vols. New York, c. 1978.

Haine, W. Scott. The World of the Paris Café: Sociability among the French Working Class, 1789–1914. Baltimore, Md., 1996.

Russell, Penny. A Wish of Distinction: Colonial Gentility and Femininity. Melbourne, 1994.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham, N.C., 1995.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. New York, 1899. A classic for his development of the idea of "conspicuous consumption" and "conspicuous leisure."

Penny Russell

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