Nicola here, musing on what makes a gentleman. Class has always been a hot topic in English society and I’m wondering a little at my audacity – or even foolishness – in dipping a toe in the waters of it here. When did the “gentry” first emerge as a social class? Was belonging to the gentry synonymous with being a “gentleman”? What did the term mean in the Georgian and Regency period and what makes a gentleman these days? These are big questions but perhaps we can look at a few elements of them.
In 1583 Sir Thomas Smith wrote: “One who can live idly and without manual labour and will bear the port (deportment) and countenance of a gentleman, he shall be taken for a gentleman.” The luxury goods and extravagant clothing of late 16th and 17th century London were an avenue to social mobility. Sumptuary legislation – the laws that governed the types of clothes that the different social classes were entitled to wear – had lapsed and a consumer revolution was taking over. A man could pose as a gentleman even if he did not have the birth for it.
Eighty years after Smith was writing, the diarist John Evelyn also complained: “How many times have I saluted the fine man for the master, and stood with my hat off to the gay feather, when I found the bird to be all this while but a daw.” In other words, in the 17th century smart clothes and an appearance of wealth made the gentleman. Or perhaps gave the appearance of a gentleman. But people still believed that there should be more to it than that and looked down on those men whose birth was not equal to their appearance.
Sir William Craven (pictured in his mayoral regalia) was one such man who made good at the turn of the 17th century. He was the son of an agricultural worker from Yorkshire who was apprenticed into the cloth trade in London. He worked hard, built up his business, married well, acted as moneylender to the court of Elizabeth I, bought himself a knighthood from James I, and was Lord Mayor of London. You can read more about his dizzying rise to social prominence here. By the time of his death he had amassed a fortune of billions in today’s terms and had moved firmly from the lower labouring classes to the upper echelons of the Middle Class. His sons were both given titles and moved into the aristocracy. Phenomenal social mobility and all through the acquisition of a fortune! But did this make them gentlemen or is the definition of such a term more nebulous? Certainly they were mocked at court for being nouveau riche and the sons of a cloth merchant. Perhaps there was some jealousy in the comments.
The original dictionary definition of the word gentleman was strict. It referred to a gentleman as a well-educated man of good family. It was also used to refer to a man whose income derived from property as opposed to a man who worked for a living (and again it is interesting that as soon as Sir William Craven had made his pile, he started to invest in land.) It appears that it was only in the eighteenth century that the term came also to mean a man who was cultured, courteous and well educated, with a code of honour and high standards of proper behaviour.
By the time of Jane Austen, the gentleman had come to be defined by his personal qualities as much as by his status as a member of the landed gentry. He was not a member of the nobility but was an “esquire” at the top of the pile of untitled landowners. Class distinctions were well defined: At the top the peerage, then the baronetage, then knights and below them the gentry. Jane Austen emphasises beautifully the superiority of Sir Walter Elliot, for example, as a hereditary baronet, over Lady Russell, the widow of a mere knight! A gentleman such as Mr Darcy, untitled but well-connected, with a beautiful house and a very good income, was sitting at the top of the gentry and was indisputably a gentleman in all particulars.
Further down the social scale was the “lesser gentry” constituting those in the military, attornies, doctors, clerics; the professional elite. This was not as straightforward as it seemed, since some gentlemen in the military and the church might be the younger sons of noble families. But these professions also offered opportunities for fortune and social advancement. The wealthiest of merchants and manufacturers were at the bottom of this “gentry pile”. As a group the gentry described themselves as genteel, polite and civil. They did not pretend to be members of “the Quality” although a connection to the Ton was highly prized. There was in fact a profound cultural gulf separating the lesser gentry from the landed aristocracy.
It is the gentleman of the Georgian period who was the precursor to the gentleman of the Victorian period in that he established a code of conduct based on the three Rs: Restraint, Refinement and Religion. During the reign of George III, the British began, through their reserve and emotional control, to distinguish themselves from the peoples of southern Europe whom they considered to have a more hot-headed temperament. This is where the move to define the gentleman by his manners rather than his birth or fortune began. There is a very great deal more to the emergence of the English Gentleman than this of course – a whole separate blog post on the gentleman in the Georgian and the Regency period.
By 1897 when Mrs Humphrey published her book “Manners for Men” the concept of the gentleman was still being hotly debated. She wrote: “ Gentleness and moral strength combined must be the salient characteristics of the gentleman, together with that polish that is acquired… through the influence of education and refinement. He must be thoughtful for others, kind to women and children and all helpless things… but never foolishly weak. There are few such men but they do exist. Reliable as rocks, judicious in every action, dependable… full of mercy and kindness.” A total paragon, in fact. Her comments on the “ill-bred young man,” the reverse of the gentleman, are very funny. He is unkempt in his personal appearance, is so untidy that he creates extra work for the maids, is late for meals and is irritable and rude. Those who use strong language in front of ladies are held up for particular criticism.
Mrs Humphrey then issues some extremely helpful instructions to those aspiring to be a gentleman. It is important for a gentleman to walk on the outside of a lady on the pavement so that he gets splashed by the traffic (and the contents of chamber pots raining down) and she does not. I remember that my grandfather, another self-made gentleman, was a stickler for this although the habit has somewhat died out now along with close encounters with chamber pots. The gentleman, of course, always offers his seat to a lady. Interestingly I noted that a lady should never ask for a seat; this is not ladylike (and that's another blog post – what makes a lady?). All Mrs Humphrey’s advice relates to manners and behaviour, the implication being that even a man without good birth or fortune can become a gentleman. In fact she notes that if he comes from a poor home and still turns out well that is even more laudable.
So in our modern age, do you think it is still important for a man to be a gentleman? What do you think are the qualities we look for in a gentleman? Who is your favourite gentleman, real or fictional? I’m offering a copy of Unmasked, which features not one but two gentlemen heroes, to one commenter.