The Qualities of a Gentleman

A_Gentleman_at_Heart_posterNicola here. An astonishing twelve years ago, I wrote a blog piece about what constituted a gentleman in the modern era. Is it dress, manners, background or behaviour? I was thinking about this again recently (and indeed, wondering what makes a "lady" in the equivalent sense) after reading a depressing article in the paper at the weekend which claimed that everyone is getting ruder as a result of the pandemic making us forget how to relate to one another and the pressures of modern life being to great. The article cited stories of drunken fighting in the theatre and abuse of waiting staff in restaurants, of cities like York overrun with Hen Parties and places like Cheltenham  (surely not that centre of Regency society!) becoming no-go areas at night when the races are on. And yet, if you go online, there are any number of websites giving advice on the sort of qualities a modern lady or gentleman should cultivate. It seems there is still a demand for guidance on good behaviour. And a lot of us are still entranced by the manners and mores of past times.

It was all so much more clear cut a few centuries ago. 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. Eighty years after Smith was writing, the diarist John Evelyn 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.

Sir William Craven 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 A gentleman with a glove
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. 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?

The original dictionary definition of the word gentleman was strict: 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. It was only in the eighteenth century that it came also to mean a man who was cultured, courteous and well-educated with a code of honour and high standards of proper behaviour.

Regency gentlemanBy 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. (Knights and baronets also do not belong to the peerage but are still a cut above an esquire by virtue of holding a title, and of course Jane Austen emphasises beautifully the superiority of Sir Walter Eliott, for example, a baronet, over Lady Russell the widow of a mere knight!) Even so, a gentleman such as Mr Darcy, untitled but well-connected, with a beautiful house and a very good income, was not to be sneezed at.

Further down the social scale was the “lesser gentry” constituting those in the military, attornies, doctors, clerics; the professional elite. Of course some of these, especially in the military and the church, might be younger sons of the nobility, just to confuse the issue. 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 (illustrated again by Sir Walter and his kow-towing to Lady Dalrymple!) 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 is the precursor to the gentleman of the Victorian period in that he establishes a code of conduct based on the three Rs: Restraint, Refinement and Religion. During the reign of George III, the British begin, by 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 begins.

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 Manners for men 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, late for meals, 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 a close encounter with chamber pots, fortunately. 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. 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?And who is your favourite fictional gentleman?

90 thoughts on “The Qualities of a Gentleman”

  1. I’d say a gentleman has personal integrity. Same thing for a Lady. In fiction, it also doesn’t hurt if they dress well and have money. 🙂
    Captain Wentworth will probably always be my first gentleman. Gilbert Blythe also comes to mind.

    Reply
  2. I’d say a gentleman has personal integrity. Same thing for a Lady. In fiction, it also doesn’t hurt if they dress well and have money. 🙂
    Captain Wentworth will probably always be my first gentleman. Gilbert Blythe also comes to mind.

    Reply
  3. I’d say a gentleman has personal integrity. Same thing for a Lady. In fiction, it also doesn’t hurt if they dress well and have money. 🙂
    Captain Wentworth will probably always be my first gentleman. Gilbert Blythe also comes to mind.

    Reply
  4. I’d say a gentleman has personal integrity. Same thing for a Lady. In fiction, it also doesn’t hurt if they dress well and have money. 🙂
    Captain Wentworth will probably always be my first gentleman. Gilbert Blythe also comes to mind.

    Reply
  5. I’d say a gentleman has personal integrity. Same thing for a Lady. In fiction, it also doesn’t hurt if they dress well and have money. 🙂
    Captain Wentworth will probably always be my first gentleman. Gilbert Blythe also comes to mind.

    Reply
  6. I don’t know if “important” is the word, but certainly it’s desirable, for his own self-respect as well as a compliment to (complement of?) his companion. My favorite image is of Atticus Finch removing his hat and holding out his hand to help a small girl-child negotiate steep steps.

    Reply
  7. I don’t know if “important” is the word, but certainly it’s desirable, for his own self-respect as well as a compliment to (complement of?) his companion. My favorite image is of Atticus Finch removing his hat and holding out his hand to help a small girl-child negotiate steep steps.

    Reply
  8. I don’t know if “important” is the word, but certainly it’s desirable, for his own self-respect as well as a compliment to (complement of?) his companion. My favorite image is of Atticus Finch removing his hat and holding out his hand to help a small girl-child negotiate steep steps.

    Reply
  9. I don’t know if “important” is the word, but certainly it’s desirable, for his own self-respect as well as a compliment to (complement of?) his companion. My favorite image is of Atticus Finch removing his hat and holding out his hand to help a small girl-child negotiate steep steps.

    Reply
  10. I don’t know if “important” is the word, but certainly it’s desirable, for his own self-respect as well as a compliment to (complement of?) his companion. My favorite image is of Atticus Finch removing his hat and holding out his hand to help a small girl-child negotiate steep steps.

    Reply
  11. I believe it’s absolutely essential for a man to genuinely and unconditionally express good manners and kindness to others and to know how to stand up for himself in a straightforward way that brooks no nonsense.
    I believe these qualities are right for ladies, too.
    As far as my favorite fictional gentleman, I would still go to Mr. Darcy, after the change in his personality to allow more openness and acceptance to others he cares for.

    Reply
  12. I believe it’s absolutely essential for a man to genuinely and unconditionally express good manners and kindness to others and to know how to stand up for himself in a straightforward way that brooks no nonsense.
    I believe these qualities are right for ladies, too.
    As far as my favorite fictional gentleman, I would still go to Mr. Darcy, after the change in his personality to allow more openness and acceptance to others he cares for.

    Reply
  13. I believe it’s absolutely essential for a man to genuinely and unconditionally express good manners and kindness to others and to know how to stand up for himself in a straightforward way that brooks no nonsense.
    I believe these qualities are right for ladies, too.
    As far as my favorite fictional gentleman, I would still go to Mr. Darcy, after the change in his personality to allow more openness and acceptance to others he cares for.

    Reply
  14. I believe it’s absolutely essential for a man to genuinely and unconditionally express good manners and kindness to others and to know how to stand up for himself in a straightforward way that brooks no nonsense.
    I believe these qualities are right for ladies, too.
    As far as my favorite fictional gentleman, I would still go to Mr. Darcy, after the change in his personality to allow more openness and acceptance to others he cares for.

    Reply
  15. I believe it’s absolutely essential for a man to genuinely and unconditionally express good manners and kindness to others and to know how to stand up for himself in a straightforward way that brooks no nonsense.
    I believe these qualities are right for ladies, too.
    As far as my favorite fictional gentleman, I would still go to Mr. Darcy, after the change in his personality to allow more openness and acceptance to others he cares for.

    Reply
  16. Interesting you mention Mr Darcy after his transformation, Patricia. I was thinking of Elizabeth’s words to him in this context and the fact he was horrified when he realised that his manners had fallen below the appropriate gentlemanly standard and her reproof was well-deserved.

    Reply
  17. Interesting you mention Mr Darcy after his transformation, Patricia. I was thinking of Elizabeth’s words to him in this context and the fact he was horrified when he realised that his manners had fallen below the appropriate gentlemanly standard and her reproof was well-deserved.

    Reply
  18. Interesting you mention Mr Darcy after his transformation, Patricia. I was thinking of Elizabeth’s words to him in this context and the fact he was horrified when he realised that his manners had fallen below the appropriate gentlemanly standard and her reproof was well-deserved.

    Reply
  19. Interesting you mention Mr Darcy after his transformation, Patricia. I was thinking of Elizabeth’s words to him in this context and the fact he was horrified when he realised that his manners had fallen below the appropriate gentlemanly standard and her reproof was well-deserved.

    Reply
  20. Interesting you mention Mr Darcy after his transformation, Patricia. I was thinking of Elizabeth’s words to him in this context and the fact he was horrified when he realised that his manners had fallen below the appropriate gentlemanly standard and her reproof was well-deserved.

    Reply
  21. Gilbert Blythe was definitely my first love! Anne’s House of Dreams is one of my favourite books ever. Have you read her Blue Castle? Valancy Stirling is a great female favourite of mine.

    Reply
  22. Gilbert Blythe was definitely my first love! Anne’s House of Dreams is one of my favourite books ever. Have you read her Blue Castle? Valancy Stirling is a great female favourite of mine.

    Reply
  23. Gilbert Blythe was definitely my first love! Anne’s House of Dreams is one of my favourite books ever. Have you read her Blue Castle? Valancy Stirling is a great female favourite of mine.

    Reply
  24. Gilbert Blythe was definitely my first love! Anne’s House of Dreams is one of my favourite books ever. Have you read her Blue Castle? Valancy Stirling is a great female favourite of mine.

    Reply
  25. Gilbert Blythe was definitely my first love! Anne’s House of Dreams is one of my favourite books ever. Have you read her Blue Castle? Valancy Stirling is a great female favourite of mine.

    Reply
  26. An interesting post Nicola. I liked the bit about a gentleman walking on the outside of the lady so he will get splashed because that’s something my husband does automatically and always has. I guess there’s an old Georgian gentleman buried deep inside him somewhere :):)
    Captain Wentworth is my idea of a gentleman even though he acts like a callow youth when he’s flirting with Louisa, but we’ll forgive him that!

    Reply
  27. An interesting post Nicola. I liked the bit about a gentleman walking on the outside of the lady so he will get splashed because that’s something my husband does automatically and always has. I guess there’s an old Georgian gentleman buried deep inside him somewhere :):)
    Captain Wentworth is my idea of a gentleman even though he acts like a callow youth when he’s flirting with Louisa, but we’ll forgive him that!

    Reply
  28. An interesting post Nicola. I liked the bit about a gentleman walking on the outside of the lady so he will get splashed because that’s something my husband does automatically and always has. I guess there’s an old Georgian gentleman buried deep inside him somewhere :):)
    Captain Wentworth is my idea of a gentleman even though he acts like a callow youth when he’s flirting with Louisa, but we’ll forgive him that!

    Reply
  29. An interesting post Nicola. I liked the bit about a gentleman walking on the outside of the lady so he will get splashed because that’s something my husband does automatically and always has. I guess there’s an old Georgian gentleman buried deep inside him somewhere :):)
    Captain Wentworth is my idea of a gentleman even though he acts like a callow youth when he’s flirting with Louisa, but we’ll forgive him that!

    Reply
  30. An interesting post Nicola. I liked the bit about a gentleman walking on the outside of the lady so he will get splashed because that’s something my husband does automatically and always has. I guess there’s an old Georgian gentleman buried deep inside him somewhere :):)
    Captain Wentworth is my idea of a gentleman even though he acts like a callow youth when he’s flirting with Louisa, but we’ll forgive him that!

    Reply
  31. My favorite gentleman is Colonel Brandon. Whatever errors he made in his youth, he learned from them. He bears disappointments gracefully. He is helpful when help is needed. His manners are quiet but correct. He understands loyalty. He’s much too good for that emo twit Marianne 🙂

    Reply
  32. My favorite gentleman is Colonel Brandon. Whatever errors he made in his youth, he learned from them. He bears disappointments gracefully. He is helpful when help is needed. His manners are quiet but correct. He understands loyalty. He’s much too good for that emo twit Marianne 🙂

    Reply
  33. My favorite gentleman is Colonel Brandon. Whatever errors he made in his youth, he learned from them. He bears disappointments gracefully. He is helpful when help is needed. His manners are quiet but correct. He understands loyalty. He’s much too good for that emo twit Marianne 🙂

    Reply
  34. My favorite gentleman is Colonel Brandon. Whatever errors he made in his youth, he learned from them. He bears disappointments gracefully. He is helpful when help is needed. His manners are quiet but correct. He understands loyalty. He’s much too good for that emo twit Marianne 🙂

    Reply
  35. My favorite gentleman is Colonel Brandon. Whatever errors he made in his youth, he learned from them. He bears disappointments gracefully. He is helpful when help is needed. His manners are quiet but correct. He understands loyalty. He’s much too good for that emo twit Marianne 🙂

    Reply
  36. What lovely manners shown by your very own gentleman, Teresa! Yes, Wentworth was an idiot in his flirtation with Louisa but we can only ascribe it to him being thrown out of countenance by meeting Anne again.

    Reply
  37. What lovely manners shown by your very own gentleman, Teresa! Yes, Wentworth was an idiot in his flirtation with Louisa but we can only ascribe it to him being thrown out of countenance by meeting Anne again.

    Reply
  38. What lovely manners shown by your very own gentleman, Teresa! Yes, Wentworth was an idiot in his flirtation with Louisa but we can only ascribe it to him being thrown out of countenance by meeting Anne again.

    Reply
  39. What lovely manners shown by your very own gentleman, Teresa! Yes, Wentworth was an idiot in his flirtation with Louisa but we can only ascribe it to him being thrown out of countenance by meeting Anne again.

    Reply
  40. What lovely manners shown by your very own gentleman, Teresa! Yes, Wentworth was an idiot in his flirtation with Louisa but we can only ascribe it to him being thrown out of countenance by meeting Anne again.

    Reply
  41. Wonderful post, Nicola! It would be great to have more gentlemen these days – I think they’re disappearing fast! My father was another who always walked on the outside of the pavement – made me laugh at the time but I now appreciate the thoughtfulness of wanting to protect me and my mother. We can all use a bit more politeness though like opening doors for each other and offering seats to those who need them. You don’t have to be a man for that!

    Reply
  42. Wonderful post, Nicola! It would be great to have more gentlemen these days – I think they’re disappearing fast! My father was another who always walked on the outside of the pavement – made me laugh at the time but I now appreciate the thoughtfulness of wanting to protect me and my mother. We can all use a bit more politeness though like opening doors for each other and offering seats to those who need them. You don’t have to be a man for that!

    Reply
  43. Wonderful post, Nicola! It would be great to have more gentlemen these days – I think they’re disappearing fast! My father was another who always walked on the outside of the pavement – made me laugh at the time but I now appreciate the thoughtfulness of wanting to protect me and my mother. We can all use a bit more politeness though like opening doors for each other and offering seats to those who need them. You don’t have to be a man for that!

    Reply
  44. Wonderful post, Nicola! It would be great to have more gentlemen these days – I think they’re disappearing fast! My father was another who always walked on the outside of the pavement – made me laugh at the time but I now appreciate the thoughtfulness of wanting to protect me and my mother. We can all use a bit more politeness though like opening doors for each other and offering seats to those who need them. You don’t have to be a man for that!

    Reply
  45. Wonderful post, Nicola! It would be great to have more gentlemen these days – I think they’re disappearing fast! My father was another who always walked on the outside of the pavement – made me laugh at the time but I now appreciate the thoughtfulness of wanting to protect me and my mother. We can all use a bit more politeness though like opening doors for each other and offering seats to those who need them. You don’t have to be a man for that!

    Reply
  46. Absolutely, Christina! Courtesy and thoughtfulness are qualities we can all show. My grandfather was a proper “old-fashioned” gentleman too. I really admire that, all the more now there are few of them around!

    Reply
  47. Absolutely, Christina! Courtesy and thoughtfulness are qualities we can all show. My grandfather was a proper “old-fashioned” gentleman too. I really admire that, all the more now there are few of them around!

    Reply
  48. Absolutely, Christina! Courtesy and thoughtfulness are qualities we can all show. My grandfather was a proper “old-fashioned” gentleman too. I really admire that, all the more now there are few of them around!

    Reply
  49. Absolutely, Christina! Courtesy and thoughtfulness are qualities we can all show. My grandfather was a proper “old-fashioned” gentleman too. I really admire that, all the more now there are few of them around!

    Reply
  50. Absolutely, Christina! Courtesy and thoughtfulness are qualities we can all show. My grandfather was a proper “old-fashioned” gentleman too. I really admire that, all the more now there are few of them around!

    Reply

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