Apologies necessary

Sorry! The English and their Manners, by Henry Hitchings, John Murray, RRP£19.99, 400 pages

If you are going to write a book about manners then having a name like Henry Hitchings must help. It positively purrs of doffed hats, gracefully opened doors and elderly ladies being helped across the street. In this amusing and enlightening history, Hitchings doesn’t exactly betray his upstanding moniker but he does suggest good manners are not always the unambiguous blessing one might think.

Tripping from medieval documents to contemporary popular culture, Hitchings traces the role manners have played in the history of England, not to mention the considerable role the English have played in the history of manners. He is particularly insightful in depicting the evolutionary shift manners have taken since they were first codified on paper in the Middle Ages. Chivalry, courtesy, civility, urbanity, politesse, politeness and etiquette (literally “small ethics”) may be used interchangeably today but Sorry! shows how each word bore a distinct set of meanings at the time of its birth.

Not only have the meanings of these words changed but their reasons for existing have too. Fifteenth-century primers on manners were intended for the court and were inordinately concerned with eating, dressing and personal hygiene, in order that the riff-raff could be differentiated from the ruff-rich. Baldassare Castiglione, the influential Italian courtier, suggested that “some perfect little touch of elegance or refinement will be interpreted as a sign of vast unseen continents of sophistication”.

However, the opposite was also true. Hitchings plumbs a rich canon on rules concerning farting, that pungent interpolation of the private into the public. Erasmus advised coughing to mask the passing of wind but, if this did not work, more extreme gestures were required. When Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, “happened to let a fart” while bowing to Queen Elizabeth I, his sense of propriety caused him to flee the country for seven years. Even this was not enough. On his return to court after his exile it is alleged that the Queen greeted him with the words: “My Lord, I had forgot the fart.”

Yet while early books on manners sought to define status, guides to modern manners (the term was first coined in the 18th century) generally seek conformity. Emily Post, doyenne of early 20th-century American protocol, told her readers how to act properly at the office and at home so as not to draw attention, while other more recent guides discuss the minutiae of karaoke etiquette or whether you should ask permission to recline your seat on an aircraft. Manners now seem to be about fitting into the crowd rather than standing out from it.

Decrying the talk of a “death of manners”, Hitchings sees, instead, “multitudes of conflicting manners, fraught with ambiguity”. Indeed, he mentions several personal experiences in which he has been abused for opening doors for women or called “a sexist prick” for offering his arm to an elderly lady. He replies to these events not with prescriptions but with flustered helplessness.

Hitchings ranges widely, ducking into psychiatry – “in the absence of good manners, the rawness of our primal urges burst forth” – and physiology – “feelings of affiliation and attachment cause the hormone oxytocin to be released” – to explain our use of manners. But, as befits the author of The Secret Life of Words (2008) and The Language Wars (2011), it is the English language that he sees as shedding the most light on his subject. “Good manners are like the principles of grammar,” he writes, “we make use of them all the time but also violate them frequently.”

And that is, for Hitchings, the defining feature of English manners. The way they are both important and yet arbitrary, a paradoxical code that can mean everything and nothing. This absurd contradiction is best summed up by the story of the 1930s mountaineer Eric Shipton who, after months of sharing a tent on an expedition with the explorer Bill Tilman, asked if they could stop calling each other by their surnames. Tilman replied: “Are you suggesting that I should call you Eric? I’m afraid I couldn’t do that. I should feel such a bloody fool.”

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