Project Canterbury

The Streets and Lanes of the City

By Mary Eleanor Benson

With a brief memoir by her father [E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury].

London: Privately printed, 1891.

Transcribed by S. R. Holman, Center for Poverty Studies, 2006

Chapter 2. Socialities and Manners

The subject of social relations is too wide a one to be more than lightly touched upon. And perhaps the question is never so complicated as it is among the poor, and for good reasons.

The exclusiveness of higher ranks is due mostly to ideas which no one would hesitate theoretically to condemn--to pride, to self-glorification. If children in these ranks are not allowed to associate with those nominally "below them," it is at best for fear of contamination not of morals, but of manners.

One is apt unthinkingly to transfer judgments formed on cases of this kind to similar problems presented in the working-class ranks of life; without considering that the conditions are far different. The phrases, "No, I don't know a single person here to speak to; I don't associate with my neighbours; I keep myself to myself and don't speak to anybody," are apt to strike one as wholly un-Christian and unkind. But the case is a difficult one when respectable people are living among those below them not only in manners, but, as is often the fact, in morals also. Parents might perhaps associate with their inferiors (a word connoting serious matters when used in this rank of life), but as parents associate, so will children. And one is judging hastily if one condemns at once and wholly such a phrase as "If I catch you a-speaking to Polly Burton, I'll let you know it."

For children it may mean gradual deterioration of all kinds; low company, a gradually lowered code of morals, of truth, of decency, of language, and behaviour. It is significant to hear of a lady and gentleman who took a flat in industrial dwellings that they might live among the poor. But the plan had to be abandoned because their one little girl, shielded as she was by nurse and nursery, took to swearing horribly.

On the other hand this sharp severance of classes into the respectable and the unrespectable, and the endless grades within grades of which manners is the basis of division, form perhaps the most serious barrier to the mounting from grade to grade, the best mode of progress. Nothing can improve either the family or the individual so much as friendly intercourse on an equal footing with those a little above them in manners and morals.

One cannot dare to do much by dictating in individual instances of exclusiveness. It is only to be hoped that the idea may gain ground that exclusiveness is a confession of weakness; that to "keep oneself to oneself" may be a sad necessity, but it is no mark of elevation or superior quality.

Of course the spirit of exclusiveness has ordinarily its bad side more or less developed. The following two letters give varying degrees of it. The Bible class to which the writers belonged had been spending the day in the country together, and the more rowdy girls had rather tended, though mildly, to scandalize the better sort. The first letter tells the tale from one side. The writer was a girl of higher standing, a clever, amusing and good girl, most fervent religiously, and very warm-hearted, and with no nonsense or airs about her in an ordinary way:

"First of all I must thank you very, very much for your kindness in taking us into the country. I think the majority enjoyed themselves very much. But I did not so much as I did the first time when there was 17. I think if I remember right we went into the country then as a Bible class ought to go and behaved as such, but I could not say that this time. I am sure when we started you was not in high spirits as you usually are, I am sure something was the matter with you, and then to be upset as you were on Wed. I do think it a shame. I am sure Miss Mary was thoroughly disgusted with it and was glad to get home, and now dear Miss ---- I have know you long enough to get almost tied to you as it were and we re to be separated for I cannot stop in a class where there are so many common degenerating girls as three parts of our class is now. One time we had nobody but nice girls and unless there is a change somewhere or somehow you will lose two or three, and just fancy sixty odd, oh my goodness and cannot help thinking about it.

"Dear Miss ---- there is not a lady in the land that I like more than you for I do love you and I don't want to see you put upon as you were that day they won't let anybody do them a good turn unless they abuse it afterwards.

"I must stop to my regret for I have got a lot more to say but I cannot. My mother is on the stairs and have talked to her and said I was going to write to you and she did not approve of it so good-bye till next time till Sunday."

Of course there is far more reason for such exclusiveness than appears at first sight. Talk and gossip so soon couple names together to the detriment of one of them. The case is better put in the letter of another girl who herself had been a culprit to some extent; I think that, feeling cheerful, she had thrown a biscuit to a postman. She was really and in the main, a most quiet and well-behaved girl. It was only a temporary aberration:

"I am very sorry you were put out yesterday. Our class is not worthy of the name just now, because of the way its members are behaving to think that I should have gone down with you to spend a happy day and cause all this bother it is really too bad of us. I am sorry I had not better sense [than] do it you said you expected us to do the same when you were not there as when you were. I should have done the same if you had have been there. The fault is all laid on me but that I don't mind at all it may be better for me that it is so in the end perhaps it is one of the iron Bars we have to get over that you spoke of a few Sundays ago. (This is obscure) I hope it will be a lesson to us all, 'for Bought wit is Better than taught' it would never have happened if Jinny had not have carried on with him as she did the man was going another way until some of the girls waved their hankerchieves at him then he came back and followed us up. I hope you will forgive me for going from you on the hill But I did not feel happy with those girls it would not do for us to be very friendly with them and when we got Back to town meet them and not speak to them, and I felt much happier sitting quietly on the hill at the Bottom--poor girls they are to be pittied but they can be better if they like only they won't. But there every dark as a silver lining so we will look for the Brighter rays of the future and be more particular in little things and use the file before they get too large then we shall have much brighter days and better attendance at our Bible class."

A problem! Who shall judge? And certainly no one can venture to cast a stone.

Now and then, of course, exclusiveness consists of almost unadulterated priggishness, as in the following letter. The writer was the daughter of Mrs. Jones, described in the chapter on Irreligion, a very good well-conducted girl:

I hope you will forgive me for taking the liberty in writing to you and not being written to. But I would now ask your advice to know what I am to do. Since I have belonged to the club me and the girls have been more distant than we were before; I have found out more of their ways, which I am sorry to say are not always of the best character. Now when I go there on Friday nights we scarcely speak to one another, because they pass remarks about others that is not always nice to hear, and as I would not join in with them they do not like me. When I go to class on Sundays I dare not take my eyes off Miss ---- from the time of going in to the time of coming out, if I do not want to see some remarks being passed about me. I have tried to be friendly, but of no avail will you kindly let me know what to do."

She then signed herself, "Your humble pupil."

But to leave the more serious question and pass to the lighter question of gentility in manners.

There is "gentility" absolute, which discovers itself under all circumstances, and needs no special event to call it out. And there is "gentility" which waits on occasion, and is called forth by the presence of superiors, or of occurrences beyond the common.

The signs of the first or "absolute gentility" are not difficult to read. The language of antimacassar, of wax fruit under glass cases, of wool mats of various colours, is well-known and accredited. An antimacassar arranged over a looking glass, or on the back of a wooden chair, is a safe sign of a high degree of refinement. Dishes of cut glass tell the same tale, especially if placed on brilliant and fluffy wool mats. Radiating books on a round table, and a great deal of shrouding of the window with lace curtains, make a still more perfect code of manners. Paper decorations in the grate imply wealth as well as refinement, for they show that such is the lavish space at command, that the cooking need not be done in the sitting room. Refinement is independent of wealth as we all know, so that a paper-decked grate should never be looked on as a necessary adjunct of "gentility."

Dress is quite as symbolical as domestic interior. Gloves, in the case of women, form a dividing line. The hat still more closely indicates the condition of the wearer. I would not deny that "gentility" and refinement may be found along with ostrich features; but the ostrich feathers would have to be small. A locket outside a jacket is never found above a certain stratum of society; and the make of a jacket, the appearance of the boots, the mode of treatment of the fringe are all significant trifles. With young men the curve of the hat-brim is a subtle indication of the ideals of the head below; the tie, the collar, the overcoat are all aids to judgment. There was once a milkboy who to the appearance of his tie and pin sacrificed his socks.

There are other tokens too, of the sense of what is due to oneself; and different things are due on Sundays and on weekdays. For example, for one rank of society curl papers are full dress all Saturday, but would be hideously out of place on Sunday morning, even in the bosom of the family; gloves have their own laws too.

Such innate refinement, independent of place or person, makes its existence very clear in letter writing. Phrases such as, "Mamma and papa wish to be kindly remembered to you. Mamma has been very ill again, being obliged to go to a physician; and so, with Fondest Love, I remain," are indicative of this instinct for gentility, or such a note as "Emily Jones presents her duty to Miss ----, and begs to say she will be unable to attend her Tea Meeting tomorrow, Saturday."

Or again, the following letter, as genuine as its expression is conventional, shows a habitually elevated mind:

"We have only just learned that you have met with an accident while out riding (bother the horses, I say); will you please to accept our warmest sympathies in this time of affliction. You are laid aside for some good purpose, for 'All things work together for good to them that love the Lord.' I do wish I lived nearer, I would come and visit you (occasionally); but there I know you have plenty of visitors, and they will do all they can to ease and comfort you. Goodbye for the present. God will bless you more abundantly for all this. Hoping to hear soon of your speedy recovery, I remain, &c."

Such writers would never sink below this level. It would not matter to them whether they were writing to a superior or an inferior; theirs is the refinement of every day.

Of course, behavior to social betters has an additional code of manners to itself--with the one large exception--that of intercourse in the way of business.

For example, a lawyer is "a gentleman"; and on an ordinary social occasion would be treated with ceremony; but when one goes to him in the way of business, his social standing is merged in his professional function. He is a lawyer, and as such probably a dishonest man; at any rate, a man who will take an advantage of you if he can; his questions must be answered with reservation, and his assertions received with suspicion.

This was well typified by the following scene. A Yorkshireman of the sturdy and very honest type, had come to be made administrator for his orphan nieces and nephews, whose father had died suddenly without a will. He had two other brothers, worthless characters, one a drunkard and deeply in debt. This man's first desire and purpose was that they should have no hand in the business. They had twice brought him into great difficulties.

The lawyer began by asking him his own name. Barkly gave it, eyeing him hard, and saying it rather loud as if to challenge contradiction.

"And what I want's to be put so as I can arrange it all. I'll see to em," he said.

"Yes," said the lawyer, parenthetically; "any other brothers of the deceased?"

Barkly looked at him from head to foot, hesitated, and then said in a tone of pugnacious admission--

"Well--yes--there's two more."

He gave the poor lawyer a look as if to defy the worst of his machinations.

"What are their names?"

His brooding suspicions arose.

"Their names? You ain't got nothing to do with their names? What's that to you, sir? You know my name. That's all you want to know.

They ain't going to have any hand in this affair."

"But I am afraid I must ask you to give me their names. I must have the facts complete."

Barkly smiled half derisively. He saw through that little game; he was not going to be taken in by such plausibility.

"I tell you that don't matter," he said. "You can put down my name, and put down as I'm going to manage it all. It ain't proper they should have any hand in it, and so long as here I am, they shan't."

He winked at the room in general with pleasure at his own acuteness in outwitting a lawyer. The discussion grew animated and serious; finally on the assurance of a friend whom he trusted that to give their names was not a breach of trust toward the orphan children, he gave them. "Well their names is George and James, but they ain't going to have their say in it--you mind that!"

When the interview is a social and not a business one, the code of manners is as complicated as it is necessary. The more genteel you are, up to a certain point, the more limited must your conversation be on certain topics, and the more choice your vocabulary. The phenomena of illness requires delicate allusions. The most extreme case was one where among servants the temperature of a patient suffering from typhoid fever might not be mentioned so long as the company was mixed. It also seems unnecessary to preface the mention of an abscess by "You'll excuse me mentioning it to you--abscess." Or again, in a letter, "Mother is suffering from the stomach (excuse me if I seem rude)." And a still more delicate allusion was made to me as to possible marriage by the mother of a girl, who had been crying because she heard that a friend of hers was going away. "Her brother laughs at her," said her mother speaking to the friend in question. "He asks her whatever she would do, if you was to do"--simper and half blush--"as Miss Hawkins has lately done."

But the code of manners at table is still more significant, at times inconvenient. It is interesting to observe that the lower stratum when it has finished its tea leaves the cup and plate in their ordinary positions--the stratum a little higher puts the cup and saucer to stand on the plate with much ceremony--the higher stratum again leaves them as they are; an instance of how extremes meet.

Again the mode of dealing with the spoon is an indication of social standing. To drink with the spoon in the cup, held tightly by one thumb against the side, indicates one special level of society.

A more inconvenient sign of gentility is disinclination to begin a meal; which at times becomes alarming. We sit down, seven of us who are perfectly friendly and know each other very well. Everyone talks and laughs; the silence which a degree less of acquaintanceship would produce on this solemn occasion has not fallen on the company; but while tea is being poured out and handed round, each one sits back genteely in her chair as if someone else was going to drink it.

Slices of beef are dispensed and lie on the plates in cold dignity, then salt and mustard and bread; all the wherewith to feed. But the company sits back and is airily regardless of the presence of food.

"Please begin, won't you?" says the hostess, but she only succeeds in raising a genteel half-smile. Everyone looks at everyone else; the knives and forks remain unstirred.

"Shall we begin?" says the hostess as if it were a quite new and rather startling suggestion, and contrary to hospitality begins first. But her mouthful is consumed in solitude.

She makes another appeal, this at length succeeds. Two of the boldest or of the most sympathetic of the party look at each other, and resolve that in virtue of their own courage or of her desire, they will, with each other's support, endure the ignominy and degradation of beginning first.

On these occasions also a proper introduction is considered a requisite preliminary to conversation even of the most elementary order. Of course it is understood that we are speaking of a very genteel assembly; or at least one where the really refined element predominates. Four or five genteel spirits will leaven a large concourse of those just below them in knowledge of the world.

On one occasion Jane Burridge sat opposite to Amelia Hobson, whom she knew, and next to Amelia Hobson's friend, whom she did not know. It fell to Jane to dispense the bread; which she did to all the company except to Amelia Hobson's friend. She had not been introduced to her, and therefore not only could she not ask her if she wished for bread, but even to hand her a piece interrogatively on the end of a knife would have been to transgress the dictates of proper manners.

She solved the difficulty by saying to Amelia Hobson, "Amelia, I don't know whether your friend, the young lady next to me would like some bread?"

And be it noted that Janey was a most unaffected, simplehearted girl.

For indeed such conventionalities by no means argue nonsense beneath. Manners may make man, but certainly these men did not make their manners, so far as the elements of artificiality and ridiculous circuitousness are concerned. Apparent reserve, coldness of manner, and stolidity may be displayed by many a girl on a social occasion who is at heart confiding and warm, and easily touched and moved. Gentility, though it may at times form a barrier to making a friendship with four or five at once at such times, if they are very genteel, forms none to the knowledge of the individual.

This point can hardly be too much insisted upon. A frank and friendly heart bears by no means always the cheering sign of a frank and friendly manner. But as there is flesh and blood below the genteelist of jackets, fringes, skirts, hats, and lockets, so there is the heart of a mortal--and generally in the case of girls, the heart of a susceptible and responsive mortal--under the most skilfully drilled manner. the manner is as much a matter of course, as much a habit, as the clothes.

But it may be said here in passing that one of the easiest ways nowadays of pursuing an acquaintance till it becomes a friendship, and a friendship till it becomes a close intimacy, is by means of letters. A letter is taken as an undoubted token that the writer has really devoted both time and pains to her correspondent. It is considered as a genuine pledge of affection and interest.
Not only this, but the letter seems to bring the writer very close.

"I do like getting a letter from you, it is just like you talking to me."

And often it is possible for many people, especially for girls who are shy, and diffident, and self-conscious, to tell more by letter than they can bring themselves to tell by words when they stand face to face with the person they are confiding in.

This, for instance, is shown by the following pathetic letter of a girl who was in a trying circumstance. She had asked for an interview, and had sat red and almost dumb throughout--then she wrote, "There is a lot more thinks I feel as though I must tell you, and I hope you don't mind me writing so soon, only seeing you on Sunday. I could not tell you, but it seems as though I feel better when I write to you, and can tell you all about it." And then followed the whole story.

There is no receipt for making friends. Only, social refinements, that is, great stiffness of manner need never stand in the way. For the rest, these friendships need what every friendship needs--sympathy and imagination and patience and unvarying warmheartedness. It is not everyone can make friends, for it is not to everyone, by any means or with any efforts, that one would be acceptable. Antipathy of nature may step in here as elsewhere to hinder a close intimacy, though never to prevent a bond of good fellowship, just as sympathy of nature may bring a warm friendship in a short time; and owing to the wider difference of circumstance, of phrases, and of interests the imagination may need a closer exercise, and the patience a longer endurance. But when the reward comes it is richly disproportionate to the labour.

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