Recently I came upon a book at my local library which quite piqued my interest. It was a history of the development and evolution of the concept of the English gentleman over the course of several centuries. Until I started reading the dust jacket of this book, I thought a gentleman was a gentleman was a gentlemen. I would certainly never have thought there was any point in writing a book on the subject.
Before I read this book, I must admit, I had a rather amorphous idea of what a gentleman really was. From my regular reading of Regency romance novels, I perceived a gentleman as a man of "good breeding," but just what did that mean? After reading this book, I have a much clearer view of just what it entailed to be an English gentleman. I also discovered that the years of the Regency were a period of transition for what it meant to be a gentleman in England.
The book, The English Gentleman: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal, was written by Philip Mason. In his introduction he explains that the concept of the gentleman in England runs all the way back to the time of Chaucer and he carries his overview through to the beginning of the First World War. Because this is such a long period to cover, he explains that his book is not a comprehensive treatise on the subject, but rather a series of vignettes or illustrations of the gentleman throughout history. Mr. Mason chose to use examples of the gentleman from the literature of each period as he felt that this was the best way to exemplify each period’s perception of a true gentleman. The use of diaries and memoirs would be less helpful, since part of the gentleman’s code was not to brag about himself, even on paper. But an author wrote openly about his characters’ behaviour and would often comment on that behavior based on the norms of his time. Thus, while the diaries or memoirs of a single person represent only that person, a character in literature presents an archetype of the period and serves a social-historical purpose.
Sadly, as you can tell from the sub-title, Mr. Mason had come to the conclusion that the English gentleman became extinct in the early part of the twentieth century. But fortunately for those of us who love Regency romance, the gentleman was prominent in that era, even if the attributes which made him a gentleman were in transition. In fact, he had become rather more refined than his eighteenth-century predecessor and was less stilted than the Victorian gentleman who would follow him.
First and foremost, Mr. Mason made clear that the true English gentleman was a combination of both good birth and a sterling character. In addition to coming from a good family, a gentleman must always fulfill his obligations, show consideration for women, and have a large measure of personal integrity. Simply being born well was not enough to qualify a man as a gentlemen, and only those of the most excellent character might be considered a gentleman without the benefit of good birth. It was convenient for the gentleman to have money, but regardless of his income, he should never be one to be seen to "count the change."
Throughout most of the eighteenth century, as exemplified by the character of Squire Western from Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones, there was no strong class barrier to interaction between the gentleman and the lower classes. Everyone simply accepted that people came from different classes and respected the hierarchy. Curiously, they believed that all people were equal in the eyes of God, but did not question that the circumstances of their birth determined their social strata. But after the French Revolution, the English aristocracy began to distance themselves from the lower classes, including their servants. This was primarily the result of the fear that something similar might happen in England. This shift in attitude did not happen overnght, it took decades, driven, Mason suggests, by the expansion of the British Empire.
By the beginning of the Regency, gentlemen were becoming more reserved in their dealings with those not of their class, but they still continued to interact with them. Many Regency gentlemen still carried on a cordial relationship with servants such as their valet, their butler and their land steward. By the mid-Victorian era this had changed, most gentlemen in these later years maintained a very distant and haughtly relationship with those whom they considered subordinate and/or not of their own class.
Mason posits that gentlemen of the late eighteenth century into the first quarter of the nineteenth century were not particularly religious as a group, and most were not regular church-goers. In fact, he believes that many of these men found the tenents of Christianity too onerous, and they substituted the "code of the gentleman" as a kind of sub-religion which they felt it was easier to uphold. He noted that the younger sons of the aristocracy often went into the church only because it was expected, not because they had any particular vocation. Many of these men hired a curate to minister to the congregation of the parish in which they held their living. They then continued to make the rounds of society events, ride to hounds, gamble, dally with women, and in some cases, even fight duels. In short, they lived the life of an aristocratic gentlemen and many of them visited their parishes perhaps once or twice a year. Only those men who wished to advance in the church to become bishops or archbishops tended to curtail some of their more secular activities and spend more time in their parishes.
Public schools were rather spartan for those boys who came to manhood in the early years of the nineteenth century. But they were not as austere and rigid in their treatment of the boys as those in later decades. Mason believes this is because as the British Empire grew, England had a greater need for men who could rule in the various outposts of the Empire around the world. By Victoria’s reign there were at least twice as many public schools than there had been during the years preceding the Regency. These schools were expected to toughen young men who would go on to serve as administrators of the far-flung Empire. It is Mason’s contention that this harsher training, designed to teach men to rule also evolved their gentlemen’s code so that they had less amicable relationships with the lower classes. Since the British Empire had only begun to grow in the Regency years, there was much less need to educate and toughen boys in this way. Thus, their school days were not opulent, but neither were they as harshly rigorous as they became in later years and Regency gentlemen tended to be less class-conscious.
My take on what I learned about Regency gentlemen from Mason was that I think I would much prefer them to Victorian gentlemen. I think Regency gentlemen in general were much less rigid in their attitudes, a bit more fun-loving and open-minded and less high in the instep than gentlemen of later generations. In terms of how gentlemen are portrayed in Regency novels, I now know it is quite historically accurate to have a gentleman who has a personal relationship with his valet, such that they are partners in some clandestine activity, like spying against Napoleon, and that the servant will feel comfortable speaking his mind to his master. I usually enjoy that particular plot device, but until now I thought its historical accuracy was suspect. I also think that during the less class-conscious Regency it would be entirely possible for a man not of noble birth to achieve the status of gentleman. If he had proven himself an honorable man of good character, he would not be shunned by society as he might be by the Victorians. Yet another reason to prefer Regencies.
If you would like to read this book for yourself, the full bibliographic citation is:
Mason, Philip, The English Gentleman: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1982.