The cut to which I refer is, of course, the dreaded cut direct, though there is some debate regarding its name during our favorite period. The cut has made its appearance in a great many Regency novels beginning with those first Regencies written by Georgette Heyer. But a cut was not a mere snub. It was the ultimate social weapon, the final solution. To our Regency ancestors, the cut was not something to be used lightly, for its use signaled the absolute termination of a relationship. The cutting of the bonds of friendship. And there were rules about when and where the cut should be used, and who could use it. Failure to conform to these rules would be considered a serious breach of etiquette which might well do more damage to the cutter than the cuttee.
The origin and rules of the social cut …
Manners, etiquette, social conventions. Regardless of what you call them, these rules and practices were developed over many centuries in order to enable groups of people to interact with civility and gentility, regardless of their many differences. Initially, these rules were instituted to prevent outbreaks of violence and bloodshed when parties of different factions came together. By the Regency, they had become guidelines for social behavior which were intended to ensure the ease and comfort of everyone gathered at any event. All those present at these events were expected to comply with the rules of etiquette and decorum as one of their obligations to the society of which they were members.
In most societies, there were various levels of punishment which might be imposed on those who broke the rules. In Regency England, the most severe social punishment was the cut. In many Regency novels, this action is typically called the "the cut direct." However, that phrase is not defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, though it does appear there in a quote from Thackeray, dated 1848. According to Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the use of the phrase "cut direct" is attested in print in 1820. Most linguistic scholars believe that a word or phrase can be in use in spoken language for as long as fifty years before it makes its way into print. Georgette Heyer used the term "cut direct" in several of her novels with Regency settings. It is certain that she had a copy of Pierce Egan’s Tom and Jerry: Life in London in her personal library, which was published in 1821. Egan uses the term "cut direct" in that book. Heyer is known to have done a great deal of research in collections of private papers. Collections which may not have come to the attention of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. She may well have found that term used in private letters or journals to which she had access which pre-dated Egan. Such a discovery would have assured her that she could legitimately use that term in her books. Therefore, though the term "cut direct" is not specifically defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, I believe that Regency authors can feel confident using the term "cut direct" in their stories, since the evidence suggests that term was in use during that decade.
Now that we have a name for this ultimate social weapon, it is time to explain when and where it first came into use, as well as how it was used. Despite the ancient history of manners and etiquette in general, the social cut is much more modern. There is no doubt the social cut originated in England during the eighteenth century. Some authorities believe the practice originated in the early decades of the century, when fashionable society began to frequent public resorts like Bath and Weymouth, or the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh. Other sources suggest that the cut was not used regularly until the latter decades of the century. The Monthly Magazine, Or, British Register for 1798 included an explanation by a reader of how the cut was carried out in his college days in a lengthy letter to the editor, signed by the pseudonym "Ansonius." In his rambling letter, Ansonius noted that when he was at college, " … if a man passed an old acquaintance wittingly, without recognizing him, he was said— ‘To cut him.’" Ansonius then went on to explain the performance of the cut and noted that for a time the term "to spear" was used instead of to cut. However, that term did not remain long in use, and this act was generally known as "the cut" ever after.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, the cut had been adopted as a social weapon by the beau monde. At this time, the true cut direct was not just a snub, or a failure to recognize an acquaintance when encountering them. The cut direct was a deliberate act; in a sense, it reversed the accepted ritual of greeting, thereby signalling the cutting of all bonds of relationship between the two parties involved. The two parties would be considered as dead to one another from the moment of the cut. The person delivering the cut direct would make eye contact with the other party upon meeting them, acknowledging their bow or salutation with nothing but a hard stare and a stony silence. To be a true cut direct, there must be no doubt that cutter was fully aware of the presence of the cuttee and was deliberately cutting them.
Even before the Regency began, a set of rules for the use of the cut direct had developed. A gentleman was never to cut a lady, regardless of the provocation. If he wished to sever the connection, he was expected to find a more private means to accomplish that end. It was considered very bad form to cut anyone on the street. In fact, a cut was never to be used unless the person being cut was guilty of some excessively rude, unendurable act which demanded the termination of the relationship. In such cases, if the rude act was public knowledge, the use of the cut would be supported by the majority of society. Even with extreme provocation, the cut was not only a high insult to the recipient, it was also very embarrassing for those who might witness it, so it should be used sparingly and only when there was no other choice, out of respect for anyone else who might be present. A gentleman could cut another gentlemen, but there were instances when such a cut lead to a duel, yet another reason to use it judiciously.
Ladies could use the cut direct, but there were rules which they were expected to follow. An unmarried lady was never to cut a married lady. Any lady could cut a gentleman, but only with very grave provocation. In particular, the cut direct was the last resort for young unmarried ladies when they wished to discourage the unwanted attentions of a gentleman. If the gentleman’s unwelcome attentions had been marked by the young lady’s friends and acquaintances, she would have their full support when she delivered the cut direct to him at a social event. She would also usually have the support of the majority of those present, regardless of how uncomfortable such a scene made most people. All but the most obtuse gentleman would have to cease their attentions to a young lady who had cut them at a social gathering.
It was considered extremely rude to cut, or even to simply ignore, one’s dressmaker, milliner, tailor, boot-maker, book-binder, or other tradesman whom one employed when encountering them in public. Lengthy conversation was not required, but a courteous greeting was expected of a truly well-mannered person in such situations. It was completely unacceptable for a host to cut guests, for any reason. Leaders of society, in particular, were expected to refrain from the use the cut direct except in response to the most disgraceful behaviour. The use of the cut towards someone new to society, especially by a prominent social superior, could destroy the newcomer’s hopes of being accepted into polite society. Most responsible and considerate social doyens would find some means other than the cut direct to indicate to a social inferior that they had stepped out of line. There were, of course, a few spiteful, malevolent people who abused their power and employed the cut direct whenever it suited them, with no thought to the harm they might inflict.
Perhaps the worst and most public example of a social superior mis-using the power of the cut direct was when the Prince Regent cut Beau Brummell the night of the ball in the Argyle Rooms. Though the Regent was not on good terms with Brummell, the Beau had done nothing so heinous that it would merit such severe treatment. Especially at that particular ball, of which Brummell was one of the hosts. The Prince believed he could cut Beau Brummell with impunity since it was bad form for a host to insult a guest and Brummell would not be able to respond in kind. But the Regent had not counted on the Beau’s independent spirit, nor had the Prince counted on the fact that most of society saw his cut of Brummell as an appalling abuse of his social power. In most cases, the cut direct delivered by a royal personage would have destroyed the recipient’s place in society. But the Prince Regent’s petty and vengeful use of this powerful social weapon against someone who was not in a position to defend himself disgusted most members of the beau monde and actually did more damage to the Prince than it did to Beau Brummell. In the end, it was the Beau’s terrible luck at the gambling tables that finally cost him his position in London society, not the cut direct delivered to him by the Regent.
The social cut originated in England during the eighteenth century and was elevated to the ultimate social weapon in the armory of the beau monde by the beginning of the Regency. Even Jane Austen made use of the social cut, in Sense and Sensibility, when Willoughby tells Elinor Dashwood that Sir John Middleton had cut him since his marriage to his wealthy wife. The cut remained an English institution and does not appear to have been used in other countries before or during the Regency. Though the cut direct is often found in the Regency novels of today, it was used very sparingly during the Regency itself, as its use signaled the end of a relationship between the two parties involved. The use of the cut direct was also embarrassing those who were in the vicinity when it was delivered. For that reason, someone planning to employ the cut direct would only do so if it was absolutely necessary, to ensure it used did not backfire on them.
Dear Regency Authors, the cut direct should be used most sparingly in your stories, for it meant the complete severing of a relationship between two people. Its use could lead to unintended but serious consequences, as there are a few instances in which a duel resulted when one gentleman cut another. Should a person cut someone when such a radical action was not considered appropriate by the majority of society, the cut might well backfire on the cutter, who might then find they were ostracized, rather than the person they cut. Though ladies had more leeway with the use of the social cut, there were still certain conventions by which they must abide when using a cut, in order to maintain the support of society for their actions. Since the cut direct was not used or understood by those outside England, the delivery of a cut to a foreigner, or in the presence of one or more, might result in a very interesting scene of confusion.