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
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.
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
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? Are these different from the ones that we require in the heroes of our Regency fiction? Who is your favourite gentleman, real or fictional?