BOOK REVIEW / Higher degrees in social science: 'The Descent of Manners: Etiquette, Rules & the Victorians' - Andrew St George: Chatto, 20 pounds

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'YOU HAVE farted in front of my wife]' begins the old gag. It goes on: 'Sorry, old chap, I didn't know it was her turn.' The 19th century probably had an order of precedence for breaking wind: the second daughter of a baronet before an MP for an unfashionable constituency, and so on. The Victorians had etiquette guides the way we used to have sex manuals and now have diet books.

They certainly needed them, or felt they did. It was a mobile society but many of its members were unsure of where they were going, apart from upwards. A person could easily put a foot wrong. A hand, in the case of Robert Browning: the gauche poet once wore lemon-yellow gloves and was thereafter the object of suspicion in polite society. It did not help that Browning once quoted great slabs of Moliere to his dinner companion, in a performance lasting for several courses and guaranteed to put everybody off their food. He clearly never read crucial textbooks with titles like How to Shine in Society or The Art of Conversation.

Say what you like about talking: there was a lot of it about. One Victorian time-and-motion pioneer calculated that a man with the gift of the gab could easily spout five solid hours of speech a day, which if written down during a lifetime would fill 27,300 volumes of 520 pages each.

This book is very good on the rules of engagement for Victorian conversation. Disraeli held forth 'like a racehorse approaching the winning-post', according to one of the also-rans who listened. Rev Sidney Smith, no mean tongue-smith himself, remarked that Macaulay favoured the company with 'occasional flashes of silence'. In this jungle of gabbiness, it was just as well that there were instruction books to give the verbally challenged a fair crack of the oral whip. Serious conversationalists were advised to prepare their subject matter in advance: no religion, no scandal, no lies, no

personal opinions, no personal details, no interrupting. This did

not leave a great deal for those who played by the rules, apart

from 'Common Facts of Physical Science' and 'Sayings of the Great Men'.

Samuel Smiles was no great man but he was a guru of good behaviour, even if his how-to manual Self Help today evokes mainly laughs. His idea of the all-round Renaissance man was a self- educated, workaholic geologist and his idea of a bad guy was Coleridge, who was 'averse to continuous labour'. Even more popular in his time was Martin Tupper, author of Proverbial Philosophy and a number of other improving cliches in verse. He worked on the theory that manners maketh the gentleman, but in sophisticated circles 'Tupperian' became a term of abuse, as did 'Tupperish' and 'Tupperism' (though 'Tupperware' had to wait until later). His books were learnt by heart in the Royal nursery and given as presents at a Royal wedding; yes, they were that bad.

Fascinating though the material in The Descent of Manners is, you feel that there is more where that came from. Andrew St George mentions the self-imposed rules and regulations of the London clubs - without, unfortunately, quoting from what must have been, and probably still is, a hilarious collection of pomposities. Instead, he leaps off into discourses which may be more profound but are certainly less interesting. It is quite possible to turn a neat phrase and make perfect sense. You don't have to be mannered to write about manners. Parts of the book are excellent, other parts read like a lecture - but we can't ask questions afterwards.

As Gerald Scarfe's recent television programme on the class system showed, the nobs can happily break the rules and still get away with murder - literally, in Lord Lucan's case. In this and the previous century, the rest of us could be word-perfect in etiquette books, but to no avail. It is, gentle reader, like the woman asking the jazz musician what rhythm is: lady, he said, if you has to ask, you ain't ever going to know.