BOOK REVIEW / Life below the salt: 'The Descent of Manners ' - Andrew St George: Chatto & Windus, 20 pounds

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'ALL LIFE,' Henry James thought, 'comes back to the question of our relations with each other.' In the years between 1832 and 1867, a period of galloping social change, what shaped those relations above all else was the operation and development of manners. Manners governed Victorian thinking, not only in the realm of social etiquette but in the way people worked, dressed, prosecuted business, in the way they felt about themselves and their place in the world. Manners were the surest index of the midVictorian obsession with correctness, with all things in their place.

But how did manners come about? What determined proper behaviour? Andrew St George, in this assiduously researched and gracefully written book, identifies the search for rules as the key to mid-Victorian experience. This search was pursued over an astounding range of activities. Throughout books of morals and manners, in home design and health legislation, within poetry and scientific discourse, St George locates a fervent - one might almost say fearful - concern with thinking and acting according to rule. The picture he presents is of a society in which diverse forms of practical business compelled individuals to comply with pre- established rules; if rules didn't exist, then new ones had to be found, else how was society to be preserved?

The book opens with an examination of the manners books and selfhelp manuals which proliferated during the mid-19th century. Foremost among the ranks of self-improvement gurus was Martin Tupper, whose Proverbial Philosophy (1838) was a sententious mixture of evangelism and cracker-barrel homily couched in verse. His writing paddled gently down the moral mainstream, steering past genuine social complexities (such as poverty) towards the sober satisfactions of platitude and generality. At the zenith of his popularity Tupper was known as 'the Shakespeare of the Church', though a speedy perusal of his lumpen versifying would surely have caused the Bard to revolve in his grave. Samuel Smiles and his selfexplanatory Self-help continued this trend of moral instruction, pulling away from the bedrock of religious teaching mined by Tupper towards an ethic of 'self-culture, self-discipline, and self-control'. Here were Victorian values in full cry, and God help those who couldn't help themselves.

On specific details of etiquette the self-conscious Victorian could consult any number of practical guides. Conversation was deemed an especially important area of social know-how, and if you were stumped for some elegant table-talk then you could have recourse to How to Shine in Society; or the Art of Conversation; containing its Principles, Laws, and General Usage in Modern Polite Society. Conversation was ideally edifying, proper and uncontroversial. According to the Reverend S Jenner of Camberwell, the conversationalist 'should be a man of high principle, if not of evangelical piety', in other words somebody you'd never want to be seated next to at dinner. Jenner went on to enumerate the various danger zones of conversation, warning against 'Flattery & Praise', 'Detraction & Scandal', 'Interrogations & Impertinence', 'Egotism & Boasting' and 'Wit & Pleasantry' - on which reckoning you might just get away with 'Pass the salt, prithee'. Social interaction, like much else, was a testing ground for moral rectitude. How one talked, how one behaved, was the clue to character.

As Adams' Plain Living and High Thinking observed, 'The world judges us by our conduct; it has neither the time nor the inclination to study our character: moreover, it assumes that our conduct is necessarily the reflex of our character'.

As St George broadens his compass to deal with American manners, financial ethics and the bold advancements of poetry and science, his book becomes less a study of manners than a disquisition on rules and rulemaking. The author's research into the great financial swindles of the 1840s and 1850s, for example, makes for an enlivening read, but its relevance seems tenuous. As the advent of the railway boom in the mid-19th century furnished unparalleled opportunity for gain, it was inevitably the frauds rather than the fortunes which made the juiciest gossip. This was a climate that bred great Victorian villains, like Trollope's Melmotte in The Way We Live Now and Merdle in Little Dorrit. 'Fraud,' contends St George, 'was simple misbehaviour, bad manners of the worst kind', but this is unconvincing: aren't we really talking simple criminality? 'Bad manners' seems a lame way to describe dealings that reduced many innocent creditors to pauperism.

As The Descent of Manners proceeds, its academic slant becomes more pronounced. The hemline of research begins to droop, and in the latter stages theory takes over at the expense of illustration. The terminus of the book is the rise to prominence of the Decadent movement, when Victorians were finally emboldened to look beyond the conventional solace of religious faith. Science and poetry had opened up new avenues of debate - and doubt. St George sees it in terms of centripetal and centrifugal forces: 'Internal cultivation proceeded through the humanities, external cultivation through the natural sciences'. But at times the eye craves a respite from his neatly stacked abstractions. He quotes from a formidable line-up of Victorian writers and thinkers, when everyday instances of behaviour - or misbehaviour - would catch the spirit of the age rather more vividly. One comes away from the book with trunkloads of information about 'society', but not with any clearer notion of the people who constituted it.

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