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Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Ladies and gentleman

Although we may still address an audience as ladies and gentlemen, to what extent has it become an anachronism? For example, try a Google image search on ladies and gentlemen.

Do we still have ladies and gentlemen? Do you know any of either species?

I suppose these were always somewhat ambiguous modes of address, varying from the formally polite to the sarcastic to genuine respect. To that extent things have not changed, but I suspect the aspiration to be a gentleman or a lady has changed. Allow me to speak of gentlemen to simplify things a little – at least for myself.

To my mind, one cannot easily aspire to be a gentleman these days, not in the upright, Dickensian sense. The impeccable manners and inflexible moral code both present difficulties in modern life. We are more casual in our dealings with other people, less inclined to hold mainly moral opinions and eschew strong political views. Maybe this is due to the more penetrative nature of mass communication.

I don't see it as a money or class issue, but more a case of having a highly detached and highly moral personal code. For example, one of Dickens’ fictional gentlemen was Mr Twemlow in Our Mutual Friend. Here he is, listening uncomfortably to a sneering dinner table discussion of lawyer Eugene Wrayburn’s marriage to Lizzie Hexam, a waterman’s daughter who saved his life. Twemlow, a mild little gentleman, is finally asked his opinion.

Twemlow has the air of being ill at ease, as he takes his hand from his forehead and replies.
‘I am disposed to think,’ says he, ‘that this is a question of the feelings of a gentleman.’
‘A gentleman can have no feelings who contracts such a marriage,’ flushes Podsnap.
‘Pardon me, sir,’ says Twemlow, rather less mildly than usual. ‘I don’t agree with you. If this gentleman’s feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection, induced him (as I presume they did) to marry this lady-
‘This lady!’ echoes Podsnap.
‘Sir,’ returns Twemlow, with his wristbands bristling a little, ‘YOU repeat the word; I repeat the word. This lady. What else would you call her if the gentleman were present?’
This being something in the nature of a poser for Podsnap, he merely waves it away with a speechless wave.
‘I say,’ resumes Twemlow, ‘if such feelings on the part of this gentleman, induced this gentleman to marry this lady, I think he is the greater gentleman for the action, and makes her the greater lady. I beg to say, that when I use the word, gentleman, I use it in the sense in which the degree may be attained by any man. The feelings of a gentleman I hold sacred, and I confess I am not comfortable when they are made the subject of sport or general discussion.’

I’m certainly not proposing we should go back to Dickens’ day socially, but I do wonder if we have allowed ourselves to lose something here. Many so-called gentlemen were nothing of the sort, but I get the impression that most people knew who were and who were not. As we do now.

The standard, when attained, seems to have been high. A certain upright, good-hearted individualism backed by an inflexible, yet compassionate moral code. A type who cannot easily be manipulated.

Maybe that's a clue - the independent aspect of being a gentleman. A reason why neither old style gentlemen, nor ladies are welcome in the modern world.

Because our exemplars are supposedly those who represent us in the House of Commons - the honourable ladies and gentlemen we know for sure are no such thing. Maybe a few are, but most are not. Maybe they never were and these ideals are best left where we usually find them - in fictional worlds.

Sad that, I think.

5 comments:

Roger said...

The idea of 'gentleman' and 'lady' seem to have similar but rather different positions in English society. Almost outmoded now but like religion we keep a little of it by us as a comfort. The definition is subtle, manners, integrity is part of it. So, of public figures, who seem to be gentlemen or ladies to me?

John Humphrys - yes
President Obama - yes
Micheal Portillo - yes

Anne Widdecombe - almost, but no
David Cameron - not quite

Baronesse Warsi - no
Mitt Romney - no
Bob Diamond - definitely not

A K Haart said...

Roger - President Obama? Not in my book - for me there are no gentleman politicians.

Sam Vega said...

Strangely, I have known more "gentlemanly conduct" in America than the UK.

A K Haart said...

Sam - I've never been to the US, but I've had that impression for a long time. Maybe we lost it and they didn't.

James Higham said...

I don't know about that but what I do know is that a lady or a gentleman is like love - impossible to define or contain adequately. when we meet one, we want more.