Ladies and gents, may I call this phrase to your attention?
The one I just used, yes.
I talked about what it is like to be a lady, and now it only seems fair to say a word about the term gentleman.
I explained what gentry were in my last post, but though we still use the term gentleman (often sarcastically) today, a lot of us haven’t heard the term “gentlewoman.” Though it was also called being a gentleman’s daughter if I understand correctly.
There’s a scene in that classic book Pride and Prejudice in which the heroine, Elisabeth and the aunt of Darcy, Lady Catherine De’Bourgh, are having an argument.
It is without a doubt one of the best scenes in my opinion. And at one memorable moment, Lady Catherine, (not at all acting like her title) accuses Elisabeth of trying to quit the sphere she was brought up in. The translation of that is: Mr. Darcy is too good for her. By this time Elisabeth herself feels this is true, but angered by the Lady Catherine, she retorts that he is a gentleman and she is a gentleman’s daughter, thus far they are equal.
Let me pause there. A huge complaint about men doing the things that used to be called chivalry is that they think women can’t take care of themselves. That’s why gentlemen get such a bad rap. But here Elisabeth states the culturally held opinion of her time, that a gentleman and a gentlewoman are equals.
And if you examine the story, you will find no indication otherwise. In that time, and between that class of people, there was a code of conduct. Followed by everyone. It didn’t matter whether you were male or female. If you were well bred you followed it and were expected to understand it. In one example, there was a rule that only two gentlemen could initiate an acquaintance with each other, under certain circumstances, such as one moving into an new neighborhood.Under any other circumstances, a polite person would never walk up and introduce themselves, a mutual acquaintance, (male or female, it didn’t matter,) would make the introductions. In this way friendship circles would grow bigger and bigger, but also could stay very small if the friends so wished.
I point this out because it is just one example of how their society worked, and one we no longer use so no one can possibly get offended over it.
It applied to both genders; and that’s the thing we don’t remember anymore, that courtesy is gender neutral.
I could make a list of the few gestures of chivalry that men still attempt to make, but it’s not necessary, we all know them. I just wonder why we’re so hard upon them.
Gentlemen have a hard time now, because a lot of the world hates the very idea of them. They mark a clear distinction between male and female, dare I say, roles in society.
I think also the stereotypical image of the man, who’s really a boy, wearing kid gloves and lace, turns off the modern mind; but I might point out not long ago it was acceptable for guys to wear sparkly vests and frizzy hair and that was cool. I’m sure there’s some weird things we still allow that the 18th century gentleman would have found to be ridiculous. this isn’t really about looks.
There’s another novel, “North and South,” by Elisabeth Gaskell, that deals with the idea of being a gentleman, among other things. We meet several men in that novel who are not gentleman by rank, but demonstrate some amount of chivalry that prove that in their hearts at least they are noble.
The mark of a gentleman is strength. And it’s odd that I say that, for traditionally gentry did not work or exercise a great deal unless they so chose. But it’s strength of mind.
What good breeding was all about, at least before priggish people got ahold of the term, was teaching children how to handle things like criticism, being insulted, being ignored, or just having someone be rude to them in general. It also taught them how to treat each other and themselves with respect. how to disapprove of people without dehumanizing them. How to disagree with someone without making a scene or resorting to violence. Of course, if he had to, a gentleman was allowed to defend someone with force, but if among other gentleman, as he was always supposed to be, it was assumed he would never have to.
On a lady’s part, she would also never resort to violence, because it was seen as a mark of weak self control, not of strength. If ever she was in need of defense, she was trusted to have enough gentleman about her at all times to be able to look out for her. This was not a mark of weakness. It was simply a lady’s duty to set an example of gentleness, and a gentleman’s duty to see that she was always free and unafraid to do so.
That’s why to be a fatherless, husbandless, and brother-less girl was so serious. It was a matter of honor.
That’s not to say there wasn’t sexism, there always is, but sexism is not a class thing. It’s the choice of men and women, and it’s a private choice.
Being a lady and a gentleman was actually the best defense against sexism, because it taught you from an early age to treat the opposite sex with deference, and to respect their own accomplishments.
It’s true, that sunk to some shallow proportions for shallow people. Like valuing a woman only for her talents and fine clothing instead of for her mind, and a man only for his style and talents in sports, or cards, or dancing.
But class did not create shallowness, shallow people will be shallow whatever class they are in, and as far as that goes, the gentry probably had the least dangerous way of handling it.
My conclusion about gentleman is that, like ladies, they are made what they are by their hearts. If the way they show it outwardly is different than it used to be, fine. But whatever way they show it ought to be appreciated, not scorned.
Until next time–Natasha.