THERE ARE just two or three writers on English

19th-century literature and ideas of whom we can fairly say that a new book by one of them is an event. Mark Girouard, author of the widely admired Life in the English Country House, belongs in that select company. In The Return to Camelot he has chosen a vast subject: the ideal code of behavior of the Victorian gentleman.

Given his special expert knowledge of art and architecture, Girouard stresses what was heraldic, archaic or else a conscious revival of long-past manners. He plays down, legitimately for his purposes, the persistent continuities, the tough upper-class realism of those who clung to gains, ill-gotten or not, derived from the favor of dead kings and the robbery of church lands. His subject is the ideal gentleman more than the real one. But then the ideal gentleman did, often and powerfully, shape the conduct of the real one.

Girouard is right to see a great contrast between the 18th and 19th centuries here. Take the case of Fielding's Squire Western in Tom Jones. Indisputably a gentleman in Fielding's terms, because he owned the estate that his forbears had owned, he is hardly a gentleman at all in a Victorian sense. He is foul-mouthed, ignorant, boorish and intensely selfish. No doubt there were Victorians, gentlemen by birth, who were like that. (Thackeray shows us an amusing case in Pitt Crawley, but that is supposed to be in 1815.) But more and more the title of gentleman was coming to be something that had to be earned by fine manners, by dignity, by gentleness; and this shift reflected two entirely separate changes--an increase of seriousness in the tone of social life, fostered in different ways and for different reasons by the Evangelical Revival, by the Utilitarians and by the Oxford Movement, and an increase in social mobility. One estate might still be owned by a man whose ancestors had been there for 10 generations, but the next might belong to a wealthy manufacturer or a political adventurer. In the 18th century you knew a man was a gentleman because you knew who his father was; in the 19th you could recognize him on an omnibus without knowing his name by his manner and appearance, something as indefinable as it was unmistakable.

All the same, the gentlemanly ideal never quite became simply a moral ideal. That would have defeated the purpose, since it would have admitted all classes and all levels of education. It was a subtle synthesis of moral and class factors; and in its cruder proponents the ideal can sometimes appear as not much more than a clumsy device for asserting that the educated middle-class were as good as the landowning upper-class and infinitely superior to the masses below. The inescapable fact that wealth--at least after the first generation--tends to refine manners and open the way to civilized milieux led to an unease about money that verges at times on the desperate. In a particularly interesting passage, Girouard brings together the gentlemanly statesmen of the Edwardian era, Lord Grey, with the rough adventurer Cecil Rhodes:

"Grey hero-worshipped Rhodes, as did George Wyndham, another aristocratic Englishman who was often described as chivalrous. Rhodes himself could scarcely be called chivalrous (No indeed!), but he was attracted to men of this type, and had the gift of attracting them. The Rhodes scholarships . . . were designed to produce more Greys and Wyndhams."

As one who is sometimes privileged to instruct Rhodes Scholars at Oxford I can say that the type favored by the selectors in the United States, Australia and India is, even now, very much nearer to that of a Grey or Wyndham than to a Rhodes. Money was unmentionable and money-making was suspect just because everyone felt how influential it had become. This unease naturally enhanced the appeal of medieval pageantry, feudal loyalties, and all traditions where status was fixed by birth or by warlike attainment--by anything but trade.

Girouard brings out very well the plasticity, the chameleon-like quality of the ideal. It could take the form of a pedantic attempt to revive long-past customs, as in the Eglinton jousting tournament of 1838 (to which one of Girouard's best chapters is devoted). In the rush for tickets "Radicals were likely to be refused. The town clerk of Anderston, near Glasgow, claimed that his wife had once nearly killed a Radical with a candlestick; he got a ticket." But very different was the inspiration found in the ideal by Christian Socialists, like Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley, and quite different again, in the next generation, the idealism of the Milner school of imperialists, or the cliquey artiness of groups such as the "Souls." Like Darwin's theories, the gentlemanly ideal could be directed to the support of almost any cause; but there was one constant, the sense of belonging to a select group with a mission to help, or reform or civilize others. To be a gentleman was to belong to the most far-reaching and effective of all clubs.

It could hardly be expected that Girouard could take on this enormous task without making a few mistakes. Profoundly learned in the history of visible things, he moves with less certainty in literature and politics. It is not really true that most of the clever men in the 1820s were utilitarians, a creed which appeals rather to simple-minded over-confident people, like Bentham himself, who know nothing of human nature. The treatment of Scott is perfunctory; I don't think the author has realized how very intelligent Scott was. And that extremely complex and paradoxical work Tennyson's Idylls of the King receives a superficial analysis.

But these last are only marginal comments. For the truth is that no one could have an equally strong grasp of all the book's many themes, while the attempt to present them in a new synthesis is abundantly justified by the result.