UNTIL NOW, all the works on good behavior that I have read have inclined me to enter a monastery at once. There are so many little ways in which one can become what Alan Ladd called "socially washed up." (Did you know that you may sprinkle pepper on your food but that salt must be poured in a tiny heap on the rim of your plate?)
Now, after reading this guide, I feel that I can relax at least a little. Though Miss Manners is as averse to naturalness or spontaneity as Oscar Wilde, she is nevertheless in favor of common sense. In this work no distinction is made between etiquette and manners, and for all I know in the dictionary there may be none, but to me etiquette (a French word for putting labels on things) is a process of exclusion--a set of esoteric, often absurd rituals by means of which one class prevents the encroachment upon its territory of another, inferior class. Manners are a system of inclusion designed to make everyone feel at ease. In Miss Manner's recounting of the famous anecdote about Queen Victoria entertaining the Shah of Persia, I would have said that for the Eastern potentate to drink from his finger bowl was a breach of etiquette while Her Majesty's doing the same was a sign of good manners.
In England it is etiquette that matters so much; in America manners are more important.
I was saddened to read in these pages that there is, in the United States, any class system at all. Apparently even here there is an upper, a middle and a lower class; and, as elsewhere, it is the middle class that is the object of universal scorn. It is considered standoffish by the stratum below it and sycophantic, ludicrously genteel by those who dwell in the rarified atmosphere above. (When is a napkin a serviette? When it is showing off.).
A nice distinction that this book does make is between manners and morality. The former, the author points out, involve appearances rather than reality. Moralists are bound to condemn a lie but those who are concerned with manners could hardly survive a single day without at least a few. In expressing this opinion, Miss Manners emerges as a kind of social Machiavelli. It becomes abvious that her view of decorum is that it is a way of getting what you want without appearing to be an absolute swine. When she deals with everyday human relationships, her advice reads like a wicked novel. A husband complains that, at parties, his wife expects him to bestow on her his entire attention. Is this, he asks, a reasonable request? Miss Manners suggests that, when they arrive, he should take her coat, find her a drink and generally give the impression that he sets a high value upon her. Other guests may then be sufficiently interested in her to try to find out why. This will leave the husband free to talk to someone more interesting. Oh what a synopsis this would make for a Somerset Maugham short story!
Since I have come to live in Manhattan, I have begun to move among my social superiors and to attend functions of bewildering splendor. For this reason, I read with especial care the chapter of this work which deals with staying in the houses of the rich and with eating in grand restaurants. The advice given here is practical. For instance, when you leave a friend's house after staying the night, you should take the soiled sheets from the bed and remake it so that your hostess does not feel that she must cope with the havoc you have left behind nor that she must unmake your bed in order to get at the used linen.
On the topic of dining out, Miss Manners has some profound statements to make. However lordly the airs and graces of waiters may be, they are for the moment at least in the position of offering a service. Pity is a comparatively modern virtue. In classical times the way in which a man treated his slaves was no part of good behavior. Miss Manners is not exactly Roman in her outlook but she does point out that, if you are the host or are dining alone, there is no reason not to complain that food which was meant to be served hot is cold or, when you have dropped a fork, to refrain from asking for another.
I was particularly surprised to learn from the questions asked in this book that Americans experience difficulty in opening a conversation at a party. What strikes a foreigner so forcibly on arriving in Manhattan is that everyone talks to everyone. As soon as I so much as take a seat on a bus, the travellers on my right and left ask me where I am going and proceed to give me instructions as to how to reach my destination. What constricts the tongue, therefore, must be an elegant social setting. It seems to demand something epigrammatic.
Miss Manners' definition of good conversation is very clear. It is developing and playing with ideas by juxtaposing the accumulated conclusions of two or more people and then improvising upon them.
On sexual matters the author is less definite. At times she is prim. No nice girl, she says, needs good underwear until she is married. On other occasions she is liberal. Concerning house guests who are known to be living in sin, she suggests that their hostess should give them separate rooms but adds that how they regroup themselves after bedtime is no concern of hers. Surprisingly, this attitude is less permissive than that of Debrett, the social arbiter of Britain, which opted amid an outcry from sundry bishops for placing the scarlet couple together.
It would be a sign of bad manners in me if I were to say that this book is too long or that occasionally the humor declines into facetiousness. This is an effect produced only on book reviewers whose lowly profession compels them to read all books from end to end as fast as possible. This excellent guide should not be treated in this vulgar way. Readers should dip delicately into it while waiting for a visitor who is rude enough to be late or it could be placed by the bedside of a house guest who, it is feared, may stay too long.
I have reviewed this book in proof only and therefore cannot comment on its physical appearance or on its 25 pages of illustrations. I would wish them to be as humorous and as elegant as the text. I also hope that on the dust jacket there is some information about Judith Martin. I feel sure that to some extent she differs from Miss Manners who, by the end of the book, has become a quite clearly defined fictional character--a secretly conservative lady deploring the total permissiveness of modern life. Who, she asks, would dare nowadays to say, "Do come to dinner; we're not dressing." She is also slightly greedy; people, she reckons, are more important than fruit cup but less so than fish souffle.