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XV. the empire of manners.

How delightful it is, when about to be shut up for a week or two on board ship, or in a country hotel, with a party of strangers, to encounter in that company even one person of delightful manners, whose mere presence gives grace and charm, and secures unfailing consideration for the rights and tastes of all! “I have once beheld on earth,” says Petrarch, in his 123d sonnet, “angelic manners and celestial charms, whose very remembrance is a delight and an affliction, since it makes all things else appear but dream and shadow.” Most of us have in memory some such charms and manners, not necessarily associated with poetic heroines, and still less with the highest social position. We recall them as something whose mere presence made life more worth living; as distinct an enrichment of nature as fragrant violet beds or the robin's song. All life is sweetened, joys are enhanced, cares diminished, by the presence in the room of a single person of charming manners.

How shall such manners be obtained? Art and [76] habit and the mere desire to please may do something, but not supply the place of a defective foundation. Nobody has ever summed up the different types of good manners so well as Tennyson:

Kind nature is the best: those manners next
That fit us like a nature second-hand;
Which are indeed the manners of the great.

It is curious how Americans in Europe vibrate between their French and English predilections, feeling the attractiveness of the French courtesy, and yet sometimes wondering whether it is more than skin-deep, and looking back in regret to the English method, which if blunt, is at least sincere. But when, as may happen, the French manner has a basis of real sincerity, how delightful the result! A charming American woman, the late Mrs. Sidney Brooks of New York, who retained into age all the attractiveness and much even of the physical beauty of her youth, once told me that the secret of the invariable popularity of the celebrated Madame Recamier was that she really felt the universal kindliness she expressed. Mrs. Brooks had been in youth a great favorite of this distinguished French woman, and had been admitted to her society at all times, except when the appearance of a large pair of wooden sabots, or overshoes, outside the door of the boudoir announced that the venerable author M. de [77] Chateaubriand was having an interview. She said that at Madame Recamier's receptions it was always understood that the friends of the hostess must amuse one another, leaving her wholly free to attend to “her strangers” --mes étrangers, she called them --who, precisely because they were such, needed all the special attention that could be given them. This was surely to unite Tennyson's two types of manners — the artificial and the natural — in one.

But if no manners are enough which have not the foundation of true and simple feeling, neither is it safe to rely on that alone. The traditions and habits of society are to a great extent what might be called funded or accumulated good feeling; they are largely the product of long years of experience, which have brought to perfection the art of avoiding awkwardness and simplifying all procedure. Some of them are “survivals” from old times of hate and violence — as the grasp of the ungloved right hand implied the laying aside of the sword, and the wine pledge was the proof that there was no guile in the cup. Others belong to modern intercourse only, and have followed the changes of society. The former practice of waiting-before eating until all at table were helped was doubtless the remains of the first struggle with barbarous appetite for self-control; and this being once attained, the more recent habit followed, that each should begin when helped, and [78] so avoid the awkwardness of a delay. These things must be to some degree conventionally learned, because they represent not only good feeling, but historic changes and social development. There is generally some reason at the bottom of all of them, but there is not time always to explain, and it greatly facilitates that social ease which is the object really aimed at, to accept the habits of society as they are; and not, for instance, to insist on calling for fish with your dessert at a dinner-party, merely because you happen to fancy that combination.

Many an ardent and zealous young reformer offends the very world he is burning to reform when he refuses to meet it with some slight compliance; as Felix Holt, in George Eliot's story, was willing to die for the improvement of society, but could by no means consent to wear a cravat for its sake. Manners come next to morals, not alone because they help us to make the world pleasanter, and thus render life easier to all around us, but also because they afford a key to those greater successes and usefulnesses for which all generous persons long. And their domain goes beyond this world; for if the utmost saint makes himself personally repulsive, he so far diminishes our desire to meet him in any land of pure delights. Miss Edgeworth says in “Helen” that any one who makes goodness disagreeable commits high-treason against virtue; [79] and I remember how elevated a doctrine it seemed to me when I heard one of my ignorant black sergeants say, in a prayer I accidentally overheard, “Let me so live dat when I die I may hab manners, dat I may know what to say when I see my heabenly Lord!”

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