IT is well to be reminded frequently of the little, every-day, commonplace duties. We cannot always be on the mountain-top. The greater part of life is lived in the lowly valley among plain people, who look at things from the average angle, and do not relish the unusual and the high-flown. But, if such an expression is allowable, the commonplace may have its idealism. It may be touched with the fine bloom of charm or it may sink to rude vulgarity. There is a way of shaking hands, of saying a simple good-morning, of lifting a hat, that makes us happier for a day . . . All the gamut of emotions is run by subtle signs, -- the glance of an eye, the turn of a head, the curl of a lip. This language expresses more in a gesture than many words can express. It speaks the truth where the tongue might utter falsehood. It is the play of expression that no mark can wholly cover. The truth of what we are escapes like a fine fragrance from high civility and the soul of courtesy, and on the other hand marks as low-bred some who pride themselves on all the elegances.
The etiquette books that aim to teach how to sit and stand, to bow and enter a room, to courtesy and hold a fan, do not speak of these things. They miss the secret of manners so completely they are ludicrous. Many years ago, in the old-fashioned girls' boarding school, manners were taught, on a false method perhaps, but they were taught. At present they do not seem to be taught on any method. In spite of the stiff, stilted style of the old days a type was created. We speak of old-fashioned courtliness and breeding as something finer and better than anything that exists now. A gentleman of the old school shines in contrast to the gentleman of no school. The young man who always places a chair for his mother, who opens a door for her, who gives her his arm when she passes from a room, is considered exceptional, perhaps a little eccentric. Mothers and grandmothers are not spoiled by petting in our time. It is well if they are not considered a burden . . . The tendency of our time is not to reverence age, but to put it in a corner.
The young do not now seem as much in unison and sympathy with their elders as in times past . . . The family is less a school of manners and morals than it was when all the members laboured at some common task. Now the young gain most of their training from the outside. In well-to-do families they have few home cares. Their interests are abroad. They know a great deal more about athletics and less about domestic life. Golf, tennis, college sports, the bicycle, have done something to break up family unity. The old cannot share in these things. Some fathers and mothers strive to follow their children on these paths. Others cannot go with their children in these ways. The very language of sport is to them an unknown tongue. Thus the separation between the young and the old becomes more marked, and has a distinct effect on manners.
The advantage of athletics to health and physical development is another story. But it is not probable that the bicycle track and the golf field will ever furnish a school of fine manners. The rough contacts of athletic exercises do not lie in that way. Manners inhere in a gentle, refined, delicate appreciation of the excellences of others, a power of entering into others' lives through sympathy, the power of sacrificing self, of taking the neighbour's point of view, and not of thrusting our own in the face of society. Fine manners make an ideal retreat from the struggles and conflicts of the world, a little pause in the great battle, where people may meet on a higher plane, out of reach of contention and strife.
In certain quarters, attention has been called to the excessive rudeness of so-called society people, -- how push and clamour and noise and malevolence have taken the place of decorous and refined behaviour. The society person, it is said, has a great art of making his inferior in wealth and position feel small. To snub is an art largely cultivated. All aspirants for notice, not of a certain stamp, are to be suppressed, not gently, but with unmistakable rudeness. Thus the finest elements of our people are riot in society. It is very sad, so the wise ones tell us, that the most gifted, virtuous, and excellent should be excluded from these sacred precincts where the bold, pushing, and insolent are freely received.
The home must still be the place where manners are instilled and practised. The delicacies and refinements of life are better taught there than on the golf links, the tennis court, in the kennel and stable. We have sometimes suffered from having had the manners of the stable and kennel brought into the home. We hear much said about the thoughtlessness of youth, but thoughtlessness can only be corrected by instruction. Good manners are not instinctive. They must be taught. The child would go on eating with his fingers if he were not told how to use his knife and fork. We live in an age when everything else seems to be attended to but manners. Perhaps by and by some benefactor of his kind may establish a college of manners, where youths and maidens shall be taught to honour their mothers and grandmothers, to consider their maiden aunts and poor relations, where lessons shall be given in the treatment of inferiors, where they shall receive diplomas and medals for gentle courtesy and beautiful behaviour.
It is a fine thing to be strong, broad-chested, and big-limbed; but it is a lovely thing to be kindly, considerate, tender, helpful, and generous. All these elements enter into manners. Would we might see a new age of chivalry, with the absurdities and excesses of the old left out. Even Don Quixote is more respectable than any merely strong man of our time, -- a very perfect, courteous, poor gentleman, who has crept to a warm place in human reverence. So we await the time when manners may come in again, when no manners will be thought a stigma rather than a distinction.
Our age glorifies strength, skill, and agility, and honours many strange heroes; but all perishes and fades and falls before the ideal touch of beauty, the nobility of tender and generous impulses, the exquisite refinements of feeling that touch humble lives with radiance, and out of which spring heroic deeds, supernal goodness. These possibilities are the great treasures of our humanity, the qualities that make us men and women All the reverences meet in a nature of exalted courtesy; and manners are no longer external and ephemeral, but the very essence of being. -- The Christian Register.
This article was originally published in "The Open Window Illustrated - Literary Annual and Year Book of Local Annals" in 1900 which was centred on the Newry area.