Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Theory of English Unsociableness
By Francis Jeffrey (17731850)
IN most other countries of Europe if a man was not born in high and polished society, he had scarcely any other means of gaining admission to it; and honour and dignity, it was supposed, belonged by inheritance to a very limited class of people. Within that circle, therefore, there could be no derogation, and, from without it, there could be no intrusion. But, in this country, persons of every condition have been long entitled to aspire to every situation; and, from the nature of our political constitution, any one who had individual influence, by talent, wealth, or activity, became at once of consequence in the community, and was classed as the open rival or necessary auxiliary of those who had the strongest hereditary claims to importance. But though the circle of society was in this way at all times larger than in the continental nations, and embraced more persons of dissimilar training and habits, it does not appear to have given a tone of repulsion to the manners of those who affected the superiority, till a period comparatively remote. In the days of the Tudors and Stuarts there was a wide pale of separation between the landed aristocracy and the rest of the population; and, accordingly, down at least to the end of Charles the Seconds reign, there seems to have been none of this dull and frozen arrogance in the habits of good company. The true reason of this, however, was, that though the competition was constitutionally open, good education was, in fact, till after this period, confined to the children of the gentry; and a certain parade in equipage and dress, which could not be easily assumed but by the opulent, nor naturally carried but by those who had been long accustomed to it, threw additional difficulties in the way of those who wished to push themselves forward in society, and rendered any other bulwarks unnecessary for the protection of the sanctuary of fashion.
From the time of Sir Robert Walpole, however, the communication between the higher and lower orders became far more open and easy. Commercial wealth and enterprise were prodigiously extended, literature and intelligence spread with unprecedented rapidity among the body of the people, and the increased intercourse between the different parts of the country, naturally produced a greater mixture of the different classes of the people. This was followed by a general relaxation in those costly external observances by which persons of condition had till then been distinguished. Ladies laid aside their hoops, trains, and elaborate head-dresses; and gentlemen their swords, periwigs, and embroidery; and at the same time that it thus became quite practicable for an attorneys clerk or a mercers apprentice to assume the exterior of a nobleman, it happened also, both that many persons of that condition had the education that fitted them for a higher rank, and that several had actually won their way to it by talents and activity, which had not formerly been looked for in that quarter. Their success was well merited undoubtedly, and honourable both to themselves and their country; but its occasional occurrence, even more than the discontinuance of aristocratical forms or the popular spirit of the Government, tended strongly to encourage the pretensions of others, who had little qualification for success, beyond an eager desire to obtain it. So many persons now raised themselves by their own exertions, that everyone thought himself entitled to rise; and very few proportionally were contented to remain in the rank to which they were born; and as vanity is a still more active principle than ambition, the effects of this aspiring spirit were more conspicuously seen in the invasion which it prompted on the prerogatives of polite society, than in its more serious occupations; and a herd of uncomfortable and unsuitable companions beset all the approaches to good company, and seemed determined to force all its barriers.
We think we have now stated the true causes of this phenomenon; but, at all events, the fact we believe to be incontrovertible, that within the last fifty years there has been an incredible increase of forwardness and solid impudence among the half bred and half educated classes of this country, and that there was consequently some apology for the assumption of more distant and forbidding manners towards strangers on the part of those who were already satisfied with the extent of their society. It was evidently easier and more prudent to reject the overtures of unknown acquaintances, than to shake them off after they had been once allowed to fasten themselves; to repress, in short, the first attempts at familiarity, and repel, by a chilling and somewhat disdainful air, the advances of all of whom it might anyway be suspected that they might turn out discreditable or unfit associates.