Violet reaction

Class is in the news again: we’re still all middle class, apparently (well, nearly all of us).

Looking back we can trace how far those people formerly known as the upper classes have come. On Friday the 8th of October 1954 George Brown MP, son of a Southwark van driver, was on Any Questions? at the Town Hall, Lydney:

‘We stayed at the Feathers Hôtel,’ recorded a seasoned fellow-panellist, Lady Violet Bonham Carter. ‘Ralph Wightman and Mrs Wightman rolled up later – & at dinner [ie before the programe] a new member of the Team – George Brown – Attlee-ite Labour who was Minister of Works… Everyone was agreeable to him – but he was obviously lacking in “touch” – or any kind of “amenity” or intercourse.’ Then came the programme itself, as ever going out live: ‘George Brown’s “form” cld not I thought have been worse. He made 2 really “bad form” howlers – one a quite gratuitous & irrelevant insult to the Liberal Party – the other an allusion to my age!’ The transcript reveals that his crack against the Liberals was that ‘they hardly have any conference worthy of the name’, while he did indeed make a jocose reference to Lady Violet’s ‘present age of 26 or thereabouts’. Yet more unpardonable was still to come. ‘When we returned to the hôtel (our BBC hosts having left us) & we sat up talking he hectored & harangued us & addressed me repeatedly as “my dear Violet”. I was frozen – but did not I fear freeze him. I have never before – in the course of an unsheltered life, spent among all sorts & conditions of men – met anyone so completely unhouse-trained’.

Written in a sort of code: the various euphemisms for vulgar; the circumflex in hotel, persisted with despite other abbreviations; the unspoken expectations of deference. The van driver’s son from Southwark, however, proved resistant, even to being ‘frozen’. In fact, rather than making ‘howlers’ I suspect he was deploying his own social chaff: ‘my dear Violet’ was surely no accident.

But whilst Lady Violet may appear excessively genteel to our eyes, I can’t help wondering how much of our progress to a classless (or mono-class) society is just down to the codes becoming more subtle, what with our manifold middle class.

In any event, it can’t be denied that she was on to something: the ‘completely unhouse-trained’ George Brown later became notorious for his drunkenness, volatile temperament and occasional brawls. Indeed, despite his reaching high office, he will surely be remembered more as the man who gave rise to the euphemistic phrase tired and emotional than for any political achievement (I was sad to discover, though, that the Cardinal-Archbishop of Lima incident was probably apocryphal.)

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4 thoughts on “Violet reaction

    August 12, 2010 at 08:02

    I don't know that social codes are becoming more subtle, just fragmented as society fragments. There is no longer the illusion and reality of a single grand hierarchy.

    August 12, 2010 at 09:32

    The word 'form' is interesting. Upper class types are often incredibly rude but I suppose there's a way of doing it in the correct form.

    August 12, 2010 at 09:52

    Lady Violet was one of my mother's heroines. It tickled her pink when I married her great-great-niece.

    You should listen to a recording of her: if nothing else, she was a game old bird, with the full set of Edwardian characteristics.

    August 12, 2010 at 11:09

    Interesting to note Lady V deploying an early form of txtspeak, with her 'cld'.

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