Happy New Year! I hope you enjoyed the Christmas break? I managed to get away for a few days – and, during a long car ride, caught snippets of the BBC Radio 4 programme You and Yours, where Julian Worricker asked members of the public how the modern family has influenced the way we celebrate the holidays: ‘Tell us how the breakdown of a relationship or divorce has changed the way you spend the holidays. How difficult do you find it to please everyone from kids to in-laws to former partners and members of the step family?’
It’s amazing how lifestyles have changed over such a short space of time – I found myself asking if, in the traditional family, everyone would necessarily expect to be pleased with their lot at Christmas? They would certainly know their place in a tried and tested social structure, and would probably accept whatever treatment they received as a consequence of this.
Traditional family life is based on a mass of unwritten laws or conventions, which essentially boils down to good manners. In the words of the late Dame Barbara Cartland, “The family, and therefore ultimately, human happiness, flourishes or withers by the practice of good manners… Tradition emerges slowly from experience of failure and success. It gives you an anchor in life and provides a set of rules which has in the past proved to be worth following. Today, unfortunately, we are too bemused with progress. We tend to believe that anything new must, ipso facto, be better than the old so that we not only remain ignorant of the heritage of the past with its customs, conventions and traditions, but we do not even trouble to know what they are.”
Unlike Hyacinth Bouquet, I’ve never read any of Barbara Cartland’s romantic novels, but I did spend Christmas browsing through her Etiquette Handbook – A guide to good behaviour from the boudoir to the bedroom – which, to me, seemed all very sound stuff (even though it was written in 1962):
“It is not really important to know the correct way of addressing an Archbishop, whether a cake should be eaten with fingers or a fork, or if you should put the milk in the tea-cup before or after you have poured the tea. But it is important to cultivate an ability to merge with the pattern of one’s fellow human beings without jarring their sensibilities”
“Times change, fashion changes, but one thing remains – the fundamental decency and common sense of human beings, who sooner or later, elect to throw overboard the pretentious, hypocritical and the absurd. It is inherent in mankind to always be seeking the simple and natural.”
Of course, Dame Barbara’s ‘simple and natural’ may be a little different to our own, “It is the naturalness of the Queen, Prince Philip and the Queen Mother which delights everyone who meets them. It results from unselfconsciousness and an unfailing wish to please.”
And, with Cartland, where there’s romance, there should always be manners: “The self-discipline of good behaviour should never be dropped within the home, least of all by the husband and wife. It is theirs to set the example of harmony, tolerance, consideration and gentleness which will be reflected in other members of the family, and thereby in the social group and the nation itself.”
Which back in the early 1960s meant “The man should open the windows before he gets into bed. A wife should see that the clocks are right so that there is no rush in the morning. She should also see that her husband has a clean aired shirt and fresh socks ready to put on the next day…Unless she is ill, a woman should get up and cook her husband’s breakfast before he goes to work in the morning… It is bad manners to do this in curlers, without lipstick, in a shabby dressing-gown and down-at-heel slippers.”
How times have changed. Along with the traditional family, the fundamental belief that good manners begin at home is something we clearly seem to have forgotten about. The problem is that, in most cases, we no longer have the husband and wife. Advice these days comes in the form of appropriately worded warnings, like that given to author Elizabeth Gilbert by her sister, “Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You really need to be certain it’s what you want before you commit.”
William of Wykeham’s motto for Winchester College, ‘Manners Makyth Man’ meant in the medieval English of his day, ‘Character makes a man.’ However, good behaviour is not instinctive and has to be taught from an early age. Even with the most basic of education, there should surely be no excuse for anyone, from a dustman to a diplomat, to not have at least some understanding of good manners?
Thankfully, a quick search on the internet shows that, as manners maketh money, etiquette classes and specialist schools of etiquette for children are now becoming all the rage – especially in the United States and surprisingly even in Australia (evidence of civilization at last).
So long as we have good manners, is the traditional family structure still necessary?