Thanks to my friend, The Green Goddess, who recommended that I read The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I've yet to consolidate my opinions on the novel beyond a glaring neon of Great Gatsby and 'written with both eyes firmly on the film rights', so this isn't a review.
The title relates to the Young George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. Aged sixteen, the future President of America copied out these rules as a writing exercise from a translation of a French etiquette manual first published in 1640. The original French manual has been traced back to a manuscript written by the Jesuits in 1595.
Many of the 'rules' relate to table manners, when to doff one's hat, where to position oneself when walking along a corridor or through a door with another, and how one should never fidget, sigh, yawn, hum, bite one's nails or appear in a state of undress in the presence of others. Speaking with one's mouth full, scuffing ones feet, wearing dirty clothes, raising one eyebrow, or spreading gossip are all equally frowned upon.
What strikes me is that following most of these edicts would still serve us well over four hundred years later. Unfortunately, as most of them refer to deference, putting others before oneself, and not assuming one is the centre of attention, they are increasingly dropping out of fashion.
It is also interesting to note that the young George did not think these behaviours were necessarily innate (otherwise, there would be no need to list them), but that, if learned, they would make shared society all the more pleasant. I still hold these truths to be self-evident. These are my favourite of the 110 rules:
5 Favourite Rules of Civility:
- 1st - Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
- 18th - Read no Letters, Books, or Papers in Company but when there is a Necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave: come not near the Books or Writings of Another so as to read them unless desired or give your opinion of them unask'd also look not nigh when another is writing a Letter. (Poor George would have conniptions over mobile-phone usage!)
- 41st - Undertake not to Teach your equal in the art himself Professes; it Savours of arrogancy. (Critics; take note!)
- 53rd - Run not in the Streets, neither go too slowly nor with Mouth open go not Shaking yr Arms kick not the earth with yr feet, go not upon the toes, nor in a Dancing fashion.
- 89th - Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust.