November 4, 2014
I SAY YOUR GRACE, DO STOP TWEETING AT THE DINNER TABLE
The world is a very different place to what it was just five years ago. For example, we really don’t need to remember things any more. Say you are watching television and there’s an actress you recognise but can’t name. In the time it takes you to say “oh her, I know her, what was she in? Wait, I’ll remember in a seco…” – someone has pulled out their phone, connected to the IMDB via a web search and is reeling off their entire filmography. Information about anything, from instructions for changing a light bulb, to a detailed history of the light bulb’s development or even full biographies of the light bulb’s inventors (Swan and Edison, thank you Google) is available at the touch of a button.
Things were very different in 18th Century Britain. There were of course books, but this mostly contained historical information. If you wanted current, up-to-date facts about people, you had to hope that someone else could fill you in, but this could be sensitive information and if one was not of an appropriate social rank, then one was up a certain creek without a certain wooden implement. For example, what if you had a dinner engagement with Prince Henry Scot, Duke of Buccleugh and (shock, horror) you couldn’t recognize his coat of arms? What if you were (perish the thought) unaware that The Earl of Wandesford and the Viscount Castlecomer were in fact the same individual? Getting something like this wrong could be disastrous for a chap attempting to gain standing in Georgian high society. Fortunately, John Debrett, a Piccadilly book seller, was on hand to help.
The first three editions of The New Peerage were in fact published by Debrett’s boss at the time, John Almon. These contained an exhaustive amount of information on each and every titled family in the British Isles. Family histories traced back to the Norman Conquest of 1066, the locations of stately homes and a breakdown of the composition and meaning of every part of each coat of arms. In short, an 18th Century Wikipedia for the 1%. Debrett continued Almon’s work in the two volume publications The Correct Peerage of England, Scotland and Ireland that followed. These guides were so useful that they became an indispensable part of life to those with titles and lands. Looking yourself up in Debrett’s must be considered the very earliest incarnation of what is now known as ‘Googling yourself’. It is referenced in many literary works, from Vanity Fair to Sherlock Holmes, as well as by authors such as Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and PG Wodehouse. More recently, it has appeared in TV episodes of Absolutely Fabulous and Downton Abbey.
In the middle of the 20th Century, with the aristocracy on the decline, Debrett’s began to publish guides to etiquette: Debrett’s Manners and Correct Form in the Middle East or Debrett’s Guide for the English Gentleman, for example. Even now, the Debrett’s guide is still going strong, albeit under the slightly less distinguished title of People Of Today. They also continue to publish guides to good behaviour – including, this week, how to behave on both mobile and smartphones.
The advice is a mix of common and uncommon sense, wrapped up in the gloriously snooty format that you would expect of such a publication. We are advised to remove both headphones when at the cash register, as “the fact that it's a mundane transaction does not justify a refusal to engage properly with another human being.” It should be clear to anyone that “messages of condolence sent by text are the ultimate faux-pas”, but you might be surprised to learn that “formal handwritten thank you letters should never be replaced by a text”. I certainly was – I shall have to check with the butler to make sure he’s not slacking off. That is, assuming I can tear him away from taking selfies with the gameskeeper.