Good Manners

Craig Raine

  • The Collected Prose of Elizabeth Bishop edited by Robert Giroux
    Chatto, 278 pp, £12.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2809 7

Elizabeth Bishop was refined. Manners interested her, as The Collected Prose makes clear. She can remember learning ‘how to behave in school’ with more recall than most people: ‘this meant to sit up straight, not to scrape your feet on the floor, never to whisper, to raise your hand when you had to go out, and to stand up when you were asked a question.’ Fifty-odd years later in Brazil, she teaches manners to two little girls who are following a crazy woman and giggling at her: ‘I give them a look.’ At the same time, she could see the limitations of manners, could see beyond their immediate and important utility as guides to behaviour. She realises that manners are provisional. They change. Which is why her poem, ‘Manners’, carries the ironical epigraph, For a Child of 1918. Elizabeth Bishop knows that this rigid six-inch ruler, serviceable in its way, cannot measure the larger reaches of human behaviour. ‘Manners’, then, isn’t quite the charmingly simple, didactically homespun affair it pretends to be. It is an elegy for a lost, straightforward world. Present, too, squally and intractable, is the unmentioned problematic present.

‘A Trip to Vigia’ is a comedy of manners masquerading as a travel essay, in which the manners of a ‘shy poet, so soiled, so poor, so polite’ are anthropologically scrutinised by another shy poet, Elizabeth Bishop, whose financial advantages are mysteriously rendered impotent: ‘the car was on its last legs; it had broken down twice just getting us around Belem the day before. But what could we do? I couldn’t very well flaunt my dollars in his face and hire a better one.’ Everyone means well but the occasion comes to resemble a curious courtship in which neither party can advance the issue and make the trip a relaxed affair. The formality of manners somehow outflanks both parties, as if they were speaking different languages – which, in a way, they are. A fine packed lunch proves to be an embarrassment because it reflects on their host’s poverty: ‘finally M. and I miserably gobbled up some lunch by ourselves.’ When the trip is over, Dona Elizabeth offers their guide a drink. He will accept only coffee and somehow contrives to pay for the lot behind their backs. The high spot of the trip is not the church which is their destination, but a passage of behaviour, a little epiphany of etiquette that appeals to the connoisseur of manners: ‘we had met Ruy just two days before. That morning I asked M. to let me know when the mystic moment arrived and she’d shift gears from addressing him as “Dr Ruy” to “you”. This use of the vocé or second person is always a delicate problem and I wanted to see how M. who has the nicest Brazilian manners would solve it.’ The metaphor, ‘shift gears’, nicely places the transaction by reminding us of the actual vehicle. They are travelling over difficult social terrain in a ramshackle, makeshift affair which keeps breaking down. For once, the Americans are not in the driving seat dictating the direction.

In the stunning memoir of Marianne Moore, this preoccupation is, if anything, more pronounced. Again, there is the same mixture of tactful respect, forbearance, even admiration, and a wry agnosticism. The absolutes promulgated by Miss Moore (‘we called each other “Miss” for over two years’) and her mother are enormously attractive – yet shown to be provisional and, on occasion, battily arbitrary. On the one hand, their manners are charming, other-wordly, a refreshing change from ‘the crass atmosphere of the 20th century’: ‘what I remember most is that at the proper floor, as the passengers stared, Marianne and her mother both bowed to the elevator boy pleasantly and thanked him, Mrs Moore the more profusely, for the ride. He was unaccustomed to such civility, but he was very pleased and tried hard not to push his handle or close the doors as quickly as on other floors. Elevator men, subway change-makers, ticket takers, taxi drivers – all were treated to these formalities, and, as a rule, they were pleasantly surprised and seemed to respond in kind.’ On the other hand, the system can be inelastic: ‘a very well known and polished writer, who had known Marianne since he was a young man and felt great admiration for her, was never invited to Cumberland Street [the Moore residence] although his friends were. Once, I asked innocently why I never saw him there and Marianne gave me her serious, severe look and said, “He contradicted Mother.” ’

The failure here is, perhaps, on both sides – a kind of double fault. But at other moments, Elizabeth Bishop is amused, gentle but firm in her disagreement with the code:

Besides exercising on the trapeze, Marianne was very fond of tennis. I never saw her play, but from the way she talked about it, it seemed as if she enjoyed the rules and conventions of the game as much as the sport. She engaged a young black boy to play with her, sometimes in Prospect Park and sometimes on the roof of the apartment house. He was finally dismissed because of his lack of tennis manners; his worst offence seemed to be that instead of ‘Serve!’ he would say ‘Okay!’

Her own finesse and tractability didn’t always prevent Elizabeth Bishop from coming into conflict with the rules: she is criticised for using the word ‘spit’ in a short story and later for the impropriety of using ‘water closet’ in a poem. ‘But by then I had turned obstinate.’ In any case, this deliberately shaped memoir shows that these rules were necessarily strained, often by simple emotions of the baser kind, like human curiosity: ‘several times over the years Marianne asked me abruptly, “Elizabeth, what do you have on under your dress? How much underwear do you wear?” ’ And it is this maverick behaviour, these exceptions to the rules, which appeal to Elizabeth Bishop because they reveal the irrepressible individual – the nonconformist who took tango lessons; the baseball enthusiast; the eccentric who, however much she flattened her headgear, nevertheless possessed and wore ‘the Holbein/Erasmus-type hat, and later the famous tricorn’; the zany who learned to drive at a dangerously advanced age and preferred the front seat of the roller-coaster at Coney Island.

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