Mrs Perfect Awful

Mary Lefkowitz

  • Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour by Judith Martin
    Hamish Hamilton, 745 pp, £9.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 241 11100 5
  • Gilbert: A Comedy of Manners by Judith Martin
    Hamish Hamilton, 303 pp, £8.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 241 11157 9

For many people in this country the garish Texan settings of television serials, with their incessant boorishness, brutality and violence, appear to represent ‘normal’ life in America. When it is discovered that I grew up in New York City, English people ask, in varying degrees of indirectness, whether it is still possible to live there, if it is safe to walk about in the day, and they don’t always believe me when I tell them that everyone else in my family still lives there, that my cousin, who one would have thought might have been pleased to remain in such a luscious spot as Santa Cruz, California, actually wants to move back. Until recently, there was no ready means of persuading the doubting English that most middle and upper-class. Americans follow routines and conventions that most English people of similar background, were they to be plunged for a single day into the society of midtown Manhattan or Winnetka, Illinois, would easily recognise. But now, for better or for worse, we have Miss Manners’ Guide, which portrays Americans at their most nonviolent, earnestly seeking to cope with all the awkwardnesses imposed on them by rapid changes in morals and the economy. How does one introduce one’s daughter’s roommate (male), one’s son’s live-in friend (male?) at the country club? How does one greet one’s ex-husband’s new (awful, vulgar) wife? How does one keep one’s friends from bringing their nine-month-old baby to the table at a dinner-party? To answer these questions in ways that enable the voyager to avoid being sick while crossing such rough, uncharted waters, requires an imagination that wasn’t evident in the standard books of etiquette, out of which we faithfully copied the wording of formal replies to formal invitations, and ascertained what colours were appropriate for the widowed sister of the bride.

If Miss Manners succeeds where the others have failed it is perhaps because she is the first professional student of etiquette. Her predecessors, Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt, were merely born ladies, and thus professed their subject only as native speakers. Miss Manners, by contrast, claims to have majored in (i.e., read) Gracious Living at a prestigious women’s university, Wellesley College, one of the fabled Seven Sisters – or Heavenly Seven – which also include Bryn Mawr and Smith and, perhaps for historical reasons, the now mixed Vassar. A review of the Guide in one of the English daily papers explained that Wellesley was a kind of Girton (Newnham would have been more precise) where Miss Manners, who was really a correspondent for the Washington Post, Judith Perlman Martin, had once read English. But as a rough contemporary (class of ’57) of Ms Martin’s (class of ’59), I can confirm that even those of us who were not born to polite WASP society could not have managed to leave Wellesley’s long, chill, minor-public-school-Gothic halls without having learned to pour tea from a silver urn, to wait on table and to dress for company. I used to think that this all meant nothing, and only impeded Higher Causes such as going to the Library or finishing my Paper (i.e., essay), but a term as a visiting professor at Berkeley made me eagerly aware of the roots Wellesley years before had somehow managed to graft on to me. After months of warm blue sky, shrubbery so green and uniform it looked like plastic, linoleum corridors, jeans and health drinks, I was only too eager to return to the leafless Massachusetts tundra, the threadbare oriental rugs, teaching suits, and tea.

Perhaps some similar urge to retain contact, no matter how tenuous, with an ersatz English past, inspired Ms Martin/Miss Manners to insist that civilised standards can be maintained. In particular, she is an advocate of Constructive Hypocrisy: ‘what the world needs is more false cheer. And less honest crabbiness.’ Americans tend to delude themselves into believing that they prefer plain blunt sincerity, but Miss Manners warns that the question ‘how are you?’ must always be answered by a hearty ‘very well, thank you, how are you?’ She even adds that ‘a truly disciplined person would never reply anything else, even in a hospital emergency room at midnight.’ She offers a most helpful glossary of social idioms to protect the naive from supposing that people usually mean what they say. ‘We really must see more of each other’ should be translated as ‘I can’t make time to see you.’ ‘I’ll call you,’ as we know, often signifies ‘Don’t call me.’ Miss Manners assumes, correctly, that most people are basically selfish and aggressive, but that to cope with life outside the cave they must pretend to be generous and considerate, and to allow themselves to attack their enemies only with superior benevolence: ‘He was trying the best he could. You have to give him credit for that, even if it didn’t work.’

Just who Miss Manners’s readers are, or where they live, is never specified, and since her advice appears as a syndicated column in many newspapers, they could include people from all strata of the Melting Pot. To judge from their questions they are an anxious and meticulous lot, eager to betray the selfish motives behind their altruism. Like the repulsive, manipulative Gilbert Fairchild, the hero of Ms Martin’s cynical little novel, they know that what you wear, not who your ancestors were (his grandfather Max came from Lithuania) marks your position in society, and that saying or doing the Right Thing at the Right Time may keep you in the conversation long enough to be remembered by the Right People. One senses that all these Gilberts want somehow to remain outside of the Inside, free to believe that they can remain superior to those they are seeking to emulate. They are concerned with everything from high diplomacy – Q: What do you say if you meet someone like Richard Nixon? A: ‘History will record your true worth’ – to how to patronise new neighbours. Q: ‘How can I be helpful without making them think my house is an extension of their house?’ A: Tell them where the best shops are. They want to know whether they should mention that someone’s slip is showing or that they have spinach stuck to their teeth (A: it depends), if they should admit that they returned the wedding present (no), if they ought to go to the football game instead of the funeral service because the deceased would have wanted them to – ‘he would have wanted you to be too overcome with grief to be capable of enjoying anything.’

What makes Miss Manners so enjoyable is not just her advice, though it can be reassuring – ‘until recent years, people strove for perfection ... now, however, it is our faults for which we are loved.’ Nor is it her conservatism, because she is always trying to recycle old customs into something that can be managed practically in our time. How do you introduce your son’s er-um-er? ‘By his name.’ What do you say to him? ‘How do you do?’ The section on Weddings is followed by Divorce and Wedding-2. But Miss Manners’s common sense and pontificating are continually redeemed by humour; she makes fun not only of her readers’ inquiries but of herself, her own prose style, and the cowardly new world in which she finds herself (‘Miss Manners has never even set foot in a sandwich bar, let alone a singles bar, and wouldn’t know what to order’). Self-deprecation is one of the most characteristic types of Jewish humour, at least in its published form, and it should be noted that this is the first general book of etiquette that gives proportional space to the Bris (‘Miss Manners needn’t tell you that this cannot be done for a girl’) and to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs along with Confirmations (‘something strange happens to children when they are 13 years of age, but Miss Manners is not sure that she would call it adulthood’). Her advice is usually given in the form of social self-satire, perhaps best exemplified by her examples, which are based on two families, the Perfects and the Awfuls, who naturally marry and interrelate in every possible fashion, to produce the divorcée Mrs Perfect Awful, the never-married but euphonic Lacy Lawful, whose daughter Chastity has changed her name back to its original form, Godawful, out of respect for History; Lacy’s sister Vice-Admiral Stacey Awful, who only appends her husband’s name for social purposes, when she is known as Mrs Awful-Nuisance.

Since English people are supposed to know all the rules, even though they cannot always be observed practising them, they may not need Miss Manners as much as we do, especially if they already know what to order in a singles bar. But they at least will find her a reliable guide to American Life as many of us try to live it, even though restraint, reserve and rigour are not promising topics for a TV Soap. They may learn from her the critical days of the American Sacred Calendar: ‘White shoes may be worn only after Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) and before Labor Day (the first Monday in September).’ ‘Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November) is like any other big lunch or dinner, only worse ... It is held at a dreadful hour in the early afternoon, because a turkey must be cooked for many hours, and doesn’t taste like much even then, and also so that many of the guests will eventually leave the table to watch football on television ... excessive quantities of food must be served.’ Miss Manners rightly says nothing about the Fourth of July or George Washington’s Birthday, despite their patriotic significance, because they are functionally only Days Off, like Bank Holidays. The English will discover from Miss Manners the correct usage of American titles – why female American lawyers are usually addressed as ‘Esq.’, and that university instructors of every rank pompously call themselves ‘professor’. Not the Land of the Free or the Home of the Brave, perhaps, but at least a little bit different from the land the Pilgrim Fathers sought to leave behind.