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Friday, August 24

On Becoming a Gentleman: Lord Chesterfield's Letters to his Son

Next to good-breeding is genteel manners and carriage, and the best method to acquire these is through a knowledge of dance. Now to acquire a graceful air, you must attend to your dancing; no one can either sit, stand or walk well, unless he dances well. And in learning to dance, be particularly attentive to the motion of your arms for a stiffness in the wrist will make any man look awkward. If a man walks well, presents himself well in company, wears his hat well, moves his head properly, and his arms gracefully, it is almost all that is necessary.

One can imagine that Mr. Darcy's and Mr. Bingley's deportment and good breeding in Pride and Prejudice reflected the etiquette and manners described by Lord Chesterfield in his letters to his sons dating from 1737. Although Samuel Johnson derided these letters for teaching "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master," their collections were published and became well known during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Influenced by his own neglect as a child, Lord Chesterfield began to write the letters to Philip, his illegitimate son by a Dutch governess, when the boy was only five years old. When Philip turned twenty-five, Lord Chesterfield's godson (another Philip) was born. Lord Chesterfield continued to send advice to this boy as well. Though quite illuminating about a father's expectations of his son's deportment, these letters were private and were never meant to be read publicly. ( However, Lord Chesterfield's advice remains fascinating, and much of what he related in them still holds true today. Regardless of what one might think of the information contained therein, the letters provide a fascinating insight into the manners and etiquette of the a gentleman in the 18th century:

Many people lose a great deal of their time by laziness; they loll and yawn in a great chair, tell themselves that they have not time to begin anything then, and that it will do as well another time. This is a most unfortunate disposition, and the greatest obstruction to both knowledge and business. At your age, you have no right nor claim to laziness; I have, if I please, being emeritus. You are but just listed in the world, and must be active, diligent, indefatigable. If ever you propose commanding with dignity, you must serve up to it with diligence. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do to-day.

Read the letters and about Lord Chesterfield in the following links:

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