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MOVIES : When Manners Counted : 19th-Century etiquette plays an important role in ‘The Age of Innocence,’ and there’s more at stake than just using the right fork

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Lawrence Lefferts and Sillerton Jackson ought to be having a field day with the new film of Edith Wharton’s novel “The Age of Innocence” instead of wandering through it without seeming to notice that anything is wrong.

True, these two insufferable gentlemen are only minor characters in the movie, as in the book. But in the circles in which the major characters move, they are the self-appointed guardians of what is done and what is simply not done. And all around them in the film, supposedly proper people are unknowingly doing the unspeakable:

A woman is introduced to a man, rather than the man to the woman. Cream is offered with tea, instead of milk. An envelope is addressed to a man using only his name, bereft of any courtesy title. Fish knives and cruets, objects that old society ridiculed as symbolizing gauche new wealth, appear on its very own dinner tables.

Of course, Larry Lefferts is a conceited hypocrite who exposes other people’s foibles in order to distract attention from his own shabby affairs. And Sillerton Jackson is a silly old gossip-collector who never did a useful thing in his life. Why should anyone else care about mangled details of 1870s etiquette?

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Historical movies, plays, operas and television shows nearly always do get the manners wrong, and only a few fussbudgets notice. We (and their dry-cleaners) should be grateful that this film avoids the typical mistake of having rich people eat and drink with--yuck--gloved hands. (The women here tuck the hands of their long gloves into the glove-wrists to eat, which would be proper for a stand-up supper but not for the seated dinner parties at which they are shown. They were expected to peel off their gloves and lay them across their laps--a sensuous routine soon appropriated by strip-teasers with a sense of humor.)

“The Age of Innocence” is, however, a special case. This is a story about social control.

The connection between manners and morals is what Newland Archer, the hero of “The Age of Innocence,” comes to recognize. Archer has been mindlessly conventional until dazzled by the Countess Ellen Olenska, who is returning to their circle to escape her vicious aristocratic European husband. She represents the glamour of freedom as she simply ignores the pettier rules--she smokes in the privacy of her home and frequents the salon of a shoe polish manufacturer’s wife--with the enthusiastic support, it is important to note, of her grande dame grandmother.

The novel is far from taking the simplistic attitude that all inhibitions of emotion and spontaneity are stupid, if not evil. Heart-breaking some strictures may sometimes have been--but not necessarily dictated by heartlessness.

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We are used to seeing dramas set in what might be called the Old-Fashioned Period--back when people had great clothes but were only beginning to suspect the existence of sex. This period comprises everything after the Renaissance right up through the youth of current movie-goers’ parents. Its heyday was Queen Victoria’s reign, with the vast variety of habits and behavior at different social levels, from 1837 to 1901, blended into one style of funky prudery.

This is not to say that we really want our entertainment to provide an unattractively realistic view of historic times. It is surely allowable artistic license to let us admire the pretty carriages while sparing us the sight of the inevitable result--all the characters trying to negotiate city streets that were ankle-deep in horse-droppings.

To understand what Wharton had in mind requires not only the admirable fidelity that Martin Scorsese’s film has to what she made explicit, but also a feel for what she left implicit. Those trifling details of etiquette are of symbolic importance in dramatizing the times.

In the period depicted, the Knickerbockers (New York’s old society, known by a reference to its Dutch ancestors’ short pants) felt threatened by the social consequences of democracy. Self-made businessmen, having achieved financial power, were impatiently behaving as if they were entitled to comparable social power. The character of Julius Beaufort in the story represents that influx of newly rich people, which, in real life, included August Belmont and the Vanderbilts.

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Barring an actual revolution, class warfare is typically conducted by means of etiquette rules wielded (impolitely, one must point out) as weapons. In times of social upheaval, hostilities are commonly expressed in terms of the small example intended to illustrate that “those people don’t know how to behave.” (The same thing happens when individuals undergo emotional upheaval, which is why weddings and funerals, even today, are marked with fierce etiquette battles conducted by people with no previous or subsequent interest in the subject.)

The Knickerbockers did not fight by invoking that complexity of social rules now commonly characterized as Victorian Etiquette. Rather, they extolled an earlier Victorian etiquette that was its opposite: simplicity.

Granted, this society’s idea of the simple life looks mighty cluttered to moderns (who should not confuse simplicity with informality or improvisation). Nevertheless, it contrasted with the elaborations of etiquette that rising tycoons used to distinguish themselves, in turn, from the classes from which they came, who also had simple manners, but ones that were in no way similar to the upper classes’.

Follow that?

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Take the matter of fish knives, which now lend a mildly erudite and old-fashioned touch to the proper dinner table. Individual fish knives (as opposed to fish slices or servers) had only been invented well into the 19th Century and would have been considered something of a novelty item at the time this story takes place. Therefore, those families who prided themselves on having been in polite society long before considered them a symbol of raw pretentiousness.

Of course, these folks didn’t really eat like their socially acceptable 18th-Century ancestors, who might still have used one knife to bring all their food directly into their mouths. They had advanced to believing it hideously wrong to use a meat knife on fish. So they would attack fish with two forks, one in each hand.

Versions of the silver stand of condiment bottles known as a cruet date back centuries earlier, but this clever gadget never did make it to the proper 19th- or 20th-Century dinner table. Perhaps this was because it was picked up by the quick-and-cheap restaurant, where it still serves to hold ketchup and mustard, or piles of paper-wrapped sugar-substitute.

Anyone who thinks that only brainless Victorians would make such sneering distinctions is referred to the satirical poem “How to Get On in Society” by British poet Sir John Betjeman, published in 1954. Fish knives and cruets are both prominently featured as symbols of vulgar social climbing.

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The vulgar sport of trying to throw climbers off the mountain was, of course, practiced then as now and always. But the more thoughtful Victorians did not consider that their little customs were, in themselves, virtues.

Rather, following them faithfully was believed to be evidence of adherence to a tradition that stood for kindness, responsibility, loyalty and the preservation of the family, not to mention the family fortune. The corporate executive test of taking a prospective employee to a fancy lunch, even though eating skills have nothing to do with job requirements, is based on making the same connection between etiquette and moral virtue, among which fiscal responsibility still ranks high.

Etiquette is not supposed to be the villain in this story. Archer and Countess Olenska come to recognize that it is their own belief in the values of their society that forces them to part, not a bunch of stodgy snobs who want to spoil their fun. Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska cannot bring themselves to hurt good, if dull, people.

“It was you,” Countess Olenska tells Newland Archer, “who made me understand that under the dullness there are things so fine and sensitive and delicate that even those I most cared for in my other life look cheap in comparison. It seems as if I’d never before understood with how much that is hard and shabby and base the most exquisite pleasures may be paid.”

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Thirty years later, when so many of the old rules have vanished, Archer might have been forgiven for harboring the bitterness of someone who devoted his life to a defunct and unlamented cause--what stalwart Communists must be feeling, for example.

Instead, he reflects in the novel that his conventional life “had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honored his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.”

The person in the story who fails to understand this is Archer’s own son, for whom the sacrifice was made. At the turn of the century, from the safe vantage of having grown up in an intact family and being now happily engaged to be married and knowing that his mother is dead and therefore beyond hurting--he patronizes his father for not having chosen romance over duty.

Not having divorced for the sake of a new and exciting love means, “You date, you see, dear old boy,” the son says.

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Now, another 90-some years later, when the marriage-splitting “battle of ugly appetites” has become commonplace, a grown-up child’s assumption that he wouldn’t have minded his parents’ pursuing their separate romances, while he perhaps shuttled between them, is beginning to seem--well, dated.

But, then, young Archer, living at the turn of the century, was still a Victorian. So what did he know about sophisticated society?


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