Saturday, June 10, 2017

Did Behavior make a Gentleman?

by Maria Grace

The concept of a gentleman runs back to medieval times, but its meaning has changed over the centuries.  Today, most regard a gentleman to be a cultured, courteous, well-educated man with a code of honor and high standards of behavior. Those ideas though, came into vogue during the Victorian era. Prior to that, being a gentleman reflected birth and wealth as much as it did one’s behavior.

The Georgian era gentleman, the precursor to the Victorian gentleman, established a code of conduct based on the three R’s considered fundamental to gentlemanly conduct: Restraint, Refinement and Religion. After the French Revolution (and quite possibly because of it), in the reign of George III, the British began to distinguish themselves with their restraint and reserve from the more hot-headed peoples of southern Europe. The move also increased the social distance between the English aristocracy (and eventually the upper class in general) and the lower and serving classes. The shift happened slowly, though, over decades, as the British Empire expanded. (Mason, 1982) This is where the change to defining the gentleman by his manners rather than his birth or fortune began. (Cornick, 2015)

The regency era gentlemen were caught in this shift, still interacting cordially with those not of their class, including their servants and professionals under their employ, but at the same time becoming a bit more reserved in their dealing with them. (Kane, March 2009) So, if a man of this era was haughty and dismissive of his servants, it was more a matter of his personality than of a social expectation of arrogance toward the lower classes. This suggests Mrs. Reynold’s praise of Mr. Darcy as a considerate and caring master in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is more a statement meant to correct Elizabeth Bennet’s opinion of Darcy than it is to suggest that Darcy is an aberration amongst his class.

A young gentleman’s behavior would have been dramatically shaped by his schooling. Most young gentlemen would begin their schooling under a governess. By the age of six, he would often have a private tutor or be sent to study a few days a week with the local curate, vicar or resident scholar. (Kane, August, 2012) Some families would send boys this young to boarding school, others waited until closer to ten years old. During these years of primary, secondary and university education spent with other young men of their social class, gentlemanly behavior would be both caught and taught.

Gentlemanly behavior 

So then, what did this ‘gentlemanly behavior’ (sometimes referred to as ‘good breeding’) entail? Through the centuries, numerous writers attempted to describe it.
Philosopher John Locke (1693) suggested a young man of good breeding:
was decent and graceful in his looks, voice, words, gestures and general demeanor.
was pleasing in company, taking care not to offend others or demonstrating “sheepish bashfulness”
showed no excess of ceremony; did not flatter or dissimulate; was not mean.
In conversation displayed respect, esteem, good manners and goodwill to everyone.

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield by William HoareIn the mid-1700’s Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield wrote to his illegitimate son on the issue of that which would make a man “welcome and agreeable in conversation and common life.” (Chesterfield, 1984) His advice echoed Locke’s including:
“One of the most important points in life is decency; which is to do what is proper and where it is proper.”  (Chesterfield, 1984) Do not be ashamed of doing what is right.
Do not be distracted, rude or thoughtless during a conversation.
You should always endeavor to procure all the conveniences you can to the people you are with.” (Chesterfield, 1984) (In other words, think of others first and make them comfortable when they are with you.

Mason (1982) helps to sum up the overall English notion of a gentleman suggesting that the true English gentleman was a combination of both good birth and a sterling character. In addition to coming from a good family:
A gentleman knew his place in society and the world
While it was convenient for the gentleman to have money, he should never be one to be seen to count pennies
A gentleman was a man of principle, careful of his reputation, fulfilling his obligations, and behaving with integrity and honor in every situation
Gentlemen weren’t awkwardly bashful or formal; they didn’t put themselves forward in social settings, but rather stylish and elegant and considerate of others
Gentlemen show consideration for women and would never insult those below them be they servant or beggar.

The limits of Gentlemanly Behavior

As interesting as is it is to consider what made a gentleman in the regency era, it is perhaps more interesting to examine what behaviors seemed to have little impact on one’s status as a gentleman.
Gentlemen of the regency were not particularly religious as a group, many were not regular church-goers. Mason (1982) suggests that many of these substituted the gentlemanly behavior Christian tenets since the former were easier to uphold. (Mason, 1982) These men included much of the clergy who were younger sons of the aristocracy who went into the church only because it was expected of them. Often these vicars hired a curate to minister to the parish whilst they continued in the social life of the season, hunting, gambling, and dallying with women all without particular scandal. They could not be faulted for living the life of an aristocratic gentlemen.

Perhaps this preference for easier to follow guidelines of behavior explains why there are a few principles that are noticeably absent in the behavioral rules for gentlemen. Sexual morals are nowhere addressed. Faithfulness to one’s marriage is not related to being a gentleman. Nor does being a gentleman preclude visiting prostitutes. Many, if not most, high society gentlemen supported mistresses and frequented brothels.

Issues of gaming, debt and financial management are not directly addressed by any ‘gentlemanly code’, only tangentially in matters of reputation and principles. Similarly any sort of reference to a ‘work ethic’ is absent from tenets of gentlemanly behavior. Remember, a gentleman was first defined as one who did not actually dirty his hands with work for his income.

In short, being a proper Regency era gentleman did not mean many of the things we assume of the term today. That is not to say there were no gentlemen who were faithful to their wives, hardworking and conscientious with their money, only that those traits were not actually considered a necessary part of gentlemanly behavior.


Cornick, Nicola. "What Makes a Gentleman? - A historical post." Historical and Regency Romance UK. August, 2015. Accessed May 22, 2017.
Kane, Kathryn. "Boy to Man:   The Breeching Ceremony." The Regency Redingote. August 31, 2012. Accessed May 22, 2017. .
Kane, Kathryn. "The Regency Gentleman." The Regency Redingote. March 20, 2009. Accessed May 22, 2017.
Locke, John. Some thoughts concerning education. London: A. and J. Churchill, 1693.
Mason, Philip. The english gentleman: the rise and fall of an ideal. London: André Deutsch, 1982.
Morris, Diane H.  “A True Regency Gentleman Had Good Breeding” Moorgate Books. Thursday, October 22nd, 2015. Accessed May 22, 2017.
Morris, Diane H.  “Good Breeding: The Regency Principle of Decency.” Moorgate Books. November 10th, 2016 Accessed May 22, 2017.
 Morris, Diane H. "Is Mr. Darcy the Ideal Regency Gentleman?" Moorgate Books. September 24, 2015. Accessed May 22, 2017. .
Morris, Diane H. “Mr. Darcy’s Breeding Problem” Moorgate Books. November 5th, 2015 Accessed May 22, 2017.
Stanhope, Philip Dormer. Lord Chesterfield letters to his son and others. London and Melburne: Dent, 1984.


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.


  1. Interesting post, Maria. And, as I recall, cheating at cards was considered by gentlemen to be a most despicable offense.


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