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Originally published Sunday, December 29, 2013 at 3:03 AM

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‘Sorry!’ a guide through the thicket of English manners

In “Sorry!” The English and Their Manners,” British author and critic Henry Hitchings makes the case that the English may not be the most mannerly people on Earth, but they live by elaborate rituals for social interaction, undergirded by a surprising dose of common sense.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Sorry! The English and Their Manners’

by Henry Hitchings

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pp., $28

First, let’s be clear: Henry Hitchings, author of “Sorry!,” certainly doesn’t argue that the English are paragons of civility in the modern world. (Hooliganism, anyone?) But over the centuries, the English have developed a set of rituals in most realms of social interaction that have worked reasonably well and, more to the point, that we Americans — by natural inheritance — have taken on.

And what a thicket these rituals are, tangled with contradictions, curiosities, surprising foreign provenance and even, when the brush gets cleared, remarkable common sense.

Hitchings, theater critic for The London Evening Standard and author of “The Secret Life of Words,” begins his history in the mid-16th century, when the average Englishman would find pigs in the street, fleas in the bed, lice in the hair and furniture that wouldn’t be upholstered for 200 years. Probably inaccessible to him: “sugar, tobacco, books, newspapers, clocks, pictures, curtains and glass drinking vessels.”

Italian Baldassare Castiglione’s “Il Libro del Cortegiano” (“The Book of the Courtier”) would be available, in Italian, but only to the ruling class. Its English counterpart, Sir Thomas Elyot’s “The Boke Named the Governour,” apparently condoned chess and music, while condemning dice.

The general go-to book on manners at the time would have been Erasmus’ “De Civilitate Morum Puerilium,” but that was directed at young boys, who were given very specific instruction on how to behave, including, helpfully, keeping one’s penis out of public sight, and the recommendation that vomiting was to be preferred over elaborately trying to choke back one’s vomit.

Hitchings, who seems at times as much aggregator as historian, references many important, if tangential, works that reflected manners of that period and beyond, among them Samuel Pepys’ diary and works by both English and European commentators.

The subsequent explosion of the printed word brought greater public debate, and thus greater importance placed on public behavior, says the author. Hitchings cites Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, in his letters to his illegitimate son, as among the first to popularize the bedrock concept of etiquette: the importance of maintaining social distance and respecting another’s privacy.

After Chesterfield came the deluge of prescriptive texts on public behavior, and their expected (and necessary) responses, especially from the wickedly funny likes of Jonathan Swift.

This is far from a line-item history of English etiquette, since Hitchings digressively muses on many related topics, such as table manners, which are, he writes, “a means of managing disgust.” To his point, he quotes Colin McGinn’s description of the process: “a mass of organic pulp on the brink of descent into the bilious hell of the stomach.”

And Hitchings has a keen sense of where our manners stand today, pointing out that our reactions in the 1980s to the behavior of tennis players John McEnroe (juvenile) and Björn Borg (stoic) might have dramatically changed through today’s lens, McEnroe now being “authentic” and Borg being “robotic.”

Still, Hitchings doesn’t really impart a sense of whether English (hence American) manners are decidedly better or worse, nor is he helpfully prescriptive on what the reader might do about it all.

Funnily enough, though, hidden in that tangle of confusion, and maybe in need of a little burnishing, is that golden maxim we might recall from our school days: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It does still seem to work.

Alan Moores is a Seattle-based writer and editor.

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