For much of our history, Americans have been fascinated by what our British cousins have been doing across the pond. This explains, at least in part, why Americans are captivated by such British television series as Downton Abbey and its earlier predecessor, Upstairs, Downstairs. Certainly one reason why Americans like to imagine themselves as characters in Downton Abbey is the elegance of the aristocratic English lifestyle during the years before and after the First World War. Certain ladies of my acquaintance like to imagine themselves as the Countess of Grantham, living in a magnificent castle and surrounded by a group of obliging servants. I have never met one that secretly aspired to be a kitchen maid. Except for the Irish chauffeur who married one of the titled ladies of the house, the characters that fulfilled the imagination of male fans of Downtown Abbey were all lords of the manor.
But another reason why these television programs appeal to Americans is more elusive. It relates to the polite manner of speech, the verbal eloquence and behavior with grace and style, that permeates the dialogue. Now a British friend of mine, Alena Kate Pettett, has written two books explaining why the manners, traditions, and standards of etiquette in England are relevant to our time. While it may help to appreciate these if you are British, the ideas she explores can be just as meaningful if you are an American.
The first of her books, English Etiquette, explores the motivation behind the manners. In an age dominated by incredibly vulgar and anarchic pop culture, the notion of rules, manners, and standards seem to have gone completely out the window. Decades ago, Cole Porter wrote the lyrics (and music) for a song which declared, “Good authors too who once knew better words now only use four-letter words. Writing prose, Anything Goes!” What would Porter think today of the foul language that permeates our daily social dialogue and is used even by children?
When we think of etiquette, we often think of a haughty head waiter looking aghast because he sees a diner using the wrong fork. But as Alena wisely observes, real etiquette is about behavior; manners are less about protocol and more about how you treat others. Consideration is the key: considering how you speak, dress, behave toward others, and the impact you may have on the lives of your friends and family and even your adversaries is the foundation of true English etiquette. And while Americans are delighted to hear such advice with an English accent, I must say these are also the values with which I was raised by my parents here in the U.S. Unfortunately, too many of us today are more concerned about fads, trends, and a desire to be fashionable “with it. “ No one defines, of course, what “it” actually is and who has the authority to determine what is really best for our society.
Alena’s books are for those who aren’t quite sure how to behave correctly in an age of confusion, who desire self-improvement, or who are just fascinated by all things English. What becomes immediately clear is that the pillars of English etiquette are not lists of rules and regulations. Rather, they are a set of principles and values. A good life well lived depends on virtue. Do you honor something greater than yourself? You are far likelier to be judged by what you say and do than where you were born or how much money you have. Do you hold fast to the values in which you believe or do you allow yourself to be defined by others? Notions of gallantry and grace are often declared outdated by self-proclaimed arbiters of pop culture. Can you resist the pressure to just be like everyone else because it’s easier to get along by going along? In English Etiquette, you are asked many important questions. Can you carry on a polite conversation? Conversation is rapidly becoming a lost art. It is easier to send texts and speak in abbreviations than to really exchange thoughts and ideas; at times it is harder to listen than to speak.
Alena is a person of faith and devoted to her family, especially her husband Carl and son Arlo. For centuries, the family has been the building block on which our society rested. But today the family, like everything that suggests tradition, is under assault. Alena says that quietness, gentleness, and refinement have been abandoned by many today. These values need to be recaptured.
Mentors are important. I was fortunate to have my parents and a number of teachers and friends as true role models. In an age of cultural confusion, the question of role models has become a severe problem. For those who do not have available family members to provide guidance, advice, and to serve as objects of admiration, what can be done? Many children without such role models on both sides of the Atlantic often choose the wrong people to emulate. Celebrities, especially entertainers, athletes, and figures who receive much media publicity are often chosen for the wrong reasons. In English Etiquette, Alena Kate Pettett suggests the right way to choose mentors and role models. The ideal role model should not be selected because of fame, wealth, or social standing. Instead, role models should be chosen for the way they behave. One of Alena’s own favorites, film and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn, said, “ For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others, for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness, and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”
One especially important suggestion of Alena’s is that you consider carefully what you watch and what you read. We are often told, “You are what you eat.” This is also true of the music you hear, the films and television programs you watch, and the books you choose to read. The choices you make may seem casual or unimportant. But more often than not, they will affect your public and private behavior in ways you might never imagine. In today’s world, there is enormous pressure to be just like everyone else.
In 1930, the English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote, “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” Chesterton’s work is well-known to many mystery fans on both sides of the Atlantic because he created the wonderful detective character, the priest and master sleuth, Father Brown. But Chesterton also addressed many of the important issues of the day and engaged in debates with George Bernard Shaw on these subjects. Chesterton’s observation about fallacies and fashions is extremely important. Doing something because “Everybody does it,” is absurd; but it’s hard to march to the beat of your own drummer. It takes courage and determination.
Alena Kate Pettett’s earlier book, Ladies Like Us, is specifically directed at girls and young women who are seeking self-confidence and self-discovery. I have long maintained that many of today’s social ills can be traced back to the social revolution of the 1960s. While that turbulent era produced certain positive developments such as the Civil Rights movement in the United States, it also produced a great deal of abrupt and revolutionary change. Too many people accepted a notion that is still quite prevalent today, the mistaken idea that change is synonymous with progress.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road. In that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” Of course, what Lewis said about men is equally applicable to women of any age, but especially those who are young women making daily choices that will define the rest of their lives in ways they couldn’t possibly imagine. The concept of behaving as “ladies and gentlemen” was once honored. Anyone suggesting this today is likely to be dismissed as a Neanderthal, a sexist or misogynist, and subjected to considerable abuse from what I call “the Twittermob.” Militant radical feminists are among the most humorless and dogmatic objectors to the idea of “ladies” and “gentlemen.” What do these terms mean?
For Alena, a lady values common courtesy, grace, morality, and manners. These concepts may seem old-fashioned to naysayers, but true analysis reveals that bringing back these values represents a choice for girls and young women, one about which they are unlikely to learn on their own. Alena founded “The Darling Academy” to teach these values to others. She declares, “This school requires no summer-long stays in Switzerland with a frightening headmistress or balancing books on your head, but admission does require an open mind and a strong desire for happiness, love and a sense of peace. “ Saying things like “please” and “thank you” may seem trivial, but even the simplest social graces affect not only how others see us, but how we see ourselves.
Alena Kate Pettett is proud of the label “tradwife,” meaning a traditional housewife whose career is really taking care of her family while her husband works outside the home. She gave up her own career to do this and while being a traditional housewife would hardly seem controversial, we are not living in a tolerant time. Radical feminists insist that everyone follow their model; while they proclaim that women should live their lives with the power of choice, this choice does not extend to women who want to follow a path of their own. Alena is not insisting that anyone else emulates her choices, only that women should be free to choose a traditional path without being ridiculed or abused by a group of intolerant conformists.
When speaking of consideration, Alena says, “Hold this word in your heart and think of it before you leap. Consider what you can do or say to be a blessing in someone’s life today.” This is, of course, The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Unfortunately, too many people today prefer cynical variations on this principle such as “He who has the gold makes the rules.” There are even those who follow the mischievous suggestion of British comedian and entertainer Benny Hill, “Do unto others and then RUN!” Hill, of course, was seeking a laugh from his audience and speaking with tongue in cheek, but a serious look at behavior suggests that narcissism and selfishness are prevalent too often.
Alena offers much practical advice in her books regarding manners, the pursuit of happiness, and even wardrobe. But what is clear is that social polish, grace, and style often come from one’s inner values, not one’s outward appearance. She says, “If you want to know the true art of etiquette, it is not in social position or a table setting, it is the position of your heart.”
What are we to make of books and advice that suggest we should not only think of the future but draw upon the standards and values of the past? Russell Kirk, the great conservative scholar, said that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. It’s intriguing that Kirk also wrote a book on “America’s British Culture” in which he explained the British origins of many of the values we hold important in America. For those seeking a practical and principled guide to gentility and responsible behavior, Alena Kate Pettet’s books are a good place to start. The advice offered by Alena is not going to turn you into an English duke or duchess. Nor are we Americans going to begin calling potato chips “crisps” and labeling French Fries as “chips.” We are not going to call soccer “football” or drive on the opposite side of the road. But while part of our language and many of our customs may differ with those of our British cousins, we share much in common. The idea of good manners, being thoughtful and kind to others, and paying attention to how we speak, dress, and behave, are values than can easily “cross the pond.” By looking back, we move forward with greater confidence, self-assurance, and understanding.
To learn more about the books of Alena Kate Pettett, visit: