Illustration by Ben Beechener
Once, to be English was to speak the language of indirectness: our sense of manners was such that nothing seemed so vulgar as simply to come out and say it. No doubt this tendency has ebbed and flowed over the past few decades, but, these days, it is surely at an end; for better or for worse, the stiff upper lip has receded in favour of unrestrained candour in the American style. Those of us who live in this brave new world of unfettered frankness must look to the past – or, more precisely, to period dramas – for our fix of that ambiguous discrepancy between appearance and reality upon which polite social convention invariably relies. Quibble all you like with my historically inexact explanation, but, for whatever reason, period dramas are big business these days. If you want to know what this genre offers that perhaps no others can, I think it’s the manners that you ought to mind.
The enlightened among us will agree that Jane Austen is undoubtedly the mistress of manners. A significant part of her genius consists in her ability to exact comedy, pathos, and narrative tension from the chasm that sometimes yawns between what is said and what is really meant. Small wonder, then, that her books translate so well onto the screen; in even the less inspired adaptations, the dialogue remains richly suggestive, fuelling the kind of will-they-won’t-they frisson that is the essence of many a compulsively watchable rom-com. Consider the moment in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) in which Eleanor Dashwood attempts to conceal her burgeoning love for Edward, both from her sister Marianne and from herself, by funnelling her feelings through a stiff formula of neutral admiration. Marianne, much less adept at self-restraint, sees straight through this avoidance strategy, and mocks Eleanor’s mimsy phrasing outright. Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship (2016), based on Austen’s early work Lady Susan, is even more heavily reliant upon the art of indirection: rarely in recent cinema has the elephant in the room loomed so large.
I couldn’t get past the first episode of Bridgerton, but, as far as I could tell, this was an element of the genre it resolutely failed to embrace. The first line of narration sets the tone: “It has been said that, of all bitches dead or alive, a scribbling woman is the most canine!” Is there a human brain on the planet to which this appears a perfectly lucid sentence? What’s worse, this sort of flannel reveals that Bridgerton’s writers think the soul of the language of Regency England is in the pompous phrasing itself, rather than in the way that these circumlocutions both conceal and hint at an underlying shadow-world of sensuality and unspoken desire. The abundance of sex in the programme, prudish as it may sound, seems similarly deflating, dispensing as it does with all the repressed longing that is the very substance of erotic tension. Would Colin Firth’s Darcy in the BBC’s classic Pride and Prejudice (1995) be the sex symbol he unflaggingly remains if his signature smoulder were the mere preface to a prolonged on-screen bonk-a-thon? Come to think of it, maybe: but, in any case, the drama of the show would be the less.
William III and Mary II, who acceded to our throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, are sometimes said to have introduced manners into English life, going out of their way to establish the crown and its court anew as an exemplar of respectable gentility. The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), Peter Greenaway’s film set in a country manor during the 1690s, concludes that, for the less-than-pure of heart, the new trend for managing appearances merely constituted a convenient arras behind which skeletons could be stacked. This is a glacial affair: whether the surface conduct of the characters is refined or unapologetically rude, it would be a mistake to look to it for hints about what is going on underneath. There’s a lot of sex, like in Bridgerton, but where that show posits sensuality as the unvarnished reality behind the courteous façade, this film sees only one big deception. In the drawing rooms anachronistic Roy Lichtenstein-style paintings are hung, and amid one tableau of seventeenth-century periwigged pomp sits a conspicuously twentieth-century car. When all this manages to go entirely unremarked, it’s no great surprise when we discover that darker things are being discreetly brushed under the carpet. For an artist like Greenaway, the period setting is a gift: England’s burgeoning vogue for manners forms a delicious foil in this portrait of the sickness at the heart of an aristocratic household.
‘Manners faketh man’, then, is more or less the motto of most great period dramas, but some succeed in making the point by tending towards the other extreme. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite (2018), for instance, does away with etiquette almost entirely: instead of the typical tight-buttoned regal soap, we get a masterful exercise in barefaced crassness. For William and Mary, the royals were to be taken as the paragon of England’s new politesse. If this film is anything to go by, their successor Queen Anne scorned the lofty standard she inherited, and set out instead to prove that monarchy’s natural state is one of vomitous excess. In The Favourite, she is as earthy as they come: she scoffs cake and is sick; she wallows in a mud bath with her ‘favourite’ Sarah Churchill; she wails inconsolably over yet another flare-up of her gout-stricken leg. Much of the comedy is physical: no film I can think of contains more instances of shoving. All in all, its unremitting stress on bodily baseness serves to reveal that, at bottom, even the most exalted among us are little more than animals. That’s one fact you can never hope completely to conceal – no matter how meticulously you mind your Ps & Qs.