Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Pym's England

When Darwin and I were students traipsing about Europe, we stayed in a lodging house in Bath, England. In the morning, the assembled lodgers sat in the dining room as the proprietress, Mrs. Guy, came in to take the breakfast egg orders. She stopped by my chair first.
"How would you like your egg, fried or scrambled?' she asked.
"Scrambled," I said.
"Scrambled please," she said.
"I beg your pardon," I said, flushing. "Please."
"I only mention it because you seem like a nice girl," she said, "but I'm not a servant, so it's important to say please. I know in America you're used to having servants, but here it's important to be polite."
A hundred answers to this flashed through my mind -- Americans don't have servants; I was raised in a trailer park -- but I was so flustered that all I could say was, "I'm very sorry."
"Oh, don't apologize!" she exclaimed. "Now I feel bad!"
You can be sure that the rest of the breakfasters were copious with their "pleases", and that there wasn't much conversation around the table.

I was reminded of this bit of ancient history as I was reading a novel by Barbara Pym. Her books, or the ones I've read, have been set in post-WWII England. Women work in offices but still spat over whose standing is low enough to have to make the tea for everyone. Rations are still hoarded. Clothes are serviceable shoes or dowdy tweed skirts or elegant cotton frocks. Hats are worn and holidays are taken. There are vicars and clubs and feuds amongst the parish worthies, and always, in the background, lurks the danger that someone might go to chapel or turn to Rome. And people know their places in the social order.

The blurb compares Pym to Austen, and perhaps that's apropos if all Austen means is "comedy of manners". But I don't find any deep moral center to Pym. The church is central, but it's a church of mere activity: jumble sales and teas and rivalries and deep grudges over who reads the Lesson. Things seem to happen, and they're often comic things that beguile an evening, but no one is striving to become a better person, to ask moral questions, or even connect with anyone else. Indeed, there's a strain of isolation running through the two books I read. Everyone seems essentially unknowable to anyone else. Even relationships and marriages don't seem to be built on a sense of anything shared. The point of view skips about from character to character, even on a line-to-line basis in one of the novels I read, Jane and Prudence, which only serves to emphasize how little people understand each other. I felt a little sad and remote while reading, even as I enjoyed myself.

Still, the novels are charming ("That great English blight"), and Pym has a great turn for cleverly phrased observation and for the ridiculous elements of British society.


Mary McMenomy said...

This is sort of tangential, but: the difference in "please" etiquette is something I've run into a few times in the UK -- I don't want to be discourteous and I *certainly* don't think of people in shops as servants. If anything, in Seattle I was used to a great deal more we-are-implicitly-equals banter with waitstaff and cashiers than I encounter here. But somehow my US training has me instinctively put more emphasis on thanking someone after a transaction rather than saying please at the beginning, and occasionally I will forget that things are done differently here, and very occasionally I'm called out on it.

I think I feel in the US that "please" sometimes actually comes off as sarcastic/jerky: like "could I please have a fork?" to a server sounds like you're calling them out on having made a mistake on not giving you one in the first place, whereas something less formal feels more... relaxed, somehow. But I'm not sure.

Anyway, apologies for focusing on the first part of the post, but this has been on my mind lately. I'm mildly reassured that I'm not the only person to run into this.

Darwin said...

I remember us discussing something along those lines at the time:

Given a pair of alternatives (fried or scrambled) my instinct back at home, if it had been a member of my family asking me, would have been to simply answer with the selection (scrambled) and then say "thanks" when I was handed the plate.

I think in general we just don't use "please" all the much in the US and use "thanks" a lot instead.

But apparently "please" was of much more importance there.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Oh yes. When I was in England I was just a year out of college and working part time at a bookstore. I saved my pennies and got a plane ticket and my friend and I did everything on the cheap. When we got to Dover castle, having walked up the big hill, we discovered that we didn't have enough money to pay the entrance fee. "I thought all Americans were rich!" the ticket guy exclaimed and then generously sold us two children's tickets so we didn't have to slog back down the hill to hunt for an ATM. I'm even more baffled by "all Americans have servants." What a weird impression the Brits have of us!

"I think in general we just don't use "please" all the much in the US and use "thanks" a lot instead."

Yes. I think that's right on.

I remember being acutely uncomfortable at how important please was and how seldom I said it. I felt so boorish and rude, the stereotypical American.

"May I have a ham sandwich please. With mustard please. On rye please. And a cup of tea please." It's amazing how they punctuate everything with please.

It's funny but that residual feeling of inadequacy has actually crept into my parenting. I find myself prompting my children to say please much more often than I myself would naturally do.

Sally Thomas said...

I think Pym's novels themselves spring from a sense of the inadequacy of everything, including the Church of England. Many of her clergymen pine for Rome, but yearn for it as something on the other side of an insurmountable wall.

She is like the Jane Austen of a fundamentally disordered or broken universe, in which "good enough" is as good as it gets. This applies to the Church as well as to romance (Everard Bone isn't exactly Mr. Darcy, but he'll do).

Bahnsic said...

I keep not going to England, and this exchange of yours reminds me why I keep going to other countries instead. The concept that manners could be different in another country, rather than merely absent, seems to elude so many English people. The rudest people I have met traveling & worked with were all English. They said "Please" a lot but stepped all over everyone otherwise. I would like to know what the local custom is, but do not want to told that "manners are important here," as if they are not important everywhere. In France, people asked me how Americans can know they are friends when we only have one set of 2nd person pronouns rather than the polite/familiar set. They did not say, "In America, you are formal and stiff with everyone. Here, it is important to be friendly and warm to close friends and acquaintances."

Sally Thomas said...

We lived in England for four years, while my husband was doing his Ph.D. We moved there with children and no firm housing arrangements, which was a little nerve-wracking; we lived first in a cottage usually let as housing for conferences, then in a student hostel owned by his college.

While we were shuffling around in this fashion, my husband kept going to see the college's bursarial assistant, who was in charge of housing, in hopes that eventually we might receive some answer other than, "Do not arrive before 1 October. With compliments, &c."

After a couple of these meetings, he came home with the following observation: English people feel perpetually put upon, overtaxed, unappreciated, and misunderstood. Nobody understands how hard anybody is working, ever.

So next time he went to see her, he said, "Mrs. X, you have so much to do. Can I help you send out those undergraduate-housing emails?" And . . . we ended up with the best flat ever, but I've always thought that this was an interesting (and useful) cultural observation to make.

I've spent less time in Germany, though we have a number of German friends -- they (at least northern Germans) and the English are possibly more alike, both in being more reserved and in feeling that there is the way they are used to doing things, and then there is barbarism. The chief difference is that in Germany things actually run smoothly and efficiently and everything is well done, whereas in England there is a lot of faffing about, and people -- in the post office, for instance -- not being sure, really, whether it is possible to forward a letter to a different address, say, after you've moved; they've never heard of such a thing. Has anyone heard of such a thing? I really don't know, I can't say . . . Etc. I can't remember whether the "Nobody understands, but I appreciate you" tactic worked in the post office or not.

Living in a culture of prickly people was interesting. I loved it and still miss it.

Of course, it occurs to me now that it would never occur to me not to say "please" when I asked for something, particularly from someone in some service capacity. And I have trained my children to do the same. Maybe it's a function of being Southerners (we are nice and believe in manners, until we shoot you) -- though our favorite waiter at our favorite (well, *the*) restaurant in our town once commented that we were the most polite people he had ever met. And I really don't think we were being that obsequious.

Germans punctuate everything with "bitte," which means both "please" and "you're welcome." They hand you something and say, "Bitte," and then you say, "Danke." I wonder how much the common cultural and linguistic roots -- Saxon -- have to do with cultural assumptions and patterns now.

Jenny said...

"both in being more reserved and in feeling that there is the way they are used to doing things, and then there is barbarism."

I am thoroughly amused by this characterization. This explains so much about any number of my relatives.

bearing said...

An impression I constantly have of Brits is that they assume that the way they do things (e.g., say "please" after everything) is the only way to be polite and civilized. It's like merely having different cultural norms is a possibility that never occurred to them.

Or even the possibility of merely having a different accent. I was on a lingustics thread once where a number of Brits argued that Americans' pronunciation of the word "pasta" was proof that we were pretending to be posh and European.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Interesting series of comments.

It has always been my impression that Brits are more class conscious than we are, though admittedly my impressions of them are bound to be antique as I haven't been in England since before Darwin was born.

My husband was still working retail at the time of our trip, and we were both struck at how poor customer service was, at least in the parts of England we visited. We definitely got the impression that people working in shops, and eateries almost had chips on their shoulders, as if rude and negligent service to customers (to the point of ignoring them until they went away) were a way of asserting that they were in no way inferior to the people on the other side of the counter. Whereas in the US, at least in our generation, service jobs were usually everyone's first work experience.

I am now working part time as a passport acceptance agent, and I can't help wondering if public incivility has become far more common than it used to be. I try to treat all the applicants with common courtesy and politeness, and it is amazing how grateful people are -- to the point of commenting on it and thanking me for it. Not to mention their horror stories of trying to get a passport at other facilities.