The Rules Of Good Breeding
by Henry Fielding From "Essay on Conversation," Miscellanies, 1743

IT would be tedious, and perhaps impossible, to specify every instance, or to lay down exact rules for our conduct in every minute particular. I shall mention some of the chief which most ordinarily occur, after promising, that the business of the whole is no more than to convey to others an idea of your esteem of them, which is indeed the substance of all the compliments, ceremonies, presents, and whatever passes between well-bred people.

Now, in order to descend minutely into any rules for good breeding, it will be necessary to lay some scene, or to throw our disciple into some particular circumstance. We will begin then with a visit in the country; and as the principal actor on this occasion is the person who receives it, we will, as briefly as possible, lay down some general rules for his conduct; marking, at the same time, the principal deviations we have observed on these occasions.

When an expected guest arrives to dinner at your house, if your equal, or indeed not greatly your inferior, he should be sure to find the family in some order, and yourself dressed and ready to receive him at your gate with a smiling countenance. This infuses an immediate cheerfulness into your guest, and persuades him of your esteem and desire of his company. Not so is the behaviour of Polysperchon at whose gate you are obliged to knock a considerable time before you gain admittance. At length, the door being opened to you by a maid, or some improper servant, who wonders where all the men [Menservants] are; and, being asked if the gentleman is at home, answers, she believes so; you are conducted into a ball, or back parlour, where you stay some time before the gentleman, in dishabille from his study or his garden, waits upon you, asks pardon, and assures you he did not expect you so soon.

Your guest, being introduced into a drawing room, is, after the first ceremonies, to be asked whether he will refresh himself after his journey, before dinner (for which he is never to stay longer than the usual or fixed hour). But this request is never to be repeated oftener than twice in imitation of Chalepus, who, as if hired by a physician, crams wine in a morning down the throats of his most temperate friends, their constitutions being not so dear to them as their present quiet.

When dinner is on the table, and the ladies have taken their places, the gentlemen are to be introduced into the eating-room, where they are to be seated with as much seeming indifference as possible, unless there be any present whose degrees claim an undoubted precedence. As to the rest, the general rules of precedence are by marriage, age, and profession. Lastly, in placing your guests, regard is rather to be had to birth than fortune; for though purse-pride is forward enough to exalt itself, it bears a degradation with more secret comfort and ease than the former, as being more inwardly satisfied with itself, and less apprehensive of neglect or contempt.

The order in helping your guests is to be regulated by that of placing them: but here I must with great submission recommend to the lady at the upper end of the table, to distribute her favours as equally, and as impartially as she can. I have sometimes seen a large dish of fish extend no farther than to the fifth person, and a haunch of venison lose all its fat before half the table had tasted it.

A single request to eat of any particular dish, how elegant soever, is the utmost I allow. I strictly prohibit all earnest solicitations, all complaints that you have no appetite, which are sometimes little less than burlesque, and always impertinent and troublesome.

But to proceed. After a reasonable time if your guest intends staying with you the whole evening, and declines the bottle, you may propose play, walking, or any other amusement; but these are to be but rarely mentioned, and offered to his choice with all indifference on your part. What person can be so dull as not to perceive in Argyrtes a longing to pick your pockets? or in Alazon, a desire to satisfy his own vanity in showing you the rarities of his house and gardens? When your guest offers to go, there should be no solicitations to stay, unless for the whole night, and that no farther than to give him a moral assurance of his being welcome so to do: no assertions that he shan't go yet; no laying on violent hands; no private orders to servants to delay providing the horses or vehicles; like Desmophylax, who never suffers anyone to depart from his house without entitling him to an action of false imprisonment.

Let us now consider a little the part which the visitor himself is to act. And first, he is to avoid the two extremes of being too early, or too late, so as neither to surprise his friend unawares or unprovided, nor to detain him too long in expectation. Orthrius, who bath nothing to do, disturbs your rest in a morning; and the frugal Chronophidus, lest he should waste some minutes of his precious time, is sure to spoil your dinner.

The address at your arrival should be as short as possible, especially when you visit a superior; not imitating Phlenaphius, who would stop his friend in the rain rather than omit a single bow.

Be not too observant of trifling ceremonies, such as rising, sitting, walking first in or out of the room, except with one greatly your superior; but when such a one offers you precedence, it is uncivil to refuse it: of which I will give you the following instance: an English nobleman, being in France, was bid by Louis XIV to enter his coach before him, which he excused himself from; the King then immediately mounted, and, ordering the door to be shut, drove on, leaving the nobleman behind him.

Never refuse anything offered you out of civility, unless in preference of a lady, and that no oftener than once; for nothing is more truly good breeding than to avoid being troublesome. Though the taste and humour of the visitor is to be chiefly considered, yet is some regard likewise to be had to that of the master of the house; for otherwise your company will be rather a penance than a pleasure. Methusus plainly discovers his visit to be paid to his sober friend's bottle; nor will Philopasus abstain from cards, though he is certain they are agreeable only to himself; while the slender Leptines gives his fat entertainer a sweat, and makes him run the hazard of breaking his wind up his own mounts.

If conveniency allows your staying longer than the time proposed, it may be civil to offer to depart, lest your stay may be incommodious to your friend: but if you perceive the contrary, by his solicitations, they should be readily accepted, without tempting him to break those rules we have above laid down for him; causing a confusion in his family, and among his servants, by preparations for your departure. Lastly, when you are resolved to go, the same method is to be observed which I have prescribed at your arrival. No tedious ceremonies of taking leave: not like Hyperphylus, who bows and kisses and squeezes by the hand as heartily, and wishes you as much health and happiness, when he is going a journey home of ten miles, from a common acquaintance, as if he was leaving his nearest friend or relation on a voyage to the East Indies.