IT WAS FUN during the week to see Debrett's, those patrician chroniclers of patrician lineage, under attack from aristocratic fathers for being, as some of them apparently said, rather sordid.
This could he seen as a result of seeking to interest a wider class of readership; for confident, as they doubltess are, that aembers of the peerage. their natural customers, already know which knives and forks to use and that kind of thing, they published, for those aspiring to imitate the current usages of the nobility, a guide to etiquette.
I am mildly astonished and, perhaps. a little dismayed, that they felt there would be enough of such people to make this a rewarding enterprise. because I had supposed that If it's Me it's U" had become the democratic fashion.
However this may be, it seems they went a bit too far. or. at any rate, gave a little too much detail, by declaring that virginity is now demoded; and that unmarried couples expect to be allowed to share a room if they want to do so when invited to stay in other people's houses.
To critics who said Debrett's had no business to encourage such goings on, the company's managing director, Mr Harold Brooks-Baker, replied firmly that he did not make the rules, but merely recorded them; and if, indeed, so austerely scholarly a purpose was the book's sole aim, that might be an acceptable answer.
However, I don't think he was quite just in what he said when the Queen's Domestic Chaplain, the Dean of Windsor. joined his critics. He appeared to suggest that the Church of England was itself to blame for the state of affairs he described. because it did not seem to take a positive position and its rules were "Very fuzzy".
My own impression is that all the major Christian denominations are pretty solid about the Ten Commandments.
Of course, a time when books about etiquette were very much in demand was the Edwardian era, which is being recalled a good deal just now because Edward VII (as he later became) was the last Prince of Wales before Prince Charles to be married in that rank.
1 have one of these little books
which I once bought off a barrow as a curiosity. Everyone who ikes reading books about the Edwardian rich, of which there have been a good many in recent years. will know that customs not wholly unlike those recorded by Debrett's were not uncommon among sonic of them. Unmarried couples. or at any rate, couples not married to each other, were not actually popped into the same room. but were sometimes. by some hOstesses, given rooms accommodatingly close.
What gruesomely unromantic visions of draughty corridors and toes stubbed in the dark it all conjures up! — more P. G. Wodehouse than Barbara Cartland. My little book — written, according to the reassuring affirmation of its title page, by "A Member of the Aristocracy" — has nothing at all to say about such matters, but only pages Of stuff about bowing. and callingcards, and how to pronounce distinguished names with unlikely spellings.
I wouldn't be astonished to learn that the author had no scholarly or aristocratic intentions at all, but was simply — in trade — trying to make money by exploiting snobbery.
To get back to Edward VII. it seems a pity that so much that has been written about him lately sets him quite firmly amid the kind of activities in the great houses that a modern Debrett's would presumably have felt in duty bound to record.
Interestingly, Mr BrooksBaker, talking about his etiquette book. said he did not include royalty in what he alleged about the habits of the aristocracy.
The way he put it was: "The
Royal Family has always been more middle-class in its outlook." He could well have said instead that it advocates the Christian rules in such matters.
But how Christian was Edward VII? Looking through half-adozen of those books about him, I found only one that regarded his attitudes towards religion as interesting enough to include in the index.
In spite of being quite as candid as the others about episodes in his life that might be held to suggest otherwise, it nevertheless states firmly that "an unclouded and humble religious faith remained with him always and was an immense source of strength."
Hunting carefully through all the books. a remarkable number of pointers emerge to support this view. I was impressed, for example. by accounts of his secretly, as Prince of Wales, touring the dreadful slums of London in the late eighteen eighties, something he undertook to give substance to his membership of a Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes.
On this Commission. he established a precedent by insisting that Cardinal Manning, as a Prince of the Church. should rank immediately after himself, and before Lord Salisbury, then Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.
It is also of interest to Catholics to recall that he ignored much noisy protest in 1908 when he drove to the Catholic Church of St James, Spanish Place, London, attended by a sovereign's escort of' cavalry. to be present at a Requiem Mass for the assassinated King Carlos of Portugal.
His visit to Pope Leo XIII — in which Pope and King conspired with amiable ingenuity to overcome some difficulties of protocol — was another landmark for British Catholics.
This visit to a Pope, in 1903, was in notable contrast to his first, in 1859, during the pontificate of Pius IX. He was then aged 18, and being dragged round Rome on a stiflingly solemn cultural tour, in the care of his "Governor", Colonel Bruce.
Queen Victoria, clearly thinking God knows what about Popes. insisted that during the visit to the Pope, the Colonel must be present all the time. for fear — as she wrote — that His Holiness might pretend that Bertie had said God knows what!"
A narrowness of religious outlook — evidently contrary to his natural bent — probably still haunted his environment four years later. when he married Princess Alexandra.
Certainly Victoria did spread something of a blight over this religious occasion. Accounts of the wedding written at the time and for a good many years afterwards stressed the spectacular public processions and rejoicings which were very much on the lines of what is planned for Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.
But in St George's Chapel. Windsor, where the religious ceremony took place, the Queen watched. almost hidden, from a little chapel above the nave, which is quite often used nowadays by television cameramen.
She still wore the black streamers of widowhood, and as one observer commented. "Not a gleam of joy at her son's marriage illumined her desolation."
Immediately afterwards. poor woman, she went down to Frogmore, where Albert lay buried, to have a good cry at the mausoleum.
A four-year-old nephew ol the bridegroom also struck a discordant note. He was wearing Scottish dress, and when he tried to fling across the choir an ornament that was part of' it. and his uncles Prince Alfred and Prince Leopold tried to deter him, he "showed his displeasure by biting them hard on the legs".
This child grew up to draw attention to himself even more outrageously as Kaiser Wilbelm II of Germany, "Kaiser Bill" of the First World War.
There is no reason to suppose that there will be anything but joy. the proper, religious joy of a Christian family:, when Charles marries Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul's — although it will be a much more public ceremony than that marriage of a Prince of Wales at Windsor 118 years ago. and probably, with television viewers watching all over the world, the most public marriage ceremony in history.
It will also. of course, since it is the marriage of the heir apparent to the British throne, be an event of greater public importance than was the wedding of Princess Anne in 1973.
At that time, I was reporting at Buckingham Palace. and 1 ,remember being intrigued by the fact that during the week before the wedding the whole place had that air of excitement. including a great deal of pleasant female bustle, that goes on at such times in any household.
But I also felt it necessary to report that it was apparent that for that family none of this was the heart of the matter; for there was an evident awareness, deep and genuine, that the essence of the events was a Christian ceremony. a sacrament.
I have no doubt that this will be the prevailing atmosphere as the family preparations go ahead for the wedding of the Prince of Wales.
There seems to be nothing pietistic about either the bridegroom or the bride; but there is plenty of evidence that religion is nevertheless important to Charles. and something deeply left.
The archbishop of Canterbury, Doctor Runcie, who had a talk with the young couple about marriage, said they had impressed him with the seriousness of their approach as loyal Christians; and there's a lot to be said for his suggestion that other couples should, on the royal wedding day, take the opportunity to renew their own vows. whether silently or at special serN ices.
If he mentioned this idea to Prince Charles. I think it would have been well received; the Prince has often demonstrated in the past that religion, for him, is much more than superficial observance.
I recall, for instance, something he wrote about his educational period in Australia in the sixties, when with other boys he visited Anglican mission stations in Papua-New Guinea, then a dependent territory of Australia.
He said: "How fresh and sincere I found the Ministry ... Everyone was so eager to take part, the singing was almost deafening. One felt that it might almost be the original Church. Where Christianity is new it must be much easier to enter into the whole spirit of it wholeheartedly."
Those do not sound like the sentiments of a young man for whom his religion is simply part of the official job for which he is being trained — as for a British heir apparent it could quite easily become under the obvious enough influences of our times.
Quite other influences have evidently prevailed, and not least that of the Queen. All Christians in Britain may thank God for that.
Daniel Counihan is a former diplomatic and court correspondent of the BBC.