As the second series of Downton Abbey comes to an end (Sunday ITV1), it’s not surprising the actors playing the sisters in an aristocratic family would bemoan the termination of a short period wearing glorious frocks and of men standing as they enter a room, opening carriage doors for them and generally behaving in a traditionally chivalrous manner.
But let’s not forget those days of chivalry excluded women from anything but the most mundane domestic concerns. Until the end of the First World War, they were denied the vote or any influence in public life.
If chivalry means exclusion of more than half the human race, we should all be grateful it’s faded away. So, what do we teach our sons and daughters now about what was once a gender-specific take on manners?
Good manners – which is all chivalry ever was – now means taking your share of the drudgery or pleasure of work, public and domestic, regardless of gender. It means opening a door and letting another person through first, be they male or female.It’s about being thoughtful to your fellow woman or man!
But then comes the question of horses for courses. My two sons are massive, towering over me and unquestionably more suited to chopping logs for winter fires or changing a punctured tyre. (They know perfectly well I don’t do jobs that would incur the breaking of a nail!)
Similarly, Him Indoors – a qualified electronic engineer. He got to the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand three weeks ahead of me and in his absence a door bell ceased to work. I called him. He recommended getting hold of a screwdriver and changing the batteries. I didn’t even know where the screwdrivers were kept.
I was grateful, though, when my two big boys came to meet me at the airport in Auckland and hoisted my hugely heavy suitcase into the car as if it were a feather. (Not that I was being girl… Bad back!)
Emily Maitlis: No
In his latest movie, Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen points out how tied we are to nostalgia, how quick we are to assume there was always a golden age before us – where the art was purer, the culture was richer and the manners were perfect.
I apply the point to our notions of chivalry. I think we do live in a chivalrous age but one updated for our time. The knights on horses are gone, but – as a techno disaster-case – I’m constantly impressed by how much time my colleagues will give me to sort out a computer glitch or a misdirected printer.
Doors, schmoors. Sure, they sometimes bang in your face, but more often my heart is lifted by a stranger’s security card clicked to help me through a fortress when they see me laden with 16 lattes. (Don’t tell security, obviously.)
I think the big change is clearly mobile telephony – normally reticent people loudly chatting away. Texters are worse – idiots who don’t even look up when they’re crossing the road, causing cars to screech and drivers to swear. But I’m one of those texters, so I’ll move quickly on…
If chivalry is about cursive and copperplate then, yes, that’s often gone. But if chivalry is about the speed of response that email or text offers, then I’d call that alive and kicking. And what about the willingness to help – displayed every second on social networks?Ask a favour, for a contact or a query on Twitter, and people will respond immediately, anxious to be of service.
I recently interviewed Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. He told me his mission was to make the world share more, and it’s something nearly a billion people are doing on a regular basis through his website alone.
So if you ask me if I mourn a chivalry I never knew – of bows and curtseys and promenades around a Downton drawing room – then no. But I don’t think chivalry is remotely dead. I’d say – and perhaps Woody Allen would join me – look past the nostalgia: we never had it so good.