Are good manners gospel? I’m wondering after reading LDS author Josephine Spencer’s 1904 short story, “By Natural Selection.” The surprise ending occurs when the protagonist, Nell, decides not to marry Jere Radbourne but, instead, return to her very-absent and elusive boyfriend. Apparently Jere lacks what a girl wants in the way of cultured manners and civilized breeding; when he finally comes to propose (fifth installment), the “easy grace of the strong, lithe limbs was wanting” and he becomes “self-conscious” and “awkward.” Uh, yeah. Was that moment easy and graceful for anyone?
In any case, Nell cries about it and is torn, but says no—despite the fact that Jere is pretty much perfect in every other aspect. The first four installments of the story establish that he is handsome, rich, industrious, religious, brave, loving, and kind. He dotes on his two motherless children (his wife died), works hard to maintain his business, and rescues Nell when her raft overturns in choppy water. His only bad quality is that he might be stingy, though the gossiping women who report this realize the difficulty in establishing the line between frugal (good) and stingy (bad).
So it all comes down to bad manners. And not even bad, bad manners—just a lack of social ease.
Considering that this story was published in the LDS Young Woman’s Journal and was published during the Home Literature Movement—when stories were explicitly didactic—I was, well, surprised. I thought we liked the hard-working farm boy hero, not the dandified city slicker, though I suppose that might come from my Wyoming-wild-west heritage rather than my Mormon background. In any case my impression was that the poor Horatio Alger kid who pulled himself up by his bootstraps was supposed to win the girl. Apparently not. Manners matter to nineteenth-century Utah Mormons. Here’s the “lesson” of the story as expressed by a few female characters in dialogue form:
“Country people are not alone in those flagrant mistakes,” said Mrs. Trane. “I’ve seen some of our city boys born and reared in our best families committing inexcusable offenses against the simplest rules of good breeding.”
“So have I,” agreed Mrs. Smedley. “It’s just an idea some people have that a boy’s manners don’t count in the world. It’s funny, too, when every parent thinks his boy will surely be president or some sort of big-bug in life.”
“They’d only have to sit at a state banquet and see their offspring advertise their bringing up, in some terrible break of etiquette, to know just how much it counts to be on familiar terms with its rules,” quoth Mrs. Smedley.
“To my mind,” said Rilla, “it has always seemed that our people should lay particular stress on such things. There is no excuse for us—with the claims that we make of being an ‘elect people’—that we do not reflect the best attainments of civilization in all ways. We should be an actual standard in all things that are ‘lovely and of good report,’ as our tenets teach.”
I just deleted my rather sarcastic and witty conclusion that made fun of this story and its suppositions; I think I’ve changed my mind. Josephine Spencer might have a point. When I picture Heavenly Father, I imagine a very dignified and mannerly person, not someone who chews with his mouth open, slouches at the table, or uses crass vernacular. I imagine someone perfectly at ease in any social situation with any person, since we all our His children. Perhaps we do need elect manners for an elect people. I just don’t know who will decide what, exactly, constitutes lovely manners. Emily Post? President Monson?