John Henry Cardinal Newman, the most famous English convert to Roman Catholicism of the nineteenth century, included the following description of the gentleman in his treatise on university education for Roman Catholics, who had only recently received civil rights. As you read Newman's portrait of the gentleman, compare it to those found in discussions of the concept of gentleman in Elizabeth Gaskell and other authors as well as specific characters in Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope.

It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast; — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blunder. [From The Idea of a University, 1852]

Taken in isolation, Newman's descriptive definition, which appears an exemplary idealization of the British gentleman, appears a standard, unsurprising presentation of a sociopolitical ideal clearly related to specific class interest. In context, however, his statement immediately appears more complex, since he does not address those with political or even economic power. In fact, his intended audience of Irish Catholics were doubly disenfranchised as members of a colonized people and a despised, only recently permitted religion. In addition, as David J. DeLaura points out, for Newman, "the insuperable defect of humanistic culture," appears in the limitations of the gentleman, who has 'no means for transcending the limits of the natural man (p. 238).'"

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Created 1987; Last modified 12 April 2017