The magazine Country Life (circulation: 38,000) has attempted to define the 39 attributes of a gentleman. It is a horrible list, not least because I find myself disqualified on various grounds: I do not know when to tip a gamekeeper, for instance, nor do I own a tweed suit; I cannot (read: will not) train a dog, nor a rose; and I do not sing lustily in church.
The gentleman is an unwieldy concept, not because unwritten codes of good or appropriate social behaviour are irrelevant, but because gentlemanliness as understood by Country Life is a construct designed to separate social classes. Reasonable tenets of good behaviour (holding open doors, entertaining children, not blow-drying your hair) are mixed promiscuously with elements of wealth distinction (being able to ride a horse or sail a boat). Thus if I hold a door open, it merely indicates ordinary manners; if a rich man in a tweed suit holds a door open, it is testament to his breeding and elite status.
Having said all that, the last rule of the 39 is fine by me. A gentleman knows when to break a rule. Never mind that by that token we are all gentlemen, since it could be argued that we all instinctively know when to break the rule about tipping the gamekeeper, for instance (always, since the only gamekeeper most of us are likely to encounter will be trying to get us off his master’s land with a shotgun), or the one about singing lustily in church (which for an atheist would anyway be in poor taste). No. Judicious rule breaking – whether the rule be of behaviour, grammar, etiquette, taste or law – is a sign of intelligence and even wisdom, neither of which is especially the preserve of tweed-wearing, lusty-singing, gamekeeper-tipping, chihuahua-dispising, elbow-loving, rook-distinguishing gentlemen.