Good Behavior

Being a Study of Certain Types of Civility
By Harold Nicolson
Paperback: $12.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-010-6

With a New Introduction by Juliet Nicolson

“Harold Nicolson discusses…[different] types of civility…. His obiter dicta are often provocative [and] never…dull.”

—The Times (London)

“This book is as thoughtful and thought-evoking a piece of work as I have read. . . . Really beautiful prose.”

—G. M. Young (Sunday Times)

“Profound and…witty…Convey[s Nicolson’s] sense of enjoyment.”

—Edith Shackelton (Lady)


Do we want to be persons of culture, civility, and manners? Even in the contemporary world, where this question is not much asked, most people would respond with a resounding YES. Well, if you want to be cultured, civil, and mannered, not just another everyday barbarian, it will take some work, some training, and a good place to start is with Harold Nicolson’s very readable and entertaining book.

About the Author

Harold Nicolson (1886–1968) was born in Tehran of British parents, educated at Oxford, served as a diplomat for twenty years, then returned to Britain to become a journalist, biographer, historian, and member of Parliament during World War II. His Diaries and Letters, 1930–1964, became a bestseller after his death. The famous gardens that he and his wife, Vita Sackville-West, created are a popular national trust property.

Juliet Nicolson is the author of The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm. She lives partly in Sussex and partly in the cottage at Sissinghurst Castle that belonged to Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. This book was dedicated to Juliet, then aged one.


1: The Necessity of Manners

2: Chou-Li

3: Charmides

4: Gravitas

5: The Goths

6: Le Fin Amour

7: The Babees Book

8: Florizel

9: L’honnête Homme

10: The English Gentleman

11: “Gemütlichkeit”

12: Respectability

13: Tom Brown

14: The Need for Change


From the Introduction by Juliet Nicholson

Good Behavior is not as Harold Nicolson explains “a manual on etiquette” as the title may lead one to believe. Nor did his first grandchild, aged one at the time of publication, and to whom this book is dedicated, benefit from a lifelong lesson in exemplary manners. In fact as a grandfather Harold was, to our delight, an incorrigible advocate of rather bad behavior, always the first to jump into our paddling pool with his shoes and socks on, daring us to jump off perilously high, crumbling walls at Sissinghurst, and igniting our candy cigarettes with his pocket lighter.

Good Behavior is one of a series of twelve interconnecting essays in which Harold Nicolson examines “the varying types of civility produced during the last two thousand years.” He hoped to write an amusing, cultural account of behavioral shifts over the preceding centuries, looking at the patterns of conduct of a sequence of notable, noble (and some less noble) minorities and individuals. In so doing he elevated the concept of good behavior into a heroic subject. While applauding the values of decency with which he had grown up, Harold was fascinated and sometimes appalled by the ever evolving social tastes and habits of those who helped define their age.


From Chapter 1: The Necessity of Manners


This book is neither a social history nor a manual on etiquette. It is an endeavor to depict certain patterns of behavior which, at different dates and in different places, have been evolved by minorities as representing the culture of their time. The varying types of civility produced during the last two thousand years reflected, not material conditions only, but also what was regarded as most admirable by contemporary thinkers and idealists. Every society invents for itself a type, a model, an exemplar, of what the perfect member of that society ought to be. These heroes and heroines are much more than the products of existing social and economic conditions: they are myths which repeat the legends of the past and enhance the dreams of the future. In a materialistic age it is salutary to remind ourselves of such fictions.

In an epoch, moreover, when egalitarianism is quickly expanding, when the whole earth is menaced by uniformity, it is comforting to recall that mankind has progressed owing to difference rather than to sameness, owing, not to similitude, but to variation. It is fissure rather than attachment that has furthered evolution; it has been from dissimilarity rather than similarity that the richest cultures have emerged. Even in the most monotonous or regimented community it has been the exceptional rather than the ordinary individual who has assumed leadership and invented progress. Warmly as I advocate equality of opportunity, I do not believe that all men are created equal or that a society based upon such a fallacy will advance very far in the pursuit of happiness. To me it appears wholly insufficient to construct a system by which the individual will be protected against fear and want. The ideal society, while providing safety, should also furnish opportunities for the expression of idiosyncrasy, the enjoyment of differing pleasures, and the embellishment of life. Those types of civility which seek to further such purposes are “good” types: whereas those which seek to forbid or cramp such opportunities are “bad.” Our social conscience, our hatred of social injustice, are admirable innovations: it would be sad were they to make us dull. The study of manners may correct or delay this tendency.


From Chapter 2: Chou-Li



When I was a very little boy, I was taken by my father to witness the ceremony of the Selamlik, performed by the then Ottoman Sultan, Abdul Hamid. The diplomatists and their guests were accommodated for the occasion in the upper room of a small kiosk looking down upon the strip of road which separated the park of Yildiz from the Hamidieh Mosque. The space between the gate of the park and the steps of the mosque was packed with soldiers guarding the short lane through which the Sultan was to drive. We were given coffee and sweetmeats while we waited and frequent courtesies were exchanged between the diplomatists and the Court officials by whom they were being entertained. As I munched my macaroon, I was startled by the blare of trumpets and by the brisk triple sound of soldiers presenting arms. The iron gates that led from the park were swung open by servitors in scarlet liveries; in front of the gate were grouped the members of the Turkish Cabinet, arrayed in heavy uniforms with frontages of gold. A neat little victoria emerged from the arch of the gate and seated in it was a hunched figure, whose dyed hair and beard were the color of mahogany and whose haggard cheeks were white under a scarlet fez. The troops yelled in unison: “Many years to our Padishah;” the bands burst into some metallic tune; and the victoria at a smart trot proceeded towards the steps of the mosque some two hundred yards distant. It was then that I noticed that the members of the Cabinet had each taken a strap or cord attached to the carriage and were running beside it, their legs moving rapidly. Middle-aged they were most of them, and a few were demonstrably old. I was shocked by this exhibition and enquired of my father whether it was right that elderly gentlemen should be expected to run beside the carriage of the Caliph. He assured me that it was not right. And thus, when twenty years later, I was again in Constantinople and happened to catch sight of Abdul Hamid pacing the terrace of Beylerbey as a prisoner under heavy guard and looking like a crushed rook, my sympathy was not as acute as that which ought to be aroused by fallen greatness or by aged monarchs under duress.