In The Ester Ried Series, Isabella chronicled the transformation of a young man named Jim Forbes. Jim first appeared in The King’s Daughter as a member of a wild bunch of boys who showed up at church for the sole purpose of terrorizing the Sunday-school teachers.
Homer Nelson, who was in charge of the Sunday-school classes, described Jim and his friends:
“Oh, they swear outrageously, and smoke profusely, and gamble whenever they get a chance, not often for money, for they have very little of that article about them; but for raisins, or pins, or straws, or anything that is convenient, and they use liquor freely, every one of them.”
But by the end of The Ester Ried books, Jim was a different person. In fact, he came to be so well regarded, his friends at church gave him a gift: “a dainty and elegant, and altogether perfect gold watch and chain.”
Jim was astonished to receive the watch, not only because of its beauty and cost, but because of what it represented. In the times in which Isabella lived, a man who carried such a watch and chain was considered a gentleman of the first order.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, true gentlemen followed a very strict code of dress that was based, in large part, on the model promoted by Britain’s Lord Chesterfield, who famously said:
“I cannot help forming some opinion of a man’s sense and character from his dress.”
Isabella agreed whole-heartedly. In her books, Isabella dressed her gentlemen in neat, conservative, well-fitting suits. Even the wealthy men who populated her stories (like Edward Stockwell in The Ester Ried Series, Judge Burnham in The Chautauqua Books, and Mr. Burton in Christie’s Christmas) dressed in a way that did not call attention to themselves or their wealth.
Dressing in the “height of the fashion,” Isabella believed, was better left to dandies and pretenders.
There were essential elements of a gentleman’s attire. In addition to a well-fitting coat and trousers, a gentleman always appeared in a waistcoat and tie.
Even when they were relaxing around the house or engaging in leisure activities, men wore coats, ties, and waistcoats.
Another essential element of a gentleman’s appearance was an appropriate amount of facial hair. Beards and moustaches were considered to be a symbol of masculinity.
Isabella’s men wore beards and moustaches, as well. In Helen Lester, Helen’s dashing older brother Cleveland returned home from Europe looking very handsome and “heavily bearded.”
And charming Ralph Ried wore a full beard in The Ester Ried Series of books.
Coats, ties, waistcoats, and beards—they were all essential to a man’s attire in Isabella’s world, but a popular 1866 book on “etiquette and true politeness” carried this reminder:
Gentility is neither in birth, manner, nor fashion—but in the MIND. A high sense of honor—a determination never to take a mean advantage of another—an adherence to truth, delicacy, and politeness toward those with whom you may have dealings—are the essential and distinguishing characteristics of A GENTLEMAN.
You can click on the links below to find out more about Isabella’s books mentioned in this post.
2 thoughts on “Pansy’s Gentlemen”
What a marvelous, helpful essay! Thanks for sharing these wonderful images of dapper and handsome Victorian men. I loved this! So helpful when imagining the gents in Isabella’s books. Many thanks for your hard work and dedication!!
Aren’t they handsome, Karen? I can imagine several of them as characters in Isabella’s books, too. —Jenny