With exhaustive research and in gleeful detail, Goodman (How to Be a Tudor, 2016, etc.) explores the gamut of misconduct in Stuart and Tudor England, including offensive speech and gestures, the perverse delights of mockery and ridicule, the ripostes of physical violence, and a gallery of repellent habits and repulsive displays of bodily functions.
The author has a wicked taste for the objectionable and the wit to deliver it in a wholly enjoyable, even educational way. However, there is a more serious undertone to all of this impropriety, one that regards appropriate comportment and courtesy rituals as the lubrication of societal harmony. Likewise addressed are gender-based double standards (some of which still persist), the religious and public health basis of many of our behavioral prohibitions, dueling, expectations within hierarchies, power dynamics and, not least, British class consciousness. The book overflows with historical curiosities, interesting asides, and eyebrow-raising aha moments. Goodman also shows how one period's grave insult, verbal or gestural, was trifling to the next, even within the space of a generation or two. “Different behaviors shifted from good to bad and back again with disconcerting frequency,” writes the author, requiring a chameleon's adaptability. Goodman’s voice is tongue-in-cheek as often as scholarly, revealing how much of today's uncouth and loutish behavior has its antecedents in Elizabethan times. The book also is a primer for modern-day mischief-makers who can't resist thumbing their noses at the social mores of the “respectables.” The author posits that bad behavior can be far more revealing of a time and culture than the exercise of rectitude, largely because history has reckoned with it far more eagerly. She demonstrates this truism with a wealth of amusing evidence. Still, it can be a bit much; even Miss Manners might tire of so much minutiae.
Etiquette, it seems, is a complex and involved business, but Goodman helps us navigate the shoals of another era's sensibilities in a way that is also illuminating of our own.