Strained Courtesy

One of the most striking aspects of the dialogue between John Hutchinson and Lord Newark, in the excerpt from Lucy Hutchinson’s Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson, is the degree to which courtesy is maintained throughout the conversation. In the brief introduction to the excerpt, the text states that “the polite forms of speech were observed, even exaggerated” (p. 1727), but it is difficult to predict the astonishing degree to which this is true before reading the text. Even when one speaker offends the other, the utmost level of courtesy in conversation prevails. Shortly after the opening lines of the dialogue, the first potential strain on courtesy appears. Hutchinson asks of Lord Newark, “what commission have you to demand this?” (p. 1728). Lord Newark’s replies that he has a commission from the King himself, but that “it is left behind me.” Whether or not this statement is true does not really matter in terms of each speaker’s intent and actions, but one gets the impression that this commission may not exist at all. Despite this impression, of which Hutchinson is surely aware, Lord Newark engages his honor as verification of his claims. This engagement of honor from a Lord, who is also in command of an army, would be rather intimidating to even a high ranking town official, let alone Hutchinson, who holds no official position. With it, Newark seems to imply that his word should be good enough and that the question of the veracity of the commission should not be in doubt. Yet Hutchinson’s response borders on the comical in its offense: “Your lordship’s honor is an engagement would be accepted for more than I am worth; but in such an occasion as this, the greatest man’s engagement in the kingdom cannot be a satisfaction to the country” (p. 1728). This is not only an affront to Newark, but it could also be considered an offense to the King. Is not the King, supposedly, the greatest man in the kingdom; the very man on whose engagement, the commission for the powder would be written? Despite Hutchinson’s comments, Newark’s courteous demeanor is unflagging. From almost the very opening of the dialogue, Lord Newark’s honor is questioned and deemed insufficient to allow him to proceed with his intended course of action, but the rules of courtesy continue to be observed flawlessly. It does not even seem like either party loses their temper during the dialogue. Hutchinson and Lord Newark’s ability to maintain such composure in the face of a disagreement as important and heated as this, especially in the case of Lord Newark, who suffers an assault on his character, is a true testament to their unyielding commitment to the rules of courtesy. Lord Newark’s composure is tested throughout the dialogue. Soon after his engagement of honor is deemed insufficient, his competence as a military leader is questioned, as well. When Hutchinson offers the town’s need to defend itself as a reason for the necessity of the powder, Newark’s reply again involves his honor in his ability to defend the town as a contrary reason: “Why, who should the country fear? I am their lord lieutenant and engaged with my life and honor to defend them! What danger are they in? (p. 1729) Whether Newark truly believes the irrationality of his statement, an irrationality demonstrated by Hutchinson in the lines that follow, does not really matter in regard to Hutchinson’s offensive commentary. What is important is that he again offers his honor and ability as a justification for his desire to take the town’s powder, and Hutchinson again finds fault with it, deeming it insufficient. But, of course, courtesy is maintained. Perhaps these two points in the dialogue are examples of discourtesy in courtesy, since it could be argued that the truly courteous recourse would be for Hutchinson to acquiesce to his superior and to accept his reasons and justifications. This, however, would be a rather spineless and probably dangerous maneuver, in terms of the town’s safety. The dialogue between John Hutchinson and Lord Newark clear illustrates, in the extreme, that courtesy can be maintained in the face of disagreement and even offense.