Analysis of Charles Lamb’s essay Modern Gallantry

 The ward ‘gallantry’ means a special respect or a show of chivalrous attention to women. Charles Lamb builds the essay, Modern Gallantry, on this theme and shows how the social attitude towards women in the 19th century England falls short of a genuine sense of gallantry.

Lamb begins with an attack against the popular pretension of the age that in comparison to the ancient times, the 19th century can pride itself upon a growing sense of gallantry. Lamb lashes at the falsity of this idea and points out in this essay that even the 19th century is devoid of a genuine sense of gallantry. Though, in contemporary times, Lamb saw the end of the practice of whipping females in public or similar disreputable and discourteous attitudes to women Lamb believes that in social life gallantry is still missing. “ In comparing modern with ancient manners, we are pleased to compliment ourselves upon the point of gallantry; a certain obsequiousness, or deferential respect, which we are supposed to pay to females, as females. I shall believe that this principle actuates our conduct, when I can forget, that in the nineteenth century of the era from which we date our civility, we are but just beginning to leave off the very frequent practice of whipping females in public, in common with the coarsest male offenders.”
 This idea he explicates in this essay.

            Lamb is basically concerned with a false show of gallantry in social life and his primary purpose is to expose the hollowness of such an attitude. Some men show a deferential attitude to women in cultured and upper class society. They are courteous in circles where they are known, where their objects of gallantry are either their own relations or women of status and rank. But elsewhere these same men betray a completely different attitude of neglect towards women of lower classes or of the poorer section of society. Often Lamb has noticed that women in theatre halls are denied seats while men occupy them without the Beast scruple. To add to their distress of such a situation, often such scandalous remarks like she should be welcome if she were a little young and handsomer pops up and put salt to the wound. Such remarks point out that in the cultural and social life gallantry was really absent. It is this discrimination between the old and the young, the beautiful and the ugly, the rich and the poor that exists in the attitude of men towards women in society that Lamb castigates in this essay. This hypocritical attitude towards women in society can be proved by the fact that even well dressed gentlemen in decent society often use such disreputable expressions about old women a “antiquated virginity” or refer to old spinster was having ‘over stood (their) market”. Such cases prove that in reality, a true sense of gallantry could not be attained by men in Lamb’s contemporary times.

            Lamb advocates the inculcation of consistent gallantry in social life. He says that he would only accept that Englishmen have realized true gallantry in their characters only when he would find a gallant man of fashion helping an apple women to pick up her wondering fruit fallen on the ground, or when he would help a fish wife in crossing a kennel. When a rich tradesman would sacrifice his box coat in favour of a poor woman traveling on the root of the same stage, coach, drenched in rain. When helping women in distress without any interests would be a common sight in the streets of England, Lamb would accept that ‘consistent gallantry’ has really enriched English life. The model of gallantry for Lamb was one. Joseph Paice, of Bread-street-hill, merchant, and one of the Directors of the South-Sea company, one who never had separate systems of attention to women in the drawing room and women in the market place. He showed courtesy even to a poor servant girl and reverenced and upheld all the forms of woman kind. Paice was induced to genuine consistent gallantry by being once rebuked by his beloved now dead, for restoring to hypocrisy when he showered compliments upon his while insulting a poor milliner girl a few minutes before. Paice learned her lesson and never again committed the mistake of showing different attitudes to women of different standards and classes.

            Therefore, what Lamb means by gallantry is a uniform show of courteous respect to all women, irrespective of age, beauty, class and connections. Genuine gallantry consists in a show of respect and solicitation for women as women, without any consideration whatsoever. Finally it needs to be mentioned that Lamb also presents his view that it is also the women’s responsibility to be conscious of her self respect and to demand honour primarily for her existence as a women by her.            

  1. Charles Lamb’s Old China, Hogarth, and Perspective Painting
Joseph E. Riehl
  1. University Lectures, Oxford University, Summer 2006

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