Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Note: this is not a self-help guide or an introduction on how to be charming.
Being charming was a big deal in 1920s Britain. Charm denoted a cluster of personal styles that smoothed social exchange and cultivated the confidence of strangers — a winning smile, reassuring gaze, or pointed turn of phrase. Embodied by the Hollywood film star and debonair gentleman, Society hostess and social climber, it was both a desirable quality and one that mobilized desire.
While charm was understood as an essential currency of everyday social exchange, this delicate economy had to be managed with care. Charm blurred boundaries between respectability and deception. Was there any difference between “that confident, easy manner so typical of the British gentleman” and the “secret of obtaining something for nothing [through only a] smooth facility of tongue and charming personality”? Being charming was an aspiration and a pressing social problem.
Charm became dangerous when it was carried to excess. In the Daily Mail, the columnist Nina Vane attacked an “unaccountable” quality which “wears many disguises.”
Say that a man cuts my dance at a ball, and presently comes up anxious to be forgiven. I want to be on my dignity. But I cannot blame myself if I surrender because he is really rather brilliant, or because he has an outstandingly handsome presence. Tangible, explicable reasons… But is it not ignominious if he makes me forgive him by some little trick of speech or turn of phrase, by an amused smile or a slight eager stammer, by temporary transient sincerity or by unashamed humbug?
Berating herself for being taken in by “humbug” and “cheap chicanery,” Vane acknowledged how charm could be a guileful performance that compromised the sincerity still expected of the “true” gentleman in the 1920s. The problem of charm was that it raised the freighted question of who or what could be trusted.
The problem of being charming was compounded because a growing number of entrepreneurial boosters tried to sell the secrets of social success — pickup artists for the 1920s, trading in charm rather than negging. Self-improvement courses advertised by organizations like the National Business and Personal Efficiency Programme, run by “Dr. Katherine M.H. Bradford,” offered newspaper readers the tantalizing opportunity to “Develop Your Personality.” “Why are some people so popular with everybody and get on so amazingly quickly, both socially and in business,” asked Blackford? Lines like this played on anxiety and envy of “people scaling the ladder while you remain almost stationary.” Yet there was a solution: personal transformation and social mobility could were yours for the price of eight books that contained the “secrets of being able to hold people’s interest and get on with anyone you may meet, and become a popular idol wherever you go.” Who could resist?
Writing in the Daily Mail, Nina Vane linked charm to seduction and sexual predation. In doing she suggested that relying on charm to get ahead was often considered a feminine attribute. This idea coalesced in the alluring figure of the vamp, so ubiquitous in 1920s popular culture. Descriptions of the “pretty Society girl” Josephine O’Dare, for example, emphasized the “personal charm” and “winning personality” that enabled her meteoric rise from “Pig feeding on a Hereford farm to the glories of Mayfair.” Orientalized and eroticized, elusive and amorphous, O’Dare consisted entirely in surfaces and mirrors.
Set against wider debates over women’s position in public life, O’Dare and her like focused anxious discussion of women’s duplicity and power over men — what the Daily Mirror called the “false charm” that allowed them to find a husband and their ability to use “all the artifices within their knowledge in attempts to gratify their insatiable craving for admiration and power.” In nightclubs and seaside resorts, scandalized novelists and journalists suggested, charm was a powerful weapon to entrance innocent men. In the hands of the silken-tongued gentlemanly stranger, charm became the sine qua non of crimes of confidence and false pretences. In an all-too-trusting world, noted the prison chaplain Eustace Jervis, it was “extremely easy to get board, lodging, pocket money and clothes for nothing in London, if only you have the stock-in-trade of a fashionable suit of clothes, unbounded cheek and a plausible tongue!”
This charming man (or woman), who never knew their place, and who could never be trusted: the problem of charm in 1920s Britain.