The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

On the problem of being charming (in 1920s Britain)


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.


10 comments on “On the problem of being charming (in 1920s Britain)

  1. williamgpooley
    July 27, 2015

    Fascinating stuff, Matt.

    Quick question about gender: were men more often ‘charming’ while women ‘possessed charms’, or were things more complicated than that?

    I was just thinking that in speech today ‘charming’ sounds like a word more often used for men (like handsome), and ‘charms’ a euphemism applied to whatever it is that women are thought to possess, only to give away.

    And of course to be ‘charming’ is something that one can develop, whereas ‘charms’ might be more akin to the good bearing of early-modern Europe which was simultaneously natural and yet contrived (I’m thinking of Roodenburg’s ‘The Eloquence of the Body’)…

  2. balletandboxing
    July 27, 2015

    Doesn’t sound like a problem to me… I’d gladly accept an increase in duplicitous charm nowadays to replace the excess in vulgar and crass interactions.


  3. The Trickster Prince
    July 27, 2015

    Good question! From memory it’s a bit of both — with the weight of newspaper commentary towards the idea of charms that women possess. My notes on Josephine O’Dare seem to have more instances of the latter than the former.

  4. herdingbats
    July 28, 2015

    What about the war? For the Greeks, Peitho (Persuasion) was (of course) personified as a goddess, and sometimes conflated with Aphrodite (showing up in poetry and such as “Aphrodite Peitho”), the line with seduction got fuzzy. And for the tragedians, Peitho was what separated civilization from barbarism, men from animals: we convince each other rather coerce.

    But—and maybe the ascription to Aphrodite, always suspicious, is the biggest sign of this—there’s a sense here and there (Pindar and Aeschylus, and I think maybe in the Timaeus?) that Persuasion is itself a form of violence.

    And meanwhile you’re reckoning with violence… I don’t know, maybe the violence of war (well, of WWI) isn’t the violence of interpersonal or political coercion. But maybe it is?

  5. herdingbats
    July 28, 2015

    Oh, and see Buxton, Persuasion in Greek Tragedy, Cambridge UP, 1982 for more.

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  7. M-H
    August 13, 2015

    Do you think that ‘confidence men’ (and of course women) are exhibiting a kind of personality disorder? Surely, if they genuinely believe their stories to be true they are. I heard a psychiatrist recently discussing some famous cases here in Australia, and she distinguished mental illness and personality disorder, which was helpful to me as sometimes I wonder why people have been sent to jail and not to a mental hospital for truly dreadful crimes. Her explanation (as I understand it) is that a mental illness is something that is part of you, that you can’t help very well by yourself; it is internal and recalcitrant and has symptoms which are catalogued and understood, and even if the treatment is not always easy or pleasant it is known. A personality disorder, on the other hand, is something that you have sort of grown into; it has become a part of you to one extent or another, and can be ‘unlearned’ – although often with great difficulty – with professional help. When I read your posts I often think about this.

    • The Trickster Prince
      August 14, 2015

      Headline answer: I’m not sure!

      Longer answer: great question! I guess what I’ve always been most interested in is how these deceptions were understood at a particular historical moment. How were individual men and women able to make sense of their crimes of confidence by drawing upon the resources and forms of knowledge provided by the culture they inhabited? How, in turn, did the journalists, police officers, and magistrates who encountered them make sense of their deceptions and tricks? This is the kind of thing that James Vernon does in his work on Colonel Barker and it’s really influenced my thinking about the confidence trickster. It throws up some interesting tensions or challenges. So, for example, by the 1920s it could have been possible to characterise Netley Lucas, Josephine O’Dare, and their like as pathological liars going on the medical literature that had emerged by this point. That’s what often happened in the United States, but it just doesn’t happen in Britain at the same time. By the 1930s it could have been possible to diagnose Lucas as schizophrenic, but that doesn’t happen either. Thinking through why that might be is one of the things I’ve tried to do in the book.

      Of course, another way into this is to think about what’s at stake in us wanting to diagnose confidence tricksters in particular ways — to apply our own ways of seeing and being in the world…

  8. M-H
    August 16, 2015

    Great answer! 🙂 I am really looking forward to bring able to read the book.

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