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How to make the cut - in the Regency period, we developed brilliant ways of putting people down, says Lulu Taylor

Blog | By Lulu Taylor | Feb 12, 2024

Stewart Granger (second from right) in the title role of Beau Brummell (1954)

There is someone in my town who cuts me. He walks past me without acknowledging the fact that I am there, or that we know each other.

In Regency times, cutting someone was considered a great insult and the Cut Direct the greatest of all. The cutter looked their foe in the eye, and then coldly and deliberately looked away or even turned their back. The cuttee could be under no illusion that they had been publicly ignored and deeply insulted.

The Cut Direct was more about social power as punishment, and was so potentially damaging that rules about its use had to be wary of cutting another gentleman who might take such great offence that he issued a challenge.

Hosts could not cut their guests – the rule of hospitality trumped personal feelings. Spinsters could not cut married women. They simply didn’t have the social clout and would have looked ridiculous if they’d tried to exert it.

The Cut Indirect has the cutter looking straight at the cuttee but pretending not to know them, simply removing their gaze as if they have no idea that they are cutting, though both parties know very well what is being done.

This passive aggressive form of cutting, perhaps more weaselly in its pretended innocence and more insulting in its belittlement.

For all its rudeness, the Cut Direct has a certain respectful quality, at least acknowledging the previous relationship before delivering the cut. The Cut Indirect, with its implication that there is no acquaintance and therefore no insult, is, to my mind, more cowardly.

The lesser cuts are, perhaps, easier to bear. The Cut Sublime involves staring at the rooftops, the clouds or the spire of the nearest cathedral, humming in a nonchalant way, until the cuttee has passed by. The Cut Infernal entails staring at the ground or dropping down to tie up a lace or examine a boot until the unloved object has gone.

We could add to these another, modern type of cut. The mobile phone has taken the place of the bootlace. The useful tactic of being absorbed in one’s phone, or lost in the business of composing a message on that fiddly keyboard, or the taking of a call in order to ignore a certain someone could perhaps be dubbed the Cut Cellular.

Not all cuts are wounding. When I see someone of my acquaintance whom I would normally greet but who appears hassled and harried – perhaps struggling with the infernal self-service checkout in the supermarket while being pestered by children – I pretend I have not seen them, so that they do not have to add small talk with me to their woes, unless they wish. This is surely the Kindest Cut.

In Regency society, a cut delivered by a person of fashion or status had the power to destroy lives. It could result in total ostracism. The wilderness beckoned and the shame could last for more than one generation.

The Cut Direct from the pinnacle of the ton, the Prince Regent, marked the decline of Beau Brummell’s dazzling social career. In 1813, at a masquerade ball jointly hosted by, among others, Brummell and Lord Alvanley, the Prince Regent greeted Alvanley but cut Brummell. Brummell responded, referring to the Prince Regent, ‘Alvanley, who is your fat friend?’

It was brave. Public opinion considered that the Prince had abused his power on this occasion, and Brummell survived socially – just. But debt and lack of royal patronage eventually took their toll. He fled England to escape debtors’ prison and died a few years later, insane and – perhaps worse for that greatest of dandies – slovenly in his dress. At least we can be grateful that the Prince didn’t deliver his deadly cut until after Brummell had made it fashionable for the upper classes to clean their teeth.

Cuts have nothing like the same power over social life and death now, but feeling purposefully ignored is still horrible and confusing. My cutter does not even glance in my direction, but marches by as though I am not there at all. This might be the Cut Oblivious.

Possibly he honestly doesn’t remember me, despite long conversations at our neighbour’s annual New Year drinks. As with the tiresome person who doesn’t appear to recognise you on being introduced at parties despite your having met lots of times before, you can’t be sure. Are they merely forgetful? Stupid? Short-sighted?

Possibly they enjoy being unbelievably rude, or need to exert insidious control through erasure – the Cut Narcissistic. It’s tempting to challenge a cut, but rising to it is to show you care. They have shown they don’t. Victory to them.

The best way to respond, then as now, is with grace, good manners and equanimity. And if one desires to cut off a friend - as is sometimes necessary - then a polite but firm cessation of contact is better than any public insult, for everyone involved.

Lulu Taylor is author of The Forgotten Tower (Macmillan)