Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A note on manners, gentle reader

During the middle years of the nineteenth century, a knowledge of etiquette became increasingly important on formal occasions. Books on the subject regularly appeared in order to provide a guide to proper behaviour for those who wanted, or needed, to know how to engage in formal relationships. Just how significant these rules were for most people is questionable. Certainly some elements of them filtered down into everyday behaviour, but they were hardly the be-all and end-all that the writers of books on the subject would have had their readers believe them to be. Cassell’s handbook on etiquette, published in 1860 and aptly entitled, The Hand-Book of Etiquette: Being a Complete Guide to the Usages of Polite Society, opens with a preface which informs the reader that:

In order to enjoy polite society, and to be thoroughly suited for it, we must have a knowledge of those rules and regulations which the custom and common consent of well-bred people have established and drawn up into a kind of social code, entitled Etiquette. To render the public familiar with this code is the object of the present work.

Etiquette has a long and fascinating history. Reference to the correct order of precedence is mentioned as early as in Beowulf, when Wealtheow the queen, “mindful of etiquette,” takes the goblet first to the King then to the courtiers. Not surprisingly many of the procedures and orders of precedence centred around the court from which, like the circles from a stone dropped in water, they expanded into all classes and places.

By the end of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the influence of certain individuals who were considered masters of social etiquette, or at least setters of the fashionable trends, men like Beau Nash and Beau Brummell, was strongly affecting British polite society. The rules they imposed were often mere whims, but so powerful were they as arbiters of taste that it is said that the Prince Regent was careful never to leave his waistcoat unbuttoned beyond that degree that Beau Brummell stipulated as correct.

G. Kitson Clark, in The Making of Victorian England, has argued that the development of Victorian etiquette was

essentially part of the history of the battle for refinement and civilization, and above all the better protection of women, against the promiscuity, animalism, brutality and grossness which had been common even in the eighteenth century.

“Unfortunately” he continues, this led to “the development of an etiquette which becomes in many points otiose and extremely cumbersome, the encouragement of taboos which are at best ridiculous, and the imposition of a code which can be extremely cruel.”

In George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody, Carrie, the wife of a senior clerk, Charles Pooter becomes quite concerned about the proper order for paying a call. Both she and her husband have pretentions to move in a better class. The matter is, at least temporarily, resolved when Carrie finds she has no calling cards and, therefore, could not possibly visit her friend. Clearly more cards would have to be printed and then there “would be quite time enough to discuss the etiquette of calling.”

Undoubtedly, Carrie had been reading either Cassell’s or some other guide to etiquette which made quite clear the process of using calling cards. Cassell’s, for example, explains that "The etiquette of visiting cannot be carried on without proper attention to the time when cards should be sent or brought, and without recollecting the persons for whom they should be left.”

As to who could visit whom, there was an accepted structure of what was or was not appropriate. A lady could not visit bachelors or widowers unless a female relative of the person being visited was present to do the honours. A married woman might call on a bachelor or widower if she was accompanied by her husband or brother. If she was unmarried, even though accompanied by a male relation she “should have the countenance of a married lady’s presence.”

By the middle and late years of the Victorian Era, the most trivial demands of etiquette could lead to the downfall of one in the upper strata of society. Poor speech or the incorrect usage of terminology might prove fatal. As “Madge” in one of her guides to etiquette pointed out, “coffee” must be pronounced “cawffee”, “lunch” is never heard in good society–the meal is “luncheon”, calls are “made,” not “paid,” and one drinks “tea” but doesn’t “take” it.

Even something as slight as the correct manner to crack nuts at the dinner table was not too miniscule a topic to fall under the eagle eye of “Madge” who noted that the man who knew how to crack nuts would be “in request by the ladies on either side, for, for some reason, women are seldom adepts in freeing the nut from the shell.”

All through the Victorian Era, knowledge of what was correct seemed to become increasingly important, particularly for women but also for men in their relations with women of their own or better classes. In the process, and as part of the attempt to maintain a degree of exclusivity, the rituals became gradually more trivial and progressively more exacting. Etiquette had truly become a game for the initiates.

To download Routledge's Manual of Etiquette (c. 1860), click here.