By Janice Lindsay, Contributing Writer
It has occurred to me that novels like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, movies made from them, and other such period dramas, are popular partly because they depict a society where people were expected to be polite.
In our atmosphere of rude contentiousness on most sides of most issues – and movies and TV replete with mayhem and excesses of all kinds — it’s a relief to escape into a world where good manners mattered.
One day as I made one of my occasional forays into the odious pastime of dusting, I came across a little book published in 1860 called Chesterfield’s Letter Writer and Complete Book of Etiquette. Ignoring my husband’s observation that dusting should never be left to book lovers (fine by me), I set the dust rag aside and delved into the world of nineteenth century etiquette.
It appears that ladies and gentlemen in the nineteenth century were expected to refrain from offending, annoying, or imposing upon each other in any way. Gentlemen were to be solicitous of ladies’ welfare. Ladies were pleasant and decorous. Conversation in mixed groups was refined, impersonal, and non-controversial. Personal matters and unpleasant details of everyday life were kept private.
Some of the rules in the etiquette book seem quaint. Some seem rather up to date.
For example: “The object of conversation is to entertain and amuse, and society, to be agreeable, must never be made the area of dispute.”
Further: “No well bred person will ever make remarks of any kind upon the habits, faults or foibles of a family where they are paying a visit; and to drop these remarks after they have left only shows that they were not deserving the attentions they received. Criticizing the acts of any member of the household, or the domestic management generally, is in very bad taste, even though it may be done with utmost good nature.”
Ladies and gentlemen were expected to call on their acquaintances regularly. Each type of call had its own etiquette. A fashionable lady might make a “morning call” in, of course, the morning. But she would not take off her bonnet or shawl, and she would not stay more than twenty minutes.
Furthermore: “To carry children or dogs with you is altogether vulgar. It is necessary to leave one’s dog in the anteroom; the nurse who holds the infant must also be left without the drawing-room.”
A formal dinner party brought its own set of rules: “Finger glasses, when used, come on with the dessert, and are filled with warm water. Wet a corner of your napkin, and wipe your mouth, then rinse your fingers; but do not practice the filthy custom of gargling your mouth at table, albeit the usage prevails among a few, who think that because it is a foreign habit it cannot be disgusting.”
Finally, a caution about introducing friends to each other: “It is the common custom among a certain class, particularly in New England, to introduce friends or acquaintances to everybody they meet. This is not necessary or desirable, for an introduction is a sort of social endorsement of the person introduced; and how wrong it would be to introduce a casual acquaintance who should afterwards prove to be anything but a desirable one.”
As I said, some of these nineteenth-century rules of etiquette seem quaint and outmoded. Others seem pertinent for our behavior today. In order to avoid turning this column into an area of dispute, I will leave you to form your own opinion as to which is which.