In the third Slightly Jones Mystery - The Case of the Cambridge Mummy, young Victorian scallywag Matthew Bone gets taken in hand by Miss Sally Forth to be taught manners. So I needed to learn some first. I went looking for late 19th century etiquette books and found ...
... Mrs Humphry.
I love Mrs Humphry. When I first got my hands on Manners for Men I kept sitting down to read it, and then leaping up to find some boy to read it to!
"Listen to this!" I kept yelping.
"At the breakfast table unkempt hair, untended finger-nails, and a far from immaculate collar are occasionally to be seen ... the ill-bred young man may be traced from room to room by the litter of newspapers and magazines he leaves behind him ... In this young man's own room there is chaos. The maids have endless trouble in clearing up after him ... His handkerchiefs, his socks, and collars are lying about in every corner of the room. He is too indolent even to put his boots outside the door at night that they may be cleaned in the morning. To save himself trouble he bangs all the doors instead of gently latching them."
Tell me about it, Madge.
But she is sincere in her desire to help these young hooligans and sympathises with their awkwardness and fears. Take dinner parties, for example:
"To converse with a perfect stranger is always one of the initial social accomplishments to be learned, and it is not at all an easy thing at first. It needs practice. Ninety men out of every hundred offer a remark upon the weather; but unless there had been something very extraordinary going on in the meterological line, it is better to avoice this subject if possible ..."
But what then?
"I have known a good beginning made with some such remark as, "Do you know everybody here?" This leads perhaps to the acquisition of some information as to the other guests ... The floral decorations often lead up to conversation. The colours of the flowers remind one of pictures, and the lady on one's right may be asked if she has been to any exhibitions that may be open. If so, what pictures she liked best. Does she paint? Has she read the novel of the hour? What does she think of it? Does she bike? At this rate our novice gets on swimmingly, and may safely be left to himself."
She is also happy to answer more specific questions on how to proceed:
"A young man once asked me if it would be etiquette to offer an unknown lady an umbrella in the street, supposed she stood in need of one. I replied, 'No lady would accept the offer from a stranger, and the other sort of person might never return the umbrella.'"
Sometimes it is enough to gently point out an area of weakness:
"It requires some expertness and practice for a man with a moustache to take soup in a perfectly inoffensive manner. The accomplishment is worth some trouble."
Mrs Humphry may have the knowledge, but she makes clear that there is more to becoming a well-mannered gentleman than just reading her book:
"If manners are not practised at home, but are allowed to lie by until occasion calls upon their wearer to assume them, they are sure to be a bad fit when donned."
You can't argue with that.
And rest assured that Mrs Humphry did not leave the ladies to wander without assistance in the minefield of late Victorian etiquette. Next month, Manners for Women! I invite you, as politely as I know how, to join me then.
(This post is recycled from my own blog, several years back.)