Saturday 5 October 2013

Manners for Women - Joan Lennon

The 1890s in Britain was a time of exciting and often confusing change, particularly for young women.  This was true in the area of manners as much as anything else.  Fortunately, there was no shortage of eager helpers on hand offering hints on how to navigate the minefield of lady-like behaviour.  One of my favourites is Mrs Humphry (author of Manners for Men, a book about which I posted last month).

According to Mrs Humphry, things were definitely looking up for the female of the species.

"The happy girls of the century-end have not such good reason for wishing to be boys as their mothers, and, more still, their grandmothers, had in their young days."

For one thing, the modern girl has escaped "The tyrannous needle [that]swallowed up their youth ... fancy-work plays no part whatever in her cheery, breezy, young existence. Very often she ignores even the needle of ordinary life, and her thimble knows her so little that it will not come when it is called. It has been left in waste places."

And, for another, "thank goodness, the piano is going out of fashion for girls in the best circles ... to the great easement of humanity."

But that didn't mean it was all plain sailing, just a walk in the park, a lark, a laugh ...  In fact, Mrs Humphry dedicates seven pages to this very subject: Chapter 4 - Learning to Laugh - since these breezy modern girls just don't know how to do it nicely. At the theatre, for example:

"For every one whose laughter is melodious, there will be found a dozen who merely grin and half-a-dozen whose sole relief is in physical contortion. Some of the latter bend forward, folding themselves almost double, then spring back again, and repeat this jerky and ridiculous movement afresh at every joke. Others throw their heads back in a way that disagreeably suggests dislocation. ... Cachinnations in every key resound on all sides ... Cackling suggestive of the farmyard, and snorts not unreminiscent of pig-styes, produce variety. As to the grins, very few of them can be, in the remotest sense of the word, described as pleasing ... the exhibition of whole meadows of pale pink gum is inconsonant with one's ideas of beauty."

(And if all that doesn't make you so self-conscious you might never laugh again, then nothing will.)

So many things to avoid, from unfortunate centre-pieces ("I never like to see slippers as flower vases on the dinner-table.") to inappropriate weeping ("Crying is no longer fashionable. It has followed fainting into the moonlight land of half-forgotten things.") to bicycling on the wrong side of the road ("... thousands of bicyclists belong to a class which is ignorant of the charms of horse exercise, and they may be unaware that the rule of the road is exactly the opposite to that which guides pedestrians on the footpath.")

And yet there is so much to be glad of too, and, at the end of the day, "Can anything in the world be nicer than a really nice girl?"

Now where's my thimble ...

(This post is recycled from my own blog, several years back.)

Joan's website.
Joan's blog.


Penny Dolan said...

I found a thimble, complete with its "tiny felt hat" thimble cover, in an old sewing box earlier this week. Amusing and rather modern viewpoints from Mrs Murphy.

I would laugh at this post, though now daren't. (And I never realised that the rules of cycling and road use had anything to do with past horse-riding practices.)

Joan Lennon said...

I've never seen a thimble cover! And I'm sure your laugh is suitably silvery!

Annis said...

Love it :) And now I have a new word to add to my collection of those never before encountered - cachinnation!