Sunday 4 August 2013

"Do not gurgle" - by Katherine Langrish

This little book was printed in 1918.

It begins: "It is a sign of the times that there is a very large demand for a handy little manual which will present in an easily comprehended and concise form a summary of those points which constitute a claim to the possession of good manners. With the spread of education the old-fashioned lines which so sharply divide the classes are fast vanishing. And now that there is so little distinction in clothes, all that tends to make or mar is to be seen in manners and heard in speech."

So how would we fare if we were spirited back to 1918? Would we 'pass' as 'gentlefolk' or be shunned as hopelessly out of our depth in good society? I fear the latter, and I suspect that many a BBC television adaptation gets these things wrong, too. For example:

With ladies, a gentleman never offers to shake hands. It is the privilege of the lady on all occasions to make the first move. This is an invariable rule. 

The lady must always extend her hand first, and if she does not, the gentleman must not attempt to shake hands with her. 

Always remember the claims to courtesy due to the fair sex and to your elders. If in any doubt, always err on the wrong side. Cross a room to open a door for a lady rather than allow her to open it for herself. Never sit in the presence of a lady who remains standing. Rise always when a lady leaves the room. 


After an introduction, the gentleman on a future occasion must always await the lady's signal of acknowledgement. He must not presume upon the fact of a prior introduction to begin an acquaintanceship. 

One thing that strikes me about this little pamphlet is that it is relentlessly addressed to the male reader. Perhaps to those 'temporary gentlemen' (horrid phrase!), the working or middle class men who had been raised to officer status during the war. Was there another pamphlet for women? Or was it simply that women were less socially mobile and therefore less in need of this kind of advice?

Reading it, I am struck by what seems now the extreme and complicated formality of social rules at the time. Need to know when to raise your hat? The pamphlet explains. You must raise your hat to any lady of your acquaintance, chance-met in public - but only if she has bowed or nodded to you first. If, however, you need to perform some slight service for a lady whom you do not know, (for instance, to pick up an item she has dropped), you should lift your hat first. Ordinarily you don't lift your hat to a male friend, but if you have a lady with you he will lift his hat to her, and you must return the salute. However, you may raise your hat to a man who is senior to you 'in years or station', and he should raise his hat in response.

All this had to become a reflex - an instinctive, spontaneous response.  Or else you were out of your depth, struggling, and patently no gentleman...

I've never quite understood (neither does this pamphlet explain) why 'for afternoon calls morning dress is worn - frock coat or morning coat and silk hat.' But I'm relieved to discover that the author encourages 'sympathy and understanding in dealing with servants', urging us to remember that ' they are of the same material as yourself, with the same desires and needs, emotions and thoughts, which differ in degree only, and not in kind. It should be your place to set them an example... Ask kindly, if firmly, for what you want done.'


I think most 21st century time travellers would be rapidly found out. How about this for a culinary problem?

DESSERT - This is sometimes a difficult proceeding. To peel an orange, apple or pear with a fruit knife and fork requires some practice. If you feel doubtful about it, take some other fruit. ... Bananas should be peeled with the dessert knife and fork and eaten with the fork, which should be used to divide the fruit into small pieces. 

And it might be difficult to accustom oneself to this:

SERVICE - Remember that the servants are there to wait. Do not ask a fellow guest to pass something if a servant is at hand. Do not lean over the table to reach for anything; ask a servant to pass it. 

Some of the advice is priceless (and timeless), though:

EATING - Eat quietly and deliberately. All haste is vulgar; in eating it is particularly so. Make no noise in masticating your food, and keep the mouth closed during the process. ...In taking soup do not gurgle or make throat noises. 

And as for drinking:

Do not elevate the glass as though trying to stand it on your nose. 

Lastly, oh History Girls, bear in mind these strictures on instilling virtues in children:

MANLINESS - Teach your boys to be honest in all things; never do a mean or dirty action; to be straightforward and truthful in all their dealings; to be open, fearless and courteous on all occasions, and especially to their sisters. 

MODESTY - Teach your girls to be as good as your boys (as fearless, as open and as courteous), only from them a little more fineness and more reserve is expected - a tribute to their delicate and finer nature.  


maryom said...

How complicated! Would there be any hope of getting it right if you hadn't had all the rules instilled in you from childhood?

Ms. said...

Good suggestion, and delightfully amusing image---"Do not elevate the glass as though trying to stand it on your nose."

Marjorie said...

Very tricky! My sister and i found a little etiquette guide at my grandmotheer's house, which had been given (as far as we cold tell) to her father in about 1912, probably when he got married (or just before).

We spent a happy afternoon looking up the correct behaviour for each situation we found ourselves in. (we quickly came to the conclusion that none of us would pass muster)
One which stuck with me was that if you break something while you are a guest, you should apologize, but should not offer to replace the item, as that implies that your host cannot afford to do so..

Even breakfast was complicated - as I recall, at house-parties breakfast was served as a buffet, and gentlemen had to serve the ladies, (so the poor chap who came down early would be leaping up and down like a jack in the box) except for the tea or coffee, which the senior lady would pour out..

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

In the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, John Thornton offers his hand to Margaret Hale and she is shocked and won't take it. He in turn, is offended by her refusal. This was intended to highlight the differences in both class and geography, so was clearly a long-standing rule. But makes more sense in the context of these instructions! Fascinating.