Friday 6 April 2018

The Book of Etiquette Sheena Wilkinson

Another in my occasional series about odd little books from the past.

my 1962 edition 
I grew up in a Belfast council estate but I knew how to address a letter to royalty and what a Dowager was. I knew how to leave a calling card and that fashionable dinners were now served à la Russe. Should I ever be obliged to do so, I knew exactly how to organise the work of a household with three, two, or – heaven forfend, only one servant. I knew that any inconsiderate behaviour was ill-bred.

I bought it in a jumble sale, or a ‘wee sale’ as they were always called. I loved a wee sale. Once I had combed the room for Chalet School and Enid Blyton books I used to hang round until the end and buy – or have foisted on me – all sorts of unfortunate one-eyed, tailless, germ-ridden soft toys for whom I felt sorry. My mother must have been quite relieved to see me come home with a clean, if well-thumbed paperback, though she must have wondered at my liking something so old-fashioned.

The funny thing was, it wasn’t that old. The Book of Etiquette was originally published in 1926, in which year – that of the General Strike – it must have seemed almost as alien and a great deal less charming to many working people (not that they’d have been likely to read it) as it did to me in 1970s Belfast. My copy was not a 1920s original, nor an ironic reissue of the sort now popular but a cheap paperback reprint in the Cedar Special library, dated 1962. It’s hard to believe that in the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the first hits of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, people were still paying 7/6 to find out the Carriage rules at Court or, in the sad event of not having a carriage, How to behave in an omnibus.

This may not have been my day-to-day world, but it was one I recognised from my reading. When Harriet Vane marries Lord Peter and is addressed by as Lady Peter by a person of modest background, I thought, aha! That character has read her Book of Etiquette. 

an older edition 
When I was a teacher, my pupils used to be puzzled at Mrs Birling’s disapproval of her husband’s praising of the dinner in An Inspector Calls: surely he is only being polite! But no – As a general rule no comments should be made…on the food or the wine… Mr Birling is revealing a sad lack of breeding -- or reading. 

another older edition
The Book of Etiquette has stayed with me through several house-moves and spring clear-outs, when other old friends have been abandoned. Now that I write historical fiction I tell myself it’s useful research, even though so far my characters have been much too lower-middle-class to worry about shooting etiquette or when to wear decorations with their evening dress.

Apparently The Book of Etiquette is so comprehensive a guide that it was used as research for the film Gosford Park. And actually, anyone today would benefit from reading the sections on how to behave at the theatre – in complete silence during the performance and on no account to rustle your programme. What my grandmother would have called the relics of oul' decency. 


Susan Price said...

How should you behave in an omnibus? Many of us need to know.

Lynne Benton said...

Lovely post, Sheena! Amazing what gems you can find at such sales, charity shops etc. We shall know who to ask if we need to know how to address an earl or an archbishop, or how long one should stay on a first visit to a country house!