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The Weird World of Victorian Etiquette
"The world was my oyster but I used the wrong fork."
The Oxford Dictionary defines etiquette as:
- The customary code of polite behaviour in society or among members of a particular profession or group.
The codes of etiquette and good manners have been evolving for thousands of years. It's regarded as one the traits of a civilised society. This maybe so, but when you look at the rule books of Victorian etiquette its like good manners gone mad! Some of the rules are silly and others are weird!
Having said this, the Victorians did have a few pearls of wisdom that could be used to very good effect today.
Etiquette rules for women
"There was a general whisper, toss, and wiggle,but etiquette forbade them all to giggle"
For modern women, some of the following 'rules of etiquette' might seem quaint but others are chauvinistic. So be warned, you may end up either squirming in your seat or raging with indignation!
- It was the role of women to, ‘always be graceful,composed and refined’. In addition, the main goal of female etiquette was to please the man.
- The dressing room of a woman was a sanctuary from any male presence or influence. However, the use of the dressing room was to ensure she had everything she needed to look good for her husband. This is where dress, hairstyles and make-up would be tried and tested so that, "..the husband should always find the wife fresh, beautiful and sweet as a flower..".
- Women had a duty to look beautiful at all times but they must also ensure that "...they make it look like there was no effort at all..." It was also proper etiquette for the woman to always wear her hair up unless in the privacy of the bed chamber.
- The ideal Victorian woman was always busy and very able. According to many etiquette books, she could always draw strength from her "moral superiority".
- In Victorian society the main role of a lady was to serve others. This could take many forms from ensuring she was always beautiful and clean to holding dinner parties. In everything she did it had to be aimed at pleasing her husband and society.
- When a lady wanted to cross the street there were strict rules on which way to carry her dress. She must hold the dress slightly above the ankle, holding the folds with her right hand and drawing them towards the right. It was apparently 'vulgar' to lift the dress with both hands as far too much ankle would be shown. However, a woman could show her ankles for a brief moment if there was a lot of mud on the ground and needed to ensure her dress was clear of the ground.
- During courting it was permitted for a man to bring gifts to the lady but they had to be of a particular kind - flowers, a book, perhaps sweets were also given. However, the lady could never give a present to a man until he had first given her a present. The presents given to the man had a strict code - they had to be artistic, handmade and not expensive.
- Single women in particular were never to indulge in behaviour with a man where it might in anyway lead to being 'kissed or handled in anyway'. If a man wanted to admire a necklace for example, the woman had to remove it and hand it over for inspection. Under no circumstances was the item to be inspected while she wore it.
- In marriage a woman had no rights over own body. Her husband - with the full backing of church and law - could force sex and childbirth onto her and could use 'moderate' discipline for correcting a wife. He also inherited all her money and goods on marriage and was free to spend her wealth on mistresses, prostitutes, gambling, drink or whatever else took his fancy.
- In law 'adultery' was not seen as an excuse for a wife to seek divorce from her husband. However, a man would succeed in getting a divorce if the wife had been the adulterer.
"Nothing more rapidly inclines a person to go into a monastery than reading a book on etiquette. There are so many trivial ways in which it is possible to commit some social sin."
I wonder how modern day children would react if they suddenly had to behave according to the following rules taken from a few Victorian etiquette books:
- Never talk back to older people especially your father and mother.
- Never whine or frown when spoken to by your elders.
- Never argue with your elders - they know best.
- Never do anything that is forbidden by your elders.
- Do as you are told in a pleasant and willing way.
- Never contradict anyone in any way - it is very impolite.
- Always rise into a standing position when visitors arrive.
- Never start a conversation with a visitor until they have started to speak.
- Never interrupt a conversation.
- Never allow your parents to bring you a chair and never allow them to get one for themselves. Wait on them, instead of being waited on.
- Never run up and down the stairs or across the room.
- Keep yourself clean and neat looking at all times.
Despite all these rules for children the social history evidence shows clearly that children were probably just as unruly and cheeky as they are today.
Victorian etiquette for men
"Politeness, The most acceptable hypocrisy."
It wasn't just women and kids who had to follow the rules of society. Men had their own standards of etiquette.
Men who disregarded social standards were viewed not only as ‘vulgar’ but were often shunned by society.
Below are just some of the etiquette rules men were expected to follow:
It was bad manners to allow a lady to get herself a chair, pick up something she had dropped or ring the bell for servants while a gentleman was in the room. Etiquette rules stated that these duties should be carried out by the man on her behalf.
- A man should always remove his hat when entering a room even if the room was empty. The only exception was if there was genuinely no place to put his hat.
- A very bad breach of etiquette was for a man to sit while a lady was left standing. He must immediately offer her the use of his own chair even if 'the gentleman has the best seat in the room, he must offer it to a lady’. However, if his seat was warm from where he had been sitting, he must go and get another seat for the lady and not offer her the one that was still warm.
- If a man escorted a lady to the opera, ballet or similar, he must remain seated with her during the performance and avoid talking while the performance was on.
- In one etiquette rule book it was firmly stated that ‘Showing affection in public was brazen vulgarity.’
- A famous Victorian point of etiquette was that ‘a gentleman should be seen and not smelled. They should use but little perfume as too much is in very bad taste’.
- The Victorians were always hot on how, as they saw it, ‘inferior people’ should be treated: ‘In the company of an inferior, never let him feel inferior either by your speech or manner.’
- In conversation a gentleman should never speak about himself or his self importance and only to speak with others on subjects they are interested in.
- Safe subjects to talk about included - books, balls, bonnets, metaphysics, traveling or the weather.
- As well as the above, a gentleman was also expected to: ‘Avoid showing his learning and accomplishments in the presence of ignorant, inferior or vulgar people - who can by no possibility understand or appreciate what is being said.’
- It was considered bad manners and vulgar to ask a direct question. A Victorian gentleman could never ask for example "How is your Mother?" They had to put the question in another form such as "I hope your Mother is doing well?"
- But the gentleman also had to remember not to ask a lady about anything that might offend her or upset her.
- The gentleman must never use slang terms and phrases in polite company. These vulgar terms should only be used in ‘bar rooms and other low places.
- It was apparently bad manners and vulgar to joke at the expense of a lady.
Etiquette and the Victorians
Do you think the Victorians could teach us anything about manners?
Can We Learn Anything From The Victorians?
It's easy to scoff at society from the past but is there anything the Victorians can teach us?
Today, there seems to be a shift away from politeness towards rudeness and aggression. We don't have to take 'etiquette' to the extreme. However, having manners is a sign of self respect for as well as for others.
Perhaps then before we ridicule everything about the etiquette and traditions of the Victorians, we should pause for a moment and think about what they may have got right?
© 2012 Helen Murphy Howell