In today’s world, where no phrase is too offensive for a bumper sticker or movie dialogue, and restaurant owners have to post signs requiring their patrons to wear shoes and shirts, the etiquette rules of early 19th century England may seem rather quaint.
But while it's true that some of the rules seem archaic, others clearly illustrate that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
I base my opinion on a thin book, published in London in 1834 by Charles William Day, titled Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society with a Glance at Bad Habits.
This guide covers many topic in etiquette, including the subject of polite address in conversation:
“Do not repeat the name of the person to whom you are speaking, as --'Indeed, Mr. Stubbs, you don't say so, Sir,' or "Really, Mrs. Fidkins, I quite agree with you, Mrs. Fidkins.' It is a sufficiently bad habit in an equal, but in one of lower rank it becomes an impertinence.”
Also, “Do not strain after great people — for, although they like the homage, inasmuch as it flatters their vanity, yet they despise the dispenser of it.”
Alas, Jean Harlow, 1930s film actress, evidently didn't have a copy of Hints. A story has it that the famous platinum blonde met Margot Asquith, fawning over her and repeatedly addressing the older woman as “Lady Margott.” Finally, an irritated Lady Margot explained, “My dear, the 't' in my name is silent, as in Harlow.”
Ouch. But besides straining after great people, you apparently should be careful how you describe them, as well.
“Do not say a person is 'affable' unless he or she be of very high rank, as it implies condescension. ROYAL personages are 'gracious'.”
“Queen Victoria,” suggested another guest.
“Ah,” said Wilde, “but she is not a subject.”
Etiquette surrounding meals also takes up a large part of the book. Rules abound about when to use, or not use, a knife, and also about gloves.
Ladies apparently never wore gloves at dinner unless their hands were unsightly, while waiters were instructed to swathe their fingers at all times in clean white gloves, taking care to mind their thumbs.
“There are few things more disagreeable than the thumb of a clumsy waiter in your plate,” seems to be overstating the case, since most of us can probably imagine many things more disagreeable than a gloved thumb on a Spode platter.
However, some things were permitted in moderation, such as picking your teeth.
“Do not pick your teeth much at table, as, however satisfactory a practice to yourself, to witness is not a pleasant thing,” the guidebook allows, with admirable understatement.
Smoking, especially in mixed company, was deeply frowned upon.
“If you are so unfortunate as to have contracted the low habit of smoking, be careful to practise it under certain restrictions; at least, so long as you are desirous of being considered fit for civilised society . . . The tobacco smoker, in public, is the most selfish animal imaginable; he perseveres in contaminating the pure and fragrant air, careless of whom he annoys, and is but the fitting inmate of a tavern.”
And it was in a tavern, actually London’s Traveller’s Club, where legend has it that Charles Maurice Talleyrand-Périgord, a French politician and diplomat during the Napoleonic years, used his sense of humor to extricate himself from the clutches of a man who was clearly etiquette-challenged.
Talleyrand’s interlocutor could have spared himself embarrassment if he’d read Hints and taken it to heart. As Day puts it:
“If these 'hints' save the blush but upon one cheek, or smooth the path into 'society' of only one honest family, the object of the author will be attained.”
Note: In addition to the fore-mentioned Hints of Good Society with A Glance at Bad Habits (Turnstile Press Ltd.), other sources for this article include Wit, The Best Things Ever Said, compiled and edited by John Train, Edward Burlingame Books (a division of HarperCollins), 1991.
Maureen Mackey is a prolific author of Regency romance and romantic suspense. It was while studying English literature and history that she fell in love not only with her future husband but also with 18th century and Regency England. Maureen’s lifelong love of mysteries prompted her passion for writing in that genre as well. When she’s not writing she likes to read, prowl through used book stores, walk her rambunctious Sheltie and spend time with Tom and their two sons. She’s currently working on a time-travel mystery and a Regency novella.
Her latest release is A Rake's Redemption: