Sunday, April 12, 2015

Etiquette Then--and Now

As I wrote my novel Love of the Summerfields, which is set in an English manor house--and after being a Downton Abbey fanatic since Mary and Edith first argued--I became aware of the details and delicacies of proper etiquette. 

ETIQUETTE:  The act of behaving in an utterly proper way so you won't get your hand slapped or be shunned from the members of society who made up the rules which are almost impossible to follow.

Here are some gems from The Essential Handbook of Victorian Entertaining (adapted by Autumn Stephens) with a few asides from me.

• Do not dress above your station; it is a grievous mistake, and leads to great evils, besides being the proof of a complete lack of taste. So we're to dress down? I hardly think "slovenly" would be appreciated.

• Do not expose the neck and arms at a dinner party. These should be covered, if not by the dress itself, then by lace or muslin overwaist. How about a nice plaid stadium blanket?

• Do not fail to try the effect of your dress by gaslight and daylight both. Many a color that may look well in daylight may look extremely ugly in gaslight. But facial lines and wrinkles look marvelous!

• When a gentleman is invited out for the evening, or when he hosts an evening entertainment himself, he is under no embarrassment as to what he shall wear. The unvarying uniform is black pants, waistcoat, and jacket, with white tie, shirt, and gloves. How about jeans and a tee-shirt? Or the ever popular khakis and a polo shirt?

• Prior to the dinner party, the hostess will acquaint herself with the social standing of each guest. If necessary, she may consult a reference volume, such as Who's Who. She then pairs each gentleman guest with a lady guest of equivalent social status. Does consulting Facebook and You Tube count?

• A few well-chosen words of praise for any dish that you happen to know is a matter of pride to your hostess will be well received. As a rule, however, the fewer remarks about your food, the better. Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub? Or how about "These Doritos are simply divine!"

• Do not hesitate what to take when a dish is passed to you. Nothing displays a lack of breeding more than not to know your own mind in trifles. Trifles? Is that in the same family as truffles?

• Do not refuse to take the last piece of bread of cake; it looks as though you imagined there might be no more. Hey now. If the plate's empty in my house, there ain't no more. And the last slice is mine.

• Do not carry anything like food with you from the table. Anything "like" food? I suppose a doggie bag is out of the question.

• Never leave the table before the end of the dinner, unless from urgent necessity. I won't go there.

• Young ladies seldom drink more than three glasses of wine at dinner; but married ladies who are engaged in a profession, such as authors and teachers, and those accustomed to society and the habits of affluence, will habitually take five or even six, whether in their own home or at the tables of their friends. Who are these winos? And who's the designated driver?

• Do not wear gloves at the table. I wouldn't think of it. I can't lick my fingers with gloves on.

• Be moderate in the quantity you eat. You impair your health by overloading the stomach, and render yourself dull and stupid for hours after the meal. Which gives you no out for being dull and stupid during the meal. And since the antidote for overeating is napping, I'm all for it.

All kidding aside, I grieve the loss of manners and etiquette. Baseball hats in restaurants incense me and I want to kiss any man who holds a door open for me. Actually, nowadays we need a new set of rules:

• No phone calls or texts while driving or dining. Or while in line. And if you can't talk on a cell phone without shouting, go outside.

• No tank tops on men. Ever. And especially not at a meal.

• Regarding gum: no popping, clicking, chomping, or blowing bubbles. And if I can see it in your mouth when you talk, you're toast.

• Never (ever) bring a full sized pillow on a plane.

• Unless you are a toddler, never (ever) wear pajama pants in public--including on a plane.

• If "muffin-top" applies to your figure, do not wear skin-tight tops or show skin. Even if you're skinny don't show me your midriff.

  • Leggings are not pants, and need a blouse or top that is long enough to cover your bottom.  If your top doesn't touch the tops of your legs, it's too short to wear with leggings.

  • • Flip-flops don't belong in church.

    • Thank you notes are still necessary. Whether emailed or snail-mailed, say thank you. Your mama will be so proud.

    • If you must have music blasted into your brain every second of the day, get those headphones that keep it to yourself. Earbuds aren't private and secondary music is annoying. And BTW, if you have music blasted into your brain every second of the day, your brain has no chance to think a real thought. Think about it.  Or try to.

    My list was longer than I thought it would be (and could be longer.) What are some of your etiquette requests?//Nancy Moser