Victorian Life Advice, Part 1: “Keep Your Eye on the Main Chance”

7 May

Unless I’ve grown up completely out of the cultural loop (and that’s a distinct possibility), most young people don’t spend their free time reading etiquette handbooks anymore.  I graduated from college Saturday, and I didn’t get a single volume titled “The Ladies’ Guide to Politeness” (a major disappointment, needless to say).

“I get my post-graduation guidance from the cast of Mad Men!”

True, self-help books are everywhere.  When Kate the Lostie graduated from high school, she got a book called “What Should I Do With My Life?” from our grandparents, and apparently corporate culture is such that my very successful mother gets leadership handbooks and inspiration business stories from the higher-ups on what seems like a daily basis (books with titles like “Our Iceberg is Melting” or “Who Moved My Cheese?” or “Whale Done!”, books that seem to have taken Aesop’s Fables to a whole new level of strangeness, books that I take every opportunity to make fun of).

But the difference is that these are all books geared toward people who want to network, make money (and friends to influence), succeed in business (without really trying, I imagine), or find their life’s passion (best of luck to you with that).  They aren’t really books on how–as an 1875 etiquette manual promises–to learn “a new set of forms or ceremonies to be observed if you wish to glide down the current of polite life smoothly and pleasantly.”  Surely, we don’t make such a big deal of etiquette in this grand and glorious 21st century, do we?

Do we?

Since my last post on Victorian etiquette seemed fairly popular (and I am shamelessly angling for an audience), I decided to look again at the manner and morals of the late 19th century.  And as it turns out, they’re not very different from the rules we still follow today.

“You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.”

1. Choose Your Friends Wisely

The 1875 “Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette” by Cecil B. Hartley (obviously the name of a true gentleman) is the sort of thing a young man with a brand new Bachelor of Arts in XYZ might get for a graduation gift.  And it starts its gents-in-training with some basic advice:

“The young man who makes his first entrance into the world of society, should know how to choose his friends, and next how to conduct himself towards them.”

Why, doesn’t that sound like just the sort of thing snobby Victorian New Englanders would say!  The right kind of people indeed!  Next thing you know, we’ll be calling people “mudbloods” and looking down our noses at anyone without an Ivy League pedrigree.  The outrage!

Yeah, yeah.  Let’s get down off our high horses for a moment and recall that this is exactly the advice that most moms give their teenagers at some point or another (ever been told your friends were having a “bad influence”? or gotten the “You are who your friends are” lecture?  I haven’t, obviously, but I know some folks).  And it doesn’t always have to do with any sticky class or racial prejudices–getting ahead is the sort of thing that ‘Murricans worry about, like, all the time.

Royall Tyler: Making fun of the British and rocking Elvis Presley hair since 1787.

There’s this great 18th-century play called The Contrast, written by a man with the very un-American name of Royall Tyler, whose comedy of errors was a still-pretty-funny send-up of Americans trying to act like fashionable European dandies.  Maybe inadvertently, but probably not, Tyler pokes fun at that most American of virtues: making money.  Hey, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that–I’ve been tweeting disparaging things about OWS-ers for months.  But you have to admit, Royall Tyler has it exactly write when our heroine’s father spouts his favorite line half a dozen times throughout the first act:

“No! no! no! child; it is money makes the mare go; keep your eye upon the main chance, Mary.”

Yes, we have a deeply-entrenched national faith that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps with hard work and a never-day-die attitude, but hey–it doesn’t hurt to know the right people.

Today, we call that “networking.”

***

Join me next time for 19th century advice on how to engage in gentlemanly conversation.  I promise to let you know exactly when and where it’s appropriate to use the phrase “Hail, fellow, well met!” (because there are totally rules about that).

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