Tag Archives: Victorian

How to Converse with Silly, Stupid Ladies (Victorian Life Advice 2.0)

8 May

Take note, gentlemen: this might help you on your next date.  Or not.  Probably not.

Our guide to proper 19th-century etiquette, the eminent Cecil B. Hartley, would have been remiss to omit from his 1875 Gentlemen’s  Book of Etiquette advice on the art of conversation.  And lucky for us, almost all of these guidelines have something to do with one’s behavior in “the society of ladies.”

You’d better be reading Godey’s Lady’s Book, Belle. Not that you could understand it any better than the sheep.

This was the era of the “Cult of True Womanhood,”  a pervasive (I suppose a lot of us would say pernicious) set of ideas about how women were supposed to act.  We can sum it up into four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.

Of course, in 1875, “ladies” wasn’t a blanket statement for all human females–more like white middle- and upper-class human females.  But even so, working-class women, African-American women, and others who wouldn’t be called “ladies” or be welcomed in polite society were often held to the same standards of the Cult of True Womanhood.

The point being that these were the cultural assumptions of Hartley’s time, and the things he says about women’s brains and mental faculties (below) would have been quite common.  Hey, women themselves were reading the same things in their own publications, like that money-making machine, the womanly advice manual and fashion handbook “Godey’s Lady’s Book.”

So let’s see what Mr. Hartley was teaching America’s young men about relationships between the sexes:

1. No Controversy Allowed

“One of the first rules for a guide in polite conversation is to avoid political and religious discussions in general society … [I]n the drawing room, at the dinner table, or in the society of ladies, these are topics best avoided.”

We still say today that it’s impolite to bring up politics, religion, or other contentious subjects at dinner or at any sort of gathering–even among friends and family.  Of course, Hartley mentions three situations in which it’s in particularly bad taste to start a debate: all of them the domestic spheres of a woman.  You get the feeling that Hartley wouldn’t take offense to a group of men drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and talking politics in the library after dinner.

2. Don’t Let a Woman Show You Up

I love this one.  Hartley has just been discoursing on the importance of being knowledgeable about a broad range of topics (art, science, literature, business, music, international affairs) when he throws in this gem about a woman who chimes in with something insightful to say when the man has lost the train of the conversation for wont of a proper education:

“You can speak, even though you’re so clearly my intellectual inferior! It’s remarkable!”

“This facility of comprehension often startles us in some women, whose education we know to have been poor, and whose reading is limited.  If they did not rapidly receive your ideas, they could not, therefore, be fit companions for intellectual men, and it is, perhaps, their consciousness of a deficiency which leads them to pay more attention to what you say.”

By jove, that must be it!  It’s not that she’s a intelligent woman who has by the custom of the country been denied equal education with men (how absurd); it must be that she wants to get married and so tries really hard to prove herself to men!  Well, that makes much more sense.

3. That’s What She Said

You know why I’m glad Steve Carell left The Office this season?  Because I’m pretty sure that Michael Scott did more to popularize “That’s what she said” jokes than anyone else on the planet.  And if puns are the lowest form of humor, than making a double entendre of an innocent person’s inadvertent sexual innuendo has to be the lowest form of pun.

“To use phrases which admit of a double meaning, is ungentlemanly, and, if addressed to a lady, they become positively insulting.”

Finally, something Cecil and I can agree on.  Lord knows there’s not much.

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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.”

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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).

The Awkward Moment When You Insist on 19th-century Etiquette in Daily Life

3 May

Uncomfortable Scenario #1: 

You’re  walking across campus when you spot an acquaintance  a couple yards away, coming towards you down the sidewalk.  You know he/she/it must have seen you too, but you don’t know whether to say hey, just smile, or even make eye contact.  Ultimately one of you ends up pulling your cell phone out and pretending to text.  Don’t lie.  It’s happened to you too.

Worst of all, there seems to be no solution–or at least not one widely agreed upon by society.  Thus, I would like to humbly propose a rule of etiquette for greeting acquaintances, people whose names you don’t remember, and that guy who friended you on Facebook sophomore year after an American Studies club meeting that you never talk to but who keeps liking your status updates and somehow found you on Twitter: that for this matter, we revert to the etiquette of the late-19th century, when there was a rule for everything.  Everything.  Even this.

Scenario #1 Resolved: Do it like a Victorian.

These are the (abridged) guidelines set down by Victorian dancing master Lucien O. Carpenter in 1882 for “Etiquette for the Street.”  My annotations are in italics.

Her: “Your assistance, Mr. Forsyte, please. I’m finding it difficult to breath.”
Him: “Why yes, my rakish good looks and facial hair tend to have that effect on the fairer sex.”
Her: “Yeah? So do corsets.”

1. The lady should be first to recognize an acquaintance, whether intimate or not.  [This one’s on us, female humans.  If you’re friendly acquaintances, I think “hey” or “salutations and good day!” is suitable.  If it’s a rival or a frenemy, nod and raise an eyebrow contemptuously.]

2. The gentleman should raise his hat slightly, inclining and turning toward the lady in saluting. The hat should be raised by the hand farthest form the lady.  [If the male human is not wearing a hat, I suggest briefly raising the hand farthest from the female as a greeting.  Because everyone knows that using the hand closest to the lady is vulgar.  Obv.]

3. One salutation is all that civility requires when passing a person more than once on a public promenade or drive.  [Which is actually kind of useful to know, because how annoying is it when you’re passing someone who says “How are you?” or “What’s up?” when you really don’t have time to engage in a conversation?]

4. Never stare at any one, is a rule with no exceptions.

5. The gentleman should not smoke when driving or walking with ladies.  [Addendum: University of Alabama men, stop spitting on the sidewalk when someone is passing you.  You don’t need to be a Victorian to think that’s disgusting.]

6. If the lady with whom you are walking is saluted by another gentleman, acknowledge the same by removing your hat.  [Oooh, she must be popular.  Or my little sister.  In other words, nod to your rivals, gentlemen.]

7. Should you desire to converse with a lady you should happen to meet, do not detain her, but turn and walk in her direction.  [Perfect!  No more standing around uncomfortably in the middle of the sidewalk!]

Sarah and Angelina Grimké were abolitionists and suffragettes before it was cool to be an abolitionist or a suffragette.  And they could open their own doors JUST FINE.

8. While walking with a lady in a crowded thoroughfare and obliged to proceed singly, the gentleman should precede her to clear the way.  [Unless the lady is more physically imposing, or has a naturally unpleasant face/really intimidating glare that makes her look sour and unhappy in social situations but really comes in handy when staring down solicitors or Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I may or may not know this from personal experience.]

9. While walking with a lady, the gentleman should take the side next the street.  [Because if someone’s going to get run over by a car… I mean… horse and buggy, it’s going to be the man.  The funny thing is that when I was a kid and my little sister and I would go on walks, my mother told me I needed to stand on the street side.  Clearly, an asthmatic 10-year-old is so much more likely to survive a vehicular impact than an 8-year-old.  Makes perfect sense.]

10. Loud conversation should be avoided at all times.  [This one, I can get on board with.  Nobody wants to hear about how you totally don’t remember what happened at that party last night, irresponsible freshman girl.  Nobody.]

I’m Absolutely Serious About This

Okay, so I realize that, the further down the list you get, the more archaically chivalrous the guidelines get.  Personally, I’m in total agreement with the estimable Grimké sisters on chivalry being somewhat condescending and demeaning to women (the worst thing about Alabama has been the tendency of people to hold a door open for me when I’m still really far away, making me run to relieve them).  But for awkward public greeting situations, the first three rules are gold.

Follow this link for more sources on the sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-cringeworthy, and sometimes even a little useful rules of 19th century etiquette.

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Musical Advice from 1900: Don’t Be a Gold Digger

1 May

Now that I’m graduating from college, I’ve gotten some joking (I hope) comments from friends and family that I’m going to grad school far, far away on the East coast in order to find some rich WASP-y law student to marry.  Because that’s why people get PhDs.  Seven years hunched over books in a library carrel just screams “Marry me!”

Anyway, all this reminds me of my favorite Victorian-era sentimental ballad: “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”  Like virtually all 19th/early-20th century tear-jerkers, it features a beautiful woman dying of despair because she gets trapped in a bad relationship (in this case, she’s a gold digger who marries an old guy for his money).

I know we tend to think of “the olden days” as a time when women necessarily married for money and then pined away for love all the rest of their days, but in the 19th century ideas of romantic love and “companionate marriage” were superseding the old patriarchal model of arranged, economic marriages.  This was the golden age of all things sentimental.  I can’t listen to this song without laughing, but if I were a Victorian lady, I’d probably be bawling my eyes out.

So here it is:

Bonus Story!  The day I defended my thesis (a couple weeks ago) I called up my elder sister Kate the Lostie and sang this song into her voicemail. Later I sang it into a webcam for my bemused family (and they’re the only ones who will ever, ever see it).  Apparently after doing some Wikipedia-ing, her response was thus:

“According to Von Tilzer, he was approached in 1899 by Lamb with the lyrics for a song. Although Von Tilzer liked it, he asked Lamb to change some of the words to make it clear that the woman in the song was married and not a mistress. Later that evening, as he worked out a melody at a piano in a public house with some friends, he noticed that many of the girls nearby were crying, which convinced him the song could be a hit.”

haha maybe they were crying bc they could relate

Insightful and eloquent as always, my sister.