Friday, November 04, 2016

Booknote: True Ladies and Proper Gentlemen

Sarah A. Chrisman and Thomas E. Hill, True Ladies and Proper Gentlemen: Victorian Etiquette for Modern-Day Mothers and Fathers, Husbands and Wives, Teachers and Students and More. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-63220-582-7.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: etiquette and manners, Victoriana
Format: hardcover
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County (KY) Public Library

This is basically a compilation of Victorian-era etiquette rules, tips, and advice. The author seeks to show how much of those rules is still relevant  and applicable to this day. After reading the book, I agree that the Victorians still have much to offer us in terms of etiquette and social behavior. Many of the rules they had back then are still with us today, plus there are a few that would be very applicable in today's lax and often rude society.

The book is arranged in ten chapters covering topics from romance and courting to health to table etiquette and behavior on the street. Each chapter features a list of rules and advice plus some kind of  fiction piece from the time to illustrate the rules of behavior. The fiction pieces felt more like filler. After reading the first fiction piece, I just skimmed or skipped the others as they were not as interesting. I felt those pieces detracted from the rest of the book. As for the rules, they vary. Some are still good and relevant. A few may strike some readers as odd or quirky, and they may be glad those rules are gone. Overall, we get a good picture of rules and behavior in Victorian times.

Keep in mind, these rules are mostly for the privileged and those of means. Those who aspired to move up also read them and tried to follow them. Even though the author draws much material from Hill's Manual, an 1873 etiquette book aimed at the American middle class, the material is mainly to help the upwardly mobile so they knew how to behave among the rich and privileged. In the late 19th century United States, social mobility upwards seemed very possible (very unlike today), so etiquette manuals were written with  that in mind:

"Class status was a more malleable  idea than it had ever been before-- after all, both President Lincoln and President Garfield had been born in log cabins. In an era when it seemed a very definite possibility that the person who served as a waiter in a fine restaurant one day might well be an honored guest at the same table a week later, one of the most important things people could learn was the right way to treat each other" (viii). 

As I mentioned, there is a lot of privilege here. The Victorian era in  the United States was also its Gilded Age, the era of robber barons. A popular narrative of the time were the Horatio Alger myths and his (mostly unrealistic but very popular) tales of Ragged Dick.

I liked the book, but it did have hits and misses. Still, it is worth a look, and it does have a few lessons for folks today.

3 out of 5 stars.

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Additional reading notes:

Some advice for  husbands and wives:

"Never deceive; confidence, once lost, can never be wholly regained" (39).

"Always leave home with a tender goodbye and loving words. They may be the last" (39). 

Advice for parents:

"Teach your children those things which they will need when they become men and women. Think what a man and woman need to know in order to be healthy, happy, prosperous and successful, and teach them that" (91).

A pity this is not done in schools anymore, teaching etiquette. Parents these days certainly do not bother teaching it to their kids anymore, and it shows. So, on classrooms and etiquette:

"At least a portion of each day should be set apart by the teacher to impart to the pupils a knowledge of etiquette. Students should be trained to enter the room quietly, to always close without noise the door through which they pass, to make introductions gracefully, to bow with ease and dignity, to shake hands properly, to address others courteously, to make a polite reply when spoken to, to sit and stand gracefully, to do the right thing in the right place, and thus, upon all occasions, to appear to advantage" (102). 

There is a reason why  many colleges and universities, including mine, have career workshops on topics like how to dress and how to behave at a business dinner. Otherwise, a lot of those graduates would have no clue.

Hey, even then, the Victorians said to shop local:

"Purchasers should, as far as possible, patronize the merchants of their own town. It is poor policy to send money  abroad for articles which can be bought as cheaply at home" (111).

Some things to avoid in social conversation, still very applicable today:

"Do not engage in argument" (127).

"Do not interrupt another when speaking" (127).

"Do not talk of your private, personal, and family matters" (127).

"Do not make a pretense of gentility, nor parade the fact that you are a descendant of any notable family. You must pass for just what you are, and must stand on your own merit" (130).

"Do not discuss politics or religion in general company. You probably would not convert your opponent, and he will not convert you. To discuss these topics is to arouse feeling without any  good result" (130-131). 

This next piece goes to certain people who just love to brag and showoff. These days, they are the ones who constantly fill our social media  feeds with unwanted photos of expensive trips, etc. This also applies to various snooty academics:

"Do not make a parade of being acquainted with distinguished or wealthy people, of having been to college, or of having visited foreign lands. All this is no evidence of any real genuine worth on your part" (131). 

And finally, once more on keeping religion out of polite company:

"Do not take it upon yourself to admonish comparative strangers on religious topics; the persons to whom you speak may have decided convictions of their own in opposition to yours, and your over-zeal may seem to them an impertinence" (132). 

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This book qualifies for these 2016 Reading Challenges:

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