Or, how the heck does everyone else know the right thing to do?
I admit it, I’ve been obsessed with etiquette from a very tender age. While still in elementary school, I somehow found myself in possession of an ancient copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, and reader, I read that thing cover to cover.
As an immigrant, and a child, I felt completely at sea in my new world. I loved it, but I had no idea what was the right thing to say or do. To a degree, I’m still at sea, and one of my favorite kind of books are etiquette books. SOMEONE knows how to behave and they wrote it down! Even more than modern ones, Victorian etiquette books are the BEST. They cover everything–length of a walk outdoors, on which side of a man to ride a horse, what to read (or not), how loud to pitch one’s voice… Below are some gems I extracted from The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness A Complete Hand Book for the Use of the Lady in Polite Society. So, if you come across a time machine and spin yourself to the nineteenth century, you’ll know what to do. You’re welcome.
Bow to No One
If at the theatre, opera, or in a concert-room, you see an acquaintance, you are not expected to recognize her, unless near enough to speak. A lady must not bow to any one, even her own sister, across a theatre or concert-room. You are not expected to recognize any friend on the opposite side of the street. Even if you see them, do not bow.
No woman is fitted for society until she dances well; for home, unless she is perfect mistress of needlework. In the present day, you must understand how to move gracefully through quadrilles, to dance polka, Schottische, Varsovienne, and waltz. To these you may add great variety of dances, each season, probably, bringing a new one.
Novels in moderation. Let them be the dessert to the more substantial dinner of history, travels, and works of a like nature. Unless a woman reads intelligently, she can never be the companion of the intellectual; and the time is gone by, when women, with all their energies excited, will be contented to be the mere plaything of brother, husband, or father.
Depend upon it, silvery hair is better adapted to the faded cheeks of middle age.
Never look back! It is excessively ill-bred.
Stop Leaning! (And Maybe Wash Your Hair)
Do not lean your head against the wall. You leave an indelible mark upon the paper, or, if the wall is whitewashed, you give your hair a dingy, dusty look, by bringing it into contact with the lime.
On Servants (They Like Working When Wet and Unwell. Just So You Know)
A man servant is rarely grateful, and seldom attached. Do you accord to him regular hours, a stated allowance of work; do you refrain from sending him out because it is wet and he is unwell; do you serve yourself rather than ring for him at dinner time; he will rarely have the grace to thank you in his heart for your constant consideration.
Read any good etiquette lately? Share! I want to know.
Emilya Naymark is the author of the novels Hide in Place and Behind the Lie.
Her short stories appear in A Stranger Comes to Town, edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.
When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.