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London's PeopleVictorian Etiquette I: Introductory Remarks
Posted on Apr 29, 2005 - 01:12 PM by Bill McCann

The London Journal, launched in 1845, was one of the most widely read publications of nineteenth-century Britain. Its weekly appearance ushered in the period when mass-market reading, in a modern sense, was born. Between April 12 and August 30 1845, the Journal carried seventeen articles under the heading "Etiquette for the Millions," written by G.W.M Reynolds. They were clearly aimed at educating the mass readership (mostly the newly emerging middle-classes) in the behaviour expected of them in public. At times trenchant, the views expressed in the articles describe a view of society that is very, very different from that which we experience today. But, perhaps, one that many sections of modern society hanker after. The first article introduces the concept of etiquette, and immediately sets the "tone" for the series.

Victorian Table Etiquette.Every civilised society recognises certain conventional rules of conduct, which may be termed an appendix to the criminal and civil codes. The Criminal Code is established to prevent crimes; the Civil code regulates the laws of property and settles political rights; the Code of Etiquette refines those nations which the two former codes have tended to civilise. So dependant is one individual upon another in this world, - so intimately connected, so nicely blended are the interests of every society, that the necessity of laws is a truth so self-evident that none but a madman would venture to dispute it.

Laws are of two kinds: imperative and conventional. The imperative laws are those which are defined and settled by the representatives of the nation, and for the breach of which certain fixed penalties are awarded. The conventional laws are those which arise of their own accord, as it were, from the condition, the progressive refinement, and the habits of society. Respect and veneration for these latter laws are not maintained or enforced by positive penalties, such as death, imprisonment, banishment, or fine; but every sensible and well-ordered person recognises the propriety, utility, and wisdom of obeying them. In a word, Etiquette protects society against those insults and outrages which are not punished by the statute-laws.

For any individual, no matter in what situation of life he may be placed, to vaunt his independence of "the stupid rules of etiquette," and to assert thnat "he hates all social restrictions or conventions as being at variance with natural freedom," is absurd. If eleven persons consider it disgusting to drink out of each other's tumblers at dinnertime or to pick their teeth during the meal, it is clear that the twelfth has no right to act in a way which may offend the majority entertaining such impressions. It is very easy for this twelfth person to vote "all ceremony a humbug," and drink out of his neighbour's glass, or pick his teeth while his companions are eating: but he cannot by any means of sophistry justify that selfishness on the part of one person which renders eleven persons ill at ease. Thus, upon the broad principle of forbearance, and in accordance with the right of a majority to fix the rules which shall govern the mass, the laws of Etiquette are necessary, valuable, and just.

Some people are senseless enough to think that bluntness and honesty are apologies for their vulgarity. They say, "I am a regular John Bull, downright, and straight-forward, and always speak my mind." this assertion, as a general principle, is absurd; because were it admitted, one of these "downright and straight-forward" gentlemen would say to his friend, when he met him in the street,

"How do you do to-day, Mr. Smith? You are really looking uglier than ever."
Bluntness would in this manner convulse society with quarrels and dissensions.

Neither is alleged "honesty of purpose" a justification for a breach of etiquette. Should a person see a very handsome young man paying assiduous attention to a very plain young lady, no "honesty of purpose" would justify him in saying to the lady in private,

"I would advise you not to unite yourself with your present suitor, for your ugliness will not consort properly with his beauty."
Again, if one of the blunt gentlemen, when in company with several persons, one of whom was a snuff taker, were to say, "I am a man who always expresses my opinions and I must declare that snuff-taking is a most disgusting and filthy habit," he would be deserve to expelled from the room for his impertinence. And, after all, what are the principles upon which these blunt and honest-of-purpose men act? Obstinacy, prejudice, and conceit. They are anxious to pass for "characters," and to intrude their opinions on their friends and companions, no matter unwelcome, ridiculous, singular, or unjust those opinions may be. Thus bluntness and honesty of purpose are no apologies for rudeness and vulgarity.

The individual who affects for after all, it is but an affectation to despise the rules of etiquette, is only a selfish and ignorant person. If (after the American fashion) he will expectorate upon the carpet of his friend's parlour, he would nevertheless forbear from spitting on his own. If he be fond of telling "plain truths" to others, no one would be more angry than he to hear "plain truths" in return. If he breakfast with a friend, and hack the ham about in all directions to procure favourite morsels, he would be vastly annoyed were his own ham at home spoiled by a similar proceeding. If he do not hesitate to tell his friend that his (the friend's) wife is the talk of the whole neighbourhood, he would fly into a rage were the friend to retaliate in the same way. We might multiply to infinity, instances of this kind, - all tending to show that "manners make the man," and absence of them constitutes "the fellow."

You will sometimes hear an opinionated, self-sufficient person, dispute upon a point of etiquette. A majority of the company present may be against him. "Well," he says at length, "I think I have been in all societies, and I therefore know I am right." The assertion itself destroys the value of this persons authority. No one can possibly move in all societies. The tradesman cannot consort with the aristocracy: the peer will not habitually mingle with the commercial classes. Accident, or the fact of holding some temporary civic office, may enable a tradesman to find his way into the saloons of the higher circles: public dinners for political or philanthropic purposes, may now and then enable a grocer to elbow a marquis; - but these rare opportunities will neither teach the tradesman a correct insight into the mysteries of aristocratic etiquette, nor allow the peer to form a just estimate of the usual manners of the tradesman.

On the contrary this commingling of the two classes at very distant intervals, and for short periods, only engenders mutual mistakes, the peer being particularly condescending on he occasion, and the tradesman more upon his guard than he would have been amongst his equals. Thus, for any individual to clench his argument by the assertion that he is well acquainted with the etiquette of each class of society, is ridiculous, and moreover involves a falsehood.

In matters of dress there are also certain obstinate and foolish persons who maintain an indifference to the laws of etiquette. They are slovenly and shabby in their attire, and excuse themselves for the fact in this manner:

"Those who know me. Are well aware that I can afford a good coat if I choose; and I care nothing about those who do not know me."
No reasoning is more contemptibly stupid than this. Suppose that everybody acted upon this principle, shabbiness would engender slovenliness, slovenliness would produce dirty habits, and dirty habits would create disease.

Again, were this principle recognizable, it might be applied to other cases. Men would say, "What do we want with fine buildings? Common bricks and mortar will protect us against the rain and cold." Others would exclaim, "Why should we use silver forks, when plated ones will do as well?" A third portion of society would say, "Wherefore paint our carriages and coaches? Tar will preserve them much better." A fourth "What is the use of ornament? We can live without ear-rings, chains and necklaces." A fifth "Never mind whether the picture be well-executed or not, so long as it convey some idea o the original;" and so on.

By this means of reasoning the very elements of civilisation would be destroyed. Science and art would die. The noble spirit of emulation, which encourages men to great achievements in architecture, painting etc. would be crushed. The fact is, that our very vanity in many respects is an essential principle of our civilisation. It creates a taste for ornament, decoration, embellishment, and splendour, which encourages trade, manufacture,, commerce, science, art, research, invention, and genius. If, then, any one individual throws off the shackles of that etiquette which commands him to dress as well s his means will allow him, he is at once although in a small degree diverging from that common principle of cohesion and adhesion which consolidates the interests of society.

No man has a right to consider himself entitled, as a unit in the millions which constitute a society, to act entirely for himself and by himself. He must pay deference to the interests of others. It is only by combination that men have achieved wondrous things that they have become civilised. Were we all to separate, divide the land equally between us, hold no intercourse with each other, and live each family on its particular patch of soil, we should return to a state of barbarism. No one man could built St. Paul's Cathedral. No one man could erect a large house. No one man could form a ship. No one man could cut a canal. No one man could build a bridge. Hence it is apparent, that we must live for and with each other, and that there must be certain laws and regulations to keep us in order and promote our civilisation.

We have before stated that some of those laws and regulations are imperative: our present object is to consider and define those that are conventional. The preceding observations have been written with a view to prove that conventional laws are as necessary to civilisation as imperative laws are to order: - it, therefore, now becomes our task to make our readers acquainted with those conventional laws whose existence we have eulogised and defended.

These conventional laws are comprised under the general term of ETIQUETTE.

G.W.M. Reynolds.
The London Journal,
For the week ending April 12, 1845.

TO BE CONTINUED.


 

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Victorian Etiquette VIII: Behaviour out of Doors


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