Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Etiquette in the world of Downton Abbey

Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Loretta reports:

As may be obvious by now, Downton Abbey has sent this NHG peering into the corners of the Edwardian era.  They sure had some complicated etiquette; the Regency era is positively freewheeling by comparison.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at Manners and Rules of Good Society.  If you want to make your head spin, turn to Chapter III, Leaving Cards.

“THE etiquette of card-leaving is a privilege which society places in the hands of ladies to govern and determine their acquaintanceships and intimacies, to regulate and decide whom they will, and whom they will not visit, whom they will admit into their friendship, and whom they will keep on the most distant footing, whose acquaintance they wish further to cultivate and whose to discontinue.”

If you want to time travel, this chapter is a wonderful door to the past.  On our early 21st century side of the door is Facebook and Twitter and texting.  On the early 20th century side are little pieces of cardboard printed in copperplate script.

Or try Chapter XLIII, Engaged.
It greatly depends upon the views held by parents as to the freedom of action accorded to a daughter during her engagement. Some entertain the strictest ideas on this head, and strenuously put them in force.

By ‘strict ideas’ is meant that an engaged couple, except in the presence of a chaperon, are never, under any circumstances, permitted to enjoy a tête-à-tête sit together, walk together, ride together, or meet during any part of the day.

Wisdom and common-sense dictate a middle course of action for the consideration of parents, neither granting too much nor withholding too much.
. . .
To dance with each other at a ball, or dance more than three or four times in succession, and when not dancing to sit out in tea-rooms and conservatories, renders an engaged couple conspicuous, and this is precisely what many mothers are most anxious that their daughters should avoid being, and would rather that they were overprudent than that they should run the gauntlet of general criticism.
I leave you to speculate why, exactly, a daughter’s being conspicuous was so abhorrent to a mother 100 years ago, and what form the general criticism would take. 

Manners and Rules of Good Society, or Solecisms to be Avoided, by A Member of the Aristocracy (1911 ed.)


Chris Woodyard said...

Warnings to engaged couples about being "conspicuous" seem to be a common theme in etiquette books, which give various reasons for these cautions. Three examples:
From Manners, Culture and Dress of the Best American Society, 1893: "It may be well to hint that a lady should not be too demonstrative of her affection during the days of her engagement. There is always the chance of a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip; and overt demonstrations of love are not pleasant to remember by a young lady if the man to whom they are given by any chance fails to become her husband." The book further cautions, "Very few young men comprehend the real pain and inconvenience they occasion to the lady of their choice when they keep her up to untoward hours and subject her, in consequence, to the ridicule and censure of others."
From Ogilvie's Encyclopaedia of Useful Information and World Atlas, 1913.
For the gentleman and lady who are engaged to isolate themselves from others when in company, or do anything that shall attract the attention of the company to themselves, is in bad taste. Such conduct will always call forth unfavourable comments. The young ladies will sneer at it from jealousy, the young men will pronounce it foolish, and the old will consider it out of place."
And Vogue's Book of Etiquette, 1948 discusses the attitude of the engaged couple toward each other. "Ideally, it is halfway between the two extremes of surprising coolness and embarrassing warmth. The perfect attitude for a fiance expresses attentive and enthusiastic affection. The perfect fiancee has a similar but less jubilant aspect: more friendly and more reserved....too wide a deviation from these models will be considered bad taste, not only by a romantic only, but by any sensible onlooker."

Anonymous said...

I am watching Downton Abbey with my daughter--we're both hooked. The clothes--the houses--the MEN!

jeanette harris said...

Up until the late 1960s, U.S. Naval officers and their wives were required to have and use engraved calling cards.

A formal call lasting 20 minutes was required of each newly-reporting junior officer and his wife to his commanding officer's quarters. These were not stiff or stilted affairs in my memory, but warm getting-to-know-you meetings designed to promote friendship and put everyone at ease with each other.

That being said, though, locating the calling card tray near the door was a necessity, since the cards were to be placed discretely just before leaving.

With the advent of Adm. Zumalt, however, much of the formal "Old Navy" disappeared including calling cards.

Jenny Girl said...

I LOVED the first night Downton! The house, furnishings, clothes, it is all gorgeous. The acting is wonderful too.
Excellent post Ladies. I'm off to see about some calling cards :)

Monica Burns said...

Question of knowledgeable ones. In the dinner scene with the Duke that's come to visit. Everyone keeps calling him Duke (I envision John Wayne everytime they say it). I thought that etiquette requires first reference as Your Grace and 2nd one as Sir. I note they don't refer to the Earl as Earl. It's my lord. Thoughts on this? Does the show just have their facts wrong or did etiquette change in the early 1900s?

Monica Burns said...

Oh, and I loved the costumes, and found it interesting that the lady's maid was so familiar with the Countess. Something I've heard historical purists say wouldn't be the case. Thoughts on that too?

Unknown said...

I wish we still observed the same etiquette - would make life all that more interesting. Men are so vulgar nowadays. I miss the times that men would bow and leave calling cards. I suppose that's why I'm a re-enactor of the Regency period. :)

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Jeanette, I had the same question that you did. I found it strange particularly since Julian Fellowes is so familiar with the upper class since his wife was once a lady in waiting, I think to Princess Michael of Kent. I found it quite jarring to hear people refer to the Duke as Duke.

LorettaChase said...

You'll find the answer to the "duke" question in Manners & Rules of Good Society. "An English Duke should be addressed as 'duke' by the aristocracy and gentry, and not as 'Your Grace' by members of either of these classes. All other classes should address him colloquially as 'Your Grace.'" This was the case from at least the 18th century. He is never, ever, Lord this or that. I understand things were a bit different in the 17th C, but NHG Susan would have to enlighten you on that.

IOW Fellowes had it right. IIRC, he or a family member actually was in service for a time. I have to look that up...

LorettaChase said...

Oops, missed Elizabeth's comment. I thought he was the one...or his father. Also, note that the forms of address I've mentioned referred to addressing people in conversation. Formal documents and other situations have their own rules.

As to the lady's maid's familiarity with her mistress. As in so many other things, the degree of familiarity would depend on the family. Note, too, that the Countess was an American. If a wife felt isolated or like an outsider for any reason, she might well confide in her lady's maid, the closest person to her, really.

Meg said...

Yet another wonderful post! Sadly, we don't have television access at home, so I have to wait until the series is available on DVD.

I certainly wish we still had calling cards for the precise reason that it is almost impossible to designate different levels of intimacy. How long has it been since you heard someone use the words, "my acquaintance so-and-so"? There have definitely been times when I wished to keep certain people at arms' length (without being rude about it) and felt immense pressure to be "friends" with people whose behavior I found very unbecoming. Facebook makes this even more difficult!

Anonymous said...

If one can locate it, there is a nifty little book for Americans:

_Aristocracy in England_, Adam Badeau 1885, 1886, NYC Harpers & Bros, Franklin Square
same author of _Military History of Ulysses S. Grant_ and _Conspiracy: a Cuban Romance_ (!)

The slim volume will instruct the American traveler in England on how to behave in front of the Queen,
at Court, how to address by Rank and Title; Precedences, Manners, Caste, Illegitimacy (?!?) and
how to deal correctly with Servants in the Country and Servants in Town.

How can one be without it?

mary said...

Have you read Thank Heaven Fasting, by EM Delafield? Written in the early 1930s, but set pre-WW1, it shows how a young girl could ruin her life by making herself conspicuous at a ball.

Jan said...

Keep in mind that television producers, even English ones, are not documentary producers. I gather from some of my older British acquaintances who have been watching the series for some time, that the instance of howling errors in deportment, language, and technology have caused some of them to simply stop watching it altogether.

Others, however, have gotten hooked on the characters and their stories, or aren't total authenticity czars/czarinas, and so have been watching the show avidly.

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