The Behaviourism of Our Grandmothers

SOME years ago, an English weekly paper for ladies was published, called Hearth and Home. It was full of good advice on dress, complexion-preservers, invisible toupees, how long to wear mourning for your great-aunt, where to stay abroad in safety, and how to make hashed mutton look like lobster mayonnaise. Every week there was a section headed ‘Social Snares, or Trials in Tact’; and here, week after week, the readers of the paper were faced with a problem in conduct and asked to contribute solutions. I remember only two of them.

In one, Mrs. A. makes a first call on Mrs. B.; and on being shown, and shut, into the drawing-room, finds her hostess fast asleep on the sofa. What can Mrs. A. do? In the other, Mrs. A. goes to a dinner-party, and as she is being taken in to dinner, exclaims, ‘Oh, dear! I have come without a handkerchief!’ Mr. B., who is her partner, immediately says, ‘Oh, please allow me to lend you one; I have two.’ Mrs. A. accepts gratefully, but on getting home and washing the handkerchief, she finds it full of holes. What can Mrs. A. do?

Prizes were given every few months for the greatest number of correct solutions; but our family soon discovered that invariably the safest answer was, ‘Mrs. A. can do nothing.’ Very occasionally action of some sort was recommended; but far more often an attitude of wise passiveness was poor Mrs. A.’s only escape from social suicide.

Very different in spirit is a small book picked up for twopence a few weeks ago in the market of an English provincial town. Instructions in Etiquette for the Use of All is its title; published in 1847 for John Butcher, author of the Scriptural Pronouncing Dictionary. The book arose from questions asked by the pupils of the authoress at a ‘considerable school,’where she was engaged to give instruction in propriety of behaviour; and she hopes that, after a perusal of it, no persons will be at a loss how to conduct themselves in all circumstances.

There is nothing trivial or superficial about its treatment of social problems. The ‘How to be a Perfect Gentleman’ of to-day is merely practical : —

Do not mop the face with the serviette, but take it between the finger and thumb of both hands, and draw it lightly across the mouth. Should the mouth be too full for speech, lay the finger on the lip and shake the head slowly —

and so on. But here the niceties of table-manners are shown in their proper relation to the moral conduct of life.

Qt. If at dinner I am asked what part of a bird or joint I prefer, is it polite to make choice of any part which is esteemed a delicacy?

Ans. Young persons are, in general, from bashfulness or timidity, too apt to use that very common but improper phrase, ‘Any part will do, sir,’ or ‘I have no choice, madam’; when, in fact, they have a preference. From false delicacy, or the ridiculous fear of being thought an epicure, they thus violate Truth, one of the brightest virtues of the human soul.... It is not improper, therefore, to make a choice, though you ought on no account frequently to select the choicest pieces.

Here it almost looks as if the brightest virtue of the human soul is being tampered and compounded with; but the issue in the question of the propriety of shaking hands with gloves on is quite clear.

Ladies are allowed to keep on their gloves, but I should not advise them to avail themselves of the privilege; for friendship is so sacred, that not even the substance of a glove should interpose between the hands of those who are united by its influence.

Although the main subject of the work is etiquette, and the correct behaviour to adopt in special cases, the authoress has outlined for us those general occupations which are most suitable for her pupils on leaving school, together with the reasons for their suitability. Needlework holds the place of honour, and, as she says, has held it ‘since the days of Eden, when its humble process was but to unite the fig-leaf’; but the tending of flowers is not without its points too. ‘While you eradicate the weeds that deform and the excrescences that endanger them, is there not a perpetual monition uttered of the work to be done in your own hearts?’ Or, looking for a moment on the bright side, we find that ‘Connected with the nurture of flowers is the delightful study of Botany, which imparts new attractions to the summer sylvan walks, and prompts both to salubrious exercise and scientific research.’

From this we pass naturally to other studies and the importance of serious reading, for ‘the casket of memory, though elastic, has bounds, and if surcharged with trifles, the weightier matters will find no fitting place.’ History appears to be the best material to place in the elastic casket, for ‘History is replete with moral lessons. The instability of human power, the tyranny of man over his brother, and the painful truth that the great are not always good, mark almost every feature of its annals.’

The subject of occupation for solitude, however, is very soon dismissed, for the all-important topic is that of behaviour among others and toward others. In no circumstances does the heroine of these trials in tact, like Mrs. A., do nothing. She must act at once, but act correctly. Problem after problem presents itself. How should you pass a person whom you meet on the stairs? How ought you to demean yourself when you accost a relation? If you meet an older person, is it proper to speak first? Should the toes be pointed to the ground when you walk? What apology is necessary if I happen to take another person’s seat when he is out of the room? How am I to give commands to servants with ease, mildness, and dignity? What is the most graceful position in which to hold a book when reading? One sees the teasing thoughts rising in the young mind that yearns to act with perfect propriety.

If, in company, an elderly person should address me whilst I am answering a question to a younger one . . .

If walking in the garden of a person with whom I am not particularly acquainted, is it proper to help myself to fruit without being first invited to do so?

But, however ensnaring the problem, there is always the right thing to do, and it only has to be known.

Qt. What movement should be made by a lady who meets a person to whom great respect is due: as, for instance, a bishop?

Ans. If she have only to make him a passing salute, it must be by an elegant bend of the body, rather low, and with a serious countenance, and, in order to make her respect more obvious, she may, if intimate, kiss her hand at the same time. To other gentlemen it is seldom, if ever, proper to kiss the hand. To an intimate friend, you may wave your hand, but should not kiss it, as a young gentleman might possibly put an improper construction upon your politeness. . . . This mode of salutation is never allowable to a gentleman who is not at once much your elder and your very particular friend.

Naturally, the subject of the proper behaviour toward young gentlemen is a fruitful one. It is the only topic with which the talented authoress finds any difficulty. Even she, however, has to confess that no rules of decorum avail with the classes she defines as ’coxcombs’ and ‘scoundrels’: ‘for a coxcomb is too full of himself to observe the rules of etiquette, and a scoundrel will break through every rule, to accomplish his design.’ Safety first is the motto in all affairs of this kind. Never stop and speak to anyone in the street (whether you know him or not). Apart from the risk of finding yourself (helpless) in conversation with a coxcomb or a scoundrel, it is highly improper;

for you attract the attention of all who pass, and expose yourself to their unfavourable remarks, and perhaps even incur their censure. It must always be highly indecorous to stand and hold a conversation in public.

As to the question whether it is permissible to cross the street to speak to a friend on the other side, a point may be stretched in the case of a lady, but it is never consistent with decorum for a lady to do it to a gentleman whose age does not greatly exceed her own.

Here an inexperienced miss inquires innocently: —

If, in a place of worship, I should observe a friend whom I have not seen for a long time, would it be proper to move to him?

And the answer comes with merited severity: —

I should consider it highly improper to greet a person in church; yet, should it be an intimate friend, whom you have not seen for some time, it may be allowable to greet him at the door, but not with vivacity.

As a preventive measure to any such problem arising, it is better to take the authoress’s own advice.

For ladies, when attending divine service, I approve those large poke bonnets, inasmuch as they conceal the face, and by confining the view, prevent that distraction of mind which is so unfavourable to the proper performance of religious duties.

In the street or in the drawing-room, the young lady’s chief difficulty in deportment, like that of the amateur actress, seems to be the question of what to do with her hands. She keeps coming back to it. First of all, it is when walking that she feels puzzled.

Qt. HOW should the arms be placed when walking in the street?

Ans. Let them hang gracefully by the side, but not dangling. A lady may place one arm across the waist, the hand being open to receive the other arm if necessary. But the propriety of the position much depends upon the dress. If a scarf is worn, let the end of it flow gently over the arm that is raised.

But that does not go far enough, and the next stumblingblock is: —

Qt. In what position should I hold my hands when in company?

Ans. There are several ways which are equally graceful. You may place both arms across the waist, or, one arm being in that position, the other may hang down easily by the side, or you may place one hand within the other, suffering both to rest upon the lap.

But the question whether you shall let your right arm know what your left arm doeth, or not, is not all. These elementary instructions are only the preparation for the young lady’s most suitable social rôle. In the drawingroom, no less than in church or when bowing to a bishop, vivacity is hardly in place, and the first essential lesson which must be mastered is how to listen.

To do this with an appearance of unwearied attention, and as far as possible with an expression of interested feeling on the countenance, is a species of amiable politeness to which all are susceptible. It is peculiarly soothing to men of eminent attainments, and is a kind of delicate deference which the young are bound to pay to their superiors in age.

There is, however, a right and a wrong way to do it, and the demeanor of the perfect listener is by no means an easy feat to master. It must need time and practice to bring it to perfection.

Qt. If in company, a person to whom I owe great deference, accost me, in what position would it be the most graceful, and at the same time the most respectful, to stand?

Ans. Hold your body perfectly upright, but not stiff. Turn a little to the right or left, with the face completely toward him, looking a little over one shoulder, the arms across the waist, the upper hand open, or the hands clasped and hanging down in front: one foot advanced a little. If the person who speaks is giving directions, incline the body and head gracefully forward. Should the individual present anything, keep the body bent until you have received it, and when you leave him, slide smoothly away, sinking at the same time.

How, one wonders, did the pupils at the considerable school go through the drill necessary to perfect themselves in these evolutions? Perhaps the instructress in decorum impersonated the parts in turn. One day, she would be a bishop walking in the street, while rows of elegantly bended bodies and serious countenances saluted her, and a few intimates combined this with kissing their hands. On another day, she would be a friend, greeted without vivacity at the church-door. Pokebonneted, with arms not dangling, and scarf flowing with perfect propriety, she would ‘move toward’ a relation, or a person sitting in a window, or she would personify an elder person whose seat had been taken, or an eminent character being passed on the stairs, while her young charges demeaned themselves duly before her, and slid and sank, and pointed their toes to the ground.

Did she ever represent a servant being commanded with ease, mildness, and dignity (or without), or (we say it with bated breath) did she ever go so far as to impersonate a coxcomb or a scoundrel — or a gentleman on the other side of the street? We shall never know! Enough that she trained her pupils so excellently in listening that they wished to hear her afterward in print; that John Butcher apparently made enough out of the Scriptural Pronouncing Dictionary to stand the expenses of printing; that her book went into at least three editions; and that a copy of the third fell to a twopenny stall in Newark market, where it found a modern listener who had no need at all to simulate unwearied attention, or an expression of interested feeling on her countenance!