Tragedies of Etiquette

SAID Grandma Eldridge to me one rainy day, ‘There are some very old books in the woodshed. You can have ’em if you want ’em.’ I needed no further invitation to explore, and soon returned with The American LetterWriter and Mirror of Polite Behaviour, a tiny but meaty book of poetry and prose entitled Wedding Ring and dealing entirely with the infrequent joys and unlimited sorrows of the married state, and a volume called Etiquette for Ladies, combined with Hints on Female Beauty. A short time before, my daughter had asked me to buy an etiquette book, ‘so I can tell how to behave,’ and with some haughtiness I had told her that as long as she lived with me she needed no other guide to behavior. But Etiquette for Ladies quickly removed all vanity from my humbled spirit. How should I know I ought to tell my child that ’ladies should never bow hastily, but with slow and measured dignity’? I did not even know enough to remark on entering my reception room, ‘Come off the door and into the fire,’ and my mother, whom I had always considered wellbred, had never taught me that a young man should be offered a stuffed chair, an elderly one an armchair, while a lady must always be seated on the sofa.

For the first time, too, I found that I had been guilty of the greatest vulgarity in taking my beloved dog calling with me. ‘As for animals, it is a thousand times better not to have them at all.’ When it came to table manners, I read, ‘Custom allows ladies to dip their fingers into a glass of water, and to wipe them with their napkins; it allows them also to rinse the mouth, using the plate for this purpose — but custom sanctions in vain what is of itself disgusting.’

I pass over the delightful chapters on marriage, servants, dress, ‘the management of the person in drawing, reading, &c.,’ and touch but lightly on ‘Corsets.’ In this corsetless age it may be of interest to note that ‘corsets are used partly as a warm covering to the chest, and partly to furnish a convenient attachment to other parts of the female dress. They are employed to modify the shape, to render the chest as small below and as broad above as possible, and to increase the elevation, fulness, and prominence of the bosom.’ What more could one demand of an article of dress?

One chapter I should like to recommend to our altogether too easily kissing world of to-day. It is headed ‘Carriage and Demeanour,’ and I am sure no one can read the sad tale of the fair lady who lost her noble count without tears of sympathy. Listen to her sad tale, and keep in mind that we do not mean ‘the embrace of vice, but merely that indiscriminate facility which some young women have in permitting what they call a good-natured kiss. These have often bad effects and can never be permitted without injuring the fine gloss of that exquisite modesty which is the fairest garb of virgin beauty.’

‘I remember,’ says a traveller, ‘the Count M—, one of the most accomplished and handsomest young men in Vienna. When I was there, he was passionately in love with a girl of almost peerless beauty. She was the daughter of a man of great rank and influence at court; and on these considerations, as well as in regard to her charms, she was followed by a multitude of suitors. She was lively and amiable, and treated them all with an affability which kept them in her train, although it was generally known that she had avowed a predilection for Count M—, and that preparations were making for their nuptials. The Count was of a refined mind and delicate sensibility. He loved her for herself alone — for the virtues which he believed dwelt in a beautiful form; and, like a lover of such perfections, he never approached her without timidity, and when he touched her, a fire shot through his veins that warned him not to invade the vermilion sanctuary of her lips. Such were his feelings when one night at his intended father-in-law’s a party of young people were met to celebrate a certain festival. Several of the young lady’s rejected suitors were present. Forfeits were one of the pastimes, and all went on with the greatest merriment till the Count was commanded by some witty mademoiselle to redeem his glove by saluting the cheek of his intended bride. The Count blushed, trembled, advanced to his mistress, retreated, advanced again — and, at last, with a tremour that shook every fibre in his frame, with a modest grace he put the soft ringlet which played upon her cheek to his lips, and retired to demand his pledge in evident confusion. His mistress gaily smiled, and the game went on. One of her rejected suitors, who was of a merry unthinking disposition, was adjudged, by the same indiscreet crier of the forfeits, — “as his last treat before he hanged himself,” she said, — to snatch a kiss from the lips of the object of his recent vows: —

‘Lips whose broken sighs such fragrance fling, As Love had fanned them freshly with his wing!

‘A lively contest between the lady and the gentleman lasted for a minute; but the lady yielded, though in the midst of a convulsive laugh. And the Count had the mortification, the agony, to see the lips, which his passionate and delicate love would not allow him to touch, kissed with roughness and repetition by another man, and one whom he despised. Without a word, he rose from his chair, left the room — and the house; and by that good-natured kiss the fair boast of Vienna lost her husband and her lover. The Count never saw her more!’