Tuesday, 29 December 2015

10 December 1881 - 'The Habits of Polite Society' by S.F.A. Caulfield.

I imagined all of this being read in the voice of Maggie Smith as the Countess Dowager. 

In the first part of the series of notes indicated in the above title I promised to supply, as one time amongst many, some directions on “complimentary” and “family mourning”.  So, before entering upon a consideration of a very miscellaneous collection of rules, the former subject shall be made my opening topic, premising that the statements given emanate from the highest authority. 

In giving any such directions, however, it must be remembered that special cases must not be met with any conventional hard and fast rules.  Circumstances of great personal attachment, respect or obligation; or of a residence in the house with relatives who may be in the deepest affliction, may each render a greater depth and duration of the external “trappings of woe” a matter of imperative duty.  At Courts, where the interests of trade, the obligations of State display, and brilliancy of costume, are matters demanding consideration – utterly precluding any long-continued dreariness of appearance – the wearing of mourning is of very brief duration.  Thus persons in high society, whose personal connection with Court, or with relatives who must be in frequent attendance there, cannot act altogether independently of those customs and fashions, which are obligatory under such circumstances.  At the same time, the existence of these rules amongst the elite will hold all other persons free from blame who are pleased to decide on their adoption.

Let us give to the subject of “Family Mourning” the precedence, beginning with that obligatory on a widow.  For the first twelve months she may wear deep crape and a suitable cap, and no invitations during this period – out of the circle of her own immediate family, or incognito with a very intimate friend – should be accepted.  Some change in the style of her dress is allowed on entering the second year of widowhood, when she may exchange her crape-trimmed barathea, or such like material, to a widow’s silk dress, deeply trimmed with crape, and continue to wear it for a period of six months.  After this time the crape may be reduced, and jet trimmings employed during the next six months, when a two years’ mourning will have been completed, and the crape should be altogether removed.  For the first six months of the third year she may wear grey and lavender-coloured dresses and trimmings, and then colours, like other people.

For a father, mother or child the present mourning lasts for one year.  For three months the deepest black; for the second three months, silk and crape; for the third quarter, black and jet trimmings, without crape; for the fourth, black and white, the ornaments permitted being diamonds and pearls, and grey gloves instead of black (or, at Court, white).  But while giving you the rule now obtaining, as regards the mourning for such near relatives, amongst persons going out into society amongst the aristocracy, I by no means wish my readers to understand that even persons of the same position in life, who do not go into the society of Courts, restrict the marks of love and respect for parents or children to limits so scanty as those i have described.  A year’s crape, lightened a little at the end of the first six months, and slight mourning for the first quarter of the second year, is the old-fashioned custom, still kept up by all those to whom the outward semblance of grief is a true index of the heart’s affliction.  But this can only be provided that they possess the requisite means so to vent their own feelings, and are not thwarted by the exactions of the position they hold, and the society in which they live.

For grandparents, the modern rule is to wear silk and crape for three months; plain black for three more; and black and grey or lavender for the last three, so reducing the mourning to nine months.

For a brother or sister, society prescribes only three months of crape, two of black, and one of half mourning.

For an uncle, aunt, nephew, or niece, two months of crape and one of black.

For a great uncle or aunt, two months in black, and one in half mourning.

For a first cousin, three weeks in black and three in half mourning.

For a second cousin or first once removed, three weeks in black.

And here attention must again be drawn to the exception which I have taken to the brief duration, and slight character of the mourning described as sufficient only “in society” of a certain class, for parents, and apply my observation to the rules given respecting brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, and nephews and sisters.  For persons who are free from the cold and artificial influences of a Court and its hard exactions, and who occupy a place in what may be described as private society, who may render ungrudgingly the outward expression of respect or sorrow for those who shared the same blood with themselves – for these persons six months of the deepest crape would seem but too little for a brother or sister, or even in many cases for an uncle, aunt, nephew or niece.

We have now arrived at the second part of my subject, viz., the rules obtaining in reference to “complimentary mourning”.  It is worn by a second wife for the near relatives of her predecessor; by a mother for the parents of a son or daughter-in-law, and for their brothers and sisters, for a period of six weeks.  But this should consist of black only, not in combination with crape.  For a friend black may reasonably be worn for a month or six weeks; and for the head of your family (if a peer) a month.

Having already given an entire article on the subject of “mourning” to which the reader is referred p.398, vol.ii., I hope that the information with which I have now supplemented my views on a much vexed question will prove of some use to those who are troubled by any doubts with reference to it. 

And now from the etiquette of these black habiliments I pass on to give a few hints on suitability of dress in general.

Nothing could look more vulgar than to be over-dressed in the street.  A handsome costume of bright colour, suitable for a dinner-party, might likewise be worn at a flower-show, a concert, or a garden-party; but very bright colours, in rich silks, satin or velvet materials, are quite unsuitable for afternoon visiting.  To wear such, even if driving, to make calls on friends and acquaintances, would be to make yourself an object of very unfavourable criticism, and stamp you as one who was ignorant of the habits of society.  The kindest of the observations made would be “What a pity that poor Miss So-and-So should not know better than to go out of an afternoon dressed like that!”

Some description of white dress is to be worn at “confirmation” and a white cap.  But the precise character of the dress – respecting which continual inquiries are made – should depend, not on personal fancy, but on what has been arranged for the occasion in each respective parish.  It is in better taste to be dressed as much like the other persons of your own position, and as nearly in harmony with the rector’s wishes as possible, all appearance of display being carefully avoided.  Humility should then pre-eminently mark your whole deportment, and the absence of desire to attract attention.

In reference to visiting or afternoon walking costumes, they may be handsome, but the colours should never be brilliant, nor the style and designs remarkable.  Your carriage and deportment at all times, especially out of doors, should be a more distinguishing characteristic than the clothing with which you are covered.

There is also a distinction to be made between the style of your dress in the country and that in the town.  For example – you may take a country walk in an “ulster” at any time of the day; but, excepting in bad weather, justifying the wearing of wraps, persons in the upper classes restrict their wear to the forenoon if in a large city.  In the same way bonnets are more suitable to persons of middle age than hats, especially in the afternoon; except it be in the garden or to take a country walk, when a wide brim may be an object for the shade it affords, rather than for its youthfulness of style.

There should always be some change made in your dress in the evening.  An old summer dress may look well by candlelight which is past wear by day; and thus, if an object, economy may be as much studied as good taste by such a use of it.  If unable to afford, or in travelling to carry, an evening dress, a fresh bodice might be worn, or a change of collar and cuffs made, or a fichu, or arrangement of lace to put on round the neck, to give an appearance of change of costume; which, according to the most commonly known rules of society, is regarded as a mark of respect to those with whom you dine or spend the evening.  But of course the observance of this “habit” must depend on the circumstances of the individual; and much that I am now writing is obviously for those of my young friends in the “upper classes”.

Now that short dresses are worn out of doors, my next caution is scarcely called for at present; but should they return to fashion pray bear in mind the annoyance to others occasioned by allowing the skirt to touch the ground, as well as the uncleanliness of the practice, your own interest alone considered. If you imagine that to fasten up your long dress, so as to clear the ground, looks ungraceful, you may feel quite persuaded that you would look far worse, personally, if your dress were used as a scavenger's street broom; and, worse, morally, showing you to be so indifferent to the comfort of others who follow you on the same footway, and whom you smother with the dust raised by your dirty and loathsome skirt.

Enough of these obligations on the subject of dress, so many, and so diverse, are the little rules yet to be given on other points, and which cannot find a place within the limits of this article, excepting after a somewhat disjointed fashion.

We will suppose you are paying an afternoon visit. Do not send up your card, but give the servant your name very distinctly, and leave your umbrella or wraps in the hall, especially if they be damp. One of the menservants (in any great house) will take them from you. If the reception-room be empty, remain standing until one of the family shall appear; or, if you be fatigued and sit down, at least be careful to rise before she enters the room. Do not swing your parasol, nor hold the handle to your mouth - a trick as silly-looking as it is useless - nor gripe the hand offered you, so as to drive into your friend's fingers all the rings worn. In fact, you should not even press the hand of a superior, but leave your passively, though closely, inserted in theirs. Never give the tips of your fingers, not present two only; nor ever the left hand, which is regarded as a great impoliteness. The ungracious character of the significance attached to it may be understood, through that implied by a "left-handed compliment". This idea has descended to us from the ancient Romans, with whom the right was esteemed to represent good fortune, and the left bad, according to the teaching of their augurs. Thus also "Morganatic marriages" are called "left-handed marriages", the left hand being given on such occasions, instead of the right, by the husband.

When shaking hands with an equal, do not give one great jerk downwards, as if you were pulling a stiff bell-rope, nor saw your hand up and down half a dozen times. One little kindly shake - your hand well locked in theirs - with a slight pressure, is amply sufficient to represent the cordial nature of the greeting. Keep yoru feet and hands still, and neither fiddle with anything, nor make any rapping. Do not forget yourself so much as to tilt up the back legs of your chair, nor sit either on its edge, or on one side, so as to look as if you were going to slip off on the floor. Even if there be a rocking-chair in the room, it would be an act of intrusive familiarity to swing yourself in it, unless invited to do so. Avoid the frequent repetition of anyone's name when in conversation with them. "Yes, Mrs So-and-so", "I do not know, Mrs So-and-so", is a style of speaking as irritating as it is vulgar, and very common amongst half-bred people and little school-girls. The name should be sparingly used; and you should always avoid answering any question in monosyllables. A short blunt manner is always impolite.

But "The Habits of Polite Society" are not restricted to intercourse with friends outside the precincts of home; they are observed by all who are truly "well-bred" in the family circle. Yet there are those who could not be guilty of a rude or unkindly action at any time, nor of a vulgar one outside that circle, who are most careless and self-indulgent within it. For example, I have seen such persons perform duties of the toilet in the drawing or dining-room, such as the cutting and regulation of the nails, and employment of a tooth-pick; the trick of what is called "smiling", and the noisy use of a handkerchief; or they have indulged in coughing loudly, as though everyone else were deaf. In a church coughing loudly is most ill-bred, and, worse than that, it prevents others from hearing either the prayers or preaching. It is most revolting to see low-bred men paring their nails even in a public railway carriage, and indulging in a still more disgusting habit induced by smoking. The impoliteness of standing to windward of a lady, and so allowing the smoke to be blown into her face, is a liberty that needs no comment.

One trick of very common occurrence I advise my young friends to watch against - it is the habit of putting their hands to their face and their hair, and pulling at and rearranging any short locks. Keep your hands away from your head, loose hair may fall about, and your hands should be washed after such employment. The cracking of the finger-joints, the wriggling inside your clothes from the irritation produced by their extreme tightness, as well as every description of trick, are to be avoided. As to biting the nails, it is simply a disgusting exhibition destructive to the teeth as well as nails, and producing a most painful impression on all who see the results.

Before winding up this brief collection of hints, let me add a word or two on the subject of your conduct at meals. Help no one on your own plate, though clean, unless there be no other; always procure a fresh one. When offered a second help, either accept or decline it; do not say "I have not finished what I have" because the helper must t[ wait your convenience, and be interrupted a second time in his own meal to supply you; besides, whoever has the charge of a dish must mentally "count heads" and be guided in the helping by the numbers to be supplied. Thus, your giving so uncertain an answer leaves him in perplexity, and may deprive him of a help altogether, having had to wait for a definitive reply.

It is the custom for a servant to lay the letters come by the morning post on the breakfast-table; if they do not arrive in the post-bag, which is the case in country places, they are placed by the plate of each person to whom they severally belong. No one else should touch them. Yet I have often seen people (members of the same family, more or less  nearly connected with the owner of the letter) take up a letter, turn it round and round, endeavour to decipher the various post-marks and to guess at the name of the writer. My young readers must not miscalculate the limits of my reprobation of such vulgar and dishonourable prying, which comes under the denunciation addressed to "busybodies in other men's matters". Let them bear in mind that the young, while minors under their parents' roof and guardianship, must by no means resent such an action, in reference to themselves, by those parents who have their interests at heart. At the same time I should strongly recommend parents, who have no reason to distrust their children, when arrived at the age of seventeen or eighteen, not by any means to act so as to give them the shadow of an impression that they are regarded with doubt, if not positive suspicion. Let them invite a willing and freely-given confidence, and raise their child's own feeling of self-respect, as a grand safeguard against all conduct of an unworthy and clandestine character.

But not only should you refrain from examining another person's closed letter, but you should carefully avoid casting glances at what they may be themselves writing, and of walking behind them while so engaged. I heard of a gentleman who was once writing a letter in some reading-room, and who was annoyed by the fact that a man stood behind his chair, he could not tell whether reading over his shoulder, or looking elsewhere; but it so disturbed him, that he tried the experiment of writing as follows:-

"I cannot continue my letter, as there is a vulgar fellow looking over my shoulder and reading all that I write."

Thrown off his guard by his surprise at the statement made, the man immediately exclaimed:-

"I'm not reading your letter!  What do you say that for?"

"Celui qui s'excuse, s'accuse."

And now, my young friends, I must conclude; promising that, should any further rules occur to me, anent the "Habits of Polite Society", I shall gladly give you the benefit of them on some future occasion.

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