“Etiquette – There is no living well in society without submitting to, and falling in with, the forms of it, absurd as many of them may be…” A System of Etiquette by the Rev. Dr. John Trusler, 1805
Dr John Trusler’s best-selling guide clearly set out the fundamentals of good behaviour for young gentlemen in the Regency era. It would have been indispensable for the young bucks of the beau monde, who frequented the great London houses and grand country estates, gambled and caroused at gentleman’s clubs, flirted with eligible young ladies at lavish balls. He has some strong words on the vexed subjects of debt, gambling and duelling.
He spells out in no uncertain terms the system of precedence in British society, which minutely delineates the comparative social standing of members of the aristocracy and upper classes. Sometimes this rigid system of rank and privilege creates frustrating anomalies, as he points out: “Custom, though I know not for any good reason has established that a giddy girl of sixteen, if married, should have a degree of respect superior to a single woman of twice her age; she shall among her equals in rank, walk first into the room, be offered the first place at table, receive the first attentions of the company be selected out first to dance at a ball &c.”
Socialising with Superiors
In the social minefield of Regency society it was imperative that the status of the different ranks of the peerage was recognised, and that age and wisdom were respected. Certain marks of respect, such as ‘giving the wall’ (walking on the outside of the path or pavement nearest the road) and nodding politely were de rigueur (greeting with a handshake was not the done thing at this time). There is a great deal of emphasis on punctiliousness: leaving visiting cards, returning visits promptly, ensuring that visits are kept short and there is no overstaying.
Acts of politeness from superiors were seen as marks of ‘condescension’, which in Regency times meant a willingness to lay aside the privileges of rank and mix with social inferiors – it was, in fact, a compliment. All these courtesies were seen as both considerate and deferential, oiling the wheels of stately social intercourse.
“[By superiors I mean men of greater rank, men advanced in life, or of superior knowledge.] If you meet an acquaintance of this character… it is your place to make the first salute; and if going the same way, either to accompany him or not, as you find it most agreeable to him, and not to leave him at any time whilst he seems disposed to hold converse with you. It is a proper mark of respect to give him the wall. This polite attention is more particularly due to ladies, and a man is a blockhead, if he omits to pay it.”
“If a superior or a lady pay you a visit, on their departure it is a mark of respect to accompany them out, waiting at the door till the carriage draws up, bowing as it goes.”
“If a superior condescend to pay you the first morning visit, as it will sometimes happen, from you residing in his neighbourhood, and wishing to be acquainted with you; return that visit as soon as possible; within a day or two.”
“On paying visits of ceremony, care should be taken not to make them too long, nor too frequent; a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, is sufficient time to exchange compliments, or run over the topics of the day.”
Being a Good Guest
Many of Trusler’s recommendations to dinner guests will reverberate with us today, though we will be surprised by his suggestion that you call for any wine of your choosing, since the expectation is that your host will have it available – this practice is not recommended at 21st-century dinner parties. Nobody would argue, however, with his reminder that invitations must be promptly answered, and guests must be punctual (after making due allowance for their journey time).
The formality of greetings on arrival, and especially the deference paid first and foremost to the lady of the house, is more unfamiliar to modern readers. Young men are told very firmly that no gentleman should salute a lady with a kiss in public, even if they are relations or intimate acquaintances. The dignified, formal bow was the standard Regency greeting.
Gentlemen who have to leave a dinner party early are advised to do so surreptitiously and with the minimum of fuss, so as not to break up proceedings (a very modern piece of advice). This practice was known as ‘taking French leave’.
“On receiving an invitation in writing, never omit to return an answer in writing, and that as soon as possible.”
“When invited to dinner make a point of always being there in proper time, not to make the company wait; fifteen minutes at least before the appointed hour, and to prevent mistakes, see that your watch goes right, and make a proper allowance for the time going.”
“On your entering the room where the company is address yourself first to the lady of the house, by approaching her, bowing respectfully and then retiring. No saluting ladies now, by kissing them, as formerly, unless they be relations or very intimate friends whom you have not seen for some time, and even then not in company with others. Your next address is to the master of the house, and afterwards to the rest to whom you are introduced by a respectful bow to each.”
“Wiping a plate with your napkin is rude, the whole service of the table amongst the opulent is naturally clean; if a plate accidentally be otherwise, call to a servant for another.”
“Call for any wine you please, without waiting to be asked; in some houses, the master announces to his company, the different sorts of wine on the sideboard; in great houses, where this be not done, all common wines are supposed to be present.”
“If you wish to depart before the rest of the company, never take out your watch to see the hour, as this would seem to remind others of the time, nor take any leave…steal off as unnoticed as possible, for if you chuse to go, it is not necessary that you drag others with you.”
Conversation and Courtship
There is much emphasis on the gentlemanly art of conversation: it is understood that a great conversationalist is an attentive listener, who is not overbearing and domineering and never interrupts. Since a young gentleman owed deference to his superiors, both social and intellectual, he was expected to give them his undivided attention and graciously yield to them if they chose to interrupt him when he was speaking. Self-assertiveness was not considered a desirable trait.
Talking to young ladies was a precarious business. It was expected that ‘gallantry’ should be displayed, but this could very easily stray into flirtation. In a society where unmarried women – and their eagle-eyed mothers – were seeking potential suitors this could be dangerous. The social codes of the day dictated that paying a young lady particular attention was tantamount to making a declaration of love – light-hearted dalliance could easily turn into entanglement. Any attempt to extricate himself or deny that he had singled out a young lady would tarnish a gentleman with the taint of dishonour and do irreparable damage to his reputation.
“The young man in company with his superiors must not be loud, boisterous, dogmatical, or dictatorial; but modest, diffident, and unassuming; not giving the lead in conversation, but taking it up as he finds it; not speaking till another has done, but even stopping short, if a man or more intelligence, experience and knowledge of the subject, shall presume to interrupt him.”
“If gallantry to the ladies, be considered as part of the accomplishments of a gentleman, it is that only which consists in a respectful and lively attention, perhaps addressed to their vanity, their beauty, or their good sense.”
“Steer clear of giving any particular lady to understand, that you are more attached to her than others; unless the case be really so, and you mean to pursue it up with honour. Such misrepresentations on your part, and misconception on hers, may lead to entanglements, attended with ruinous consequences.”
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