7 Mar 2022

Victorian 'Etiquette for Ladies'

This International Women’s Day we've delved into the past to look at the experiences of women in the 1800s.

The advice that is given in A Manual of Etiquette for Ladies, by ‘A Lady’ (1856) is a vivid insight into the Victorian world, where women led circumscribed lives, and relied on their demure demeanour, conversation adroitness and seamlessly good manners to thrive in polite society and make a good marriage.

At first sight nothing could be further from our own world, but some entirely reasonable guidance is buried in the flowery Victorian prose. Below is a selection of Victorian advice for ladies, with Debrett’s own contemporary commentary.

Conversation

“Nothing so degrades a woman as to talk about the degradation of another. Detraction generally proves the weakness as well as meanness of the party who employs it.”

Bad-mouthing other people might be seen as harmless and enjoyable gossip, but it demonstrates the indiscretion, and sometimes the malice, of the perpetrator.

“Secrets and confidential communications are dangerous topics of conversation at all times, and should be indulged in with the utmost caution.”

Betraying confidences, however enjoyable, will simply highlight your untrustworthiness.

“A woman should never be Janus-faced. A lady hears something disparaging of a friend, something she knows to be unfounded, but to avoid any discussion, remain silent, or apparently coincides. Instead of this, she should most positively dissent. Etiquette does not require anything that honour forbids.”

Always stand up for your friends and defend your convictions ­– other people will respect your integrity.

“In order to converse agreeably and intelligibly, a lady should cultivate her intellect, not with the idea of becoming a blue-stocking or a pedant, but to render her society pleasant and profitable to others.”

Keeping abreast of the news and ensuring you are reasonably well-informed will ensure that you can always participate confidently in conversation.

Dining

“Once having consented to go [to a dinner party], nothing but serious illness should prevent your attendance. The hour as well as the day should be punctually observed.”

Don’t be a social prevaricator, who accepts invitations provisionally in case something better comes along. Once you have accepted, you are obliged to go, unless you have a cast-iron excuse.

“By small things the want of etiquette is detected – eating fish with a knife, peas with a fork, and many other trifling matters, shew that the lady is ill-acquainted with the orthodox method of eating one’s dinner.”

Orthodox table manners change and evolve (peas used to be eaten with a knife before the arrival of the three-pronged fork), so if in doubt check our dining guidance.

“If invited to take wine with a gentleman, courtesy does not require that you empty your glass; while it forbids you to refuse his invitation, it demands no more than that, with a polite inclination of the head, you should put your lips to the wine.”

These days, it is quite acceptable to politely refuse a glass of wine and certainly would not be considered ill-mannered. Feel free to drink as much, or as little, of your wine as you desire.

Receiving Company

“Always be in readiness to receive your guests. It is highly disrespectful to leave visitors to entertain themselves. It is a becoming proof of attention and politeness to pleasantly welcome, and to remain with your friends.”

If you are entertaining guests, try and ensure that you have everything ready beforehand so you can relax and join the company, make introductions and ensure that everyone has settled in.

“Every appearance of bustle and confusion must be avoided. Ladies should be always perfectly composed, especially so when they occupy the position of hostess.”

A flustered or harassed hostess (or host) can easily become a source of discomfort to guests, who may well feel that the strains of entertaining are outweighing the pleasure of their company.

“No lady who knows what is due to herself and to her visitors, will attempt to receive some of her guests with greater attention and civility than others.”

A good host will always ensure that every one of her/his guests feel equally welcome.

“No flunkeyism is so detestable as that of aping the fashions of the great without the ability to carry them fully out… It is far better to appear to be what we are, than to affect to be what we are not.”

Don’t fall into the trap of over-ostentatious entertaining (lavish decorations, an elaborate menu, excessively complex dishes) in order to impress. It is much better to do things simply, and well.

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