Etiquette doesn’t seem very popular anymore. Rules, strictures, ways of behaving that must be adhered to—for many, I suspect that sounds more confining than charming. My own experiences of etiquette were limited to my grandma’s lessons on how to act at the dinner table, nudging my elbow to remind me to say “please” and “thank you,” and insisting I never let my hemline rise too high or my neckline ride too low. Was there someone in your life who taught you etiquette?
When I began research for my current Victorian romance series, I knew there were a fair number of etiquette books in print during the Victorian era. Certainly more than I’d seen at my local library or in the homes of my family while growing up. In fact, the only such book I recall was my grandma’s copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette, though I never remember her taking the volume down and thumbing through its pages.
My research starting point was that Victorians produced more etiquette books than those of us living in the 20th century. Of course, I wanted to know why. What I discovered surprised me and has informed each of the stories in my current Romancing the Rules series from Avon Impulse.
It’s tempting to imagine Victorians bathed in gaslight, hunched over their etiquette books, memorizing rules so that they could be behave with all the prudery and scrupulous politeness they’ve become known for. Yet if you read Victorian etiquette guides, you soon find that they’re more akin to advice manuals than rulebooks. In many ways, they remind me of our modern spate of self-help books, encouraging good health, physical activity, and urging kindness and politeness toward others.
I often write of aristocrats, the wealthy and powerful of English society. But the Victorian era saw the rise of an expanding middle class, many earning enormous wealth during the opportunity-rich industrial revolution. Etiquette books spoke directly to those ladies and gentleman who wanted to cultivate the social niceties the upper classes would have been taught by governesses and tutors.
To paraphrase S. L. Louis in Decorum, middle class men could “fake it” until behaving like a gentleman became real.
Advice manuals seemed most plentiful for women’s edification. Then as now, an inordinate amount of time was spent advising women how to “look” in terms of their dress, cosmetics, scent, even how they should appear when participating in the new activities of the day, like cycling. In the 1893 book, Etiquette of Good Society, Lady Campbell advised,
A lady’s tricycling dress consists of a plain skirt, made sufficiently wide to allow the feet free play without causing them to draw up the dress by their action, and yet not so wide as to permit the skirt to hang in folds or flap in the wind.
Perhaps my most shocking find was the discovery that late 19th century Victorians, with all of their “modern” inventions and technologies, were a bit nostalgic for the past. In Decorum in 1883, S. L. Louis opined,
THE very delightful recreation and exercise of riding on horseback is too little partaken of in these days of fast locomotion.
If nothing else, the plethora of Victorian advice manuals and etiquette guides offer a fascinating glimpse into the era. Though the Victorians are often painted as the worst sort of prudes, the books indicate they were a generation of strivers, ladies and gentleman attempting to live up to ideals and fearing they’d fall short.
When trains shuttled people through the countryside, women had more property rights than ever before, and a few men without a drop of blue blood in their veins could afford more lavish lifestyles than some aristocrats, etiquette books must have seemed a useful aid to help people through rapidly changing times.
Louis, S.L., Decorum. New York: Union Publishing House, 1883.
Campbell, Lady Elizabeth G., Etiquette of Good Society. London: Cassell and Co, 1893.