12 NovMiscellaneous Etiquette for A Genteel Lady In The Nineteenth Century

It may be well to caution our young friends against certain bad practices, easily contracted, but sometimes difficult to relinquish. The following are things not to be done:—Biting your nails. Slipping a ring up and down your finger. Sitting cross-kneed, and, jogging your feet. Drumming on the table with your knuckles; or, still worse, tinking on a piano with your fore-finger only. Humming a tune before strangers. Singing as you go up and down stairs. Putting your arm round the neck of another young girl, or promenading the room with arms encircling waists. Holding the hand of a friend all the time she sits beside you; or kissing and fondling her before company. Sitting too closely.

Slapping a gentleman with your handkerchief, or tapping him with your fan. Allowing him to take a ring off your finger, to look at it. Permitting him to unclasp your bracelet, or, still worse, to inspect your brooch. When these ornaments are to be shown to another person, always take them off for the purpose. Pulling at your own ringlets, or your own ear-rings—or fingering your neck ribbon. Suffering a gentleman[331] to touch your curls. Reading with a gentleman off the same book or newspaper. Looking over the shoulder of any person who is reading or writing. Taking up a written paper from the table, and examining it.

To listen at door-cracks, and peep through key-holes, is vulgar and contemptible. So it is to ask children questions concerning their parents, though such things are still done.

If you mean that you were angry, do not say you were “mad.”—”It made me so mad”—”I was quite mad at her,” are phrases not to be used by people considering themselves genteel. Anger and madness are not the same, or should not be; though it is true that ungoverned rage, is, sometimes, carried so far as to seem like insanity.

Enter into no freaks of fashion that are silly, unmeaning, and unladylike; even if they have been introduced by a belle, and followed by other belles. Commit no absurdity because a public singer or dancer has done so in her ignorance of good behavior. During the Jenny Lind fever, there were young ladies who affected to skuttle into a drawing-room all of a sudden, somewhat as the fair Swede came skuttling in upon the concert stage, because in reality she knew not how to make her entrance gracefully. Other demoiselles twined and waved about, with body, head, and eyes, never a moment quiet. This squirming (as it was called) originated in a very bad imitation of Fanny Elssler’s dancing motions. At one time there were girls at parties, who stood on one foot, and with the other kicked up their dresses behind, while talking to gentlemen. This fashion began with a celebrated beauty who “dared do any thing.” Luckily, these “whims and oddities” are always of short duration, and are never adopted by young ladies of good taste and refinement.

Do not nod your head, or beat time with fan or foot while listening to music.

Never at a party consent to accompany another lady in a duet, unless you are accustomed to singing with her. Still worse—do not volunteer to “assist” her in a song that is not a duet. Each voice will interrupt and spoil the other. A lady who sings by ear only, cannot accompany one that sings by note.

One of the most horrible sounds imaginable is that produced by several fine voices all singing different songs. This cats’ concert (as school-girls call it) results in a shocking and yet ludicrous discord, equally frightful and laughable. And yet all the performers are singing individually well. Try it.

Raising a window-sash, in cold weather, without first ascertaining if the rest of the company are, like yourself, too warm. Leaving the parlour door open in winter—a perpetual occurrence at hotels and boarding-houses.

Talking so loudly that you can be heard all over the room. Or so low that you cannot be heard at all, even by those who are conversing with you. This last fault is the worst. To talk with one who has a habit of muttering unintelligibly, is like trying to read a letter illegibly written.

Using too often the word “madam” or “ma’am,” which in fact, is now nearly obsolete in familiar conversation. In the old French tragedies the lovers addressed their mistresses as “madam.” But then the stage Alexander wore a powdered wig, and a laced coat, knee-breeches, and a long-skirted waistcoat; and Roxana figured in a hoop-petticoat, a brocade gown, a flowered apron, and a towering gauze cap. The frequent use of “sir” is also out of fashion. “Yes, ma’am,” “No, ma’am,” “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” no longer sounds well, except from children to their elders. If you have not distinctly heard what another lady has just said to you, do not denote it by saying, “Ma’am?” but remark to her, “Excuse me, I did not exactly hear you!”

Never, in a public parlor, place yourself in a position where you can secretly hear conversation that is not intended for you—for instance in a corner behind a pillar. If you hear yourself talked of, it is mean to stay and listen. It is a true adage that “Listeners seldom hear any good of themselves.”

However smart and witty you may be considered, do not exercise your wit in rallying and bantering your friends. If you do so, their friendship will soon be worn out, or converted into positive enmity. A jest that carries a sting with it can never give a pleasant sensation to the object. The bite of a mosquito is a very little thing, but it leaves pain and inflammation behind it, and the more it is rubbed the longer it rankles in the blood. No one likes to have their foibles or mishaps turned into ridicule—before[334] other persons especially. And few can cordially join in a laugh that is raised against themselves.

The slightest jest on the personal defects of those you are conversing with, is an enormity of rudeness and vulgarity. It is, in fact, a sneer at the Creator that made them so. No human creature is accountable for being too small, or too large; for an ill-formed figure, or for ill-shaped limbs; for irregular features, or a bad complexion.

Still worse, to rally any person (especially a woman) on her age, or to ask indirect questions with a view of discovering what her age really is. If we continue to live, we must continue to grow old. We must either advance in age, or we must die. Where then is the shame of surviving our youth? And when youth departs, beauty goes along with it. At least as much beauty as depends on complexion, hair, and teeth. In arriving at middle age, (or a little beyond it,) a lady must compound for the loss of either face or figure. About that period she generally becomes thinner, or fatter. If thin, her features shrink, and her skin shrivels and fades; even though she retains a slender and perhaps a girlish form. If she grows fat, her skin may continue smooth, and her complexion fine, and her neck and arms may be rounder and handsomer than in girlhood; but then symmetry of shape will cease—and she must reconcile herself to the change as best she can. But a woman with a good mind, a good heart, and a good temper, can never at any age grow ugly—for an intelligent and pleasant expression is in itself beauty, and the best sort of beauty.[335]

Sad indeed is the condition of women in the decline of life when “No lights of age adorn them.” When, having neglected in the spring and summer to lay up any stores for the winter that is sure to come, they find themselves left in the season of desolation with nothing to fall back upon—no pleasant recollections of the acquisition of knowledge or the performance of good deeds, and nothing to talk about but the idle gossip of the day—striving painfully to look younger than they really are; still haunting balls and parties, and enduring all the discomforts of crowded watering-places, long after all pleasure in such scenes must have passed away. But then they must linger in public because they are miserable at home, having no resources within themselves, and few enduring friends to enliven them with their society.

The woman that knows how to grow old gracefully, will adapt her dress to her figure and her age, and wear colours that suit her present complexion. If her neck and arms are thin, she will not expose them under any circumstances. If her hair is grey, she will not decorate it with flowers and flimsy ribbons. If her cheeks are hollow, she will not make her face look still longer and thinner by shadowing it with long ringlets; and setting her head-dress far back—but she will give it as much softness as she can, by a light cap-border tied under her chin. She will not squeeze herself out of all human shape by affecting a long tight corsage; and she will wear no dresses glaring with huge flowers, or loaded with gaudy trimmings. She will allude to her age as a thing of course; she[336] will speak without hesitation of former times, though the recollection proves her to be really old. She will be kind and indulgent to the young; and the young will respect and love her, and gladly assemble near her chair, and be amused and unconsciously instructed. As long as she lives and retains her faculties she will endeavour to improve, and to become still a wiser and a better woman; never excusing herself by indolently and obstinately averring that “she is too old to learn,” or that she cannot give up her old-fashioned habits. If she finds that those habits are unwarrantable, or that they are annoying to her friends, she ought to relinquish them. No one with a mind unimpaired, and a heart still fresh, is too old to learn.


Teresa Thomas Bohannon
Author of the Old-Fashioned Regency Romance novel, A Very Merry Chase
Now available in ebook and oversized, large-print editions.

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