Emily Post, Etiquette (1922)

Isn’t that surprising that old etiquette books are so much fun to read? After all, they are long and sometimes repetitive, and the information they provide, often in a condescending tone, is completely useless to our 21C life. But I take them as history books, to get a glimpse of what were the behaviour rules of the “best society” at a given period. 

A few years ago I browsed through Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), a great book to learn how a British Victorian household was run, complete with management of servants, recipes, laundry, childcare and manners. It gave a fantastic insight on how painstaking the everyday chores were without all the products and appliances we’re used to and how everyone in a house had a fixed social rank with rights and duties. 

Emily Post’s Etiquette came only 60 years later, and in America, and I could already see a lot of progress in terms of daily life and chores. Servants are also less numerous, maids are allowed to have male friends, and scandal – some reckless young women even travel to Europe without a maid (but Emily Post scarcely approves of it). The two books are not really comparable, as the older is focused on practical rules for the house, and the later is focused on social life, but they both tell a lot about the role of the woman (the main readership for both books). 

When Emily Post’s book was published, it was the Roaring twenties, the carefree period of wealth and entertainment like in the Fitzgerald’s novels. She speaks of driving cars, staying at country houses, playing sports, even addressing the divorced woman – but of course the book remains very proper in every circumstance:  

One can not too strongly censure the unspeakable vulgarity of the woman so unfortunate as to be obliged to go through divorce proceedings, who confides the private details of her life to reporters. 

We find pages full of discussions whether an unmarried girl may drive alone (yes), may be in a car with a man (yes), may go to the theatre with a man (no).  

No well brought up young girl should be allowed to go to supper at a cabaret until she is married, or has passed the age when “very young” can be applied to her. 

Cabaret? Mrs. Beeton would have had a fainting spell upon hearing about such a place, and never would have ventured there, even after marriage! 

What strikes me as a telling clue to the 1920s is the author’s insistence on carefree youth and social climbers, nouveaux riches. Young flappers are basically allowed nearly everything, as long as they dance to perfection (and that goes without saying, are beautiful and rich). While earlier books insisted on morals, religion, dignity, and rank to keep, this book’s tone is almost nostalgic, and Emily Post seems to regret an earlier age when older people were more respected (isn’t that something that every older person still claims today?) and things were done according to well-known rules: for example, at the beginning of the century wealthy people had a fixed “day at home” in the week where they expected friends to visit them, which means actually collecting their cards and chatting with them for no more than half an hour (longer is rude). 

There is also a fascinating chapter, in the masochistic way, to describe everything that can go wrong during a dinner. She directly addresses the female reader, seeing her as an inexperienced, recently married housewife, who invites several wealthy and fashionable acquaintances. The food is ruined, the maid doesn’t know how to serve, etc… I can’t resist quoting the end: 

As you are very young, and those present are all really fond of you, they try to be comforting, but you know that it will be years (if ever) before any of them will be willing to risk an evening in your house again. You also know that without malice, but in truth and frankness, they will tell everyone: “Whatever you do, don’t dine with the Newweds unless you eat your dinner before you go, and wear black glasses so no sight can offend you.”

When they have all gone, you drag yourself miserably up-stairs, feeling that you never want to look in that drawing-room or dining-room again. Your husband, remembering the trenches, tries to tell you it was not so bad! But you know! You lie awake planning to let the house, and to discharge each one of your awful household the next morning, and then you realize that the fault is not a bit more theirs than yours. 

It’s really amazing how she manages to put all the guilt on the poor young woman… and the husband remembering the trenches (yes, she dares no less than a WWI comparison!), I really choke on this! In her perspective, success or failure at a dinner with important people really meant social death… With such a book, aren’t you relieved you weren’t born in the 1920s?


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