MONDAY EVENING, NOVEMBER 3, 1902.
BOOKS ON ETIQUETTE.
In connection with books on etiquette, there are two curious facts to be noted. In the first place, they are rarely, if ever, found in any European country except England. Secondly, when published in England, they are almost invariably, according to a publisher, financial successes. A writer on the subject gives a plausible reason for this. “Nothing,” he says, “is so suggestive of the fluidity of English society as the popularity of the book of etiquette. You may scour the bookshops of Vienna without unearthing a single guide-book to the rules and manners of good society. It is not wanted. For where a man is born, there he stays, and he learns the manners of his special rank in creation with his letters. But in England things are different.” This is probably the true explanation. The art of adapting oneself instinctively to one’s surroundings is given by Nature only to a favoured few. To the majority, if they do not wish to learn by bitter experience, a guide is an absolute necessity. The young man fresh from the country feels that he must proceed warily when he arrives in London, and begins to receive invitations from friends of his family. He belongs, as the writer quoted happily observes, to a fluid class on the way to gentility. He does not eat peas with his knife, but he feels nervous and uncomfortable at dances and dinner parties, more so probably at the latter than the former. At a dance his individuality is not so pronounced. There are havens of refuge where he can hide himself at a crisis. A dinner party is different. There he must pass that final test, the test of eating. The most recently published of etiquette books contains this passage:—“It is a moot point which social function is to a nervous man most fraught with terrors, but undoubtedly a dinner-party is to the uninitiated a nerve-destroying experience, and not even the compliment implied by the invitation can be fully appreciated until the ordeal is over.” The same book contains this maxim for the use of the diners-out who are starting upon their career in that capacity: “All through the meal you must keep up a lively flow of conversation.” It is in such a sentence that the real cause of the success of the long series of etiquette books is to be found. In theory, if the first of all such books was a success—as it was—then there would be no need for any more such treatises to follow it. And yet fresh writers arise, and, having ploughed once more the old field, still contrive to reap a harvest. Why is this? Because every book on etiquette stops just short of what the reader wants. It tells him that he must “keep up a lively flow of conversation” throughout a meal, but it neglects to mention how such a thing may be done. And, as this is precisely what the reader wishes to find out, he turns (it being ordained that hope shall spring eternal in the human breast) to the next of the series which finds its way to the bookstalls.
To such a man—it is never a woman who pores over the etiquette book—the book is what the prompter is to the actor. He does not need to learn it by heart. Much of its wisdom he knows already. All he requires is to have some expert authority in readiness for him to consult in moments of emergency, when brought face to face with some situation not hitherto included within the range of his experience. It was not for the benefit of this type that the following passage was written:—“I have known a man attend an evening dress party clad in the orthodox evening coat, a pair of grey morning trousers, and sturdy laced boots: none of these were in the first freshness of youth, while the coat looked as though he had sat on it while pulling on his boots.” It is difficult to see exactly whose eye such a paragraph was intended to meet. Would a man who could don such a costume, even in the privacy of his chamber and with no intention of showing himself to the public gaze, be likely to read a book on etiquette. It seems doubtful. Either he would not know what etiquette was, or he would have a large-minded scorn for it. In any case, he would certainly appear to be too lost in social sin to derive benefit from the treatise. The majority of etiquette books either begin or conclude with a list of “Don’ts” for the novice, and they are always the most remarkable feature of the volume. It is easy to understand the value of advice as to when to shake and when not to shake hands. In such matters a guide is of distinct value. But to what type of man would the following appeal? “Don’t take potatoes from the dish with your own fork.” Does the writer honestly believe that the dining-rooms of London are thronged with young men asking themselves in an agony of indecision the question, “Shall I or shall I not take potatoes from this dish with my own fork?” It seems incredible, and yet there the maxim is, to be read by all who care to pay a shilling for the privilege. Again: “Don’t wear a tie-pin with evening dress?” Is it possible that the author genuinely imagines that a person capable of inserting a pin in his evening dress tie positively walks the earth and mixes with his fellows? Apparently. Then what is his social status? Where is he to be met?
But in spite of such defects as this, there will always be a steady demand for the book of etiquette. Humourists may make a mock of it with such volumes as “Tips for Toffs and Deportment for Dukes.” Even Mr. Gilbert himself may gird lightly at it with his sarcastic pen, but the Guide Book of Society will go on for ever. Only those who suffer from a tendency to vacillate know the inexpressible comfort of being able to refer all doubts and dilemmas to a printed authority. It is the print that works the magic. There is a clinching, take-it-or-leave-it finality about print, which speech can never hope to rival. The point as to whether the author is an authority on the subject is beside the question. That his name has never been mentioned as that of a leader of the society of which he professes to know the highways and byways so thoroughly is immaterial. His maxims are in print, and as such are to be reverenced. And there is always a chance that the author may be a duke writing under an assumed name. Perhaps even a prince.
Unsigned article in the Globe; title and date entered by Wodehouse in his
Money Received for Literary Work notebook.
W. S. Gilbert treated of etiquette most notably in Ruddigore, his 1887 comic opera with Arthur Sullivan, in which the heroine had been abandoned as a foundling baby along with a book of etiquette, which she treats as “a voice from a parent’s tomb . . . through life, my guide and monitor”; and in the 1869 Bab Ballad “Etiquette” wherein two shipwrecked sailors find it impossible to meet without a proper social introduction.
This turnover seems to contain more of Wodehouse’s own experience than other columns in this series; at least, the stories told in his other autobiographical writings about the shyness of his youth are consonant with the hope that the next etiquette book would teach him to be a sparkling conversationalist.
Printer’s error corrected above:
Newspaper omitted apostrophe in “Don’ts”