Empire & Etiquette: The gauche, the brash and the ridiculous

Empire & Etiquette: The gauche, the brash and the ridiculous
Gauche, used as an insult, it means you’re seen as socially vulgar, beneath the one delivering the insult. (Photo: Çiğdem Onur on Pixabay)

‘Nobody,’ quoth an odd little tome first published in 1836, ‘likes to be considered improper, vulgar or obtuse, nor the kind of person who doesn’t know when to offer a lady a glass of wine.’ Well, I don’t know about that but in my experience, a minute after 5pm and I’m in the doghouse.

Gauche. There’s a lofty word for you. The sort of word bestowed from on high upon a lowly kitchen boy; a master on a servant. The sort of word a Rhodes or a Lord Milner might have used; once exalted people now despised by many. Their time of empire and etiquette long gone, our time of people’s democracy and social media unimaginable to them.

Gauche. Adj. awkward and uncomfortable with other people, especially because young and without experience. Alternatively, crudely made or done.

But used as an insult it has a meaner meaning; it means you’re seen as socially vulgar, beneath the one delivering the insult. It means, let’s not sugar coat it, that you’re seen as inferior, of a lower order. It is among the worst of status or class adjusters. And the Victorians were masters at that.

To the colonisers of old – the British, the French, the Germans, the Belgians, but especially the British – most of those out in the colonies would be seen as gauche, other than the high-born commissioners and governors and the like sent out to keep the locals in check.

The colonials lorded it over the Cape Colony in the late 1800s, but the etiquette that was instilled in them had come from even stricter earlier decades lived under the yoke of Victoria in her prime and the earnestness and stern morality that characterised it.

Nobody,” quoth an odd little tome first published in 1836, “likes to be considered improper, vulgar or obtuse, nor the kind of person who doesn’t know when to offer a lady a glass of wine.” Well, I don’t know about that. In my experience, a minute after 5pm and I’m in the doghouse. But a proper Victorian lady wouldn’t dream of helping herself to a glass. And Victoria had been crowned in 1838, soon after the book’s publication, so the timing for our unnamed author was superb.

This Victorian handbook,” the Editor’s Note in my copy of Hints on Etiquette continues, “contains instructions on such themes as introductions (‘Should you, whilst walking with a friend, meet an acquaintance, never introduce them’) and dinner parties (‘Eat peas with a dessert spoon; and curry also’).”

Today we’d be considered vulgar for not introducing the “friend we’re walking with” to another friend we’ve bumped into, but that’s because in the many decades that have followed the publication of this early Victorian guide to etiquette (and it was a very English, genteel etiquette fresh from the well-padded bosom of the moneyed aristocratic “class” of the day), common sense has come to play a much greater role in our social intercourse than pretentious notions and fussy, imposed manners.

Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society (with a glance at bad habits) was republished in 2005 by Summersdale, a publishing company in Chichester, West Sussex, and I bought it while we were living there at the time. The 2005 editor’s note concludes: “Indispensable reading for those wanting to act with a certain dignity in society (especially those in the country ‘where the tone of society is altogether lower’) it is also a delightful diversion for the rest of us who are thankful that life is no longer so complicated.”

If they thought “those in the country” (meaning England) were gauche, what must they have made of the yokels out in the colonies. And us, “out here” today, glancing northwards while shaking our heads at the Brexit muddle they got themselves into in the previous decade. Perhaps they should have consulted us before voting. (Even today, Brits refer to countries as far away as ours as “over there”. Mind you, they say that for France too.)

I must hastily explain that my own family did not come from any supposed English hierarchy, nor were they among the colonisers, but came from what the original book condescendingly terms “the mercantile districts, where the tone of society is altogether lower”, in my case the hard grind of the wool mills of Yorkshire.

My own northern kin would doubtless be beyond social salvation. Manners do not become us; we’d sooner call something what it is, not least pretentiousness. The unnamed author concludes his or her introduction with a swirl of self-approval: “If these hints save the blush but upon one cheek, or smooth the path into society of only one honest family, the object of the author will be attained.”

Oh dear. What horrendous calamity might befall one should one inadvertently break any of the polite social code? Let’s dive into the book and have a look.

There’s a key line that reveals what this book is really all about; what inspired its writing at all: After an explanation of what etiquette supposedly is, and why it matters, she (I’m just going to call him/her “she”, if only because I have in my mind’s eye an image not dissimilar to the Countess Dowager of Downton Abbey, but in Victorian garb) writes: “Besides, in a mercantile country like England, people are continually rising in the world.” There you have it: people like my family were starting to do well for themselves, and we don’t want them embarrassing themselves in polite society. (“I shall ‘ave a Chardonnay wi’ mi’ bacon butty if you please kind sir.”) So let’s bring out a little book on etiquette that one hopes the lowly mercantile class can afford.

And all these decades later there’s Lord Muck himself having moved to Chichester, a bit of a gourmand if you please; knows his fish knife from his soup spoon, even met the Prince of Wales once, would you know. Uppity sod. Even his Yorkshire cousins, on meeting the now South African outlier, had remarked, “Ee, you sound joost like Prince Charles!”. Which if nothing else illustrates that the world and circumstances can and do change. (Not that you can ever take Yorkshire out of a Yorkshireman. And not that I sound anything like him except to a Yorkshire ear.)

But the writer has a valid point. When you’re not born to “good manners”, you really don’t know them. I’ve remained a little socially awkward despite what I’ve seen and done. As a young man I turned red in the face when, at dinner at La Perla restaurant in Sea Point at the invitation of Louis Burke, the theatrical producer, with his guests including the soprano Aviva Pelham and a lascivious American producer, I stood up to excuse myself to nip to the loo, upending my end of the table, lobster legs and prawn shells flying off plates, glasses tipping red wine all over the white damask. The room staring. It was excruciating. I went blood red and stammered apology. Beyond gauche. I’d also ordered the lobster, which embarrasses me today; when I’m somebody’s guest I never hurry to the top end of the menu unless persuaded to. But life teaches us these things. How not to be gauche.

How awkward must it have been to be at a Victorian party with nobody wishing to meet you, because the etiquette was: “Never introduce people to each other without a previous understanding that it will be agreeable to both.” As for our habit of hanging in cafés and bars today, “Never make acquaintances in coffee-houses or other public places.” Contrast this with millennials running their entire lives in cafés that are both meeting place and office.

Skipping past a section on “Letters of Introduction” we get to the civilities of marriage where we learn that “when a man marries, it is understood that all acquaintanceship ends” (because the “friend of the husband may not be equally acceptable to the wife”). In our world, that’s outrageous – imagine a bride telling her groom today, “right, you have to drop your mates”. Especially if one’s a bachelor, who, she observes, “is seldom very particular in his choice of his companions”.

Which brings us to the meat of the matter: dinners. The rules!

  • There is nothing more plebeian than thin bread at dinner.”
  • It is considered vulgar to take fish or soup twice.”
  • You cannot use your knife, or fork, or teeth too quietly.”
  • Ladies should not dine with their gloves on unless their hands are not fit to be seen.”
  • There are few things more disagreeable than the thumb of a clumsy waiter in your plate.”
  • At every respectable table you will find silver forks.”
  • Fish does not require a knife, but should be divided by the aid of a piece of bread.”
  • Coffee should be brought in at an hour previously appointed, without the bell being rung for it.”
  • Do not ask any lady to take wine until you see she has finished her fish or soup.”

This last may seem ridiculous to us, but what’s surprising is that our early Victorian writer thought so too: “This exceedingly absurd and troublesome custom is very properly giving way at the best tables to the more reasonable one of the gentleman helping the lady to wine next to whom he may be seated, or a servant will hand it around.”

Having said that, “if either a lady or a gentleman be invited to take wine at table, they must never refuse; it is very gauche so to do”. Ah. It was compulsory to drink wine at the Victorian table. Now there’s a bit of Victorian etiquette worth bringing back.

Finally, and this brings us back to the etiquette by which “when a man marries, it is understood that all acquaintanceship ends”, there’s this:

When a man is about to be married, he usually gives a dinner to his bachelor friends, which is understood to be their congé (a formal permission to depart), unless he choose to renew their acquaintance.” Which presumably the bride would not allow.

A final dinner, the purpose of which is to tell the groom’s erstwhile friends that it’s all over, folks – I’m married now, so you can all f*** orff.

How’s that? The Victorians even had an etiquette for unfriending. DM


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