When asked about Victorian values, what's the typical response? Most of us imagine Victorian society as sombre and strict atmosphere. Victorians are well-remembered for their Puritan attitudes toward sex, drinking, atheism and general revelrie. Vivid images come to mind: naughty children being beaten with the cane in school, a fondness for black clothes and outfits, austere religious ceremonies and chair legs covered by little skirts to protect their modesty. Class tensions, notably a contempt for the poor, whose troubles were believed to be down to their own financial incompetence and moral bankruptcy, are seen as a staple feature of Victorian society.
If you want a bit more fun, you need to look back at the previous era. The Georgian period is remembered as a time of extravagance and frivolity; wigs, wine and bawdiness! Taking inspiration from Charles II's lavish lifestyle, the aristocracy and anyone lucky enough to belong to Georgian high society engaged regularly in unhealthy bouts of drinking, dining and dancing. In fact, the aristocrats competed with one another to appear to be the richest and most popular.
These are, generally-speaking, the conventional memories of the Georgian and Victorian periods. One was a time of indulgence and mischief, the other a time of restraint and discipline. Of course, historians enjoy revising our conventional understandings of events, periods or movements. Many discoveries about the Victorian period have led historians to conclude that our recollection of the period is long out-of-date. For example, the Victorians are remembered for extremely strict attitudes towards sexuality, yet there is plenty of evidence for the existence of Victorian erotica and pornography, booming prostitution trades in the cities and nude photography. It was in the Victorian era that the first 'snuff film' was made.
And of course, Queen Victorian did not say, "we are not amused." That is a myth...
This is not to say that we have completely misunderstood the Victorian era - that the Victorian period was full of scandal, moral delinquency and the like; but there exist a number of contradictions between what the Victorians sought and what the Victorians actually did. There is plenty of evidence to confirm our original thoughts, that the Victorians sought a humble, refined, restrained society, but there is also evidence that many of these values were never kept, even by those who publicly praised them.
My research into etiquette manuals poses similar contradictions about the Victorian period. Etiquette manuals were the third of a 'trilogy' of manuals that appeared in British society. First came courtesy books, written for the sons of members of the nobility in the 1700s. These books were written to provide these young men accurate guidance for good conduct, helping them ease into the roles expected of them. These guides adhered to timely principles of taste and refinement. Here, manners and morals were "indistinguishable," writes Marjorie Morgan, in my view the best authority on the subject, in Manners, Morals and Class in England, 1774 - 1858 (1994).
Following courtesy books were conduct books. The audience of these books widened to include the existing 'middle class' (the existence of which is a very contentious subject among historians...) and the instructions turned the focus away from universal principles of good behaviour to the behaviour recommended by religious texts. In these books, one could find references to God and the afterlife.
The third part of the series took a much less moralistic tone. Etiquette manuals, in contrast to the manuals that had come before them, possessed a "smiling indifference to ethics," writes Kent Puckett in Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel (2008). The moral didacticism was fading away fast, replaced by guides to fashion - specifically, the fashion of the ruling class. Etiquette books were intended for those climbing the social ladder, who had acquired wealth at levels on par with the existing aristocracy but had not received the same education. These men were "inexperienced but newly-enriched, middle class adults seeking the manners, dress and external polish suitable for mixing in fashionable 'Society'," Morgan adds.
Michael Curtin contributes an explanation for the decline of courtesy literature and rise of etiquette literature in his essay "A Question of Manners: Status and Gender in Etiquette and Courtesy" (1985) (and I bet he writes more about it in his book Propriety and Position: A Study of Victorian Manners , if only I could find a cheap copy). Curtin argues that courtesy literature declined after numerous revelations relating to the high society that courtesy literature promoted. It seemed that the very people who were held in high regard were also guilty of grave misbehaviour. Adding to this, Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son were (unintentionally - someone else published his letters after he had died) an explosive exposé of how men were using manners and guides to them with the main intention of climbing the social ladder rather than becoming decent gentlemen. To Chesterfield's many critics, he "seemed ... to associate fine manners with the frivolous preoccupations of a rentier class, not with the serious aspirations of the community as a whole." Courtesy literature lost its reputation; in came etiquette manuals, especially popular among the new middle class who sought to learn about "the specific details of the aristocratic life-style" in order to blend in.
If my research has been successful, etiquette manuals were guides to fashion and behaviour according to the standards of the upper class; they were handbooks detailing how high society behaved for those who wanted to gain access to it. (Whether this was possible, thinking of Victorian attitudes to class and the contradictions of the etiquette manuals themselves, is the subject of my dissertation.) Etiquette manuals stood in contrast to the strict moral guides of the 1700s. Don't these findings contradict our typical understanding of the Georgian and Victorian periods? I would have thought guides to fitting into fashionable society and blending in with the rich and famous would be more appropriate to 1700s gentlemen, not the 1800s bourgeoisie. The nature of the manuals would suggest that it was the Georgian period in which high society preached discipline and perhaps saintly conduct, contrasting with Victorian high society's focus on elegance and politeness.
Histories of manners, politeness, etiquette and deportment, sometimes in conjunction with masculinity, feminity and gender, are thoroughly interesting and if I had more time and more words in the dissertation, these would likely be the subjects of my inquiry. But throughout these investigations, there are several contradictions that arise, relating to the Georgian and Victorian attitudes to gentlemanliness, behaviour and gender, largely because both societies preached A and practised B.
Early into my dissertation research, I was disappointed to find that a number of my earlier sources were in fact of American origin. Cecil B. Hartley, whose book was the inspiration for my investigation into British etiquette manuals in the 1800s, was, I discovered, an American author and biographer. His books were published in America, intended for an American audience. Regrettably I had to remove Hartley from my list of resources.
Oddly, American websites and universities seem to provide the best collections of British primary sources. Several etiquette manuals published in Britain have been digitised and stored by American universities, made freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. Nonetheless, finding resources has proven hard. Etiquette manuals were often written by anonymous authors, describing themselves as "A Gentleman," "A Lady," "A Member of the Aristocracy" or simply not describing themselves at all. The guides often repeat each other's content, almost word for word: Routledge's Manual for Etiquette (1889, possibly) repeats the same tale about a careless French poet at the dinner table as mentioned in Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, or The Principles of True Politeness (either 1852 or 1863). Several individual guides were republished under different titles. Numerous dates of publication are given for the same guide. Finally, most guides bore very similar names: compare Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen with Habits of Good Society: A Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen (1859), as well as Etiquette for Ladies (1851) with Etiquette for Ladies; or, The Principles of True Politeness (1852) - all of which, bearing in mind the factors I've listed above, could be the same publication albeit under a new title and a new date.
Charles Day's etiquette manual, The Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits, has been especially difficult to track down. I have acquired multiple accounts of the title, the date of publication and the location. The British Library provides images of an 1854 edition of Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, first published by Day in 1834; The Spectator makes reference to it in 1836; one Wordpress blogger takes quotations from an 1844 edition published in Boston, stating that it was originally published in 1836. In his essay " "Alone into the wide, wide world": Trollope's Miss Mackenzie and the Mid-Victorian Etiquette Manual" Andrew Maunder quotes from the same publication albeit from 1849. Online, one can find an 1844 edition intentionally converted for American audiences, titled Hints on Etiquette, or a Guide to the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits as well as Etiquette, or a Guide to the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits supposedly authored by Count Alfred D'Orsay in 1843, published in New York. Count D'Orsay's guide is almost identical to those of Charles Day. In the 1844 edition for Americans, it is noted that the guide has gone through twenty-two editions "and has been made the standard of modern society in England."
Day's introduction to the guide - using here his 1844 Boston edition, simply because there are clear page numbers - once again presents etiquette as a paradox in relation to social mobility, a regular theme that will likely be the basis of my dissertation. In the Preface, Day indicates that he is writing for the benefit of readers who are not aware of "what is proper" which "[comprises] a large portion of highly respectable and estimable people" who are yet to "become acquainted with the usages of the (so termed) "best society"..." This is a specific audience, not, as Day makes clear, an audience inhabited by the best of society, for it "would be absurd to suppose" that the "upper ranks of the middle class in London are ignorant of the regulations laid down." Day is instead targeting those in the country (i.e. out of London and 'high society), "where the tone of society is altogether lower".
Here come the contradictory passages, barely a few pages apart. At the end of the Preface, Day indicates that if at least one "honest family" were to enjoy an easier journey into 'society', he will be satisfied and the etiquette manual will have been a success. This is a clear and positive nod to social mobility. Day is keen to "smooth the path" for middle-class families who wish to raise their social status; the etiquette book's teachings suggest that social rankings in Victorian society are fluid. Yet, at the start of the Introduction, Day writes that etiquette is
a shield against the intrusion of the impertinent, the improper and the vulgar - a guard against those obtuse persons who, having neither talent nor delicacy, would be continually thrusting themselves into the society of men to whom their presence might (from the difference of feeling and habit) be offensive, or even insupportable.
Let's jump right to the end of the manual for a second round of contradiction. In the final paragraph (p. 52 of D'Orsay), Day writes:
Gentility is neither birth, manner nor fashion - but in the MIND. A high sense of honour - a determination never to take a mean advantage of another - an adherence to truth, delicacy and politeness, toward those with whom you may have dealings - are the essential and distinguishing characteristics of a GENTLEMAN.
These last lines would suggest that one does not need to be of noble birth or background to be a gentleman; rather, a knowledge of particular social virtues are required. Yet, in the paragraph directly above these closing remarks, Day admits that the guidance listed in the handbook are unlikely to enable the reader to genuinely advance in status. The assistance is instead intended to help them hide their lesser status in the company of the upper classes. As Day puts it:
Although these remarks will not be sufficient in themselves to make you a gentleman, yet they will enable you to avoid any glaring impropriety, and do much to render you easy and confident in society.
Like other authors of etiquette manuals, Day describes etiquette as a guard that surrounds high society, preventing the unwanted from getting in. But whereas other etiquette manuals admit that etiquette is an exclusivist creation of the ruling class, designed to preserve its values and ways from the intrusion of others lower down the food chain, Day seems to go further, admitting in his etiquette manual that the teachings prescribed can only help the reader imitate the habits of the upper class. Readers may be able to better mask their humble origins or lack of noble birth from the upper class but they will never truly be able to enter its ranks.
Day's perspective is not unique. Many Victorians believed that a person could not shake the class into which he or she was born. To engage in mimicry would be a misleading and embarrassing action, as it would dishonestly portray the pretender as belonging to a higher status than he actually was. This is a surprising contradiction if you imagine the number of etiquette manuals that were on sale at the time, providing instructions for people who wished to mimic the mannerisms of the upper class in order to be seen as members of the upper class themselves. Learning etiquette would seem to be fruitless if etiquette enforces the belief that a "vulgar" person cannot imitate the behaviour of a member of society and be acceptance.
Nonetheless, Day's manual (indeed, the many variations of it) proves to be an excellent source for my study. Day's introduction is one of the most passionate defences of manners that I have seen during my research. He insists that manners are "indispensable to the well-being of society". if society lost them, "it would inevitably fall to pieces, and be destroyed." Day is also a writer who makes his awareness of the emerging bourgeoisie, the nouveau riche, plain. Historians have linked the emergence of a new middle class, whose wealth had come from industry, commerce or finance as opposed to land or noble descent, and the demand for etiquette manuals in order to help them slip into high society unnoticed. Day writes:
...in a mercantile country like our own, people are continually rising in the world. Shopkeepers become merchants, and merchants manufacturers; with the possession of wealth, they acquire a taste for the luxuries of life, expensive furniture, gorgeous plate, and also numberless superfluities, with the use of which they are only imperfectly acquainted. But, although their capacities for enjoyment increase, it rarely happens that the polish of their manners keeps pace with the rapidity of their advancement: hence such persons are often reminded that wealth alone is insufficient to protect them from the mortifications which a limited acquaintance with society entails upon the ambitious.
This paragraph shows that Day was well aware of the kind of reader to whom he would be writing. Other authors write introductions in a vague way, making vague reference to a need for manners to be upheld, for their own sake. Day, however, shows his knowledge of the changing social circumstances.
As I wrote in an earlier post, I see a lot of merit in Marjorie Morgan's argument that etiquette was simultaneously an enabler and limiter of social advance. Day's source goes beyond a debate of class and leads me to contend that the etiquette manuals of the 1830s - 1890s were nothing more than statements of fashionable behaviour for the new middle class to emulate in order to appear presentable to the upper class. Their promises of social advancement through an education in etiquette were severely undermined by the widespread thought that birth, station and rank were relevant to being a member of the higher classes.
"An effectual barrier against the innovations of the vulgar...": Victorian etiquette as a weapon of class
As part of my degree I am writing a dissertation on a topic of my choice. After a lot of deliberation following a mild 'academic crisis' (more on that another time), I elected to research British gentlemen's etiquette manuals in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Over the summer I tracked a handful of manuals down from a variety of sources. Many came from the websites of American universities and online, downloadable Victorian literature anthologies.
Yesterday I took a look at Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen; or the Principles of True Politeness to which is added the Ball-Room Manual, one of many etiquette guides published anonymously in England in the 1800s.
Much of the manual makes an interesting read for the modern reader. We are presented with the various acceptable and unacceptable ways of behaving in introductions, conversations in the street and at dinner, discussing religion and other social situations. As one would expect, many of the practices seem highly austere in comparison with our own today. But the opening pages of the manual are arguably the most interesting, at least to my own research, for it is in the first two pages that the anonymous author defines and describes etiquette and the existence of 'good society'. Not only does the author describe etiquette as the fashion of the upper class, but he also indicates the use of etiquette as a tool of both encouraging social mobility and preserving the status quo.
the name given to the code of laws established by the highest class of society for regulating the conduct, words and actions of those admitted within its sphere...
I can't imagine a clearer indication that etiquette is a social construction of the upper class. Nineteenth century etiquette manuals were not fashionable phenomena of the period. Etiquette manuals were the last of a series of manuals written mainly for an upper-class audience. These manuals began as guides for the young sons of the aristocracy who required tutelage in taking their places at the top spots of English society. Over the course of several decades these guides took a much stronger tone, addressing good moral behaviour with a religious streak. By the 1830s, however, the didactic nature of these books waned and were replaced by guides on how gentlemen should behave if they intended to fit in with high society.
Within the first paragraph, the author of this etiquette manual states that etiquette is a construction of the social elite. Adherence to fine moral practice or following the instruction of the divine are absent; this is a blunt admission of the not-so-sophisticated origins of good manners. But the author writes further that etiquette is a way of "regulating the conduct [...] of those admitted within its sphere." Etiquette forms the rules and regulations of a small, exclusive group that polices itself.
Despite the decline of moralism in these manuals, the author nonetheless claims that social disorder will prevail should etiquette be abolished:
[Etiquette is] the keystone in the arch of refinement; and it would be both impolite and a danger to remove it, it is an effective barrier against the innovations of the vulgar...
Etiquette serves a second function besides regulating the affairs of the governing class: it also keeps the unwanted wretches out of the elite's affairs. Removing etiquette would be a "danger" - it would jeopardise social peace, or, as I would imagine, the existing social order. Etiquette ensures that the "innovations of the vulgar" do not endanger the welfare of the elite.
Early into my research I realised that I had failed to ask myself an important question - why, at all, were etiquette manuals being written in the mid-nineteenth century? Something must have prompted their publication. An online article by Professor Kathryn Hughes for the British Library gave me the answer that perhaps I should have already anticipated. The late eighteenth to late nineteenth century was a time of major industrial and commercial expansion, both in the domestic and international sphere. "Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, it was now possible to make a fortune from manufacturing and trading goods." The effects of industrialisation and the decline of land-based wealth meant that a new class of men was emerging: men who had acquired vast sums of wealth by participating in capitalism. The power of the traditional aristocracy was on the wane as this new, bourgeois class matched the former's wealth; but the aristocracy and landed elite preserved its superior social status, keeping them apart from the rich but socially-inept new class.
Etiquette manuals were produced, both in Great Britain but also in the United States, largely to assist this new bourgeois class with making the transition into upper-class society. These new businessmen and industrialists might have had the cash to demonstrate their clout, but their low rank would be revealed by a slip-up in a social encounter with a member of the upper class.
That said, the author of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen describes etiquette as both an enabler of social mobility, something that no man can ever ignore should he wish to be accepted by 'good society', and a metaphorical wall around the social elite. Etiquette, he argues in his finishing lines, has been deliberately constructed to keep the ruffians out:
For protection against the intrusion of those whose abrupt manners and vulgar habits would render them disagreeable and obnoxious, society has established the laws of Etiquette; and all who would be acknowledged as its members, must submit to its demands.
But what is good society?
...it is the assemblage of persons of education, rank, fashion, and respectablity; and whatever is deemed honourable, polite, and worthy of imitation amongst mankind, will unquestionably be found within this circle.
As I understand it, good society, according to this definition, is composed of the the highest-ranking people, both in knowledge, social position and nobility, whose collective interests dictate what is good protocol and what is not. Etiquette was both the expression of good society's rules and regulations - which are themselves not intrinsic rights and wrongs, as earlier guides would have argued, but expressions of the social elite's opinion - and a guardian against the intrusion of the "vulgar", the infiltration of the undeserving. Etiquette was therefore a weapon to keep the existing elite safe from undesirable persons, maintaining the socioeconomic divisions that permeated Victorian society.
If my understanding is correct, what is the point of selling guides on how to behave according to etiquette? If etiquette exists to keep the undesirables away from the elite, how can it hope to achieve social mobility? Could the "vulgar" not learn their way into 'good society' by reading books like Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen?
All in all, etiquette delivers a sense of paradox within the Victorian concept of 'good society'. It exists both to regulate the affairs of the social elite and as a purchasable guide for a newly-emergent middle class on how to mix with the elite, but also to keep the elite secluded from everyone else, especially the commoners.
In her compelling book Manners, Morals and Class in England, 1774 - 1858, Marjorie Morgan (1994) puts it much better than I have done thus far (p.94):
Etiquette thus functioned paradoxically both to facilitate and to limit social advancement, always taking such mobility as for granted as did the people embracing its behavioural rules.
Ah, Victorian society.