Hints on Etiquette

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Latest in the line of gems From the Shelves of The London Library published by Pushkin Press

Latest in the line of gems From the Shelves of The London Library published by Pushkin Press


With latest Found on The Shelves series now out we begin a series of blogs on the writers behind the quirky and humorous titles that have been out of print for decades and have now been re-published by Pushkin Press to coincide with our 175th anniversary.  Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros – our Head of Bibliographic Services – takes a look at the fascinating Hints on Etiquette written by Charles William Day in 1842 as “a shield against the vulgar”.

Should one wear coloured gloves to a ball? What is the correct way to pour sauce? Should a letter of introduction be sealed? What does it mean when the corner of a visiting card has been turned down? These were the sorts of questions social climbers were tormented by in 1840s Britain. Fortunately for them countless little books were published to guide them through the baffling codes and rituals of polite society.

Charles William Day was one of the authors who met the growing demand of the industrial nouveau riche who would otherwise have been hopelessly lost given that “…fashions are continually changing … and what is considered the height of good taste one year, is declared vulgar the next … “. Then again, perhaps Day exaggerated the speed of these changes to guarantee sales of the many editions he produced.

Very little is known about Day, who wrote his etiquette books under the pseudonym Agogos. In his time he was a well-known miniature painter and a fairly regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy. Hints on Etiquette: a Shield against the Vulgar contains the text of his 19th edition, which was originally published in 1842. In it he acknowledges the help in preparing the book of a mysterious “Lady of Rank” but this may also have been a marketing ploy. If it was, it certainly worked; Day’s little book ran to 28 editions!

Day’s main reason for helping a newly-prosperous and bewildered class may have been financial but he claimed to have been moved by a genuine desire to help:

“If these ‘hints’ save the blush upon one cheek, or smooth the path into ‘society’ of only one honest family , the object of the author will be attained.”

Those aspiring to rise in society would have needed all the help they could get because not only were the rules of the social game extremely complex, subtle and ever-changing, to make matters worse they often found additional obstacles in their way:

“The English are the most aristocratic democrats in the world; always endeavouring to squeeze through the portals of rank and fashion, and then slamming the door in the face of any unfortunate devil who may happen to be behind them.”

Without meaning to, Day reveals something of his himself in his book. He warns the aspiring middle classes to remember their place and at every turn remain inconspicuous and show the proper respect to persons of higher rank. He also appears to have had a very narrow idea of the reading habits in the humbler orders of society:

“ …the literary acquirements of a man of business are necessarily confined to reading the newspaper”

Yet he was not a complete snob. He did not subscribe to the notion that all people of higher rank are innately superior:

“There is no more common or absurd mistake than supposing that, because people are of high rank, they cannot be vulgar; – or that, if people be in an obscure station, they cannot be well bred.”

“Gentility is neither in birth, manner, nor fashion – but in the MIND.”

To a 21st century reader this little book will seem not just dated but almost completely alien and much of its advice is today nothing short of hilariously ridiculous yet precisely because society has changed so much it provides a rare view of a world we would otherwise not be able to understand. Books on etiquette, of which this is a fine and at times very witty example, have captured the social protocol and attitudes of their times in a way that help us imagine and understand the past. Day is still decoding for us just as he decoded for his humbler contemporaries. His books on etiquette are not only revealing, today they are also extremely amusing. But to the right, or perhaps the wrong, reader they were always a great source of amusement.

A famous reader was so struck by these social manuals that he was moved to write a little parody. A 17 year old Lewis Carroll wrote his own Hints for Etiquette; or, Dining Out Made Easy in 1849 and it is included in our volume. In just nine brief rules he manages to poke fun at the absurdity and faddishness of some rules:

“To use a fork with your soup, intimating at the same time to your hostess that you are reserving the spoon for the beefstakes, is a practice wholly exploded.”

However well-intentioned Day and his fellow writers on etiquette may have been their books made easy targets for the pen of the author who would later invent a world where those hosting tea parties had appalling table manners!

The final ingredient in our little book is a selection of illustrations by John Leech originally drawn for Albert Smith’s The Natural History of Evening Parties (London, 1849). Albert Richard Smith trained as doctor and even practised for a while before becoming an author, traveller and showman. His one-man show based on his drunken ascent of Mont Blanc ran to two thousand performances involving live dogs and a slide show and made him hugely successful but not universally popular: Ruskin hated to see his beloved Alps popularised by a corpulent bon-viveur who, to make matters worse, was  a cockney. Smith and Leech met when they were both medical students and the two friends went on to contribute to Punch. Smith was actually one of a team of medically qualified writers drawn together by the magazine’s founding editor, Henry Mayhew. These authors specialised in the satirical application of natural history terminology to the portrayal of English customs and habits. Although Ruskin despised Smith he was a great fan of Leech’s and must have had very mixed feelings regarding his illustrations for The natural history of evening parties. He may have enjoyed them more if he could have seen them accompanying Day’s Hints on Etiquette instead. Day himself would probably not have approved but Lewis Carroll would probably have enjoyed the irreverent juxtaposition.

Illustrations from Smith's Natural History of the Dinner Party 1849

Illustrations from Smith’s Natural History of the Dinner Party 1849