Victorian Book Report: The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette

Point in this book’s favor: it’s a reprint compliation of material dating to 1873-1890. Ergo, genuine Victorian-period advice on how to behave.

Point against this book’s favor: it’s American advice, which I was not able to tell when I ordered it.

Still, I find it helpful; Hill, the original writer, describes certain scenarios in ways that jibe with my impressions for the other side of the pond, while fleshing them out such that I can better understand the proper (or improper) behavior. So I feel I can use it, with caution.

Much to my surprise, he even gets a few random proto-feminist brownie points. I was highly entertained that “Professor Hill’s Guide to Love and Marriage” begins with a few paragraphs reassuring the reader that there’s nothing wrong in these modern days with being an “old maid” — indeed, women’s opportunities nowadays are so diverse that there’s really no reason to get married unless you actually find someone suitable that you like. (Professor Hill’s Guide to Love and Marriage: don’t do it!) He also claims that when the financial failure of a marriage is blamed on the wife’s imprudent spending, it’s usually because the husband never told the wife they were in monetary straits; properly informed wives, he (rather optimistically) says, will always keep within the family’s means. I frowned a bit when he advised wives that some nights their husbands may come home from a hard day at the office and carry on in the same autocratic manner they use with their employees, and it’s just best to suck it up — but then he went on to advise husbands that sometimes their wives’ “variable condition of health” may put her in a bad mood, and then it’s just best to overlook it and carry on. The sauce which is good for the goose is, indeed, also good for the gander, and that pleases me.

(In fact, the only place I caught him being noticeably one-sided, he did so in favor of women: husbands should, he recommends, keep their wives well-informed as to their business affairs, and take their prudent advice — but stay the hell out of affairs of household management.)

It’s a small book, half taken up with illustrations, but some of those go with the text: a dinner scene, for example, illustrating a bunch of examples of What Not To Do, with helpful annotations. Not a hugely informative resource, but entertaining and quick to read.

0 Responses to “Victorian Book Report: The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette”

  1. arielstarshadow

    Hee! Our reactions to this book were pretty much the same, and I suspect we were both looking for the same thing when we found it instead.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s the “Victorian” that leads one astray. Though it is sometimes used for the American nineteenth century, you tend to assume it means the British.

  2. la_marquise_de_

    I’ll keep an eye open for a UK version. I have a memory that one was reprinted a year or so back as a Christmas gimmick.

  3. stormsdotter

    Does this book cover Proper Formal Seating Arrangements? If not, I can explain. My family is very old-fashioned and has kept many of the old traditions.

    • Marie Brennan

      Only a little — and that’s one of the things I’ve always wondered about. Do explain!

      • stormsdotter

        When dealing with seating arrangements, the two things to keep in mind are that persons of the same gender should never be seated by one another, and the closer you are to the right hand of the host of opposite gender you are, the more important you are.

        So, the male host sits at the head of the table, and the hostess sits at the foot. The most important female guest sits at the right of the male host, and the most important male guest sits at the right hand of the hostess. After that, you alternate guests by gender, in order of importance.

        I should note that this pertains to family gatherings. There may be other rules for non-family gatherings that I am not aware of, as this information was handed down from my great-great-grandfather, Henry Haughton the First.

        • clodfobble

          Isn’t there also the rule that in larger gatherings, husbands and wives should never be seated next to–or even across from–each other, to prevent them from discussing mundane personal things that will not encourage group conversation?

        • Marie Brennan

          This book says the host and hostess should be seated in the center of the table, across from one another, which I think I’ve seen done in movies on occasion. But I’ve also seen the head-and-foot approach, too.

          I’ve always wondered what you do if you don’t have a balanced number of men and women — but presumably that’s bad etiquette to begin with, so after that it hardly matters.

  4. eiriene

    What is the title of the book, btw? It might not work for your current project, but it could work for mine… =)

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