Elegant Etiquette in the Nineteenth Century

Elegant Etiquette in the Nineteenth Century

by Mallory James


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Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to live in the nineteenth century? How would you have got a partner in a ballroom? What would you have done with a letter of introduction? And where would you have sat in a carriage?

Covering all these nineteenth-century dilemmas and more, this book is your must-have guide to the etiquette of our well-heeled forebears. As it takes you through the intricacies of rank, the niceties of the street, the good conduct that was desired in the ballroom and the awkward blunders that a lady or gentleman would of course have wanted to avoid, you will discover an abundance of etiquette advice from across the century. Elegant Etiquette is a lively, occasionally tongue-in-cheek and thoroughly detailed history of nineteenth century manners and conduct.

Drawing upon research into contemporary advice and guidance, Elegant Etiquette is both fun and compelling reading for anyone with an interest in this period. In exploring the expectations of behavior and etiquette, it seeks to bring the world of the nineteenth century back to life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781526705204
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Publication date: 01/23/2018
Pages: 152
Sales rank: 598,576
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Mallory James studied for her undergraduate degree in History and German at University College London, before moving to postgraduate study at Queen Mary University of London. She now lives in Wiltshire with her husband, and when not writing, can be found displaying a surprising aptitude for DIY as they renovate their Victorian house.

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A Thorough Consideration of Rank, Precedence and the Application of Titles

Rank and precedence were central to the social world of nineteenthcentury ladies and gentlemen. Understanding and acknowledging rank and precedence was, in many ways, the basis of etiquette. If the rules of etiquette were followed so that people could be polite to each other, then showing deference to rank and acknowledging one's place in the order of precedence were central tenets of politeness.

The subjects of rank and precedence occurred repeatedly in relation to matters of etiquette. They influenced speech, the formation of acquaintances, and even the process by which a lady or gentleman went into dinner. As they were so central to nineteenth-century life, rank and precedence are the first subjects with which we shall grapple. To begin, we shall consider the framework of rank in the nineteenth century, and explore the social make-up of the world in which ladies and gentlemen moved. However, it was not enough for a lady or gentleman to simply know about rank. Rank had to be demonstrated. Therefore, we must also question what it meant to give or take precedence. A final point to consider, which was closely bound up with rank and precedence, was the use and application of titles. How people addressed one another was often influenced by considerations of rank and precedence, and was naturally an important aspect of etiquette.

On the face of it, understanding rank and precedence in the nineteenth-century world seems fairly straightforward. At the top of the social pile there was, of course, the monarch. Their royal relations came next, followed by the aristocracy. Then the gentry took their place in the social order. The gentry were in turn followed by those of a rather awkward social stratum. These were the people who became known as the middle class, or the middle classes. Those at the top of this category included people such as financiers, lawyers and generally those who were wealthy. Then, in the same category, but of lesser consideration, were people such as less-successful merchants and lower ranking clergymen. From there, the social framework deepened and widened to encompass those such as servants and labourers. It left the very poorest at the very bottom.

Yet, whilst this is, broadly speaking, a fair enough outline of the nineteenth-century social ladder, it would clearly make etiquette far too simple if that was the end of it. It is only the beginning. In order to understand the social world within which ladies and gentlemen lived, we have to understand the circles in which they mixed or may have aspired to mix. Therefore, the structure of both the aristocracy and gentry are of particular relevance to our exploration of etiquette and nineteenth-century life. So, we shall delve into them in more detail.

To start, the aristocracy, by which is meant peers and their families, had their own ranks and distinctions. A lady or gentleman might have been a member of the aristocracy – which, to be fair, did suggest that they were doing quite well in the social pecking order – but that did not mean that they were at the top, or that they were excused from deferring to those of higher rank. The aristocratic peerage had its own hierarchy of titles: duke, marquis, earl, viscount and baron. The female counterparts of these titles were as follows: duchess, marchioness, countess, viscountess and baroness. Of course, it must be pointed out that whilst the past tense is used here in relation to the nineteenth century, these titles and ranks are clearly still in use today. However, to return to the matter at hand, although two gentlemen might both have been members of the aristocracy, if one was an earl and the other a baron, the former would have ranked higher within the peerage than the latter.

It would have been advantageous for a lady or gentleman – particularly if they moved, or had aspirations to move, in elevated social circles – to understand how titles were constructed. Let us start at the top, with the example of a duke. His title would have been constructed as the Duke of Somewhere. So that no inhabitants of any place or county and no bearers of any names feel slighted, we shall simply assume that all the lords and ladies of the following examples are the lords and ladies of an unspecified 'somewhere' or 'something'. It would be really quite regrettable to give offence so early on in the book, after all.

Marquises and earls often formed their titles after a similar fashion to dukes. For instance, an earl's title could have been constructed as the Earl of Somewhere. Correspondingly, his wife's title would have been the Countess of Somewhere. A viscount normally had the 'of' omitted. So, whilst his title may have been the Viscount of Somewhere, it would usually have been constructed as Viscount Something. Similarly, a baron would have been titled as Baron Something. However, this form of his title would rarely have been used, and he would generally have been known as Lord Something.

After the ranks of the peerage, there were two further, titled ranks which were bestowed upon commoners. These were known as baronetcies and knighthoods, and those who held these ranks were generally considered to be members of the gentry. Whilst gentlemen holding these ranks would have been addressed in the same way, only a baronet could pass his title onto the next generation. Thus, a baronetcy ranked higher, and normally carried more prestige, than a knighthood. A baronet could have inherited a title going back generations. If his pedigree was as old as the hills he owned, he was unlikely to find that people turned their nose up at his acquaintance. Indeed, the same could be said for a great landowner from an old, untitled family. A knighthood, in contrast, might have been granted to a gentleman whose only distinction was the hard work of having recently made a fortune in trade. And there were certain ladies and gentlemen who chose to avoid others who still smelled of shop, as they might have chosen to phrase it.

Baronets and knights would have been known by their title, 'Sir', followed by their first name and surname. When addressed in conversation, they would have been called 'Sir' followed by their first name only. The wife of a baronet or knight was addressed, and referred to, as 'Lady', followed by her husband's surname. Naturally, this will be dealt with in more detail later on in this chapter, when we focus on the application of titles and forms of address.

However, escaping the realms of the noble and titled did not guarantee an escape from the issue of rank. After all, a lady or gentleman did not need to be in possession of a title in order to belong to the gentry. Indeed, even being engaged in a profession did not preclude a gentleman and his family from entry. Of course, owning an estate and not needing to work for a living were good indicators of higher ranking social status. Yet, being entitled to presentation at court was another mark of social status, and this honour was conferred upon certain professions. Also, to actually be engaged in trade directly, i.e. to take direct payment for your goods or services, was often a mark of a lower social rank.

In 1870 Mixing in Society defined military and naval officers, members of the clergy and physicians as people engaged in aristocratic professions, which also conferred the honour of presentation at court to wives and daughters. Lesser ranking professions, which meant that presentation was not possible, included general practitioners of medicine, merchants and any other men of business, with the exception of bankers. In the following decade, Etiquette: What to Do and How to Do It declared that clergymen, military and naval officers, barristers, medical professionals, leading bankers, merchants, artists and, in short, anyone who was extremely wealthy could be counted amongst the ranks of the gentry. Towards the close of the nineteenth century, Manners and Rules of Good Society echoed this definition.

As discussed at the beginning of this chapter, some of these professions were also linked to the middle classes. However, the lines between the various gradations of social status would most likely – at least in some cases – have been more blurred than clear-cut. For example, two gentlemen might have pursued a career in law. One might have come from a family of no particular note, whilst another might have been a younger son of an old, distinguished and landed family who had the benefit of some kindly patrons. That one might have fallen more into the ranks of the middle class, and the other amongst the gentry, is not inconceivable.

Of course, it was not enough for a lady or gentleman simply to understand the hierarchy of peerage or which professions allowed a person to be counted amongst the gentry. These things conferred rank, and rank conferred precedence. Precedence was an integral aspect of nineteenth-century etiquette. Giving or taking precedence was a reflection of rank. A person of higher rank would have taken precedence over a person of lower rank, whilst the person of lower rank would have given precedence to a person of higher rank.

We have already mentioned this in relation to earls and barons. Whilst both an earl and a baron would have been members of the peerage, an earl would have ranked higher in the order of precedence. The order of precedence was essentially a framework of who should come first. A clear example of the order of precedence in action was the process by which a lady or gentleman went into dinner. If our hypothetical earl and baron went to the same dinner, the earl would have gone into the dining room ahead of the baron. Acknowledging rank and precedence was polite, ignoring them was rude.

However, before we proceed any further with this aspect of etiquette, it is important to stress that although two people might have been of different ranks, that one person might have had to give precedence to another did not in any way diminish their claim to being a lady or a gentleman. It was, in fact, the opposite case. In the early years of the nineteenth century, James Ansell contended in Principles of Politeness that a true gentleman would always show the required respect for his superiors, but that this respect would have been characterised by the ease and grace of a man secure in his own position. The Mirror of Graces stressed that elegant women knew and took their place in the order of precedence with decorum, and that those who sought to push ahead or start ballroom disputes over who went where displayed a sort of vulgarity with which no sensible person would have wanted to be associated.

For instance, we would probably think that someone was being rude if they pushed ahead of us in a supermarket queue. Making comparisons across time and space is always a rather dubious undertaking, but demanding to go higher in the order of precedence for dinner – especially when the claim to this privilege was mistaken, false or tenuous – could be understood in a fairly similar fashion. It essentially meant that a lady or gentleman was pushing in, or pushing ahead, and that does tend to put other people's noses out of joint. Of course, one difference in the comparisons is that, in a busy supermarket queue, the offender and offended are unlikely to meet again. If two people had been invited to the same dinner party, the chance of their paths crossing in the future was probably higher. Furthermore, having someone push in front in a queue in the modern world is generally nothing more than an inconvenience and annoyance. It is not an affront to rank or precedence, or the established social hierarchy in which we live. It should perhaps be added then, that the nineteenth-century example of offence carries rather more weight than the twenty-firstcentury one. It was given more to illustrate a context or situation, rather than to serve as a direct comparison.

Yet precedence influenced more than just the order in which people went from the drawing room to the dining room. It was a central factor to many questions of etiquette and many social interactions. It will be a recurring theme in the chapters which follow. And, of course, the etiquette of getting from the drawing room to the dining room naturally warrants far more consideration than it has received here. But we shall address that want of attention in due course.

Nevertheless, whilst the framework of rank and precedence considered so far has been rather clear-cut, this was not always the case. If we return to the example of our earl and baron, it is quite simple to say that an earl came higher in the peerage than a baron. But what if there were two earls? Within the ennobled ranks, there was not only a distinction of rank attached to each title, but also to the longevity of that title in relation to other holders of the same title. Whilst two gentlemen might both have been an earl, it would have been the earl whose peerage was created first who would have held the higher precedence. Thus, it is important to note that a young earl might have taken precedence over an earl far senior to him in years.

A further example of a precedence conundrum might have been posed by the daughter of a peer, baronet or knight. If she had married a commoner, she would have kept her own rank in the order of precedence. If she had married a peer, she would have taken his rank.

As well as this, we must bear in mind that precedence still had to be considered even when there were no titles. Where all other factors of social position were generally equal, then a married person would have been given precedence over an unmarried person, or an older person over a younger one.

Even within an individual family, the issue of precedence still permeated social interaction. For instance, the eldest daughter of a family would have taken precedence over her younger sisters. Thus, when getting into a carriage, an elder sister would have been given a better seat before her younger sister. And when going into dinner, she would have gone first.

Simply put, precedence was a decisive factor in shaping how people went about being polite. A willingness to give precedence was a demonstration of civility by ladies and gentlemen. Not giving precedence suggested rudeness. After all, if the daughter of a baronet was entitled to go into dinner before the daughter of a commoner, and the latter knew that and created some sort of situation whereby she went first, well, perhaps we shall simply say that it may not have been the most genteel thing for her to have done. Again, and in reflection of the centrality of precedence to daily life, if the younger daughter of a family jumped up into the carriage first and took a better seat, it would not have been a particularly courteous way to behave towards her elder sister.

Regarding the etiquette of rank and precedence, the next matter to consider is the application of titles in speech and forms of address. The way in which a person was addressed could reflect their social position and could also indicate the social position of the person who spoke to them. More generally, even when there were no titles of rank to consider, a lady or gentleman would have needed to know how to address someone properly and thus politely.

Therefore, if we begin at the very top of the nineteenth-century social ladder, we must start with the form of address which was applied to the monarch. The monarch was 'Your Majesty' whilst their spouse, children and siblings were 'Your Royal Highness'. However, according to advice from the second half of the century, 'Your Majesty' was the form used by those belonging to the middle class and anyone below that class in rank. Those belonging to the aristocracy or gentry would have addressed the monarch, who by that point was of course Queen Victoria, as 'Ma'am'.

According to the same advice, a duke and duchess would have been colloquially addressed as 'Duke' and 'Duchess' when in the company of their own people, which we might generally take to mean the upper classes of society. All other people would have addressed them as 'Your Grace'.

We shall now begin to find examples rather helpful for illustrating forms of address. However, as we have no desire to favour any particular place or name, the hypothetical lords and ladies we imagine here shall all be Lord A and Lady A, and so on. After all, in a history of etiquette, it seems quite important to strenuously avoid all appearance of rudeness.

And so, to proceed swiftly onwards with the various ranks of the peerage, the form of address for a marquis and marchioness must come next. The upper classes would have addressed them as 'Lord A' and 'Lady A'. Everyone else would have addressed them as either 'My Lord' and 'My Lady', or as 'Your Lordship' and 'Your Ladyship'. In the same fashion, an earl and countess would have been 'Lord B' and 'Lady B' to the upper classes, and then 'My Lord', 'My Lady', 'Your Lordship' or 'Your Ladyship' to all other classes. Then, a viscount and viscountess would have been 'Lord C' and 'Lady C' amongst the upper classes, and would then have been addressed in the manner previously described by everyone else. These conventions also applied to barons and baronesses.


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Copyright © 2017 Mallory James.
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Table of Contents

List of Plates vii

An Introductory Note x

Chapter 1 A Thorough Consideration of Rank, Precedence and the Application of Titles 1

Chapter 2 The Weighty Matter of Good Company and Introductions 14

Chapter 3 Proper Conduct Whilst Out and About 26

Chapter 4 The Important Business of Paying Calls and Leaving Cards 38

Chapter 5 The Art of Dining with Delicacy 55

Chapter 6 Some Remarks on Appropriate Ballroom Behaviour 71

Chapter 7 A Few Comments Regarding Conversation and Correspondence 81

Chapter 8 Some Advice Pertaining to the Employment of Domestic Servants 89

Chapter 9 Courtship, Marriage and the Etiquette Thereof 93

Chapter 10 Particular Hints for Ladies 104

Chapter 11 Particular Hints for Gentlemen 112

A Concluding Comment 120

Notes 123

Bibliography 132

Index 135

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