Certain Points of Good Breeding for Victorian Gentlemen

I give up! I can’t find any good images for this post. Strangely, it’s hard to find pictures of men doing manly things of good breeding between the years 1840 and 1850. I suppose I could track down some paintings and such, but I’m lazy.  So, we shall just read today, no eye candy (Oh, this hurts me!)

Note:  The wonderful Nancy Mayer has taken pity on me and sent some images. Thank you, Nancy. 

The following was excerpted from The Handbook of the Man of Fashion, published in 1847 by Lindsay and Blakiston in Philadelphia.

The formalities of good-breeding will always be kept up by those who remember that much of the distinction of a gentleman is merely conventional, and that it is so intimately connected with etiquette that it can scarcely support itself without it. Religion could not be sustained without the aid of superstition, which defends by the name of sanctity the remotest passes to faith; in like condition, etiquette which is the superstition of manner, is requisite to give to the character of a gentleman that importance and mystery which are necessary to its respectability

When company enter the room at an evening party or ball, the gentleman of the house should go up and bow to them before they present themselves to the lady. (I have employed in this volume, the words ‘ lady’ and ‘gentleman,’ instead of the words ‘woman’ and ‘man,’ which are more correct expressions and more usual in the best circles. I have done so in deference to the taste and practice of the greater number in this country.). He may mention to them in what part of the room they will find the lady of the house, if she is not directly in their view; but he should not conduct and accompany them up to her, as is often done by persons of inferior breeding who wish to be polite. That this is an error will be seen by reflecting that it is the duty of the mistress of the house to meet and receive her guests at their first entrance into her house, and to go in quest of them, if she has not found them at once; and no member of the family should by his conduct admit that it is necessary for the visitors to seek about for the hostess. He should either let the reception take its course, or should go and tell the lady of the house to come forward and receive such-or-such a person.

If you are at another house than your own, and see a lady coming in, unattended by a gentleman, you should offer her your arm and take her up to the lady of the house. You should do the same to ladies who are taking leave, and you should conduct them to their carriages.

If a lady is going to her carriage, or is alone in any public place where it is usual or would be convenient for ladies to be attended, you should offer her your arm and service, even if you do not know her. To do so, in a private room, as in the case above mentioned, might be thought a liberty.

When a waiter of coffee or of preserves is handed to a lady she should help herself, and gentlemen standing by should permit her to do so, and should abstain from any interference. It was once deemed courtly for gentlemen to save ladies from this trouble, by putting sugar and cream in their coffee for them, and asking them on other occasions what they would be helped to ; but it is now clearly understood that the effort of a lady’s helping herself in fact amounts to nothing, and that by doing so, she can gratify her own taste and choice much better than when another serves her, and, at the same time, that quietness and ease of action, which is the chief and best characteristic of society, is attained in a much higher degree. In second-rate houses you still see the host going round with every waiter in the fussy manner of the last century, and demanding how much sugar and cream everyone will take in their coffee. But so perfectly disused among the best-bred persons is this practice, that if you see any man doing it, you may confidently decide that he is not accustomed to the first society.

At an evening party you should make a point of going all round the room, after you have saluted the lady of the house, and bowing to every lady with whom you are acquainted. If, also, in any public room, or place of exhibition, you see any persons whom you know, you should go and speak to them.

If you meet ladies or gentlemen whom you do not know, at a morning visit, or a small evening party where you sit next to them, and are brought in contact with them, converse with them with the same readiness and ease as if you had known them all your life. Moreover, if in talking with one whom you are acquainted with, there are others in the group whom you do not know, you should address them precisely on the same terms on which you speak to your friend. On such an occasion, the topics should he as impersonal as possible, but the manner should be wholly free from embarrassment. A shy or awkward demeanour towards strangers in such positions, is the certain mark of one not familiar with the great world.

If you are presented to a lady at an evening party, you should call upon her soon after.

When you receive a card of invitation, you should return an answer immediately, — in the same hour that you receive it. This is a point of conduct which good-breeding, good feeling, good sense, and good morals seem to unite in enforcing; and yet it is often violated. It is at once an instinct of kindness, and in some degree a moral duty, to let the person who has been so courteous in the offer of hospitality, know at the earliest possible moment how many people may be expected to come, that the arrangements may be made accordingly; and the withholding of replies till a late period, often occasions the most grievous embarrassment and inconvenience to the entertainer. Moreover, reason and the sense of the thing, require that when a request is made to you, you should respond promptly, one way or the other; just as when a verbal question is put, the reply should follow instantly. The only excuse which any one could give for not sending an immediate answer would be that the servants were not at leisure to carry it ; — a most vulgar and plebeian excuse ! as if the servants of a gentleman or lady were not always at leisure to do what their employer wished. It is to be understood that people of quality keep attendants enough to meet all the exigencies of life. Attention to this point always has been and will be a test of the real refinement of a person ; but I trust the time will soon come when society will settle the practice so authoritatively that no one having any pretensions to good standing can  safety venture to delay an answer to an invitation.

If a lady accepts an invitation, nothing but the most cogent necessity amounting to an absolute prevention, should be permitted to interfere with her keeping her word. To decline at a late period, after having accepted, is, I believe, invariably felt to be a rudeness and an insult ; and it will be resented in some civil way.

A young gentleman should always accept the invitation of a lady, whether he is intending to go or not; unless absence from town, or illness, or some such matter will prevent his going, and then the reason should be stated in the note. It is so much a matter of custom or of course for young men to accept, that a bare refusal would excite surprise. If you do not go, you should call the next morning and leave your card by way of apology. If the party is large, there is no very imperative duty upon you to go, though it is certainly more proper and gentlemanlike to do so, after accepting. If the party is small, and your presence would be important, it would be rude, and it would do you an injury with the mistress of the house, not to appear after having promised to do so.

At an evening party, a gentleman should abstain from conversing with the members of the family at whose house the company are assembled, as they wish to be occupied with entertaining their other guests. A well-bred man will do all that he can in assisting the lady of the house to render the evening pleasant. He will avoid talking to men, and will devote himself entirely to the women, and especially to those who are not much attended to by others. He will exert himself to amuse the company as much as possible, and to give animation and interest to the occasion. Such efforts are always observed and appreciated by the hostess, and win her regard and esteem; while an opposite conduct rarely fails to excite something like resentment. To show that you take an interest in the success of her party, and to do all that you can to promote it, will give her a great deal of pleasure.

There is an uncourtly fault often committed in company, yet perhaps, in all cases, arising from thoughtlessness rather than from rudeness, — that of remarking to the hostess that the room is very warm, or that the weather is so bad as to render the ride to her house extremely disagreeable. Such remarks, it is true, may convey no direct reproach upon her, because the matters are beyond her control, or against her intention; yet they make her feel uncomfortably for having been the occasion of the suffering complained of, and she will always be obliged to apologize or express her regret. It is bad taste in the hostess, likewise, to talk about such things, and to anticipate observation by excuses and regrets. Entire silence should be preserved as to such matters.

At an evening party, never put a teacup; wine glass, glass of water, or cup of lemonade, back upon the same waiter from which you took it. That waiter will be handed to others, and it will be disagreeable to them to survey an array of half-empty cups and glasses, and perhaps inconvenient to distinguish which are fresh and which have been used. Another waiter, in every re-spectable house, follows the first one for the purpose of receiving cups and glasses with which persons have done, and upon it alone should they be placed.

When the servants are engaged in handing tea or doing any other special service, you should not withdraw any one of them from that duty by sending them from the room for anything else, — as for a glass of water or piece of ice. This is particularly important at a small party, where there are few servants, and where their absence will be more inconvenient.

Civilities always merit acknowledgment; trivial and personal ones by word ; greater and more distant ones by letter. If a man sends you his book, or pays any other similar compliment, you should express your consideration of his courtesy, by a note. If you have been received with interest and kindness during an absence from home, you owe it to those who have entertained you, to inform them of your safe return, and to thank them for their hospitality or attentions.

In leaving your card at a hotel, you should enclose it in an envelope and direct it. The remissness of servants at public places in this country is so great, that there is no other method by which your visit will reach the knowledge of the party for whom it is intended. If you leave a card for a friend who is staying at the house of a person whom you do not visit, it is offensive and vulgar to give it a written designation for the person for whom it is intended, — as by inscribing upon it, ” For Mr. So-and-So.” The amount of that is, to say to the master of the house, “Take notice. Sir, that no portion of this civility is intended to reach you.” Either leave a single card without any writing upon it, or if your relation to the host is not such as to present a decided objection to it, leave a card for each party.

Presents made to friends, should consist of articles likely to be often in view and in use, so that they may frequently and agreeably bring the giver to memory, — as for example, diamonds or snuff-boxes. Avoid, particularly, making a present of any cumbrous thing, difficult to dispose of or employ. Such a gift, instead of exciting gratitude, will only cause you to be laughed at for your awkwardness. I have often seen costly but tactless donations that drew from the obliged party no other remark than the frequent one of, “Poor Mr. So-and-So ! he meant it very kindly, but his gift is a great plague :” and the unlucky article which was intended to cement esteem, has continued to irritate and fret the receiver, till courage has been summoned to throw it into the alley.

In meeting a friend whom you have not seen for some time, and of the state and history of whose family you have not been recently or particularly informed, you should avoid making enquiries or allusions in respect to particular individuals of his family, until you have possessed yourself of knowledge respecting them. Some may be dead ; others may have misbehaved, separated themselves, or fallen under some distressing calamity. Enquire after his family generally, and that will give him an opportunity to say what he thinks proper, and from his manner you will learn whether there is anything wrong.

In passing a lady in the street, who is accompanied by a gentleman on the outside, there is the same reason for your taking the inside that there would be for you to walk on that side if you were with them. You should take that side, then, unless you would pay the gentleman, if he were alone, the compliment of giving him the wall.

When you salute a lady, or a gentleman to whom you wish to show particular respect, in the street, you should take your hat entirely off, and cause it to describe a circle of at least ninety degrees from its original resting-place. The inferior classes of men, as you may see if you think fit to take notice of them, only press the rim of their hat when they speak to women of their acquaintance.

If there is any man whom you wish to conciliate, you should make a point of taking off your hat to him as often as you meet him. People are always gratified by respect, and they generally conceive a good opinion of the understanding of one who appreciates their excellence so much as to respect it. Such is the irresistible effect of an habitual display of this kind of manner, that perseverance in it will often conquer enmity and obliterate contempt.

If you are giving a person sugar upon a plate of fruit, as strawberries, pine-apples, or such matters, you should not scatter it over the article to which it is to be added, but should place it at the side of the plate by itself, which will enable the person to use as much as may be desirable.

In like manner, at dinner, in helping another to gravy, you should avoid putting it upon anything that is on the plate, and should lay it upon a part of the plate that is unoccupied.

When you receive a letter of business, you should answer it immediately, provided the subject be not one that requires delay. You may be certain that your correspondent is wishing to hear from you as soon as possible ; and for you to put off the reply to wait your own convenience, and to resolve that you will not gratify his desire till tomorrow, when yon might just as well do it to-day, is assuredly any-thing but courteous. Promptness and punctuality, even in the lightest affairs, give evidence of character, and impart an interest and spirit to all occasions of intercourse. Who does not feel that the real greatness, even of the Duke of Wellington, is increased by his known invariable practice of replying to every communication by letter, the moment it is received ?

If you see a person in mourning, you should not take any notice of that circumstance in his presence, or let him see that you have observed it; and you should abstain from all question on the point, and expressions of regret, surprise or sympathy. That is a rule often violated by thoughtless persons; but a moment’s consideration will show that the feelings of the individual may be such as to render any allusion to the subject of his grief very painful to him. In his absence, enquiries may be made from others. It is scarcely needful to suggest that when a man is in mourning, and you do not know for whom, you should avoid asking after any of his friends, until you have informed yourself upon that point.

If, in walking, you meet a friend, accompanied by one whom you do not know, speak to both. Also, if you are walking with a friend who speaks to a friend whom you are not acquainted with, you should speak to the person; and with as much respect and ease as if you knew the party. If you meet a man whom you have met frequently before, who knows your name, and whose name you know, it is polite to salute him.

It is in bad ton for a newly-married couple, when going to an evening party, to enter the room together. Some older person, or some relative of hers, should take the bride in. It is in better taste that, on all occasions of appearing in public, the pair should not be exactly together. The recognition of that relation should as much as possible be confined to the fireside. It is not pleasant to see persons thrusting their mutual devotedness into the eye of society.

When music is introduced at a party, the playing should either be by professional persons, or by some members of the family at whose house the company are. It is not delicate to invite any of the guests to go to the piano, and to tax their efforts for the entertainment of the circle.

If a stranger from another city calls to see you, or you meet him by accident, it is not tactful to ask him how long he has been in town. There may be many reasons why he may not wish to have that known. He may have been in town for several days, and may be unwilling to confess that he has waited so long without coining to see you.

If you call to see a stranger who is staying at the house of another person, you should not in the presence of his host, ask him how long he intends to remain. His stay may be dependent on the invitation he expects to receive, or on other grounds he may be disinclined to announce the intended length of his visit.

It is generally better to say “I hope you are well,” or, “I hope that such a one is well,” than to ask a question on the subject. This, however, is only applicable to those cases in which you are so well acquainted with the parties, and are in a condition to know of their health so frequently’, that one could not long have been sick without your hearing of it. If you have not recently heard much of the party of whom you speak, it is better to ask directly and with an air of interest, how he is, for he may have been out of health for some time, and you would not gratify his friend or relative by showing that you had known nothing of his state for so long a period.

If you are driving in company with another who holds the reins, you should most carefully abstain from even the slightest interference, by word or act, with the province of the driver. Any comment, advice, or gesture of control, implies a reproof which is very offensive. If there be any point of imminent danger, where you think his conduct wrong, you may suggest a change, but it must be done with great delicacy and must be prefaced by an apology. During the ordinary course of the drive, you should resign yourself wholly to his control, and be entirely passive. If you do not approve of his manner, or have not confidence in his skill, you need not drive with him again; but while you are with him, you should yield implicitly.

At a house where you are intimate, you may drop in and take tea without being invited ; but it is otherwise with dinner. We are told that Boileau, who had a very delicate and correct sense of honour, recommended it as a rule, which he himself always practised, never to dine with even one’s most intimate friends without being invited in particular. The maxim is worthy of close adoption.

At dinner, there should not be much conversation during the first course, while the meats are receiving attention. At least, during that season the remarks which are made should be brief, and quiet, and not upon earnest or exciting topics. Long stories should be avoided, for the listeners have other organs than the ear, which they are wishing to exercise at that time. At a later part of the entertainment, discourse is agreeable.

If you are at a small party where tea is made in the room, you should not enter into conversation with the lady who presides at the table, and you should not draw your chair close to her. She has need of all her attention in arranging and preparing the tea-waiters, and she also requires room for her arms.

10 Replies to “Certain Points of Good Breeding for Victorian Gentlemen”

  1. Etiquette books are such fun. I would never have known that the host would sugar and cream a lady’s coffee for her previously, if this book hadn’t told me.
    I have heard of an etiquette book of 1827 and have one from 1845 ( which is about as long as this blog) but can’t find one for the period 1790 to 1830.

  2. I’ll be on the lookout for some old etiquette books. I have two at home. One from the 20s and another from the 50s. The one from the 50s includes cocktail recipes and how a wife should handle her husband’s attractive secretary.

  3. Ha, Ella! I’m the lazy blogger. Finding stuff in that year is hard. Maybe you do that on your blog and I’ll link!

  4. If any one can find a book on etiquette printed between 1790 and1826 , I would love to see it.
    Most etiquette books were written for men . Clarence Day wrote several books which he published under different people’s names. One was published under the name of D’Orsay. D’Orsay was a Frenchman who was connected to the Blessington’s and considered a Dandy , post Regency. Some say he stepped into Brummell’s shoes– but about a decade later.
    Most of the books like Regency Etiquette seem to be about deportment and everything except what we call etiquette. Earlier books told men not to eat with their knives.

  5. A porn film! Bring on my smelling salts. A gentleman would never have anything to do with pornography and a lady would never let on she even knew it existed! The very suggestion brings on palpitations.
    I shall swoon ( as soon as I find a gentleman’s arms into which to gracefully droop, or a sofa.)

  6. @abigail I don’t mean to disparage your dirty mind or pull your thoughts from the gutter, but I think it would only make a “good” porno movie in England, the Swedes and Dutch would fall asleep at the screening.

  7. @nancy, Abigail shocks her British relatives, too. There’s a reason she has to stay in the states….

  8. I didn’t realize that it was considered ill-bred to mention or give condolences too a person in mourning. How fascinating. Also, did I read this correctly that a single gentleman must ACCEPT all invitations but not necessarily ATTEND once accepted. Seems odd.

I would love to hear your thoughts!

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