Mrs Perfect Awful

Mary Lefkowitz

  • Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour by Judith Martin
    Hamish Hamilton, 745 pp, £9.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 241 11100 5
  • Gilbert: A Comedy of Manners by Judith Martin
    Hamish Hamilton, 303 pp, £8.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 241 11157 9

For many people in this country the garish Texan settings of television serials, with their incessant boorishness, brutality and violence, appear to represent ‘normal’ life in America. When it is discovered that I grew up in New York City, English people ask, in varying degrees of indirectness, whether it is still possible to live there, if it is safe to walk about in the day, and they don’t always believe me when I tell them that everyone else in my family still lives there, that my cousin, who one would have thought might have been pleased to remain in such a luscious spot as Santa Cruz, California, actually wants to move back. Until recently, there was no ready means of persuading the doubting English that most middle and upper-class. Americans follow routines and conventions that most English people of similar background, were they to be plunged for a single day into the society of midtown Manhattan or Winnetka, Illinois, would easily recognise. But now, for better or for worse, we have Miss Manners’ Guide, which portrays Americans at their most nonviolent, earnestly seeking to cope with all the awkwardnesses imposed on them by rapid changes in morals and the economy. How does one introduce one’s daughter’s roommate (male), one’s son’s live-in friend (male?) at the country club? How does one greet one’s ex-husband’s new (awful, vulgar) wife? How does one keep one’s friends from bringing their nine-month-old baby to the table at a dinner-party? To answer these questions in ways that enable the voyager to avoid being sick while crossing such rough, uncharted waters, requires an imagination that wasn’t evident in the standard books of etiquette, out of which we faithfully copied the wording of formal replies to formal invitations, and ascertained what colours were appropriate for the widowed sister of the bride.

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