Manners maketh books

E.S. Turner

  • Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners edited by Elsie Burch Donald
    Debrett, 400 pp, £8.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 905649 43 5

If the Knight of Glin, the MacKinnon of MacKinnon and the McGillicuddy of the Reeks did not exist, there might be less need of books of etiquette. These veterans of Debrett’s Correct Form (where they rubbed shoulders with Midshipman the Duke of Loamshire, a difficult guest to place at table, especially with admirals present) are back trailing their dignities in Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners. However, the degree of overlap between the two works, both prefaced by Sir lain Moncreiffe of That Ilk, Chairman of Debrett, is not excessive. Correct Form was about how to address people; the new book concentrates on how not to offend them.

Early books on manners tried to refine the practices of bed-sharing, spitting and blowing the nose (one may read about the ‘sociogenesis’ and ‘psychogenesis’ of these teachings in Norbert Elias’s The Civilising Process, and doubtless elsewhere). Two centuries ago, when John Debrett became a miscellaneous publisher, his contemporary advice-givers had moved on to new fields; for example, offering a tip or two to a young lady newly ravaged by smallpox on how to hold on to her lover, with complementary advice to a gallant robbed of an eye and a leg in battle on how to retain his mistress’s affection. John Debrett’s flagship was the Peerage, which rode the generations like HMS Impregnable. Of late years the firm has rallied to the cry of ‘More productivity!’ It has even put out, besides racy works on English gentlemen and English gentlemen’s mistresses, an ‘indispensable’ (to gossip-writers) guide to ‘everything that’s au courant and passé’ called In and Out.

Who, then, are our latest counsellors on manners? Many Victorian etiquette books were thought to have been written by upper servants, which may have been one reason why top people kept changing the rules. The present work is by ‘a team of qualified authorities’. It does not emerge what their qualifications are and their names are not yet household names. The suspicious may wonder whether they enjoy any more standing than the women journalists who mysteriously set up as arbiters of sexual moeurs for teenagers. If Debrett tells us that jeans are in, could that have the effect of killing them off at last? If it says that clocks on socks are out, will clocks now return?

The writers avoid being sententious or moralistic, but they seem to have an uncertain picture of their readership. Do people need Debrett to tell them that the tablecloth at a dinner-party should be spotless? Or that a theatre is divided into stalls, circle, gallery and boxes (which give ‘a lop-sided view’)? Or that a restaurant menu is often large, written in French and commonly divided into two halves? Why must a book on manners explain how to organise agenda and minutes at meetings? Many will, no doubt, look in vain for solutions to their special problems. Newly-married couples are offered no help in how to address their in-laws, a dilemma which worries tens of thousands yearly. But we learn that there is no reason why the sort of nanny who wears jeans and engages in ‘finger painting’ with toddlers should not address her employers by their first names. There are touches of that naivety which attends so many American etiquette manuals, with their awful little jokes on how to jolly along the hired help. Among suggested conversational ice-breakers is the question always used by ‘an experienced’ – American? – ‘dinner guest’. She asks: ‘What is the nicest thing that happened to you today?’ (‘My goodness, you were lucky!’)

The press, inevitably, has picked on two main points: the advice on whether a hostess should tolerate the use of drugs at parties and whether she should allow unmarried couples to share a bed. Since the use of drugs is illegal the advice can hardly be other than it is (this, after all, is not The Little Red School-Book), though some will think it unbearably stuffy to worry about whether politicians and public officials may have their careers ruined by being seen at a heroin party. The suggestion that a hostess might, at her discretion, allow a couple who are going reasonably steady to sleep in the same bed (‘It is a courtesy to put them together’) has apparently drawn a good deal of flak: so much so that a Debrett spokesman has expressed relief that they decided to give no advice on how to get along with homosexuals. Some other time, perhaps. Even the section on the usages of public-houses does not refer to the proliferating homosexual bars or, for that matter, explain the customs of the ‘Singles Bar’ or the ‘Doubles Bar’.

Indeed, if there is a dodgy issue, Debrett does tend to dodge it. The writers are happier teaching their grandmothers to suck eggs. Thus, the section on behaviour at the hunt tells how to pronounce ‘holloa’ and says that a lady riding side-saddle should wear a veil, but does not touch on attitudes to hunt-saboteurs or what to do when householders object, as some will, to foxes being killed in their gardens.

For those uncertain what a coffee service looks like, there is a drawing of one. Marginally more useful, perhaps, is the page of diagrams showing how and how not to eat peas. Quite a few of us will be unfamiliar with the use of loving-cups and rose bowls, or with the technique of taking snuff like a gentleman. Worthy of hard scrutiny is the advice offered diners who are scared of choking in public. It comes from Peter Barkworth’s About Acting and is really meant for actors who have to eat on stage: ‘breathe in before putting food and drink in the mouth. This means that you breathe out while you eat and are less likely to inhale a crumb or breathe in a mouthful of wine.’ Possibly celebrities eat this way; they, by the way, are people to whom it is permissible to smile if one catches their eye.

There is always something to be learned from a book like this. Most newspapers, it seems, will now take a birth announcement from a single woman (the specimen birth announcements printed do not include the twee ‘Clarissa, a sister for Nigel and Tamsin’). When should a widow, remarrying, remove her wedding ring? The answer is ‘shortly before the ceremony’, though there is no indication of what she should do with it afterwards. However, a wife whose marriage breaks up sometimes gives her engagement ring to a daughter; a practice akin, surely, to that of the girl who, fearing that her fine dress was leading her to Satan, gave it to her younger sister. Another poser: is it correct to put a picture of one’s residence on one’s writing paper? In Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love Uncle Matthew had to be shielded from the knowledge that Lord Merlin practised this enormity, but in Debrett we are shown a sheet of writing paper crowned with a large engraving of Castle Howard. Perhaps it is in order for the Oldnames (as Emily Post used to call them) to do this, not the Smartlys and the Lovejoys.

A few more famous names, whether of arbiters or exemplars, would have been welcome in these pages. To George IV is attributed a stinging judgment on Sir Robert Peel: ‘He is no gentleman. He divides his coat tails when he sits down.’ A letter by Scott Fitzgerald is printed as a charming example of how to coax a 19-year-old daughter into saying thank-you for favours received. Outshining it is Henry James’s letter to the newly-bereaved Sir Leslie Stephen, held up as an example of the perfect letter of condolence. It is full of sensibility, to be sure, but it also contains sentences best left unborrowed, like ‘I think of you with inexpressible participation.’

Among lesser names is that of Mr Pink, ‘an 18th-century tailor who was left with a surplus of scarlet military material at the abrupt end of the American Civil War’ (meaning the War of Independence, presumably). Hence ‘hunting pink’, an expression which the Duke of Beaufort in his Fox-Hunting entreats us to avoid. Debrett admits there is some confusion on this usage and says ‘pink’ referred originally to Mr Pink’s cut. However, those who have been brainwashed for years into calling scarlet pink will continue to do so, Debrett or no Debrett.