Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

Wicked Etiquette: Over Seven Hundred Faux pas to Avoid – in Bed and out (Collins and Brown, 192 pp., £9.99, 22 June, 1 85585 795 2) is an anthology of mainly Victorian advice collected by Sarah Kortum from such books as the anonymous Gems of Deportment (1880) and Things that Are Not Done by Edgar and Diana Woods (1937). In 1860, The Perfect Gentleman, the work of ‘a Gentleman’, suggested: ‘Do not praise bad wine, for it will persuade those who are judges that you are an ignoramus or a flatterer.’ The similarly anonymous 19th-century author of The American Code of Manners (would it have been bad manners for these people to sign their pronouncements?) advised its readers not to ‘say of anything which you enjoy at table: “I love it,” “I love melons,” “I love peaches,” “I adore grapes” – these are schoolgirl utterances ... Love is an emotion of the heart, but not one of the palate.’ Whoever s/he was can’t have read Fielding, In Tom Jones (1749), ‘what is commonly called love’ is defined as ‘the desire of satisfying a voracious appetite with a certain quantity of delicate white human flesh’. Not all of the ‘gems’ concern table manners; that’s just one of eleven chapters. Other subjects covered include letter-writing: ‘use as few parentheses as possible,’ Emily Thorwell wrote (in The Lady’s Guide to Complete Etiquette, published in 1886). ‘It is a clumsy way of disposing of a sentence, and often embarrasses the reader.’ The best and the worst nuggets are both reprinted on the back cover. The best is ‘never start an argument unless you are well-dressed,’ the worst: ‘to invariably commence a conversation by remarks on the weather shows a poverty of ideas that is truly pitiable.’ The weather’s fine by me, just so long as you don’t talk like that. The anthology, illustrated by Ronald Searle, has a charming dedication ‘to the Unknown Man whose photograph was found hidden in a copy of the Bazar Book of Decorum (1870)’.

The full text of this short cut is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in