Monday 24 June 2013

Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

When Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior was written in the early 1980s, author Judith Martin adopted the persona of a refined lady of the 1880s. This update reveals that Americans are still strangely obsessed by “engraved” invitation cards, and wearing a corsage on the correct wrist. Martin is in favour of being polite, well-mannered, kind and fair, and deprecates bad behaviour of all kinds. Her style is catching, but I will never share her sincere love of “service plates”.

If Miss Manners hears any more contemptuous descriptions of etiquette as being a matter of “knowing which fork to use,” she will run amok with a sharp weapon.

Presence, the dignified precursor of what deteriorated to Poise... and then disappeared into a pottage of Assertiveness and Sensitivity from which it has not yet managed to surface.

“It is what we used to call postmodernism,” she continued, making it sound unattractively dated.

Much as we would love to believe that we saucy and imaginative moderns are responsible for introducing misbehavior into a previously fun-free world, Miss Manners is afraid that the population, even back then, consisted of actual human beings.

First names for parents are in vogue from time to time.

Speaking for someone else is a vile practice.
Are we to have only temporary friends whose experiences happen, at the moment, to match ours?

If it is wrong to make cracks about the elderly, and an aging population is working hard on that, then it should be wrong to make cracks about the young.

It is the meek and mild mannered, polite children that often get bullied. The same children are often at risk for being victimized by adults.

The sensitive child will notice that grown-ups worry endlessly about the judgment of their peers and can be thrown into agonies of embarrassment by trivial transgressions of conventionality.

Miss Manners realizes that parents cannot hope to protect their children for long against outside influences, however nasty.

What pretentious people call “body language” and make fortunes writing paperback books about, Miss Manners considers merely details of etiquette that vary from culture to culture. In a way, it is more important to learn these when going from one society to another than it is to learn the more obvious forms.

People often fail to realize that such behavior as eye contact is learned, and they pounce on it as being psychologically revealing.

The only truly safe and proper subject for a joke is oneself. Many a person who thought this privilege extended to his or her spouse, parent or child, has lived—but not very long—to find otherwise.

You are quite right to seek advice from an etiquette column, rather than a psychologically oriented one. Miss Manners believes that the true value in people is not what is in their murky psyches… but in how they treat one another.

When he cuts off intimacy with you, it is called experiencing a crisis and investigating a relationship, and when you cut off intimacy with him, it is called prudery and eye-for-an-eye revenge.

The other person cares for you more than you care for her. Like you, everyone describes this as being possessive and crazy.

The spontaneous demonstration has, as you recognize, a strict code of behavior.

Reciting to innocent people a list of the sort of behavior to which one has been subjected by others in the past and the declaration of never putting up with it again has become one of the rites of early courtship.

Pickups, to seem respectable, must be contrived to seem accidental.

In the proper world, romance is supposed to develop out of friendship. A gentleman and a lady both pretend that they are cultivating each other for common interests, shared humor or whatever—and then they both act surprised when passion strikes.

Miss Manners had hoped that the plague of social originality among lovers had been stamped out.

Attempts to obfuscate, such as “I love you, but I need room to grow,” don’t fool anyone. The patronizing sweeteners customarily added to these explanations are particularly galling.

A ceremony is not a show, and the emotion connected with it is supposed to be derived from participating in a known ritual, not from being diverted by jokes and surprises. The tendency to undercut ceremonies—which is being done frequently, not just at graduations but at weddings and even funerals—all but directs the participants and audience to be bored.

Now that weddings have become drama festivals, the marriage proposal has turned into a pageant that serves as the curtain raiser.

Miss Manners hopes couples will “plan weddings that will be pretty and festive, but not to attempt to make them grand on a scale unrelated to the rest of their lives”. Weddings are “not an occasion for people to attempt to play grand and unfamiliar parts in a fantasy”.

Perfectly charming people can plan perfectly charming weddings, only to have these events sabotaged by a variety of wedding-related outsiders who have their own ideas of what a wedding should be like and put them into action without asking.

…that nasty double standard which we keep thinking we have banished, only to see it repeatedly hauled out of retirement.

The habit of teasing perfect strangers persists.

If you want something to look at while you listen, you can go to the opera and watch people stab one another.

We still have the old form of naïveté, which says that people should judge everyone on what’s inside, not what they’re wearing.

When the female equivalent of the male suit first began to be widely worn [in the mid-60s], it provoked outrage.

I would rather not wear all of these rings at once for fear that I may be inclined to start calling people “daahhling” and ordering them about.


The further away the title holder is from earning his distinction, the more distinguished he is considered… [Old titles are best.]

It has been perceived that fame leads directly to such fortune-making opportunities as book contracts, lecture fees and photograph sessions in which the subject can keep the jewelry.

When the television people instruct you to be “lively,” “spontaneous,” “controversial” and full of “energy,” what they mean is that you should feel free to ridicule others, interrupt, toss off opinions from the top of your head, argue with cleverness rather than evidence, and display intolerance for any opinion but your own.

Before the first World War, ladies did not put on makeup in public for the sensible reason that they were pretending that they never wore any… In recent times, onlookers revolted against both smoking and grooming at the table... They have therefore been banned by the new school.

Murder on the Home Front

Murder on the Home Front: A True Story of Morgues, Murderers and Mysteries in the Blitz describes Molly Lefebure's work as secretary to a forensic pathologist during the war and after

Molly, a nice middle-class girl, loved her work in the morgues of London and southern England. It took her to places she would never otherwise have been able to visit.

Sometimes she travelled to the “amazing no man’s land of the suburbs”, returning with “relief, to stewed fruit and junket”. If they were in a hurry, “sausage rolls” were “gobbled”. But if they were lucky, they got “sausage toad-in-the-hole” followed by “chocolate mould”. (This is a kind of English cuisine few are keen to revive.)

Sex was described in odd terms: “Presently he began to suspect intimacy between them and on the Sunday before the murder he accused them of this. Both denied any such thing. Rosina’s mother said they were ‘not playing the game’. Her father told them ‘to keep the courtship clean’.”

She thought the 30s were “The decade of unemployment, chips on shoulders and sloppy thinking. Religious conviction waned, the old values declined.”

When visiting crime scenes, she notices the “eau-de-nil décor”, “a pair of uninspiring china figures” on the mantelpiece, and “rexine” furniture. (It’s “an artificial leather leathercloth fabric”, according to its manufacturers.)

She is curious to see the flat of a prostitute, and notes the cold, dirt and discomfort of the "model dwellings" where the poor live - all with grandiose names like "Briar Rose Court".


Class in the Novels of Barbara Pym

No Fond Return of Love, written in the 50s, concerns two women in their 30s who have both been disappointed by men (one fiancé, one crush). Dulcie and Viola end up sharing a house, and in a very genteel way start stalking Viola’s love object (Aylwin). Dulcie (deserted by her fiancé) is a gentle, intelligent woman who could “make more of herself”. None of her friends guesses that she is an outrageous snob, always spotting the signs that someone (such as Aylwin’s mother-in-law) is from a slightly inferior class to her own.

Aylwin has a “Florentine leather stud box”, showing that he has travelled to the right part of Italy. But the box is a touristy souvenir, despite its good taste.

“It would have to be one of those classically simple meals, the sort that French peasants are said to eat and that enlightened English people sometimes enjoy rather self-consciously – a crusty French loaf, cheese, and lettuce and tomatoes from the garden.”

Variegated ivy” is a regrettable sign that a garden owner is not quite-quite. And as for “tradescantia with striped mauve leaves”! These appear in the flower shop where Stephen Beltane, the son of a neighbour, works.

A “hand-embroidered duchesse set” is being offered at Aylwin’s mother-in-law’s sale of work. A duchesse set consisted of three doilies intended to go under the powder box and pin trays on your dressing table. The name is pretentious (French and aristocratic), like “duchesse potatoes” – which are mashed potatoes piped into little suburban swirls.

“Each ‘bloom’ had cost one-and-three.” We’re back in the (over-priced) flower shop. “Flowers”, never “blooms”.

Academic women have a limited choice between “frightening elegance, frowsty bohemianism, or uncompromising dowdiness” ponders Aylwin (he is intimidated by them all).

Maurice, Dulcie’s ex-fiancé “held up his hand and contemplated his nails delicately”. There were two ways of checking that your fingernails were clean – Maurice’s method, or with a lightly curled fist and the palm of your hand towards you. His gesture betrays that he doesn’t move in the best circles – or is he gay?

Aylwin wonders “how he could stop a mat in his lounge from curling up at the edges”. Fifties houses were full of mats that tended to slip about on the linoleum floors. You kept them under control with  ugly rubber net backing. And he calls his sitting room a lounge! He is not as middle-class as people imagine.

“The fluffy little woman in the mauve twin-set, wrapping up the pottery donkey” – Dulcie’s negative judgement of Aylwin’s ex-wife. Pottery donkeys, brought back from European holidays, were the depth of fashion. She is pointed out to Dulcie as wearing a “lilac” twinset. People of Dulcie’s stratum in society only referred to colours by their names (mauve), not by something that might be that colour (violet, lemon, primrose).

“The kitchen was warm, and comfortable in a rather old-fashioned style, with deep basket chairs and a round table covered with a red plush cloth.” This is where a friend’s cook lives and works, and it sounds lovely. Whatever happened to kitchens like this?

Dulcie’s neighbour Mrs Beltane, who dotes on her tiny dog Felix, “was of that school which prefers to worship in a garden or some lovely ‘spot’: indeed, she would probably have maintained, if challenged, that one is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.”

“Felix yapped vigorously.” Middle-class people don't have yappy dogs.

“I have a black lace mantilla which I wear when I want to cover my head,” brags Viola. In a Catholic or Anglo-Catholic church, far classier than a hat. (If you want to wear a mantilla, remember that the middle point of the triangle goes over your forehead.)

“…what she thought of as ‘mean’ little semi-detached houses”. Dulcie being judgmental again.

In a churchyard, the area in front of the headstone is “filled in with green chippings, which looked like bath salts”. Not in the best taste.

On the train, “The furtive sandwich eating and the bringing out of the flasks of tea was accomplished with hardly any embarrassment.” People like us are not ashamed of eating in public.

Mrs Beltane is “using a new watering can of some white iridescent material – plastic, he supposed – in the form of a swan”. Oh dear!

“‘That’s far more what poor old Basil himself would have wished,’ said the woman firmly. ‘A few natural flowers – whatever there happened to be in the garden, even if it wasn’t very much – rather than an expensive sheaf of wired flowers from a Kensington florist. He would have hated the idea of wired flowers – he abhorred cruelty in all its forms.” Middle-class people still give this speech almost word for word – especially when complaining about the “heaps of flowers in cellophane” in front of Kensington Palace after Diana died. (In the book, Stephen Beltane spends most of his time at work wiring flowers into place.)

“‘What an odd smell,’ said Marjorie. ‘I suppose it’s the dust burning on the fire. When they aren’t used much they do get dusty.’” Marjorie is Aylwin’s ex-wife, and his mother, who runs a hotel, has an electric heater instead of an open fire.

“‘Oh, that academic stuff – where does it get one,’ said Viola impatiently. ‘One only meets people like Aylwin Forbes, and what use are they?’” Viola realises she has been wasting her time with the “right” kind of people, and marries someone who works in a shop.