Thursday 10 February 2022

Edwardian Etiquette

Avoid eccentricity

Manners for Women
by Mrs Humphry

This book of advice by an Edwardian agony aunt was published in 1910, but the cover shows a gentleman and lady in the fashions of about 1900.

Mrs Humphry kicks off with some thoughts about women in general: “Someone has said that woman is one of Nature’s agreeable blunders”. We’ve all heard about her, “from her tight-waisted corset to her love of chocolate creams, from her fear of a mouse or a spider to her terrible strong-mindedness, from her silly frivolity to her disagreeable earnestness”. Yes, a woman’s place was in the wrong in 1900.

But what about the modern girl? “To no one more than herself she is an incomprehensible puzzle. But she is usually healthy minded, and therefore not given unduly to introspection. She is far too well occupied in enjoying herself – riding her bicycle... playing tennis or golf, and making sunshine in her home – to have much time for profitless self-analysis.” So we’ve got to be mindlessly sporty, and a ray of sunshine. I remember that “don’t think about it” diktat from the 1960s. 

Mrs H continues to pontificate about the life of today’s girl. Boyfriends are not mentioned. Unlike her mother and grandmother, the modern girl “hardly knows what Berlin wool-work means”. Her existence is “cheery and breezy”. She leads an outdoor life and is pretty manly all round. Jolly dee!

However, and here comes the etiquette, she really ought to be taught to curtsey, and cultivate a tinkling laugh – not to be used at practical jokes, however, which are “detestable”. You can tell a lady when you see her at a concert: she doesn’t turn round to look at anybody. In the street, she doesn’t look back, and she manages to avoid physical contact with others.

Etiquette books usually devote pages to weddings and dinner parties, and this one is no different. White satin and trains really belong at court, not in a church, the author explains interestingly. Debutantes were the last to don this costume to be presented to the Queen, hence the importance of the curtsey. Queen Elizabeth II dropped the ceremony soon after she came to the throne.

In order to marry off your daughter (we seem to have departed from the cheery, breezy modern girl who only thinks about bicycling), she needs to go to lots of dances, and attract enough partners. “The pretty and the rich are sure to get on well in this respect”, she points out in case we hadn't noticed. However, plain girls in shabby dresses should be welcomed, and “It is astonishing what good marriages plain girls often make.”

On the other hand, “the old idea that a woman who remains unmarried is a social failure has long been obsolete”, she asserts mendaciously. Unfortunately, “the supply of husbands is so insufficient”. Eligible bachelors were probably in the Far East, running the Empire. I’m surprised she doesn’t mention the “Fishing Fleet” – the young girls who were chaperoned to India and beyond where they stayed with a friend or relative and had their pick of the officers.

After a diatribe about painful hairpins, tight corsets and pinching shoes, she proclaims: “If we did not dress irrationally, we should be unpleasantly singular. The men who belong to us would call us dowdy.” And if you wear eccentric clothes, you may become eccentric. You get so used to people laughing at you in the street that you may develop “little ways” that put everybody off you. She is irritatingly vague on these distressing habits – could they include campaigning for the vote?

She is more specific on clothes: a widow marrying again may wear “grey, mauve, heliotrope, lavender, biscuit or deep cream”. Bead trimmings are to be avoided at the seaside.

Many pages are devoted to dinners, although “there has been a curious revulsion of late against the slow and tedious two or three hours’ dinner party”. There was a succession of courses, but guests were given menus and could decide in advance which they wanted to accept and which to skip. Also portions were small and it was more like a tasting menu. Dishes were recherché, but you were not supposed to comment on them. She goes into great detail about decorating the table with flowers, bonbon dishes and "smilax", a tropical trailing vine that presumably you bought at a florist's.

Elaborate mourning was still in vogue, and women were discouraged from attending funerals as they were more likely to break down (i.e. cry) and upset the men – who might have ended up weeping too, and that would never do. She points out that the “cultivated classes of English society” were praised for their “cheerful stoicism” by Thomas Carlyle. But after a close relative’s long illness, “there is no strength left to the mourner to resist her grief, and she breaks down pitifully just when she most desires to be calm and composed and to ‘possess her soul’.”

It's not so much an etiquette book as an insight into upper class life of the 1900s, and the perfect present for any Downton Abbey fan.

More here, and links to the rest.

Wednesday 9 February 2022

World of Interiors 14: Charles Eastlake

Doom scrolling

Hints on Household Taste
, Charles L. Eastlake 

The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
All centuries but this, and every country but his own.

(W.S. Gilbert)

Books of “hints” on all aspects of life were popular when furniture designer Charles Eastlake published his suggestions for creating a tasteful home, but if you were expecting “how to clean an oriental rug with tealeaves”, you’ll be disappointed.  

Eastlake's clear, simple prose makes his diatribes against “sentimental young ladies” and their love of ribbon decoration even more stinging. Hardly anything is good enough for him. Some Bavarian door-knockers he illustrates are “somewhat too late to exhibit quite the right spirit of design”. 

He bewails the baroque taste of the 1860s, derived from the era of French kings called Louis. Such tables, chairs, sideboards, beds: “There is not a straight line in their composition... this detestable system of ornamentation is called ‘shaping’.” He despises “scroll” ornament, suggesting that though it may be intended as foliage, it actually looks like a collection of the letter G (see picture). He dislikes imitations: “All articles of plate which represent in miniature objects of a different material – as barrels, tubs and baskets – are to be avoided.” Copies of oriental rugs won’t do because they are too perfect, but “I do not see exactly how veneering is to be rejected on ‘moral’ grounds.”

If people WILL prefer a bouquet of flowers or a group of spaniels worked upon their hearthrug to the conventional patterns which are adopted by the Indian and Turkish weavers, it is difficult to convince them of their error... The quasi-fidelity with which the forms of a rose or a bunch of ribbons, or a ruined castle, can be reproduced on carpets, crockery and wall-papers will always possess a certain kind of charm for the uneducated eye.

Modern wallpapers are “wretched specimens... gaudy and extravagant trash”. He recommends taupe, pale green, silver-grey and cream.  

It is a great pity that ladies who devote much of their time to the execution of the wretched [edging] patterns sold at ‘fancy-work shops’ do not exercise a little more discrimination in their choice... The so-called ‘ornamental’ leatherwork which a few years ago was so in vogue with young ladies... is utterly opposed to sound principles of taste.

He condemns light furniture (easy to rearrange as desired) as flimsy and feminine, and recommends high-backed settles to keep off draughts. “The drawing-room may be crowded with silly knick-knacks,” but libraries are to be a mancave. However, instead of a Grecian funerary urn, adorn the top of your bookcase with a miniature copy of a good Greek sculpture – the Gladiator, the Discobolos, Antinous.

When I look into the windows of some establishments devoted to decorative art, and see the monstrosities which are daily offered to the public in the name of taste – the fat gilt cupids, the coarse and clumsy mouldings, the heavy plaster cornices, and the lifeless types of leaves and flowers which pass for ornament in the nineteenth century – I cannot help thinking how much we might learn from those nations whose art it has long been our custom to despise – from the half-civilised craftsmen of Japan, and the rude barbarians of Feejee. (He got his wish – in the later 19th century there was a craze for all things Japanese.)

So, Eastlake, where are the positives? He shamelessly promotes his own furniture – blocky and heavy, lots of oak and strap hinges – and recommends an approach still followed by England’s upper-middle classes. Why not use an “honest” wooden bucket as a coal scuttle, instead of a cast-iron monstrosity with a view of Edinburgh Castle let into the lid? For knick-knacks, look either to the past (the Renaissance) or to current designers who copy good earlier models: Minton and de Morgan. He praises a type of curtain fabric whose stripes recycled actual horse-girths.

His ideas live on among the Upwards, who go for anything rustic (made by peasants from far, far away), or functional (French enamel coffee pots), or genuinely old (the kitsch of Eastlake’s day is now antique). What would Eastlake think of today’s “country” interior with artificially distressed (new) wood everywhere?

His ideas were taken up by the less cultured, and by the 1920s the Tudorbethan style was all over the suburbs, complete with heavy sideboards, Welsh dressers and appliquéd oak beams. The fashion was guyed at the Festival of Britain as “Gremlin Grange”, a warped cottage with twisted timbers and diamond-paned windows. What NOT to build, explained the designers, who were rehousing blitz victims in gleaming modernist estates and towers.

More here, and links to the rest.