Before I discuss etiquette for engagements and weddings, a small digression. I was curious about Nancy Spain, the writer who was so entertaining about Eating for England, because her name was vaguely familiar to me. I’d thought she was a journalist, possibly a war correspondent, and I was half-right. She did work as a newspaper columnist and broadcaster, but was a Wren rather than a writer during the war. After the war, she became famous for writing a series of detective novels set in a girls’ school (called ‘Radcliffe Hall’), for writing a biography of her great-aunt, Isabella Beeton (the Mrs Beeton of Household Management fame) and for getting sued, twice, by Evelyn Waugh for libel. Plus, she had a scandalous private life:
“…she lived openly with the editor of ‘She’, Joan Werner Laurie (Jonny), and was a friend of the famous, including Noël Coward and Marlene Dietrich. She and Laurie were regulars at the Gateways club in Chelsea, London, and were widely known to be lesbians. Spain and Laurie lived in an extended household with the rally driver Sheila van Damm, and their sons Nicholas (born 1946) and Thomas (born in 1952). Nicholas was Laurie’s son; Thomas was also described as Laurie’s youngest son, but may have been Spain’s son after an affair with Philip Youngman Carter, husband of Margery Allingham…”
Rose Collis has written a biography titled A Trouser-Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain, which clearly I need to read.
But let’s return to getting engaged and married. Noel Streatfeild looks back at a Victorian-era etiquette book, which included advice such as:
“When a man marries, it is understood that all former acquaintanceship
ends, unless he intimates a desire to renew it, by sending you his own and his wife’s card, if near, or by letter, if distant. If this be neglected, be sure no further intercourse is desired.”
This is because bachelors are known to “associate freely enough with those whose morals and habits would point them out as highly dangerous persons to introduce into the sanctity of domestic life.”
Miss Streatfeild goes on to point out the many ways engagement and matrimony have changed in modern times, starting with the fact that many young people are unable to find a place of their own in an era of post-war housing shortages, and are therefore forced to live with their parents. There’s also the sad fact that most young people will not have a large number of servants to look after their household, nor enough space to hold the vast quantities of furniture, linens, silver, pots and pans that were traditionally given as wedding gifts.
Mr Alroy Maker then looks at the people who are getting engaged, sighing over so many young people making unsuitable friends:
“Goodness knows this is no time to be snobbish, but it is understandable that when parents have tried to bring their children up carefully, often sending them to expensive schools, where they should have made nice friends, it is annoying when they insist on choosing such peculiar types. Frequently ill-kempt, often without an aitch, sometimes dirty, addicted to the strangest views on politics, religion and manners …”
It is good manners for a young person to refrain from bringing their peculiar friends home, especially if they are Communist friends who look like tramps. However, if parents are forced to host the young Communist tramp, they should be tolerant and polite, confining any criticism to “the privacy of their bedroom”. Hopefully, their offspring will go on to marry a more suitable (and non-Communist) person.
Miss Streatfeild and Mr Cecil Notary then discuss how to solve the many problems that arise when two young lovers decide to plight their troth. What should they do if they want a quiet registry wedding, but their parents want a huge family affair? How do you avoid hurt feelings when choosing bridesmaids and, worse, bridesmaids’ frocks? Who should be the best man? (“The gay friend of countless riotous evenings is not necessarily the man to trust…”) Should the bride’s stepmother be allowed to stand in the receiving line? Do you need to hire a private detective disguised as a wedding guest to guard the display of wedding presents? All these and many other vital questions are answered.
Miss Streatfeild then concludes the book with a chapter addressing “late questions that could not be fitted into this book” (except here she is, fitting them in). She explains in detail how to tip when travelling first-class – for example, you must never tip receptionists or lift-boys, but porters and chambermaids require varying and very specific amounts, depending on their level of service. While she’s at it, she advises on London taxi drivers:
“There is no such thing as a threepenny tip. All taxi tips start at sixpence. Myself, I keep to sixpence until my fare reaches two and ninepence, when the man gets ninepence. After three shillings and sixpence, he gets a shilling …”
It goes on, until I started to think it would be a lot easier to take the bus. But woe betide any taxi driver who questions the amount Miss Streatfeild has given him. She says to him, quietly but firmly:
“Sixpence, or whatever it is, is a very good tip, and please remember your manners and say thank you.”
She concedes this sometimes causes anger on the part of the taxi driver, but she has a strategy for that, too:
“While the taximan roared I removed the offending money from his palm, looked in my purse for the exact fare, and put it in his hand. ‘Since you do not like my tip,’ I said, ‘there is no need why you should have it.’ And I went into the house and shut the door firmly. I admit I trembled a bit at the knees, but nothing happened. After a good deal more shouting he got in his taxi and drove away.”
Did you know you are also supposed to tip hairdressers? I have never tipped a hairdresser in my life. Maybe that’s why my hair always looks so disorderly.
Miss Streatfeild also gives advice on how to get out of doing something you don’t want to do (“keep as close to the truth as possible” so “you can speak with what sounds like real regret”) and the right way to get up and leave a social gathering.
There is certainly a lot to remember if you want to grow up gracefully! But as Miss Streatfeild kindly points out,
“…the eyes of the world are far less on you than you think, because even the grandest person is often looking inward, as it were, studying themselves. So if on some occasion your manners slip, do not go over and over it in your mind, blushing when you think of it, the chances are fewer people noticed than you think, and those that did are not, as you suppose, making your blunder the sole topic of conversation. The great thing is to mark your slip, remember how it happened, and be determined it will never occur again.”
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