The Victorians have a reputation for being prim, proper and persnickety. As a member of the upper class in Victorian England (during the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901), one had to know the exhaustive rules of etiquette that went along with one's position. Today, many of these rules seem arbitrary and silly: Does it really matter the order in which dinner party guests enter the dining room? At the time it did, because such social niceties constituted basic manners and politeness.
Of course, some etiquette rules were arbitrary, but they were nonetheless functional. Every society has such rules — like whether to drive on the right or left side of the street — to establish expectations and keep things running smoothly. In the Victorian Era, etiquette lubricated the mechanism of social exchange: There were rules for making new friends, keeping up with old friends and even cutting out morally dubious friends. But most importantly, knowing the rules helped one show respect for everyone else, including servants, acquaintances, nobility and clergy.
But such rules could go too far. It was evident to many even then — social critics of the time popularly mocked the more ridiculous elements of Victorian society. The magazine "Punch" published cartoons of farcical social scenes, and the satirist W.S. Gilbert penned humorous lyrics to comic operas skewering silly elements of the culture. We'll take a glimpse into some of the rules that seem absurd to us today.
Let us start with a proper invitation: We kindly request the pleasure of your company today to take part in an exploration of Victorian etiquette.
The Victorians firmly believed in the importance of wearing the appropriate clothing at every occasion. And while in the early part of the 19th century (Jane Austen's time) women's dresses were fairly simple, by the time of the Victorians, the pendulum had swung back to favor elaborate, refined and embellished attire. The average girl needed many styles of dress stashed in her closet, including dresses for balls, dinners, walks and carriage rides, in addition to country and evening dresses. Strict rules established how long one was to wear black when mourning a husband, father, sibling and even in-laws [source: Pool].
Undoubtedly, the most famously ridiculous item of a Victorian woman's wardrobe was the crinoline. As a substitute for layers of heavy petticoats, these wide steel-constructed domed cages held women's skirts far from their legs. Such devices made it easy to use the chamber pot, perhaps, but maneuvering in small spaces became a challenge. Women also had to relearn how to sit elegantly [source: Goodman].Nevertheless, it was the popular fashion, and every fine upper class lady had one. Later in the century, fashion favored crinolettes, which propped up just the rear of the dress.
But perhaps no other article of clothing better represented Victorians than the corset, which was essential for a Victorian woman. These tight-fitting undergarments helped one stay erect and even represented a sense of self-respect. Indeed, corsets were ubiquitous for women across class — they were even standard in prisons and workhouses. Some physicians at the time argued that women needed the corset for health reasons — to support their internal organs [source: Goodman].
Strict guidelines governed social interaction on promenades and public thoroughfares, especially between the sexes. A young unmarried woman would not go out without an escort. Etiquette forbade young ladies from looking around for acquaintances or stopping to chat in a crowded thoroughfare.
According to Cassell's Household Guide, a comprehensive book on Victorian life published in 1869, if the young woman did see a gentleman friend and felt she couldn't ignore him, she would have to take the initiative and offer her hand. The gentleman had to wait for the lady to recognize him before lifting his hat (not simply touching the brim), and he had to use the hand farthest from her. If she offered her hand, the gentleman had to turn to walk with the lady instead of stopping. And above all else, the conversation itself had to be reserved: Cassell's dictates, "Strict reticence of speech and conduct should be observed in public," without "loud talking" or "animated discussions."
A gentleman never smoked in the presence of a lady. Indeed, it would be impolite for ladies to "detain gentlemen in conversation" while they were smoking, because it would force him to put out a good cigar [source: Cassell].
Only under extreme circumstances could one perform the practice of "cutting," in which you stared directly at someone you knew with no sign of recognition. Cassell's called this "the most ill-mannered act possible to commit in society."
In a carriage ride, a gentleman never sat next to a lady who was not a relative; he always sat with his back to the horses, allowing the opposite seat to the lady. A gentleman also had to take care not to step on a lady's dress, and he was to alight first to help a lady down.
Proper introductions were important to Victorians, as it was generally considered improper to address someone to whom you hadn't been formally presented. Social inferiors were presented to social superiors in an introduction, with the exception that ladies were always introduced to gentlemen regardless of rank.
So to introduce people as a proper Victorian, you had to know your social rankings, or the order of precedence. This was no easy task to keep straight. After the sovereign and the sovereign's close relations came the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord High Chancellor and so on. Titled nobility included two orders: the peerage (which included dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons, in that order) and, below them, baronets and knights.
Properly addressing such nobility was also difficult. Generally, one used "Lord" to address peers, "Lady" to address women married to a peer, and "Sir" to address baronets and knights. Making it more confusing, however, was the use of "lord" and "lady" to address upper-class people who were not nobility (as a "courtesy title") [source: Pool]. This was also opposed to written communication, because one had to know that a marquis was addressed as "The Most Noble" but other peers were addressed as "The Right Honorable" [source: Pool].
If you arrived in town for an extended visit, it was customary to go around leaving your calling card. This was a way to announce your presence and arrange visits to keep up old acquaintances. The receiver customarily returned the favor in the form a card or visit within a week. (Intimate friends could call right away without waiting for a card.) One would also customarily leave cards for a household during certain events, such as illness or engagements, to express condolences or congratulations.
A very fine lady would go around in her carriage with a footman, who brought the cards into the house. And he would bring many. One married woman calling on another would bring one card with her name and two with her husband's name (for both mistress and master) in addition to cards for unmarried daughters or guests in the household. The names of the visitor's unmarried daughters could be written on the mother's card.
When a formal visit was accepted or arranged, one wouldn't wear anything showy: Etiquette dictated "plain walking costume" [source: Cassell]. Because of tradition, these calls were known as "morning calls," but by Victorian times, they were hardly ever performed before noon. In the 18th century, "morning" simply meant before dinner.
Every day, if a lady happened to be home, she was expected to be properly dressed and ready for visitors between 3 and 5 p.m. In fact, the time visitors arrived depended on how intimate an acquaintance they were: The closer you were, the later you could visit. Someone not well acquainted with you could call between 3 and 4 p.m.; if they arrived earlier, they certainly exhibited "ill-taste" [sources: Pool, Cassell].
When you arrived, the butler would lead you to the drawing room, where it was customary to receive guests. According to etiquette, gentlemen would bring their hat and riding whip with them to indicate that they didn't intend to stay long. The gentleman would keep his hat in his hand, unless it was necessary to put it down on a piece of furniture — but never something as vulgar as on the floor or under his chair.
"Shaking hands," according to Cassell's, is an "inappropriate" term implicating a firm, vigorous shake. Instead, one must apply only "gentle pressure" and "slight movement from the wrist." And of course, a gentleman never initiated taking a lady's hand.
The Victorian dinner party was a minefield of potential social missteps. Firstly, guests were required to arrive 15 minutes late [source: Pool]. After gathering in the drawing room for a short time, a servant would announce dinner to be ready, and the party would enter the dining room.
But this simple event of moving to the dining room was actually a ceremonious one for the Victorians: It was a carefully planned procession of couples, beginning with the most honored guests. The hostess would have to organize the order of the procession, making sure not to offend anyone. It could get complicated when one's guests included single people or widows and widowers, because this necessitated deciding whom to couple together.
Getting the procession wrong could create tension for what was sure to be a long night: The meal itself was usually around 10 courses, not counting dessert [source: Pool]. And during the meal, as guests waited for the footman to serve the food, a gentleman was to converse with the lady to his right.
But after dessert, the night wasn't over. Ladies retreated to the drawing room to chat and drink coffee or tea, allowing the gentlemen to smoke and possibly engage in ribald conversation.
When a girl was presented at court, in the eyes of the Victorians, she transformed from being underage and off-limits to suddenly being marriageable.
Young ladies were presented several times a year in St. James's palace. But they weren't the only ones who had to make an entrance: Young men were also presented several times a year in "levees," hosted either by the queen or the Prince of Wales.
Strict rules outlined the costume for presentation at court. Men wore knee breeches and buckle shoes and wielded a sword. Ladies had to wear feathers in their hair high enough for the queen to see, and the train on their dress needed to measure 3 yards (2.74 meters) long exactly. And although the Victorians have a reputation for modesty, the required dress for presentation left a lady's neck and much of her shoulders bare.
Ladies had to carry their trains on their left arm while waiting in the palace for their presentations. Several lords-in-waiting were at hand to lay out a lady's train and pass along her card to announce her to Queen Victoria. After entering, she kissed the queen's hand (or the queen kissed her forehead if she were a peeress or daughter of a peer). She then needed to wait for a page to place her train on her left arm again before she somehow managed to elegantly exit the room without turning her back to the queen.
The young men's presentation was similar: A man, once announced, would bend down on one knee and hold out his right hand to the queen. The queen would lay her hand on his and he would kiss it [source: King].
Now, after being presented at court, young Victorians could finally get down to the business of finding a mate.
During the Victorian Age, the English prided themselves on being more liberal than the French in recognizing the importance of love and mutual affection in marriage. Nevertheless, Cassell's states, "Marriages of affection are not necessarily incompatible with marriages formed from interested motives, but mutual affection is not considered necessary as a starting point." Tension necessarily grew when young people had to choose between mutual affection and retaining financial or social stability.
Etiquette books of the day advised readers to look only within their own class for a mate [source: Phegley]. The common law customs of entail and primogeniture, which kept estates whole and in the hands of first-born males, had unfortunate repercussions for those seeking a marriage of mutual affection. It was accepted as normal and right that ladies seek eldest sons. When an estate was in trouble (and unable to be mortgaged because of entailment), eldest sons often sought heiresses of new money, even if they were crass women of low social rank. This practice was a bitter and ironic pill for Victorians to swallow.
Men generally married younger women — one book advised that a 30-year-old man is suited to a 22-year-old woman, and a 40-year-old man is suited to a 27-year-old woman [source: Phegley]. All "out," or available, girls made sure to be in town during the season, a period of social events (beginning in January but accelerating in April through June) that served essentially as a marriage market. And, if a young lady couldn't snatch a husband in three seasons, she would start resigning herself to spinsterhood [source: Pool].
A gentleman who was interested in a lady could never expect to be alone with her. Rather, he would call on her at her family's home and they would converse in the presence of her parents or chaperones. Each would try to determine the other's character. A woman would be wary of a man who enjoyed "low and vulgar amusements," while a man would want to make sure his future wife made good company and determine whether she performed her household duties [source: Phegley].
A ball was a highlight of social life for young people during the Victorian Age. Compared to a country dance, a ball was more formal and had a larger attendance and an orchestra. Those lucky enough to receive the formal invitations got them three to six weeks before the event and had to RSVP within a day [source: Pool]. The ball featured dinner, card-playing, and, of course, music and dancing.
A hostess would go all-out to prepare her house, including taking doors off hinges, removing carpets and polishing floors, adding as much light as possible, planning food and eating arrangements, getting flowers and hiring an orchestra.
At balls, ladies generally had dance cards on which to write the names of their partners. According to Cassell's, a promise to dance, once made, was sacred and "should not on any account be broken." And a lady was never to dance more than three times with one gentleman [source: Pool]. During the dance, a lady always carried herself gracefully [source: Carpenter]. Indeed, a lady always had to be perfectly and seamlessly elegant, never so much as letting anyone see her adjusting her hair or outfit.
Strangers, of course, couldn't dance without an introduction, so a gentleman who took interest in a lady had to ask a mutual acquaintance for one. But this introduction counted only in the ballroom — if he saw her again, he could not presume an acquaintance unless she took the initiative.
While a lady couldn't walk around a ballroom without a gentleman or escort at her side, the practice of promenading a lady around the room after a dance fell out of fashion in the middle of the Victorian Era [source: Carpenter]. Instead, a gentleman escorted the lady to her seat, bowed and retired. The choice of a dance partner on the last dance before the meal was especially important, as the gentleman would escort his dance partner to dinner.
According to Cassell's, when a Victorian gentleman wishes to propose, he first "ascertains the state of a lady's feelings towards himself before he makes a positive declaration of his love." He then had to seek out a blessing from the lady's father before the engagement was official.
Before he obtained this blessing, the couple had to suspend communication and "live towards each other as perfect strangers for the time" [source: Cassell]. This could be a while, as getting this blessing meant settling financial matters. A gentleman presented his own financial situation, and the family would present what fortune a lady had. A lady would generally get a portion of her fortune for her own use, and then the principal was put in a trust — the interest of which could go to the husband. Once official, if one party chose to break an engagement, the other could sue for damages [source: Pool].
Assuming it all worked out, engaged people had to behave themselves before the happy event. The lady still needed chaperones with her as she was never to go out alone with her fiancé. Furthermore, the couple mustn't retreat from a group to whisper together or do anything to "excite smiles and comments" from others [source: Cassell]. Cassell's unequivocally declares that such "absurd" behavior "is a violation of propriety." Indeed, it was considered "excessively vulgar" for an engaged woman to clasp her hand on her fiancé's arm. No wonder Victorian couples often sought short engagements.
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Author's Note: 10 Ridiculous Victorian Etiquette Rules
In Whit Stillman's film "Metropolitan," the protagonist argues that "nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is near ridiculous from today's perspective," to which another replies, "Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen's perspective would look even worse?" As an admirer of Jane Austen, I'm not one to necessarily dismiss the importance of a social rule simply because it seems ridiculous out of context of time and culture. It's easy to (and often nearly impossible not to) laugh at foregone customs. But examining these customs will tell you a lot about a culture and what has changed, for better or for worse.
More Great Links
- Carpenter, Lucien O. "Universal Dancing Master." VictorianWeb.Org. 1880. (April 29, 2015) http://www.victorianweb.org/history/Etiquette.html
- Cassell, Ltd. "Cassell's Household Guide: Being a Complete Encyclopedia of Domestic and Social Economy, and Forming a Guide to Every Department of Practical Life." Cassell, Ltd., 1869. (April 23, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=L0sCAAAAQAAJ
- Goodman, Ruth. "How to Be a Victorian." Liveright Publishing Corp. 2013.
- King, Greg. "Twilight of Splendor: The Court of Queen Victoria During Her Diamond Jubilee Year." John Wiley & Sons. June 4, 2007. (April 29, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=tNa57nc2S0wC
- Phegley, Jennifer. "Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England." ABC-CLIO. Nov. 30, 2011. (April 29, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=jYL9cPE_M5EC
- Pool, Daniel. "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew." Simon & Schuster. 1993.