Friday, May 14, 2010

Ettiquette for the Ball Room

One of the primary things to understand about the Victorian period is that manners and courtesy were a very big deal for those at the higher levels of society. You simply had to know how to act in public, or you were an unmannered, classless hooligan who would be snubbed by anyone who was anyone.

In 1880, Lucien O. Carpenter released the Universal Dancing Master, which includes a section on ettiquete for the dance floor as well as on the street. Some choice selections from

  • A lady or gentleman should finish their toilet before entering the room for dancing, as it is indecorous in either to be drawing on their gloves, or brushing their hair. Finish your toilet in the dressing rooms.
  • Always recognize the lady or gentleman, or the director of ceremonies with becoming politeness: a salute or bow is sufficient.
  • A lady should always have an easy, becoming and graceful movement while engaged in a quadrille or promenade. It is more pleasing to the gentleman.
  • A lady should never engage herself for more than the following set, unless by the consent of the gentleman who accompanies her. It is very impolite and insulting in either lady or gentleman while dancing in quadrille, to mar the pleasure of others by galloping around or inside the next set.
  • If a gentleman, without proper introduction, should ask a lady with whom he is not acquainted to dance or promenade, the lady should positively refuse.
  • Recollect, the desire of imparting pleasure, especially to the ladies, is one of the essential qualifications of a gentleman.
  • Ladies should not be too hasty in filling their program on their entrance to the ball room, as they may have cause for regret should a friend happen to enter.
  • An introduction in a public ball room must be understood by the gentleman to be for that evening only, after which the acquaintanceship ceases, unless the lady chooses to recognize it at any further time or place.
  • A lady should not attend a public ball without an escort, nor should she promenade the ball room alone; in fact, no lady should be left unattended. 
 I found an image file of the book itself on the Library of Congress's website, and the entire bit about etiquette notes takes up a good three pages before you get to the actual dance steps. However, if you want to understand anything about the Victorian Era in Britain, understand that propriety ruled pretty much everything. If a gentleman didn't tip his hat to a lady on the street he could potentially be shunned in society. It would be seen as very rude, and that man would probably not get an invitation to the ball that said lady's family was planning.

If you want a Steampunk example of just how much manners mattered in Victorian England, then read the inestimable Gail Carriger's Soulless and Changeless or George Mann's The Affinity Bridge. Carriger and Mann both whack the nail squarely on the head (hit the ball out of the park, oil the proper cogs, etc) in their descriptions of Victorian manners. The long lists of manners extant from this period is also why the Comedy of Manners genre exists. There are so many rules for social interaction that if someone is following two different sets of rules, then one is almost certainly going to slip up (I have no idea why I used the word "one" there).

Reading up on this has made me wonder -- how much has what qualifies as "good manners" changed from the Victorian period to today? Or is there really any change in what's considered polite, except for the situations being altered?


L. T. Host said...

Great post :) I'm going to have to spend some time looking over that book. Etiquette fascinates me.

Unknown said...

I particularly like the "An introduction in a public ball room must be understood by the gentleman to be for that evening only, after which the acquaintanceship ceases, unless the lady chooses to recognize it at any further time or place." rule.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Awesome post, Matt! I love learning about old etiquette. I sometimes wonder why manners have changed so much. :-)

Matthew Delman said...

L.T. -- The Post Institute offers classes on etiquette that you can take to become a professional trainer. Something to look into.

Taryn -- I know, right? Try to enforce that now and you'll have guys going "what, what?"

Shannon -- One of the first things I thought upon seeing the rule about tipping one's hat was "what if I'm not wearing a hat?"

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

The thing that fascinates me about manners is partly 1) the implied class distinctions (as in we need some social cues to tell us what class you are in) and 2) how, at base, everything is centered on the feeling of "ease" one (ha!) attempts to create in others.

This is perfect: "Recollect, the desire of imparting pleasure, especially to the ladies, is one of the essential qualifications of a gentleman."

All double entrendre's aside, that is at the heart of manners - being the grease of social interactions.

So what is the grease of social interactions today? I would argue not manners (resurgent steampunk sensibilities aside). Common language/slang/dress?

Matthew Delman said...

Susan --

I think manners are still the grease of social interaction in some cases. For most people though, I'd say it's a common slang and common clothing. Like, if you see someone wearing a Death Cab for Cutie tee or a button-down shirt and tie, then you might know how they expect to be treated/interacted with.

It's definitely fascinating.

Amalia Dillin said...

I love that women have right of refusal later, and can totally pretend they had never met a man before if they met him at a dance. That's kind of awesome.

Cynthia Reese said...

We southerners are big on manners ... you wouldn't think it from the way we are often characterized, but I think the whole Southern Hospitality is to create that sense of "ease" that was so important in Victorian times.

And like the Victorian era, we're pretty indirect as well.


Matthew Delman said...

Amalia -- That's definitely one of my favorite parts too. It's like a "get out of idle chit-chat free" card almost.

Cynthia -- I hear this Southern Hospitality lauded quite a bit in popular fiction. It does sound an awful lot like Victorian manners, but that doesn't really surprise me all that much. Southerners have always seemed more British in their actions than Northerners. That could just be my perception, but I'd love to compare proper Southern manners with proper Victorian manners and see how close they are.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I found a nifty way around all that crap by placing my heroine in the orchestra as the maestro...but in a ball gown of course. Therefore she requires no escort (only roadies).
I guess technically her escort would be the host of the ball since he hired her, but still it affords her a degree of independence because while she's not there to dance, she's there to entertain and keep the guests happy.

Natalie said...

How interesting. Can you imagine never being able to go anywhere without an escort though? It would make me crazy.

Soulless was brilliant though. I loved her take on all of the etiquette.

dolorah said...

Actually, I think I can use some of these rules in my own contemporary novel. Culture plays a big part of it, especially in the 2nd and 3rd.

I really enjoyed reading this, and musing over the concepts and applications to my own writing.

Thanks Matt.