Friday, December 17, 2010

Social Etiquette

There are few things more profoundly unintelligible, and altogether less susceptible of rational explanation, than certain of the rules laid down by the code of what is conventionally termed society. Who framed them, or for what purpose, no one knows, nor would the most persevering enquirer be likely to arrive at a satisfactory solution of the mystery; all that can be said of them is that they are absolute, and not to be departed from on any pretext whatsoever; the slightest dereliction at once placing the offender beyond the pale of recognised civilisation. These traditional regulations, with which every one who is anybody is supposed to be familiar, may be summarily described as defining the mode of life and language adopted by the members of polite society, in contradistinction to what in modern parlance is designated "bad form." From this unwritten but all-potent shibboleth we learn what may with propriety be done, and what not; we are told by it; and if, notwithstanding this salutary warning, we persist in our evil ways, and decline to accept the jurisdiction of our instructors, society washes its hands of us, we pass from its border-land into Bohemia, and are known no more. This being the case, it may not be amiss, in the interest of the uninitiated in such topics, to glean a few stray hints from the above-mentioned statues, the paramount importance of which presumptuous or irreverent outsiders may possibly at first sight be inclined to question.

We will not dwell upon such manifest violations of good breeding as come under the head of positive vulgarity, these being, as a matter of course, tabooed by every right-thinking individual, and justly regarded as an unmistakable criterion of social inferiority, but we may notice one or two minor points of etiquette which, although apparently unimportant, are perhaps on that very account the more strenuously insisted on, as crucial tests by which the right to social recognition is at once established or negatived.

The first and most intelligible of these is the rule that no young lady should be seen in public without a chaperone, who, provided that she is or has been married, is considered, whatever her age may be, as thoroughly suitable for the office. This accommodating privilege, it is true, occasionally entails rather ludicrous consequences; as in the case where damsels of mature years make their appearance in a ball-room under the wing of a mentor younger than themselves, but in her capacity of matron perfectly equal in the eyes of society to the responsibility of protecting them. The next item also concerns the young ladies, those, at least, who chance to inhabit Belgravia, with those liberty of locomotion it has a decided tendency to interfere; their morning walks, even when accompanied by the indispensable abigail, being capriciously restricted to that patrician quarter of the town. They may shop in Sloane Street, or even Knightsbridge, but Hyde Park Corner is a barrier beyond which, like the lote-tree in Mahomet's seventh heaven, for them there is no passing; one step further would lead them into Piccadilly, and then - what would Mrs. Grundy say! Another point, the non-observance of which is a constant stumbling-block to the unwary, and which, more than either of the preceding, distinguishes the legitimate member of society from the mere hanger-on, is the invariable habit, when speaking of titled individuals under ducal rank, of designating them simply as "lord" or "lady," as the case may be. This summary process, incomprehensible to the outsider, who talks, of an earl with bated breath, and positively revels in the word marchioness, has the undoubted advantage, not only of establishing an imaginary link of privileged familiarity between the speaker and the personage alluded to, but also of at once exposing to deserved reprobation any casual slip of the tongue on the part of an inexperienced interloper.

That one of the primary conditions of social etiquette should be a thoroughly comprehensive and intimate acquaintance with the perplexing questions "Who's who?" is natural enough; and that this congenial study should so far absorb the intellectual faculties of its lady votaries as to render them incapable of any other, is equally intelligible. It is not sufficient for them to have the main features of the peerage, baronetage, and county families at their fingers' ends; they must be learned in genealogies, intermarriages, and collateral relationships, and, most important qualification of all, they must be able to enumerate at a moment's notice the expectancies of every heir, direct or presumptive, in the United Kingdom. It is possible that on subjects unconnected with this prescribed educational routine their ideas may be less satisfactorily developed, and that such stereotyped phrases - invented, we firmly believe, for their special use and benefit - as "Don't you know?" and "too awfully nice," may play too prominent a part in their habitual conversation; but as these idiomatic - we had almost said idiotic - expressions are not only sanctioned by the world they live in, but have become part and parcel of every domestic vocabulary, they can hardly be expected to claim exemption from universal failing.

Where, however, society is adamant, is in the matter of pronunciation. No academy or "dictionnaire des precieuses" is more intolerant on the score of incorrect accentuation, or more tenacious of the purity, viewed according to its own traditional impressions, of the English tongue. It is permissable to be, as Othello has it, "rude in speech; "argot" (a more euphonious term than "slang," and therefore less objectionable) may be indulged in with impunity. But the inanities of everyday dialogue are only tolerated when unexceptionally articulated, and the bear - such phenomena are now and then to be met with even in the exclusive atmosphere of a London drawing-room - must "dance to the genteelest of tunes." No wonder, then, that the slightest solecism in tone or expression is immediately detected, and that the parvenu, who by one unlucky slip of the tongue has irrevocably committed himself, forfeits thereby his claim to social recognition, and is judged accordingly.

In certain cases the difference of pronunciation, as adopted respectively by the higher and middle classes, is too strongly marked to admit of any assimilation; the supporters of each, either from habit or conviction, clinging stubbornly to their instinctive ideas of correctness. Take for example the words Berkeley and Derby, pronounced, according to the innate predilection or social standing of the speaker, Barkeley and Derby, or Burkeley and Durby. Between these two extremes there can be no "milieu;" you must espouse either the aristocratic or the popular side of the question, and which ever mode you may elect to follow, you will never be able to prove to your own satisfaction, or to that of anybody else, whether you are right or wrong. As much may be said of Conduit and Cunduit, Cromwell and Crumwell, and Cowper and Cooper; although in the latter case the popular version appears to us decidedly preferable, inasmuch as the arbitrary transformation of the first syllable would equally apply to his brother poet Cowley, and who in the world ever dreamt of calling him Cooley?

Where, however, the pronunciation of a word depends entirely on established usage, without the remotest reference to the manner in which it is spelt, we have no rule to guide us but oral experience, which can alone save us from being inevitably caught tripping; and this is the more indispensable where family or territorial names are concerned, as a very few instances will suffice to show. How is it possible for those unversed in conversational eccentricity to divine that Cholmondeley, a name suggestive of ancestral glories and patrician elegance, should be ruthlessly metamorphosed into Chumley; or that, by some inexplicable freak of custom, Arcedeckne should degenerate into Archdeacon? Why should Bourke and Corry be pronounced respectively Burke and Curry? and why, above all, are we doomed to recognise the Norman patronymies Beauchamp and Belvoir in such inharmonious substitutions as Beecham and Beaver? It would be easy to enumerate many similar examples of unaccountable and, we may safely add, unflattering transformations, the "raison detre" of which is one of the puzzling mysteries of conventional etiquette; but it is wiser on the whole to accept them as accomplished facts, lest, in examining too closely the "wheels within wheels" of that wondrous piece of mechanism called society, we should lay ourselves open to the charge of "lese-majeste" and thereby forfeit the privilege of being one of its members.

Source: All the Year Round, March 5 1881, Volume 26, Issue 640, Page 473.

N.B. All the Year Round was a weekly literary magazine founded and owned by Charles Dickens. Dickens was also the editor until his death in 1870, after which his son Charles Dickens, Jr. became the owner and editor.

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