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Etiquette

The Edwardian Flirt

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a game of billiards

What would Society be without flirtation?

Almost all its arrangements are specially invented for the purpose of rendering flirtation easy and agreeable. The sitting-out corners at balls; the tops of coaches at Ascot or Sandown, or at Lord’s on the occasion of the Eton and Harrow match; the lazy, luxurious punt on the river; the dim recesses of the box at the opera; the tête-à-tête in the garden; the shelter on the grouse moor, shared by the sportsman and his lady friend,—one and all are purposely evolved for man’s delectation and woman’s amusement. American women are said to be the greatest flirts under the sun: they will “carry on” outrageously and publicly under Mrs. Grundy’s very nose, and then, when they have irritated a man to the pitch of insanity, they proceed to what they call “shake” him, or, in vulgar English, “chuck” him.

Flirtations used to be very sternly discouraged by mothers. Now, however, that the empire of parents is waning, and that they have laid the reins of government loosely on the daughters’ necks, young women generally aspire to having a good time. They get engaged at the end of a season——a condition which formerly meant the conclusion of young ladyhood, but now may be prolonged indefinitely, and which eventually may result in the freedom of both parties, the young people having changed their minds. Needless to say that flirtation under these circumstances can be pursued with admirable licence! The most unsophisticated girl learns something after an engagement of three months; and the void created when it has been broken off,——the want of adoration, of the hundred-and-one attentions and trifles that prove the ardour of a man——naturally impels her promptly to try her luck again as soon as ever she gets an opportunity, this time with a better chance of success.

It has always been a mystery to me how our mothers and grandmothers, watched, escorted, and accompanied as they were, ever got wooed and married at all. At any rate, the modern girl would sorely resent any such galling system of chaperonage as formerly prevailed. She has so much liberty nowadays, and she appreciates it so well! There are thousands of opportunities in London for tête-à-têtes, and of these she avails herself freely. When her mother is present, she is probably in another room or at a safe distance; while the crowd and the difficulty of moving about render it impossible for the most watchful mother to know precisely where her daughter is, or with whom she has been dancing for the last hour. At Ascot or Sandown there is the rambling about in the paddock, nominally to look at the horses, in reality the better to carry on a flirtation; there is the long-drawn out luncheon in the Guards’ tent, where between strawberries and champagne much nonsense can be talked, and many loving glances given. In country houses there is the intimacy of billiards or lawn tennis, the rides in country lanes, or the gentle trot home from hunting. All sorts of surroundings suit all sorts of girls.

The London beauty is miserable out of the glare of wax candles and the hum of the city streets; her complexion does not stand early rising, and her feet are especially suited for dainty high-heeled shoes. Her appearance is regal in a ballroom, but she looks uncomfortable and dowdy when the rain has taken the curl out of her fringe, and with lank bits of hair falling over her forehead, with her best hat knocked out of shape, she sits under an umbrella in a Scotch picnic or at a meet of the hounds, disconsolate and weary; while her friend, a country girl who looks rosy and common and under-bred in London, appears charmingly neat and fresh in the studied simplicity of a tailor gown or the dainty adjuncts of a frilled, pink cotton skirt, or in the severe arrangement of a hunting habit.

She knows what sporting men like to talk about; she is up to the last racing tips; is well to the front in the big run, or can walk all day in the nattiest of short frocks with the shooters, and hails a good shot with veritable enthusiasm; while the town girl, who hates mud and wet and sporting “shop,” and the country (except just in July, when she can fly out of town every Saturday), sits silently by, completely out of her element. Flirtation in these two cases is founded on an entirely different basis. The daintiness, the languor, the indifference to everything and everybody carried to a ridiculous pitch in London society, becomes absolutely bad taste in the country: there it is better form to be bright and eager and undaunted in exertion.

Flirtations on the part of married women, too, are pretty frequent, and do not meet with the public disapprobation they provoked some years ago, and ought still to provoke. Whether husbands are more indifferent or more lax or more forgiving, the fact remains that pretty women do and say things constantly which pass the boundary of legitimate coquetry, which differ wholly and sadly from the interchange of compliment and smile that make the current coin of Society intercourse. To conclude: the essence of flirtation is froth; and those who look to find genuine sustenance in it will come away disappointed, for, as has been well said, “flirtation is a spoon with nothing in it.”

The Gentlewoman in Society by Lady Violet Greville (1892)

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Tips for an Edwardian Ball

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the waltz

The first thing to be considered before deciding to give a private ball is whether you have rooms enough, and whether they are fitted for the purpose. In order to have your arrangements complete, six or seven rooms at least should be set apart for this festivity—two cloak-rooms, tea and refreshment room, drawing-room for the reception, ball-room, card and supper rooms. Card tables can be placed in the drawing-room when a separate room for their use is not available.

For the dance to be perfect, everything ought to be of the best— good room, good floor, good dancers, good music, and good supper; but it is impossible to compass the whole of this list in every case; therefore, the indispensables must be pointed out. We cannot alter the size and shape of our rooms, but one must be chosen as large as possible, and nearly square if possible, for a long narrow room is fatal to dancing; nor can we lay our floors afresh, but we need not fatigue our guests by obliging them to dance upon carpet. There can be no doubt that a polished floor, such as one meets with on the Continent, is the pleasantest and easiest to dance upon, but if our boards are rough ones, a brown holland covering stretched tightly over them will be a good substitute for more substantial smoothness, if properly done, and is far preferable to another device which is sometimes most unwisely resorted to—viz., waxing the floor.

Good music is a sine qua non. If this be not secured—no matter whether the entertainment be what is called a “dance” or a “ball “—it will certainly be a failure. The want of it destroys all chance of enjoyment. It is impossible to dance well to bad music. “Bad music” means uneven, uncertain playing, and this is sure to be the result when amateurs attempt to play for dancers. Then, too, it is unfair to impose such a laborious and monotonous task on your guests. If the party is to be a small one, have a proficient man or woman to play the piano; if it be a large one, then one or two instruments as well as the piano are necessary, such as violin, cornet, or harp, varied by the addition of bells and triangles.

The list of dances now in fashion is of greater length than it was some years ago. At that time the valse, the lancers, and the galop seemed to occupy the programme. The two first dances still continue to be the favourites, but others have been re-introduced: the polka takes turn with the valse, and the quadrille sometimes takes the place of that ever-bewildering, never-to-be-remembered maze, the lancers. The coquettish cotillion, the friendly country dance, and the merry reel are frequently danced: of the two latter, the Swedish dance and the Highland schottische are chiefly chosen. Even the stately minuet, the galliards, the bransle, and the torreano, danced by courtly knights and dignified dames centuries ago, are likely to be brought forward again.

All the rooms in the house should be brilliantly lighted, for light induces gaiety and mirth. Darkness engenders silence and gloom. The illumination of the ball-room is another difficulty which besets the giver of dances, especially if the house be a country one. Gas makes a room very hot and oppressive, no doubt, but it is the easiest and most effectual mode of lighting a room, if it is available, and good ventilation can do much to remedy the evils it carries with it. Wax candles are objectionable on these occasions, because, fanned and irritated by the continual motion of the dancers, they drop their waxy tears on coat and dress, the traces of which remain for ever and a day. French lamps, placed on brackets at short distances, and high enough to be out of the way, shed the softest and most pleasing light. If the dance is of long duration, the lamps may require to be re-trimmed one by one during the course of the evening, or darkness will perchance descend upon the scene.

A broad piece of carpet should be unrolled from the hall door to the carriage steps; and where the distance between the two is great, an awning should be stretched over the passage. As the guests arrive, they are ushered into the cloakrooms. A maid should be at her post in that reserved for ladies, to give her aid in straightening dresses, arranging hair, and removing all trace of the slight disorder caused by the carriage drive. She should be armed with needle and thread to sew up the inevitable tears and rents which occur during the evening’s campaign. It is also well to number hats, shawls, and cloaks, that they may be restored as quickly as possible to their owners on their departure. The lady having put a finishing touch to her hair, and the gentleman to his tie, the two are next conducted to the tea-room. Here a table is laid out with tea and coffee, cakes and biscuits, the beverages being dispensed by a servant. After having partaken of a cup of one or other, the new arrivals emerge from this room and are then shown into the drawing-room, where the lady of the house receives her guests Dancing should begin directly there is a sufficient number of people present to make a respectable show. In quadrilles and other square dances, those couples who are at the top of the room always begin the figure.

The fashion of programmes has become almost obsolete at the best London balls, which is a pity, as they were not only pretty souvenirs of the balls of a season, but also most convenient aids to memory at the time being; for if a girl has many partners it is no easy matter for her to remember to whom she is engaged for each dance. However, the capricious goddess for the time wills it otherwise, and only at country balls are programmes still found to survive.

It is considered “bad manners” if a man fails to come and claim his partner when the dance is about to commence, or for the lady to break her promise by accepting any other partner who may have asked for the pleasure of the same dance in the interim.

If a lady declines to dance with any one who may request her, but with whom she does not wish to become acquainted, and has no plea of a former engagement to offer for her refusal, the best course to take is, not to dance that particular dance at all, and then any chance of hurting the feelings of the rejected one is avoided.

The number of times that a lady should dance with the same partner, except under special circumstances, should be limited. Never so often as either to attract observation, or to call forth remarks on the subject.

After a dance the gentleman asks his partner whether she will take any refreshment, and if she replies in the affirmative he escorts her to the room and procures her an ice, offers to hold a cup for her, and when the music for the next dance begins he conducts her to her chaperon, when she disengages herself from his arm, they bow to one another, and he leaves her. It is not customary to promenade much after a dance.

Private balls usually begin at ten p.m., and end about three a.m.; supper at one a.m.

The gentleman with whom the lady has been last dancing generally takes her in to supper.

It is necessary to bid good-night to your hostess, but you go away quietly, that your departure may not be noticed, lest it should tend to break up the party.

~ Etiquette of Good Society by Lady Colin Campbell

The Art of Conversation

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chatting at dinner table, Edwardian, Victorian

The concept of polite society grew precisely out of that: politeness. The art of conversation was raised to a highest pitch amongst the aristocracy until it became a sort of shared language, or verbal code, to allow members to identify one another by the pitch and tone of one’s voice, and the words used to express one’s needs, wants, and desires. Young ladies of the aristocracy were trained to “keep their voices low and never to raise them in excitement, and to laugh in such a way that the ear was not offended.” The result of this training was “a soft clear silvery tone…[and] a lady was known by (among other things) the charm of her speaking voice.”

As late Victorian society gradually opened its doors to self-made millionaires, Americans, politicians, and artists, the art of conversation grew in importance. The quickest way to get doors slammed in your face was to be rude or a bore, and women striving to enter choice circles could find themselves cut by society matrons if their voice and manner were too pushy or too loud. Also, since the popular indoor amusements of Victorians and Edwardians were word games, recitations, and monologues, the tongue-tied were at an extreme disadvantage.

Mary Greer Conklin, in Conversation: What to Say & how to Say it, gives the following advice for conversation at a dinner party:

The best answer to the question, “What should guests at dinner talk about?” is, anything and everything, provided the talk is tinctured with tact, discretion, and discrimination. To one’s dinner-companion, if he happens to be a familiar acquaintance, one can even forget to taboo dress, disease, and domestics. One might likewise, with discretion, set at liberty the usually forbidden talk of “shop,” on condition that such intimate conversation is to one’s dinner-companion alone and is not dragged into the general flights of the table-talk.

While one talks to one’s dinner-companion in a low voice, however, it needs nice discrimination not to seem to talk under one’s breath, or to say anything to a left-hand neighbor which would not be appropriate for a right-hand neighbor to hear. When in general talk, the habit some supposedly well-bred persons have of glancing furtively at any one guest to interrogate telepathically another’s opinion of some remark is bad taste beyond the power of Censure or the possibility of forgiveness.

At large, formal dinners, on the order of banquets, it would be impossible for all guests to include a host or hostess in their conversational groups from any and every part of the table; only those guests seated near them can do this. But at small, informal dinners all guests should, whenever possible, consider it their duty to direct much of their conversation to their host and hostess.

I have seen guests at small dinners of no more than six or eight covers go through the various courses of a three hours’ dining, ignoring their host and hostess in the entire table-talk, while conversing volubly with others. There is something more due a host and hostess than mere greetings on entering and leave-takings on departing. If the dinner-party is so large that all guests cannot show them at the table the attention due them, the delinquent ones can at least seek an opportunity in the drawing-room, after guests have left the dining-room, to pay their host and hostess the proper courtesy. Hosts should never be made to feel that it is to their cook they owe their distinction, and to their table alone that guests pay visits.

To say that the dominant note in table-talk should be light and humorous is going too far; but conversation between dinner-companions should tend strongly to the humorous, to the light, to the small change of ideas. There should be an adroit intermixing of light and serious talk.

Thoughtful dinner-guests take pains not to monopolize the conversation. They bring others of the company into their talk, giving them opportunities of talking in their turn, and listening themselves while they do so: “You, Mr. Brown, will agree with me in this”; or, “Mr. Black, you have had more experience in such cases than I have; what is your opinion?” The perfection of this quality of conversational charm consists in that rare gift, the art of drawing others out, and is as valuable and graceful in guests as in hosts.

The French have some dinner-table conventions which to us seem strange. At any small dining of eight or ten people the talk is always supposed to be general. The person who would try to begin a tete-a-tete conversation with the guest sitting next to him at table would soon find out his mistake. General conversation is as much a part of the repast as the viands; and wo to the unwary mortals who, tempted by short distances, start to chatter among themselves. A diner-out must be able to hold his own in a conversation in which all sorts of distant, as well as near, contributors take part. Of course, this implies small dinners; but English-speaking people, even in small gatherings, do not attempt general conversation to such an extent. They consider it a difficult matter to accomplish the diagonal feat of addressing guests at too great a distance.

Dinner-companions, however, should be alert to others of the conversational group. A guest can as easily lead the talk into general paths as can a host or hostess. Indeed, it is gracious for him to do this, tho it is not his duty. The duty lies entirely with a host or hostess. At any time through the dinner a guest can help to make conversation general: If some one has just told in a low voice, to a right-hand or left-hand neighbor alone, some clever impersonal thing, or a good anecdote, or some interesting happening suitable to general table-talk, the guest can get the attention of all present by addressing some one at the furthest point of the table from him.

The dining-room is both an arena in which talkers fight with words upon a field of white damask, and a love-feast of discussion. If guests are neither hatefully disputatious, nor hypocritically humble, if they are generous, frank, natural, and wholly honest in word and mind, the impression they make cannot help being agreeable.