“Good Form” in England, “by an American Resident in the United Kingdom.”

NY: D. Appleton, 1888.

There were literally scores of volumes published in 19th-century Britain on the subject of good manners, proper etiquette, and correct behavior in society, which leads one to believe the nouveau riche, especially, had deep insecurities about social class. I’ve read quite a few of these publications and there’s a good deal of natural similarity among them. But this one is quite different. The anonymous author says up-front that his purpose is “to provide Americans with a concise, comprehensive, and comprehensible hand-book which will give them all necessary information respecting ‘how things are’ in England.”

And he interprets this mission very broadly indeed, which makes it both a fascinating and a very useful volume.

He starts at the top, explaining the real place of royalty in society — or, as he points out, above society. Then he outlines the ranks of nobility, from dukes down to barons, followed by knights (both bachelor and of orders). He describes the appearance and significance of all the major military and civil decorations (no illustrations, unfortunately), and considers the place of the gentry in the scheme of things. Then come the professions recognized by high society as worth their while: the Church, the bar, and the army and navy. Medicine ranks at the bottom — quite unlike, he points out, the situation in the U.S., where physicians command particular respect. Then there are the various non-professional occupations open to younger sons of the upper ranks, mostly in government and finance. He follows this with an excellent discussion of the way government works in the U.K. — or used to work in the high Victorian period, before socialism and the world wars changed everything.

This is followed by a description of the London social season — no other city in the country actually can be said to even have a “season” — and the tradition of “coming out” and presentation at court. He comments that only the English would abandon their rural estates at the most pleasant time of year in favor of an urban existence, and then return to the country for the gray and the cold of fall and winter. The author likes to drop in practical tips for American visitors, too, as in warning men of the expense and ridiculousness of court dress. Yanks are better off, he suggests, joining the local national guard before leaving the States, or obtaining an appointment as aide to some convenient general, thereby entitling one simply to wear a uniform to court and be done with it.

This is followed by all the things one needs to know about the differences between townhouses and country homes, belonging to clubs, the proper dress for different times of day (also very different “in town” than in the country), the forms of riding and driving a carriage (one doesn’t “ride” in a carriage in England, he adds), and what to expect in the way of court entertainments, private and public balls, banquets and dinner parties, and even weddings.

Then he pauses for an insightful discussion of the place of language in England — how accent, pronunciation, use of slang, and word-choice in general inescapably mark the class to which one belongs. This is probably a puzzle to most Americans (and even many younger Brits) in our day of universal education and standardized “television English.” Finally, we arrive at the topic of etiquette, covering the proprieties of correspondence, proper forms of address, and the use of visiting cards. Not really a very long section. This is followed by sports and games, from horse-racing and yachting to cricket and football.

Following this is a lengthy section of “general information” on such things as practical politics and elections, the universities (only Oxford and Cambridge, really) and public (i.e., private) schools, the railway system, currency and coinage (with equivalents in U.S. dollars of the time), the practice of tipping (much less practiced then, even in America), the use of crests on notepaper, which newspapers to read, the labyrinth of customs duties, and so on. There’s even a lengthy table of birds, butterflies, and wildflowers, which the proper (i.e., generally idle) Englishman is expected to know something about.

All in all, in terms of social history, this work, which runs only a little over 300 pages, is a gold mine. Nor does the author refrain from occasional witty sarcasm regarding customs and practices in the Olde Country. If you’re a fan of 19th-century literature, the book is also an excellent crib, and would be of great use as well to the prospective historical novelist. And, of course, being long out of copyright, it’s available as a free download from OpenLibrary.org.


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