“The true meaning of etiquette can hardly be described in dictionary parlance; it embraces the whole gamut of good manners, good breeding and true politeness.”

Manners and Rules of Good Society 1898

This is the time of the year when the good people of St Margarets start thinking about mowing the lawn, shovelling the clinkers out of the barby and getting down to some serious summertime entertaining. Before doing so anyone who wishes to avoid those social faux-pas that we are all prey to – like blowing on your soup to cool it or picking your teeth with a cocktail stick – is advised to check out one of the best selling books of 1898, the celebrated 23rd edition of “Manner and Rules of Good Society (and Solecisms to be Avoided)”.

The anonymous writer, “A Member of the Aristocracy”, accepted that social standards were prone to change. Manners that were perfectly acceptable 100 years earlier, like wiping your mouth on the tablecloth, carrying a fork in your pocket in case someone slapped some food on the table or drinking soup directly from the bowl, were not acceptable in late Victorian society. The writer also suggests that in 100 years time, i.e in 1998, manners that the Victorians considered absolutely essential would no longer be so highly regarded.

We are now in the ideal position to see if this is the case. Here for your consideration are some top Victorian Tips for avoiding affront or upset when next dining out in St Margarets.

Dinner giving is perhaps the most important of all social observances, therefore dinner parties rank first amongst all entertainments.
  • Calling on friends. The time for “morning” calls is usually between the hours of three and six. In the upper circles of society the term ‘morning’ is generally applied to all the hours which precede a late dinner, hence ‘morning’ calls are, strictly speaking, made in the afternoon.
  • Invitations to dinner, whether the notice given be a long or short one, should be either accepted or refused within twenty-four hours of their being received.
  • On arrival, the guests should then give their names to the servant, that he may announce them. A lady or gentleman, on being announced, should not enter the drawing room arm in arm or side by side. The lady or ladies, if more than one, should enter the room in advance of the gentleman. Ladies and gentlemen should not proceed to the dining room in silence, but at once should enter into conversation with each other. (See the work entitled “The Art of Conversation”)
  • When a lady has taken her seat at the dinner table, she should at once remove her gloves. She should unfold her serviette and place it on her lap. It is immaterial whether she places the bread on her left or right side when taking it from the serviette.
  • In the case of lighter entrees the contact of the knife is supposed to militate against their delicate flavour: thus for these bonnes bouches the fork is all-sufficient wherewith to divide and eat them.
  • Soup should be eaten with a table-spoon and not a dessert-spoon, it would be out of place to use a dessert-spoon for that purpose.
  • When oysters are given they precede the soup, and should be eaten with a dinner fork, not a fish fork. Very many ladies do not eat oysters simply because they do not like them, others refuse them under the impression that it is more ladylike not to eat them.
  • Some men are very, if not over, fastidious about the appetites displayed by ladies. Others on the contrary, respect a good appetite as giving proof of good health and good digestion
  • It is not expected that young ladies should eat of the most highly seasoned or richest of the dishes but should rather select the plainest of the menu. This applies more particularly to young ladies and young married ladies, whilst middle-aged and elderly ladies are at liberty to do pretty much as they please without provoking comment or even observation.
  • It hardly be said that it would be a vulgarity to eat peas with a knife, although those who reside abroad, or are in the habit of travelling on the continent, are not unaccustomed to seeing this done by foreigners who are well-bred men.
  • Jellies, creams, blancmanges, ice puddings etc; should be eaten with a fork.
  • Artichokes are, it may be said, an awkward and untidy vegetable to eat. The heart of the artichoke should be conveyed to the mouth with the fingers and sucked dry. Young ladies should not attempt to eat them.
  • Gratuities should never be offered by the guests at a dinner party to the servants in attendance.
  • Ladies are not supposed to require a second glass of wine at dessert. If a lady should require a second glass the gentleman seated next to her would fill her glass. She should not help herself to wine.
  • As a matter of course young ladies do not eat cheese at dinner parties.

All this seems irrelevant in 2010, although young men will note that when young women are expected to choose only the plainest dish on the menu, drink only one glass of wine and avoid oysters and the cheese course, it all makes for a cheap night out.

“The world was my oyster but I used the wrong fork.”

Oscar Wilde

“Nothing is less important than which fork you use. Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.”

Emily Post

“We don’t bother much about dress and manners in England, because as a nation we don’t dress well and we’ve no manners.”

George Bernard Shaw

— from Martyn Day