What I’ve learned from a study in Victorian era manners
Jul 19, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Last week I reorganized the handwritten ambitions I aspired to conquer at the beginning of the year. I feel pretty good about my progress to date. But one area I’m still struggling with is my media addiction. By that I mean my smartphone and Netfix. It’s like I have a compulsion to fill silence with the latest recommendation from the all-knowing Netflix algorithm. Sitting on the sofa I end up grabbing my smartphone, scrolling through beautiful Instagram pictures and stunning pieces on Modcloth. Before I know it, thirty minutes have passed by – it’s embarrassing to admit. Yet there is freedom in owning your truth!
In reality I want to be a witty conversationalist, fantastic friend, and well-rounded young lady. Staring blankly into a smartphone and binge watching the latest Netflix addition isn’t going to get me there. Just because modern society is devolving into communicating via Tweets doesn’t mean I need to lower my own personal standards. (In fact I feel almost honor-bound to improve my mind. I imagine my fellow vintage enthusiasts share my passion here – let me know in the comments!)
In the midst of these pursuits, my sweet pup Charlie received a cancer diagnosis. I’m happy to report that he is now cancer free. We have been in full healing mode for the last couple weeks. Essentially I have been house-bound because Charlie’s cone and deep incisions have done little to dampen his spirits. Charlie requires a close eye on him at all times. This is the boy who escapes his kennel and licks his wounds even with the cone on!
Admittedly I was happy for the forced stay-cation. I’ve had plenty of time to catch up on chores. One of which was to make more room in my bookcase by reorganizing the shelves. Fatefully that project led me to just the answer I was seeking – the 1891 publication of “Manners, Culture, and Dress.” I’ve been faithfully reading a chapter or two each day and here’s what I’ve learned from a study in Victorian era manners…
Manners are super important
As the book so eloquently states in the preface: “Manners constitute the language in which the biography of every individual is written.” While we are not as structured in the ways of manners now, we still do believe that you only get one chance to make a first impression. Beyond visual appearance, it’s important to consider how you conduct yourself. In reading the strict rules of Victorian etiquette I was surprised to see how applicable they can be in a modern setting.
Embrace new perspectives
“In mixed company, among acquaintance and strangers, endeavor to learn something from all. Be swift to hear, but be cautious of your tongue, lest you betray your ignorance, and perhaps offend some of those who are present too. Acquaint yourself therefore sometimes with persons and parties which are far distant from your common life and customs. This is the way whereby you may form a wiser opinion of men and things. Be not frightened or provoked at opinions differing from your own.” – page 62
The Victorians, who we may look back on as an uptight society, preach something that our modern peers don’t practice. Peace comes from understanding and I think that this life lesson is just as applicable now as it was in the late 1800s.
Life is about more than work
“A thorough knowledge of one’s business or profession is not enough, of itself, to constitute what is properly called a well-informed man. On the contrary, one who possesses this kind of information only, is generally regarded as a mere machine, unfit for society or rational enjoyment.”- page 59
This instruction can be a tough one to manage – in our modern times a person’s job is their identity. I often find myself falling into this trap. After all, it’s great to be passionate about your work. But that can’t be your whole life – seek balance. The Victorian community helped each other in this effort by making sure conversation didn’t tilt too much toward careers.
“Be careful, however, on the other hand, not always to make a point of talking to persons upon general matters relating to their professions. To show an interest in their immediate concerns is flattering; but to converse with them too much about their own arts looks as if you thought them ignorant of other topics.” – page 66
Expand your horizons
“Your conversation can never be worth listening to unless you cultivate your mind. To talk well you must read much. A little knowledge on many subjects is soon acquired by diligent reading.” – page 70
Dust off your library card, find a new free e-book on your Kindle, or find a new podcast series. Keep your mind active and agile!
“Listening is not only a point of good-breeding and the best kind of flattery, but it is a method of acquiring information which no man of judgment will neglect. ‘This is a common vice in conversation,’ says Montaigue, ‘that instead of gathering observations from others, we make it our whole business to lay ourselves open to them, and are more concerned how to expose and set out our own commodities, than how to increase our stock by acquiring new. Silence therefore, and modesty, are very advantageous qualities in conversation.'”
When I read this passage on page 74 it hit me like a ton of bricks. Sometimes in social settings I get myself so flustered I end up word-vomiting my life story to new acquaintances. In future I’m going to think about expanding social circles as a opportunity for me to learn something new. People will get to know me better in time and by not over-extending myself from the outset I can decide who I want to get to know better as well.
For my dear readers – how do you feel about my top five lessons? What do you think vintage enthusiasts will say about our manners in 100 years?