First published in 1897 by “Girl’s Gossip” columnist C. E. Humphry, this how-to guide on not being a cad or embarrassing yourself in polite society is surprisingly readable. Mrs. Humphry utilizes sharp wit that remains hilarious 100+ years later. Other laugh-out-loud moments emerge thanks to the rich ironies of drastic culture change. My favorite parts, however, are when she berates men for engaging in uncouth behavior that continues to plague today’s society.
For example, manspreading. Yes, the act of bowed legs on public transit was an issue in 1897 as well. She has a whole section on it:
True courtesy will prevent a man from infringing the rights of his neighbours on either side by occupying more than his own allotted space. Very stout men are obliged to do so, but at least they need not spread out their knees in a way that is calculated to aggravate the evil. Even a thin man can take up a quantity of room by thus disposing himself at an angle of forty-five with the other occupants of an omnibus.
Even church-going men receive no forgiveness from the ever-observant Mrs. Humphry. Of the routinely tardy, she says:
I know a young man who makes it a practice to arrive late in church every Sunday. I often wish that he did not go to my church, for he makes me cordially despise him.
Harsher words are reserved for fresh men who attempt to woo women under the guise of assistance, such as offering an umbrella in a thunderstorm. Though she also warns men of the wicked women they might encounter should they offer such a dreadful act of charity. “No lady would accept the offer from a stranger, and the other sort of person might never return the umbrella.”
Though her opinions might seem crass today, Mrs. Humphry was by no means a traditionalist. Some of her recommendations must’ve been controversial, as they were surprising even to me. Of marriage proposal, for example, she says, “The old-fashioned rule that a man must approach the father of a girl before offering himself in marriage to her has now, to some extent, died out.”
How scandalous! Of course, she does go on to say that if the girl accepts, the man must then receive approval from the father and call off the marriage if he does not approve.
Of waiting until everyone is served before eating, she takes this unexpected opinion:
It is a very old-fashioned piece of good manners to wait till every one is served. So old-fashioned is it that it survives at present only among the uncultured classes. The correct thing to do nowadays is to begin eating without reference to others. The old style must not only have been trying in consequence of seeing one’s food grow cold before one’s eyes, but it must also have been responsible for making dinner a very slow and tedious meal.
Dear me! I guess I’ve been gentlemanly this whole time and didn’t know it.
Clearly Mrs. Humphry is a great talent of language and vocabulary, but she has another startling take on speech that made me blush.
No man with any claim to social position would consent to pronounce the ‘g’ at the end of the present participle of verbs. “Comin’ and goin'” are the correct forms just now. “Don’t you know” is ridiculously correct. Men of perception do not care to be more accurate than others of their set. “Don’t-chi-know” is more customary, and the pronunciation marks the man as riding on the topmost crest of the social wave.
In many other instances she writes off by-gone social norms that I still considered polite. Then she will throw in something truly off-the-wall. Like, gentlemen must peel their bananas with a knife and fork.
Overall, this is a breezy, delightful read both as a historical document and commentary on human interaction over time. Kudos to Pryor Publications for the facsimile that’s identical to how it appeared in print circa 1897. One of the more fun reading experiences I’ve had in a while.
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