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A question of manners (part 1)

A post about Victorian etiquette

Etiquette (/ˈɛtikɛt, -kɪt/) noun. The customary code of polite behaviour in society or among members of a particular profession or group.

What is Robert Cooke to do? A new century will soon be upon him and none of the women in his circle are behaving as he expects. Have they all forgotten the rules?

Rule #1: Without rules there would be chaos

“How can we help you, Mrs Cooke?” he asks.

“Gentlemen.” When normal rules do not seem to apply, Hettie is unsure how to conduct herself. “Do please sit down, Mr –?”

“Mr Grey. And this is Mr Douglas.”

Hettie is struck by the second man. The combination of tousled blond hair and deep brown eyes. “Mr Douglas.” She inclines her head.

“Won’t you join us?” Already, Mr Grey has pulled out a chair. This isn’t what she had intended, not at all, but having disturbed them it would be awkward to refuse, so she sits.

Rule #2: Know your place in the social order

The Lord may have decreed that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, but at All Saints, Reverend Mears leads the way in his cassock and surplice. After the altar boys come the Carlisles, an old family with landowning, military and clerical connections, their history told on brass plaques and monuments on the stone walls of the church. White-haired, chins level, Mr and Mrs Carlisle look straight ahead, lest something be read into accidental eye contact. Next come the Colmans, the Surrey branch of the Norfolk mustard-seed growers. Baronet he may be, but Sir Jeremiah certainly isn’t a man who thinks work ungentlemanly. The Jameses. The Benhiltons. Robert (who rents his family’s pew because, God willing, he may in time inch forwards) files into the aisle, nodding to his opposite, Louis Spanier, a thickly-bearded professor of languages. Both men pause to allow their wives and children to go in front.

“Are you well?” asks Robert.

“Do you know who was the first to challenge the social order?” demands Spanier. “Jesus Christ, that is who.” His mouth is buried so deep in brush and the dismal organ refrain loud enough that he gets away with it.

Rule #3: A man should be master of his own home

There is only so much ground a man should relinquish in his own home, but Robert holds his tongue. This is one appointment he would not be late for. And the matter needs consideration. Estelle must have had her mother’s approval. The dress didn’t make itself.

Rule #4: Women shall be subject to husband’s, father’s, and sons’ rule

The younger woman puts her teacup back on its saucer, a careful movement. “I don’t like to come here and tell tales.”

“No one could accuse you of that.” Often, all Hettie gets from Freya is the bare bones.

“It feels like it sometimes. I know I ought to trust Robert’s judgement, but I –” She silences herself by biting her bottom lip.

Hettie had thought Robert far too young when he married. To take on a husband’s responsibilities at eighteen! But it was difficult for her to press the point. After all, she’d told Robert he’d have to be the man of the house when he was only twelve. “It may be my son you’re talking about,” she encourages, “but we’re both women. I am only too aware that being a wife involves accepting one compromise after another.”

Rule #5: The eldest child always takes precedence

“Apparently Ida made quite an impression. She’s been invited to join Miss Hoddy to paint. One afternoon a week is the proposal.”


“Why don’t you read it?” Freya nods towards the envelope. Miss Hoddy’s elegant cursive is exactly the kind one expects of an artist. “There’s no mention of Estelle. It places us in a slightly awkward position.”

Rule #6: Avoid over-familiarity with persons who are unknown to you

The porter ushers Hettie to a carriage. Two men are already seated. She would be more comfortable in a women’s only carriage, or a carriage where other women are present, but cannot see her way to saying so without causing offence.

She nods a greeting. Both men reach for the brims of their hats. The older of the two soon has his newspaper back at full mast. Hettie used to be the sort of woman a man removed a hat for. Increasingly, she feels herself becoming invisible, to men at least. Women still notice. They take note and they judge. But you can’t have it both ways.

Rule #7: Keep the best company you can

On his way towards the gates Robert nods to a good number of people – faces he knows. There are few strangers in a place the size of Carshalton. He greets Professor Spanier, who sneezes and reaches for a handkerchief.

“I am here under sufferance.”

“A touch of hay fever?”

“An allergy to Mrs Harvey Carlisle, perhaps.”

Robert turns, gapes. Carshalton’s matriarch is approaching, unhurried, upright. From a distance, with her white hair covered by a bonnet, she might easily be mistaken for a younger woman. But she wouldn’t wish that, because she likes to believe she’s earned her position, as so many people born to wealth seem to. Is she simply curious, or could it be that Cooke’s is now the place to be seen? He turns back to the professor, intending to remark that the Carlisle’s grounds must be twice as large as his gardens, but the professor has scuttled away.

A woman who rarely smiles, Mrs Carlisle does not do so now. “Mr Cooke.” Her clipped salutation offers no hint of what will follow.

Robert grabs for his hat. “Mrs Carlisle.” He is used to her avoiding eye contact, and it is strange to find himself held in her steel blue gaze. “What an unexpected pleasure.” Should he apologise for his worsted wool jacket and work boots?

“Your rose walk is a treat.” Still no smile. “Would you be so good as to convey my regards to Mrs Cooke?”

“How kind of you to remember her. I’d be delighted.” Freya will wish to call and leave her card. Imagine, if that were to lead to an invitation!

Depositphotos_7143627_S-e1653493106887.jpg May 25, 2022

Rule #8: When in company, always wait to be properly introduced

The Benhiltons are here, and several racehorse owners Robert knows by sight. He sips his sherry, alert to anyone who might acknowledge them.

“Isn’t that –?”

“Mr Berkeley James,” he confirms, inclining his head. The owner of the manor that lent its name to the Oaks, which passes through his estate en route to Epsom Downs.

The Cookes are the youngest couple by quite some margin. Back on the bottom rung. Spit-polish my shoes, day boy! Go and warm the toilet seat! Things you think you can’t do that you suddenly discover you can – and more besides. Robert finds himself repeating eagerly, “No, we haven’t been introduced before, but of course, I know of you.”

He is able to make an exception for the mayor, who attended their Grand Opening and greets them amicably. “Cooke’s gardens are a wonderful facility for the community to have at its disposal.”

At her most charming, Freya says, “We were so grateful you were able to find the time to come, your Worship.”

“My dear Mrs Cooke, you cannot imagine what a relief it was to leave politics behind for a few hours.” A bell sounds; high, bright, pristine. The mayor turns his head. “Ah, we’re about to go in.”

Rule #9: Avoid low company

The most valuable lesson Robert learned at Cheam School was that if a person wants to get ahead in this world, there are only twenty people whose approval he needs. There, those people were the prefects. Warm the toilet seat, day boy! Spit-polish my shoes! Indignities never quite forgotten. Everyone understands how the world works. You are either useful or you are not, and the moment you’re not, you’ll be dropped. Frank is no longer useful, but he offers a link to old William, and William to Robert’s childhood. What’s more, dammit, Robert enjoys his company! “Why not?” he says.

Rule #10: Always be properly attired

An impeccable butler shows them to the blue drawing room. (How many drawing rooms can there be?) Robert pauses to allow Freya to go first. It would hardly do to arrive side by side.

“Mr and Mrs Robert Cooke.”

He sees Freya tense and looks for the reason. Their hostess is also in green, perhaps not Nile-green, but dark green, bottle green, green nonetheless.

Mrs Carlisle’s eyes steel. “Mrs Cooke.” She makes a great play of greeting them, but it is unmistakable. “Do look at us, both in the same colour.”

Heads turn.

Eyes rake Freya, the newcomer, the social climber, a northerner from what little they’ve heard, up and down, up and down, and Mrs Carlisle all the while smiling. “And doesn’t it become you, my dear?”

Confidence visibly dissolving, Freya opens her mouth to respond, perhaps a compliment about Mrs Carlisle’s gown.

“And Mr Cooke.” Something gritted about the way she uses his name. A hard ‘k’. “How wonderful that you could join us.”

“It was kind of you to include us both in your invitation.” Under her gaze, he remembers – how could he have forgotten? – that Mrs Carlisle’s father was found dead after a shooting party. Lying there, still clutching his double-barrelled gun, and no way of knowing which of his company fired the fatal bullet.

“Do make yourselves at home.” In the tide of her gesture, they are swept towards the centre of the room, where dry sherry is offered.

“I’m mortified.” Freya whispers, chastened, the words that might have saved her unspoken. “Should I have made it my business to find out?”

“Who would you have asked?” But the answer seems obvious: Mrs Carlisle’s dressmaker.

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