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“I can see no social advantage in installing a toilet-roll holder bought in Lucerne which plays music when the roller moves.” — Barbara Cartland, “Barbara Cartland’s Etiquette Handbook”
It’s Week 9 of social distancing — at least I think it is; who can keep track? — and people are understandably starting to chafe under the restrictions of life and work under COVID-19.
Staying two metres apart from everyone outside your bubble and wearing masks and gloves to the bank and the supermarket are unfamiliar and almost unfathomable behaviours, particularly the latter, to those of us who aren’t prone to committing armed robbery on a regular basis. So, it makes sense that it’s going to take a while for the rules to become second nature and they may never feel effortless.
But when we look back in time, even to the strictures of our parents’ generation, we can see that their rules playbook had far more pages. And if we look back further still, the code of good behaviour was even more complicated, particular for those in society’s upper echelons, where formalities were often taken to an extreme degree.
The word etiquette comes from the French word for the “list of ceremonial observances of a court,” and from the Old French word “estiquette,” or ticket.
As in good manners are the ticket for making one’s way harmoniously through life.
Enter Barbara Cartland — Dame Barbara Cartland, that is, who would never enter any place unless it was precisely the right time.
And what better time than during a pandemic to look back at the rules that some of our forebears were expected to live by, even as long ago as 1962, when “Barbara Cartland’s Etiquette Handbook: A Guide to Good Behaviour from the Boudoir to the Boardroom” was first published.
As outmoded as her advice might seem through our 2020 lens, it’s an interesting window into the 1960s British class system, and into Cartland herself. You become acutely aware early on that she didn’t suffer fools gladly.
This is from page 38: “I hate the type of boorish individual who, I am told, has hidden beneath such a rough surface a heart of gold. Quite frankly, I am a busy person and I have no time to dig.”
Those of us currently working from home can skip the chapter on “Office Etiquette,” with its cold-eyed observations: “A junior should avoid unsuitable dress even if the nature of the job suggests that what is worn can hardly matter.”
Since we’re spending so much time at home these days, let’s turn instead to the chapter “Home Life is What You Make It,” with its anachronistically purely heterosexual advice for husbands and wives: “It is bad manners for a woman to go to bed with her face covered in cream and equally bad banners for a man who grows hair very quickly to kiss her unless he has shaved.”
Or this: “It is a sad reflection that we can be provoked into callous and inconsiderate behaviour more easily by those we love than by anyone else.” (Or, as one wag on Twitter noted the other day, he and his wife are playing a home game called “That’s not how we do that,” and there are no winners).
And there’s this from Dame Barbara: “The man should open the windows before he gets into bed. A wife should see that the clocks are right so there is no rush in the morning. She should also see that her husband has a clean, aired shirt and fresh socks ready to put on the next day.”
On second thought, let’s skip that one.
Cartland, as many of you will know, was incredibly prolific, with 723 novels to her credit by the time of her death at age 98 in 2000. (She also had a penchant for lapdogs, the colour pink, and hats with plumes, but that’s neither here nor there.)
A good hostess lets her guest have the last word, so here’s Dame Barbara, from the last page of her book:
“Thank you a thousand times for reading this.”
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton