Enamored with Etiquette

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Why are we drawn to the past? Why do we love period pieces and costume dramas, especially relating to England? Why do we use the Georgian/Regency Era (1714-1830s) and Victorian Era (1840s-1900) as the setting for so many historical romances or as the building blocks of Steampunk? Why do I spend a great deal of my time with Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, William Garrow, and Sherlock Holmes?

There are plenty of factors that can account for this. These two centuries saw dramatic change and upheaval in almost every facet of society. From wars of independence and bloody revolution, to an explosion of scientific discoveries and labor-saving machines, to the abolition of slavery and the first stirrings of the women’s rights movement. It provides fertile ground for dramatic stories.

But there is a tendency among both readers and writers to romanticize these eras, an easy thing to do since novels written in these time periods tend to focus on the upper crust of society while modern film versions provide lush costumes and beautiful actors. Reality was not nearly as pleasant, even for the most wealthy. Sanitation, hot running water, vaccines, refrigeration, and many more modern conveniences were either nonexistent or in their infancy. I recommend reading Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide To Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill, which is funny, enlightening, and many times quite shocking to modern sensibilities. There are numerous reasons to prefer the 21st Century over the 19th.

So why do we still look at these eras with rose-colored glasses? I personally think the greatest attraction is that of etiquette. There is something elegant and fascinating about the rules of discourse and manners between people, even though living by them today would be stifling and utterly impractical. There are three reasons why I think the etiquette of these eras draw in so many people:

  • It clearly defines the hierarchy.

    No matter how much we may tout the benefits of equality and democracy, humans are still a bizarre mix of herd and pack animals. Animal societies have a strict pecking order, although there is often room to rise or fall within that order. Each member plays a particular role according to their social status. One only has to look at the horrors of middle school to see the human pecking order as vicious as any other beast. We like to know where we stand in relation to others, how much power we have over others and how much power others have over us.

  • It takes away the uncertainty of interaction.

    I know that I’ve always been drawn to this form of etiquette because it lays out exactly how one is to behave in public. It relieves some of the awkwardness and fumbling inherent in modern conversations. With these rules, you are not left at a loss on how to introduce someone, or how to converse with strangers, or how to give a polite refusal. They are even codified, explained, and given examples in books like The Habits of Good Society: A Handbook for Ladies and Gentlemen. While I do think that the era gets a little carried away and I would not want to be under all of the restrictions, there is something reassuring and even charming about knowing how to play the game.

  • Rules are made to be broken.

    As much as we love rules, we also love to circumvent them. We enjoy seeing heroes and heroines break out of the constraints placed on them by society, especially if those rules seem too restrictive or arbitrary. Their choices become even more bold, their struggle more engaging, and their freedom even more precious by comparison. Plus, the conflict between the desires of the individual and the expectations of society provides plenty of narrative obstacles and makes for great drama.

To be clear, I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking creative liberties, picking and choosing what we like from the accoutrements of a historical time period. But we also should not forget that what we see on the screen or read in a novel is fiction, not an accurate representation of reality. We can afford to be enamored of corsets and cravats because they are an optional spice rather than an iron-clad requirement. We can adopt the aesthetic in description and costume without the rest of the societal baggage. For us, it is merely playacting, not a way of life.

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