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18 Conversation Tips From 19th-Century Etiquette Books

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Etiquette was a booming business in the 19th-century. Industrialization meant that people were moving between places and classes in a way they hadn't before, and there was a great demand for guidance on how to fit into the social circles that they had either gotten themselves into, or wanted to get into. Hundreds of etiquette books were published in this period, and they all had something to say about how to use language. Here are 18 perfectly charming rules on how to converse properly culled from 19th century etiquette books.

Some of the rules are quite sensible. For example, don't be a jerk, a pretentious jerk, or a teenager.

1. "Don't talk aloud in a railway carriage, and thus prevent your fellow passengers from reading their book or newspaper."

2. "Don't talk of 'the opera' in the presence of those who are not frequenters of it."

3. "Don't respond to remarks made to you with mere monosyllables. This is chilling, if not fairly insulting. Have something to say, and say it."

Many of the rules are easier said than done. It takes a lot of concentration to keep your voice, meaning, and mysterious allure at the exact perfect level at all times.

4. "Always select words calculated to convey an exact impression of your meaning."

5. "Don't talk in a high, shrill voice, and avoid nasal tones. Cultivate a chest voice; learn to moderate your tones. Talk always in a low register, but not too low."

6. "Avoid any air of mystery when speaking to those next to you; it is ill-bred and in excessively bad taste."

You also need to choose your words carefully. Remember, your food is not healthy, you do not wear pants, and your wife is no lady.

7. "Don't use meaningless exclamations, such as 'Oh, my!' 'Oh, cracky' etc."

8. "Don't say gents for gentlemen or pants for pantaloons. These are inexcusable vulgarisms. Don't say vest for waistcoat."

9. "Don't speak of this or that kind of food being healthy or unhealthy; say always wholesome or unwholesome."

10. "'It made me quite low spirited; my heart felt as heavy as lead.' We most of us know what a heavy heart is; but lead is by no means the correct metaphor to use in speaking of a heavy heart."

11. "Don't say lady when you mean wife."

Acting things out is not funny—unless, of course, you are doing it to make fun of entire classes or nationalities.

12. "Never gesticulate in every day conversation, unless you wish to be mistaken for a fifth rate comedian."

13. "A little graceful imitation of actors and public speakers may be allowed. National manners, and the peculiarities of entire classes, are fair game. French dandies, Yankee bargainers, and English exquisites, may be ridiculed at pleasure; you may even bring forward Irish porters, cab-drivers and bog-trotters—provided you can imitate their wit and humor."

Ladies do not make good conversational partners.

14. "Never ask a lady a question about anything whatever."

15. "In the company of ladies, do not labor to establish learned points by long-winded arguments. They do not care to take too much pains to find out truth."

Which may have something to do with what's in their etiquette books.

16. "Never question the veracity of any statement made in general conversation."

17. "Men frequently look with a jealous eye on a learned woman … be cautious, therefore, in mixed company of showing yourself too much beyond those around you."

Try conversing with them by eye instead.

18. "It may be coquettish, but there is nothing particularly womanly in never looking a man in the eye. Search the face that confronts you, and learn what manner of man this is whom you are receiving into your company and fellowship. If he quails under the inquisition, so much the worse for him. If he is worth looking at, it is a pity to miss the sight."

Sources: Don't: A manual of mistakes and improprieties more or less prevalent in conduct and speech, Oliver Bell Bunce, 1884; The Gentleman's Book of Etiquette, Cecil Hartley, 1873; Martine's Handbook of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness, Arthur Martine, 1866; Etiquette for Ladies, Lea and Blanchard 1840; Etiquette: An answer to the riddle when? where? how? Agnes H. Morton, 1899.

 

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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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