E-mail This Article To A Friend

Print This Article Page

Article Page url: http://www.thehistorybox.com/ny_city/society/printerfriendly/nycity_society_english_manners_article0009.htm

English Table Manners and Social Usages

In no respect can American and English etiquette be contrasted more fully than in the matter of the every-day dinner, which in America finds a lady in a plain silk dress, high-necked and long-sleeved, but at which the English lady always appears in a semi-grand toilette, with open Pompadour corsage and elbow sleeves, if not in low-necked, full-dress attire; while her daughters are uniformly sleeveless, and generally in white dresses, often low-necked in depth of winter. At dinner all the men are in evening dress, even if there is no one present at the time but the family.

The dinner is not so good as the ordinary American dinner, except in the matter of fish, which is universally very fine. The vegetables are few and poor, and the "sweets," as they call dessert, are very bad. A gooseberry tart is all that is offered to one at an ordinary dinner, although fine strawberries and a pine are often brought in afterwards. The dinner is always served with much state, and afterwards the ladies all combine to amuse the guests by their talents. There is no false shame in England about singing and playing the piano. Even poor performers do their best, and contribute very much to the pleasure of the company. At the table people do not talk much, nor do they gesticulate as Americans do. They eat very quietly, and speak in low tones. No matters of family history or religion or political differences are discussed before the servants. Talking with the mouth full is considered an unpardonable vulgarity. All small preferences for any particular dish are kept in the background. No hostess ever apologizes, or appears to hear or see anything disagreeable. If the omelet soufflé  is a failure, she does not observe it; the servant offers and withdraws it, nor is any one disturbed thereby. As soon as one is helped he must begin to eat, not waiting for any one else. If the viand is too hot or too cold, or is not what the visitor likes, he pretends to eat it, playing with knife and fork.

No guest ever passes a plate or helps to anything; the servant does all that. Soup is taken from the side of the spoon noiselessly. Soup and fish are not partaken of a second time. If there is a joint, and the master carves, it is proper, however, to ask for a second cut. Bread is passed by the servants, and must be broken, not cut, afterwards. It is considered gauche to be undecided as to whether you will take clear soup or thick soup; decide quickly. In refusing wine, simply say, "Thanks;" the servant knows then that you do not take any.

The servants retire after handing the dessert, and a few minutes' free conversation is allowed. Then the lady of the house gives the signal for rising. Toasts and taking wine with people are entirely out of fashion; nor do the gentlemen remain long in the dining-room.

At the English dinner-table, from the plainest to the highest, there is etiquette, manner, fine service, and everything that Englishmen enjoy. The wit, the courtier, the beauty, and the poet aim at appearing well at dinner. The pleasures of the table, says Savarin, bring neither enchantment, ecstasy, nor transports, but they gain in duration what they lose in intensity; they incline us favorably towards all other pleasures--at least help to console us for the loss of them.

At very few houses, even that of a duke, does one see so elegant a table and such a profusion of flowers as at every millionaire's table in New York; but one does see superb old family silver and the most beautiful table-linen even at a very plain abode. The table is almost uniformly lighted with wax candles. Hot coffee is served immediately after dinner in the drawing-room. Plum-pudding, a sweet omelet, or a very rich plum-tart is often served in the middle of dinner, before the game. The salad always comes last, with the cheese. This is utterly unlike our American etiquette.

Tea is served in English country-houses four or five times a day. It is always brought to your bedside before rising; it is poured at breakfast and at lunch; it is a necessary of life at five o'clock; it is drunk just before going to bed. Probably the cold, damp climate has much to do with this; and the tea is never very strong, but is excellent, being always freshly drawn, not steeped, and is most refreshing.

Servants make the round of the table in pairs, offering the condiments, the sauces, the vegetables, and the wines. The common- sense of the English nation breaks out in their dinners. Nothing is offered out of season. To make too great a display of wealth is considered bourgeois and vulgar to a degree. A choice but not over sumptuous dinner meets you in the best houses. But to sit down to the plainest dinners, as we do, in plain clothes, would never be permitted. Even ladies in deep mourning are expected to make some slight change at dinner.

Iced drinks are never offered in England, nor in truth are they needed.

In England no one speaks of "sherry wine," "port wine;" "champagne wine," he always says "sherry," "port," "claret," etc. But in France one always says "vin de Champagne," "vin de Bordeaux," etc. It goes to show that what is proper in one country is vulgar in another.

It is still considered proper for the man of the house to know how to carve, and at breakfast and lunch the gentlemen present always cut the cold beef, the fowl, the pressed veal and the tongue. At a country-house dinner the lady often helps the soup herself. Even at very quiet dinners a  menu  is written out by the hostess and placed at each plate. The ceremony of the "first lady" being taken in first and allowed to go out first is always observed at even a family dinner. No one apologizes for any accident, such as overturning a glass of claret, or dropping a spoon, or even breaking a glass. It is passed over in silence.

No English lady ever reproves her servants at table, nor even before her husband and children. Her duty at table is to appear serene and unruffled. She puts her guests at their ease by appearing at ease herself. In this respect English hostesses are far ahead of American ones.In the matter of public holidays and of their amusements the English people behave very unlike American people. If there is a week of holidays, as at Whitsuntide, all the laboring classes go out of town and spend the day in the parks, the woods, or the country. By this we mean shop-girls, clerks in banks, lawyer's clerks, young artists, and physicians, all, in fact, who make their bread by the sweat of their brows. As for the privileged classes, they go from London to their estates, put on plain clothes, and fish or bunt, or the ladies go into the woods to pick wild-flowers. The real love of nature, which is so honorable a part of the English character, breaks out in great and small. In America a holiday is a day when people dress in their best, and either walk the streets of a great city, or else take drives, or go to museums or theatres, or do something which smacks of civilization. How few put on their plain clothes and stout shoes and go into the woods! How much better it would be for them if they did!

At Whitsuntide the shop-girls of London, a hard worked class go down to Epping Forest, or to Hampton Court, or to Windsor, with their basket of lunch, and everywhere one sees the sign "Hot Water for Tea," which means that they go into the humble inn and pay a penny for the use of the teapot and cup and the hot water, bringing their own tea and sugar. The economy which is a part of every Englishman's religion could well be copied in America. Even a duchess tries to save money, saying wisely that it is better to give it away in charity than to waste it. An unpleasant feature of English life is, however, the open palm, every one being willing to take a fee, from a penny up to a shilling, for the smallest service. The etiquette of giving has to be learned. A shilling is, however, as good as a guinea for ordinary use; no one but an American gives more.

The carriage etiquette differs from ours, as the gentleman of the family rides beside his wife, allowing his daughters to ride backwards. He also smokes in the Park in the company of ladies, which looks boorish. However, no gentleman sits beside a lady in driving unless he is her husband, father, son, or brother. Not even an affianced lover is permitted this seat.

It must be confessed that the groups in Hyde Park and in Rotten Row and about the Serpentine have a solemn look, the people in the carriages rarely chatting, but sitting up in state to be looked at, the people in chairs gravely staring at the others. None but the people on horseback seem at their ease; they chat as they ride, and, all faultlessly caparisoned as they are, with well-groomed horses, and servants behind, they seem gay and jolly. In America it is the equestrian who always looks preoccupied and solemn, and as if the horse were quite enough to manage. The footmen are generally powdered and very neatly dressed in livery, in the swell carriages, but the coachmen are not so highly gotten up as formerly. Occasionally one sees a very grand fat old coachman in wig and knee- breeches, but Jeames Yellowplush is growing a thing of the past even in London.

A lady does not walk alone in the Park. She may walk alone to church, or to do her shopping, but even this is not common. She had better take a hansom, it now being proper for ladies to go out to dinner alone in full dress in one of these singularly open and exposed-looking carriages. It is not an uncommon sight to see a lady in a diamond tiara in a London hansom by the blazing light of a summer sun. Thus what we should shun as a very public thing the reserved English woman does in crowded London, and regards it as proper, while she smiles if she sees an American lady alone in a Victoria in Hyde Park, and would consider her a very improper person if she asked a gentleman to drive out with her, as we do in our Park every day of our lives in an open carriage. Truly etiquette is a curious and arbitrary thing, and differs in every country.

In France, where they consider English people frightfully gauche, all this etiquette is reversed, and is very much more like ours in America. A Frenchman always takes off his hat on entering or leaving a railway carriage if ladies are in it. An Englishman never takes his hat off unless the Princess of Wales is passing, or he meets an acquaintance. He sits with it on in the House of Commons, in the reading-room of a hotel, at his club, where it is his privilege to sulk; but in his own house he is the most charming of hosts. The rudest and almost the most unkind persons in the world, if you meet them without a letter or an introduction in a public place, the English become in their own houses the most gentle, lovely, and polite of all people. If the ladies meet in a friend's parlor, there is none of that snobbish rudeness which is the fashion in America, where one lady treats another as if she were afraid of contamination, and will not speak to her. The lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, the duchess, is not afraid of her nobility; her friend's roof is an introduction; she speaks.

There is a great sense of the value of a note. If a lady writes a pretty note expressing thanks for civilities offered to her, all the family call on her and thank her for her politeness. It is to be feared that in this latter piece of good-breeding we are behind our English cousins. The English call immediately after a party, an invitation, or a letter of introduction. An elegant and easy epistolary style is of great use in England; and indeed a lady is expected even to write to an artist asking permission to call and see his pictures a thing rarely thought of in America.


Article Information:
Article Name: English Table Manners and Social Usages
Website: http:www.thehistorybox.com |Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina
Source:  Bibliography: Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John Sherwood; Harper & Brothers-New York 1894 LOC Chapter LVI
Article Time & Date Stamp: