Etiquette: The ceremonial code of polite life, more voluminous and minute in each portion of society according to its rank.
On the weekend I read an article in the paper about A Guide to Australian Etiquette: For All Occasions, From Weddings to Work, a new book by Ita Buttrose.
While reading, I was reminded of a novel I read years ago called Kipps by H.G. Wells – who is best remembered these days for writing The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau. While these novels capture our imaginations and delight us with their spectacle, Kipps, reveals the nature of the society we live in. (Yes, Kipps is still relevant today. Has the Apple iPad done away with our need to procreate or to eat or to work? Has our need for love and respect diminished? Do we still judge our own progress by the progress of our peers?)
Recently Weidenfeld & Nicolson republished some of the novels of H.G. Wells in cute inexpensive hardcovers, Kipps included. As I like the publisher’s description, I won’t bother writing my own:
Orphaned at an early age, raised by his aunt and uncle and apprenticed for seven years to a draper, Artie Kipps is stunned to discover upon reading a newspaper advertisement that he is the grandson of a wealthy gentleman and the inheritor of his fortune.
Thrown dramatically into the upper classes, he struggles desperately to learn the etiquette and rules of polite society.
But as he soon discovers, becoming a true gentleman is neither as easy nor as desirable as it at first appears…
At first I assumed this was just another wry joke by H.G. Wells but was dismayed to discover that Don’t – full name: Don’t: a manual of mistakes & improprieties more or less prevalent in conduct and speech – was no joke but a real book published in the nineteenth century by Oliver Bell Bunce. Here is a short sample:
Don’t talk when your mouth is full – never, in fact, have your mouth full. It is more healthful and in better taste to eat by small morsels.
Don’t drink wine or spirits in the morning, or often at other times than at dinner.
Don’t frequent bar-rooms. Tippling is not only vulgar and disreputable, but injurious to health.
Don’t trouble people with your domestic mishaps, with accounts of your rebellious servants, or with complaints of any kind.
Kipps is a cautionary tale and Wells writes from experience. Like Kipps, H.G. Wells, rose in the world but he did so through hard work and extraordinary talent, not a fortunate inheritance. Even so, Wells was never entirely accepted by his adopted class. Wells was tolerated by certain sectors of fashionable society not only because he was bright and successful but because he had developed an ever deepening understanding of the workings of human nature and society and was able to subvert and manipulate the social mores, often in an entertaining way. By such means, Wells encouraged fashionable society to accept him for who he was. (They never really did, but then the world changed and the snobs lost their mansions and status and Wells rose to world fame.)
Knowing the difficulties faced by working people in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in their fight to win respect and basic rights, whenever I hear the word etiquette I associate it with words like exclusive, elite, snob, poser etc.
Etiquette was about class then, and you could argue that it still is. It was about holding up the accepted behaviour of one group of people, usually the wealthy, the elite, those who had real or perceived power, as the right way to behave, suggesting that all other modes of behaviour were suspect or downright disgraceful. It is not too far fetched to suggest that codified rules of conduct were formed to define or exaggerate the differences between peoples – much like the rationale of the racist or bigot.
A book on etiquette underlines its own elitist agenda. The need for it suggests that the ‘good manners’ described within its pages are not widely known or practised forms of behaviour. Such books are fond of using words like ‘traditional’ – but I have often thought that if something was a true tradition, you’d know it inside out and back to front. Surely, you wouldn’t need a book to explain what your own traditions were?
To suggest that a woman who religiously writes thank you cards, or a man who stands aside to let you pass by in a crowded room, is less likely to cheat on their tax or their partner is just naive.
In A Guide to Australian Etiquette, Ita Buttrose obviously disregards these associations and concentrates on the positive, reforming aspects of the word. If people followed a few simple rules – rules which mirror her way of life – the world would be a better place.
If you want to know how to:
- organise a wedding, from choosing a dress to deciding who sits where
- arrange a funeral
- prevent ‘trolley rage’ at the supermarket
- get in and out of a lift without it turning into a football scrum
- be the perfect guest at a dinner party
- host a business lunch
- carve a roast
- make a speech
- behave in a mosque
Ita is the woman to ask.
This book will not reform Australia, but it will appeal to certain members of society. To quote Kath & Kim, this book will appeal to those in our midst who ‘want to be effluent‘. It seems unavoidable that the not-a-chance-in-hell social climbers and wannabes will pick and choose from its pages as they have done with their religion, the tax laws and their education. It should, therefore, sell well – but I fear that readers will discover, as Kipps discovers, that good behaviour, without the right motivation, is ridiculous.
(The GFC has given society a bit of a shake. Some folk have fallen from the fragrant flowered canopy above to the fertile, fungus-covered floor below. I would be shirking my responsibilities if I did not recommend, for those in mid-social free-fall, the only etiquette book currently available especially designed for the downwardly mobile – Things Bogans Like.)
‘Good manners give a person increased self-confidence and the ability to be at ease in most situations. Good manners mean being kind and thoughtful to others, making allowances for their shortcomings, and being considerate about their feelings.’, it can also make or break a career.
Ita Buttrose has been an inspiration to generations of Australian women. In the course of her phenomenal media career she has seen how important etiquette is in every aspect of life, from the personal to the professional. Correct etiquette not only ensures that a meal will be pleasant or a wedding will run smoothly
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.