Something piqued my interest in the custom of gift giving through history, and off I went to Google away an afternoon. Well, as I want to rack up a higher word count for NaNoWriMo, I hoped to find exactly what I looked for in seconds, write this post up, and go back to my Work In Progress.
Regency England, and much of the world at that era, accumulated many rules of etiquette, custom, and conversation. Rules guided one daily, from how to make a social call to who you could talk to at a formal dinner. Let alone which fork to use with the fish!
In my first ever Regency novel, which will probably stay in a box in the garage for many more years to come, I wanted my very poor heroine to have some pretty balls gowns. She spent all her money on her step-daughter, who was to be presented and brought out that season. So I decided my hero had fallen in love with her by that point of the story, and he would buy and send a few dresses along.
Yes, I did know that only a mistress could accept clothing from a man, or a woman from her husband, a daughter from parents. A young, pretty widow could not take such a gift from a single, eligible man. And without the ball gowns, my story stalled. No one who read the final draft could accept that she would do such a thing, and be received in society.
Sometimes I wish I could write things my way, but then again, what I love about the Regency period would be lost. I love to think about Jane Austen having a cell phone and texting her niece instead of writing those wonderful letters. But now the whole scene in Persuasion where Louisa Musgrove is seriously injured devolves into a phone call to 999, summoning medical assistance, and calling the girl’s relatives to inform them of what has happened. How dull.
But I digress. At long last, I found a blog by Aurora Regency, which is the imprint for all pre-20th century historical romance titles released by Musa. The head editor writes what I knew to be true but could not find in any other source: Unmarried women could not hold hands, kiss, write to, or accept gifts from a man not related to her. Flowers were acceptable, especially as a thank-you following a ball where the two had danced. And perhaps some candy. But the first really expensive thing he could give her was a wedding ring. Talk about commitment! (http://www.auroraregency.com/2011/03/etiquette-and-customs-courtship-in.html)
Just how many rule books were there for folks to read and live by? Counting the Bible, eight plus. This lovely web page lists a few and some relevant quotes: http://www.lesleyannemcleod.com/rw_etiquette.html But a young lady of good breeding needed to know which jewelry could be worn in the morning, how long a social call should last, and how to decline to dance for a third time with a handsome man she had just met. Right?
Carina Press authors have a very nice page about etiquette (http://romancingthepast.blogspot.com/2012/02/basic-regency-etiquette.html) but what caught my interest was an anonymous comment that poses a tough question, and which to date has not been answered: “I have a question about dinner party etiquette. Say Earl and Countess of B have Earl and countess of A over for dinner. Who goes into the dining room first? The earldom of A is older than the earldom of B. Lord B is Lady A’s brother. Does Lord A escort Lady B in with Lord B and Lady A following?” My answer is, Don’t be home that night. Let them sort it out for themselves.
The majority of the sites I went to involved Jane Austen in some way, did she wish it or not. Her writings give us the most complete examples of the society we love best. Reading the manners books themselves is dry and dull in comparison. But think about it, only in the ballroom could a man and woman not married or related to each other have a chance to touch and talk somewhat freely. Or could they?
This site (http://regencydances.org/etiquette.php) tells us that Thomas Wilson, the master of ceremonies at the King’s Theater Opera House published the Etiquette of the Ball-room in 1815. And what do you think ranked as the most acceptable and proper dance to open any ball? No, obviously not the waltz. Travel back in time a few decades, and you will have it. The Minuet. This YouTube clip shows how it was done, probably, but the lady in yellow appears to be dancing with a footman. I’m pretty sure there’s a rule against that. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doJ9bphxxKU)
Still, at this site (http://helenafairfax.com/2013/05/10/etiquette-flirting-and-hidden-passions-all-the-thrill-of-the-regency-ballroom/) Ms. Faifax relays Susanna Fullerton’s book A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters Went to the Ball to be a wonderful exploration of the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice. And Ms. Fullerton is quoted as confirming the dance floor as one of the few areas where unmarried people could get to know each other without the presence of chaperones, and following the dance could go gossip, I mean, discuss the event with friends.
Regency England spun around on very complicated orbits and progresses, held in strict place by the rules that governed everything. The next time you complain about a speed limit or a need to take a number and wait your turn, be thankful there aren’t different lines for different classes of people. I am, because there is not one royal or even rich person in my family history as far back as we can go. Where is that line?