Etiquette for Victorian Ladies. Wait, what? Oh, heck no.


My head is spinning. I have been doing extensive research for my new series of Victorian novellas focusing on a trio of extremely independent women in the late 19th century.

I believe that research in historical romance should be treated like a seasoning. Generous enough to enhance the flavor, but too much will distract from the delicious meat of the story. That being said, most women in history were expected to follow a strict set of societal guidelines and etiquette. We often find that heroines in historical romance novels often defy these expectations.

What is a writer to do?

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In order for my heroines to break the rules, I need to know exactly what they were required to know. Only then can I defy convention. Who doesn’t love a little bit of rule-breaking?

I went out and found as many sites and books I could find that discussed proper etiquette for ladies and gentlemen of the era. Some of these manuals were written during the era, not by historians. I know I’m getting accurate information.

Research can be overwhelming, so I take it in small doses. This post isn’t about my research or even how to research. No…this post is for me to vent about the INSANE amount of etiquette and social propriety that was expected of both ladies and gentlemen of the Victorian era. Oh good gravy, I would have died.

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If I had a time machine and travelled back to the 1890s, I would have been outed for a fraud within moments. Even though I know these rules from researching them, my brain isn’t wired to follow them. I’d have been ostracized within an hour.

There are a few rules I personally found so contradictory to my personality that I would never survive the Victorian era. They also give me a HUGE respect for the freedoms that I have now.

Ready, here’s my list:

~ “An unmarried young woman, up to the age of thirty, must always be accompanied by a chaperone when she goes out.”

Yup, that’s not going to happen. Sorry. It’s bad enough that my kids follow me everywhere I go.

 ~ “A lady avoids all exhibitions of temper before others.  Whether grief or joy, emotions should be subdued in public and only allowed full play in private apartments.”

Oh crap. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. This would be darn near impossible for me. I’m a passionate, expressive person by nature.

~ “A lady never looks back after anyone in the street, or turns to stare in a public place.  She should never walk alone in the street after dark.”

Sorry, no double take when that handsome gentleman passes by on the street. No staring at someone while you’re trying to figure out where you saw them before or if you met them at your cousin’s birthday party two years ago. And heaven forbid I want to go out alone after dark.

~ “For riding, stallions were too frisky for ladies.  Mares and geldings may be used, but women and children favored ponies.  They were smaller than horses and easier to handle.  In rare instances where women drove horses, they usually drove a one-horse carriage.  “Four-in-hands” were too much for a woman to handle.”

As a horsewoman myself, I find this to be frustrating. I’ve both learned to ride and drive. While stallions and four-in-hands can prove challenging, I enjoy a good challenge once in a while. Also, have you met any ponies, they can be nasty creatures. I’ve noticed in my experience the smaller horses were much more temperamental than larger breeds. And don’t even get me started on side-saddle. I’d rather be risque, to be honest.

My personal favorite:

~ “Double entendre is detestable in a woman, especially when perpetrated in the presence of men; no man of taste can respect a woman who is guilty of it: though it may create a laugh, it will inevitably excite also disgust in the minds of all whose good opinions are worth acquiring. Therefore not only avoid all indelicate expressions, but appear not to understand any that may be uttered in your presence.”

Oh man. I can’t. I’ve always been aware of my company when conversing. Sometimes it such speech is not appropriate for the company. That I understand. But to avoid it completely and pretend I don’t understand it. I. Can’t. Do. It.

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If these have captured your interest, let me give you a few of my resources so you can see how insane etiquette actually was for the time period. Of course, the social classes would be different when it came to expectation and adherence to societal rules. But for the most part, I focus on the servants and the nobility/upper class.

This website is a good one to easily see the different functions and expectations. I took some of my examples directly from this site:

http://www.literary-liaisons.com/article031.html 

I have these books that were written during the era. Some of them are free on Amazon. Dig around, most of them you can find for free since they’re in the public domain now.

A Hand-book of Etiquette for Ladies by Anonymous

The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness: A Complete Hand Book by Florence Hartley

The Book of Household Management by Mrs. Isabella Mary Beeton

A Word to Women by Mrs. Humphry

Manners for Women by Mrs. Humphry

Manners for Men by Mrs. Humphry

And if you want a resource dedicated to smoking etiquette of the era, I found this awesome article: http://etiquipedia.blogspot.com/2014/05/victorian-to-early-20th-century-smoking.html

As you can see, research can be daunting, but when you find solid reliable sources, it can really help put you in the correct mindset for the era. I still find it difficult to keep my “head in the era” while I’m writing. But hey, that’s what the editing phase is for, right? It’s extremely difficult to keep modern ideals and sentiments from bleeding into a historical story.

Fortunately, there were always rule breakers no matter the era. These pioneers are a huge help for authors when it comes to creating conflict and tense situations to foster the plot of our stories. Scandal is a main force in most romance novels. *wink*

Do you have any resources or research you’d like to share on the topic? Feel free to comment.

Are there any rules of etiquette from the era that you know would be extremely difficult for you to follow? I’d love to hear your responses.

Thanks for the visit. I hope my little tirade was amusing and educational. I know it makes me a little more appreciative of the freedoms I have as a woman in the modern era. ❤

Remember, don’t take life too seriously, you’ll never get out alive. 😉

Until we meet again, may your bookshelves be full and your hearts even more so.

All my love,

Kirsten

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