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A Local Victorian Lady's Proper Demeanor

Excerpted from Keeping Hearth and Home in Old Massachusetts: A Practical Primer for Daily Living copyright 2001 by Carol Padgett, with permission from Menasha Ridge Press, Birmingham, AL,

Editor's Note: Victorian-era women of "class and breeding" -- or those who aspired to appear as such -- learned the womanly arts of proper housekeeping, dressing, deportment, meal preparation, entertaining, and family upkeep from a wide variety of publications. These included manuals, guidebooks, pamphlets, magazines, and other periodicals. Author Carol Padgett has compiled the advice found in sources published in Massachusetts, some of which appears below. These and other pieces of similar wisdom -- some seemingly timeless and others now laughably dated -- were influential in the way Concord women conducted their lives, relationships and activities.

If the value of good breeding is in danger of becoming depreciated, it is only necessary to compare the impression which a gentle, pleasant demeanor leaves upon you with the gruff, abrupt, or indifferent carriage of those who affect to despise good manners. Indeed, society could not be maintained save for the usages of etiquette.

Carry Yourself with Grace. The beauties of the charming picture framed by one's dress are enhanced by moving with grace. To walk with style is rare enough, but when it comes to being able to site down in a dress properly -- well, there are not many equal to that, I can tell you.

Keep Your Arms from Going Astray. A question often comes up, not so easily answered: What shall I do with my hands and arms? Some ladies carry a fan. But you cannot always have one in your hands, so it is better to keep the arms pressed lightly against the sides in walking or sitting. This position for the hands, although a little stiff at first, will soon become easy and graceful. Ladies should never adopt the ungraceful habit of folding their arms or of placing them akimbo.

Be Graceful in Your Manners. A lady should be quiet in her manners, natural and unassuming in her language, careful to wound no one's feelings, but giving generously and freely from the treasures of her pure mind to her friends. She should scorn no one openly but have a gentle pity for the unfortunate, the inferior, and the ignorant, at the same time carrying herself with an innocence and singleheartedness that disarm ill nature and win respect and love from all. Such a lady is a model for her sex, the "bright particular star" on which men look with reference. The influence of such a woman is a power for good that cannot be overestimated.

Limit Your Observations. A boisterous, loud-talking man is disagreeable enough, but a woman who falls into the habit is almost unendurable. Many times have we seen an inoffensive husband tucked completely out of sight by the superabundant flow of volubility proceeding from a wife, who, we like to believe, is by nature intended to be the gentler and restraining element.

Be not Excessively Frank. Do not take pride in offensively expressing yourself on every occasion under the impression that you will be admired for your frankness. Speaking one's mind is an extravagance, which has ruined many a person.

Always Accept Apologies. Only ungenerous minds will not do so. If one is due from you, make it unhesitatingly.

Listen. When a "tale of woe" is poured into your ears, even though you cannot sympathize, do not wound by appearing indifferent. True politeness decrees that you shall listen patiently and respond kindly.

Laugh at the Appropriate Time. Don't laugh when a funny thing is being said until the climax is reached. Do not laugh at your own wit; allow others to do that.

Kiss Sparingly. Many times a contagious disease has been conveyed in a kiss. The kiss is a seal of pure and earnest love and should never be exchanged save between nearest and dearest friends and relatives. Indeed, public sentiment and good taste decree that even among lovers it should not be so often indulged in as to cause any regret on the part of the lady should an engagement chance to be broken off. Let promiscuous kissing, then, be consigned to the tomb of oblivion.

Use Tact When Admonishment is Necessary. Tact is needed in a friend to show us our weaknesses; also with employers and parents. How many do harm instead of good in their manner of rebuking, sounding instead of rousing the self-respect of those they reprimand!

Refrain from Eyeing Over Other Women. Few observant persons can have failed to notice the manner in which one woman, who is not perfectly well bred or perfectly kind hearted, will eye over another woman, whom she thinks is not in such good society and, above all, not at the time being in so costly a dress as she herself is in. Who cannot recall hundreds of instances of that sweep of the eye, which takes in a glance the whole woman and what she has on from to-knot to shoe-tie. It is done in an instant. No other evidence than this eyeing is needed that a woman, whatever be her birth or breeding, has a small and vulgar soul.

Treat Enemies Kindly. If you have an enemy and an opportunity occurs to benefit the person in matters great or small, do good service without hesitation. If you would know what it is to feel noble and strong within yourself, do this secretly and keep it secret. A person who can act thus, will soon feel at ease anywhere. If enemies meet at a friend's house, lay aside all appearance of animosity while there and meet on courteous terms.

Greet Friends with Discretion. A lady does not call out to friends or inquire after their health in a boisterous fashion. Ladies do not rush up to each other and kiss effusively. It is a foolish practice for ladies to kiss each other every time they meet, particularly on the street. It is positively vulgar; a refined woman shrinks from any act that makes her conspicuous. Such practice belongs rather to the period of "gush" natural to very young girls and should be discouraged on physiological grounds, if no other.

Want to Learn More About Victorian Women's Lives?
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Illustrations: Fashion illustrations from the famous Victorian magazine, Godey's.
Design: Hometown Websmith.

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