Susanna here, minding my manners and thinking of etiquette.
Miss Eliza Leslie, born in Philadelphia in 1787, is best known for her cookbooks, one of which—Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches (1837)—became a runaway bestseller, with at least 150,000 copies sold.
But her father, a watchmaker who counted Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson among his friends, encouraged his eldest daughter to draw and read and write creatively as well, with the result that she also became a celebrated author of fiction, writing novels with appropriately Victorian titles (Amelia; or, A Young Lady's Vicissitudes), editing an annual collection of stories by contemporaries like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allan Poe, and contributing stories to many of the leading publications of the day, including The Saturday Evening Post and Godey’s Lady’s Book.
But it’s for her etiquette handbook, titled Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book, first published in 1834 and republished in several editions afterward, that I love her best.
As etiquette guides go, it’s a doozy. There are chapters on “Tea Visitors”, “Conduct in the Street”, “Deportment at a Hotel”, and “Incorrect Words”, among others.
My favourite chapter, though, is Chapter Twenty: “Conduct to Literary Women”—because in Miss Leslie’s pages of advice on how one ought to treat an Authoress, I get a tantalizing glimpse of what a writer of the 1830s looked like, and I love to see how much we have in common.
First you have to get past Miss Leslie’s general admonitions to the non-writer who seeks to pay a visit to an Authoress—“Take care not to speak of her first work as being her best; for if it is really so, she must have been retrograding from that time; a falling off that she will not like to hear of”, and “Be not inquisitive as to the length of time consumed in writing this book or that—or how soon the work now on hand will be finished.”
And of course, it’s the height of bad manners to drop by during her writing hours, “which should always be in the morning, if possible.” For, as Miss Leslie points out, “Even if the visit is not a long one, it is still an interruption. In one minute it may break a chain of ideas which cannot be reunited, dispel thoughts that can never be recalled, disturb the construction of a sentence, and obliterate a recollection that will not return.”
Which is actually true enough, and leaves me thinking of the sentences and trains of thought that might not have been lost if I’d been smart enough to make my children read Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book before they developed their habit of wandering into my writing room.
But it’s in passages like this one where I feel a strong connection to the women writers of Miss Leslie’s age:
“If, when admitted into her study, you should find her writing table in what appears to you like great confusion”, don’t comment on it. “In all probability, she knows precisely where to lay her hand upon every paper on the table: having in reality placed them exactly to suit her convenience. Though their arrangement may be quite unintelligible to the uninitiated, there is no doubt method (her own method, at least) in their apparent disorder. It is not likely she may have time to put her writing table in nice-looking order every day. To have it done by servants is out of the question, as they would make ‘confusion worse confounded;’ being of course unable to comprehend how such a table should be arranged.”
Ah yes, the servants. Not really a problem the authors I know have today, though this next observation is just as true now as it was in the 1830s:
“Many persons erroneously suppose that an author has always on hand an unlimited number of her own books; or that the publisher will kindly give her as many as she can want for herself and friends. It is usual, when the first edition comes out, for the publisher to send the author half a dozen copies of the book, or a dozen, if it is a small one. After that, if she wants any more, she is expected to buy them of the bookseller. Therefore, she has none to give away, except to members of her own family, or to friends whose circumstances will not permit them to expend money in books, and who have an ardent love for reading without the means of gratifying it.”
And then, to top it off, there’s this one. This is simply ME:
“If you find your literary friend in dèshabille, and she apologizes for it—(she had best not apologize)—tell her not that ‘authoresses are privileged persons, and are never expected to pay any attention to dress.’ Now, literary slatterns are not more frequent than slatterns who are not literary. It is true that women of enlarged minds, and really good taste, do not think it necessary to follow closely all the changes and follies of fashion, and to wear things that are inconvenient, uncomfortable, and unbecoming, merely because milliners, dress-makers, &c. have pronounced them ‘the last new style.’”
Before I take another cruise, I’m going to have to brush up on Miss Leslie’s chapter of advice on what to do when “Ship-board”…
For me, etiquette and manners are such fascinating things to read and study, and I always like to see the things that change according to the age, and those that persevere.
Is there a bit of etiquette you’d like to see return, or one you’re glad is gone, or one you find particularly baffling?