One of the delightful things about reading is the chance to step into another world. Emilie enjoyed that about writing, too.
“I devote from nine to ten months to a novel and during the major part of each day I exist in the world I am creating. Why spend all that time in a sordid environment? I like charming surroundings.”
What I knew of higher social graces in my teens, I learned from Emilie Loring’s stories. Had I visited in a home with a butler, I would have known how to present my card, be announced, and then wait in the drawing room for my hostess to appear. I had an idea of how to give an afternoon tea. But my first real chance at social elegance hit short of the mark.
When I was in high school, a more formal family than mine invited me to be the dinner partner of a young man who was visiting from Switzerland. I reviewed my older sister’s etiquette book—we had them then—and dressed in my best. All went smoothly until I lifted my water glass. Condensation made the coaster stick to the bottom a moment, and then it dropped with a loud “thunk!” and rolled on its end, over and over and over, past two amazed diners, before it wobbled, clattered, and finally came to a stop. I could only blush.
Fortunately, Emilie’s characters weren’t perfect, either. Nicholas Hoyt catches Sandra Duval improvising at the dinner table:
She confided in a whisper. “I don’t like little-neck clams. I always hide them in the ice.”
“Why not leave them in their shells?”
“Why advertise my plebeian lack of taste?”
With a publisher for a father, Emilie had an endless supply of books to read in her youth. One of the most popular novelists of the time was Anthony Trollope.
“No historian presents the social manners and customs of his time with half the accuracy displayed by our best fiction writers… a course of Anthony Trollope is as good as a London season.” Maude C. Cooke, Social Etiquette, or Manners and Customs of Polite Society (1896)
We know that Emilie read—or re-read—Trollope’s Dr. Thorne one summer at Blue Hill, because she recorded the date of completion on the book’s last page. This is the same Dr. Thorne that Julian Fellowes recently made into a television mini series. I’m reading it now on Kindle.
The doctor bowed. And though he could hardly be said to do so stiffly, he did it coldly. His bow seemed to say, “Certainly; if you choose to make a proper amende it can be done. But I think it is very unlikely that you will do so.” Anthony Trollope, Doctor Thorne
The word “etiquette” came from a type of French ticket used to mark packages for delivery without question or delay. Over time, it came to mean “those social formalities that, like the correct mark, identify well-bred people,” which gave it a snooty connotation. But the best manners are nicer than that; they put everyone at ease and communicate mutual respect and consideration.
“After honor, good manners are the greatest asset a young person can have, young or old for that matter.” Where Beauty Dwells
She showed no consciousness of the difference between her three-room shack and the luxurious ranch-house from which the visitor had come. “Thoroughbred,” thought the girl as she preceded her hostess into a small but immaculately clean room. The Trail of Conflict
In bare feet and summer shorts, I turned the pages of my Emilie Loring books and imagined the considerate attentions of future boyfriends.
With lingering care Geoffrey adjusted a Chinese Mandarin coat heavy with gold embroidery over her shoulders. Gay Courage
Emilie lived half of her life in each of two centuries, so she had an even better perspective about the manners of earlier times, letting go of some and retaining others.
“I have a mother who is a twentieth century model in all ways, except her dislike of being out after dark without an escort. In that respect she is hopelessly mid-Victorian.” Here Comes the Sun!
“No matter what anyone says or thinks, my dear, keep on changing for evening as you would at home.” Lighted Windows
It’s natural to assume that times were more rugged in the past than now, but apparently not where garden parties were concerned.
“Rugs should be laid on the grass for the accommodation of those not accustomed to standing on the ground, and easy chairs provided for delicate or aged ladies who may be present, so all may enjoy the party without fear of the consequence.”
Some of the information in old etiquette books is just interesting. My husband and I occasionally dine by candlelight, but I have never attempted a dinner party using candlelight alone, and I’d have no idea how many candles to use. That’s the sort of information that is in danger of being lost, but it lingers in early guides.
“About twenty-six candles will, all other conditions being favorable, light a table for twelve guests. Much depends, however, on whether the dining room is finished in light or dark woods as to the number of candles required.” Social Etiquette…
We absorb more than the plots when we read. Because of Emilie’s stories, I can picture a white and green spectator suit and afternoon tea on a terrace, veranda, or loggia. I know quotes from classics I haven’t yet read and have replies at the ready for a host of social situations.
Reading takes us on a vacation in our minds. I might be Di Vernon, eking a living from an herb farm, or Prue Schuyler, urging my chickens to lay more eggs, but in the evening, I’ll dress in a shimmering gown and sparkling jewels to be escorted on the arm of a compelling gentleman with impeccable manners, ready to dine in graceful elegance and dance beneath the stars. I’m with Emilie; I like charming surroundings, too.