Manners. They’re often forgotten in society today. That’s a bit of a shame. While manners seem outdated and old school to many, a little politeness goes a long way. But good and proper etiquette involves more than saying please and thank you or turning your radio down a few notches as you drive through the Walmart parking lot. Back in the day, about 125 years ago and more, manners were vitally important. Reputations could be ruined in the blink of an eye.
In the 19th century there was a definite code of conduct that people were expected to abide by – especially women. A lady must not appear to be in a hurry because that indicated she lacked grace. It was permissible for a lady to lift her skirts just above her ankle if she tripped, but she must right herself quickly so her ankle didn’t show for too long. So basically, if a woman tripped, she might be breaking several rules at once.
The book AmericanEtiquette and Rules of Politeness by Walter R. Houghton was written in 1883 and covered a wide range of helpful tips to guide those in doubt through the difficulties faced in polite society. The book outlined some expectations that must have been next to impossible to follow unless nothing unexpected was happening.
In truth, many of Mr. Houghton’s rules simply cannot be followed by any author who wants to create a compelling heroine and have her find love and happiness. As I read through some of the rules, I couldn’t help but laugh. If authors created heroines who followed all the rules, these women would be boring and forgettable. Who wants to read about a woman who followed all the rules all the time?
Here are some of my favorite rules from Mr. Houghton’s American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness that need to be broken in romance writing – at least sometimes - to make a romance fun to read.
Always be careful in your conversation not to dwell on what you heard somebody say about somebody else. While I agree completely that gossiping is bad and we shouldn’t do it, don’t we need a town gossip in our fiction from time to time to make some waves? Conflict in a romance is a good thing, right?
It is very unwise, not to say presumptuous, for a gentleman to make a proposal to a young lady on a too brief acquaintance. Such hasty proposals generally come from mere adventurers, or else from mere novices in love, so that in either case they are to be rejected. A lady who would accept a gentleman at first sight can hardly possess the discretion needed to make a good wife. How many love at first sight romance stories would never be written if romance writers followed this rule all the time? There are just too many stories that come to mind where an early proposal was charming and lovely and the perfect vehicle for sweet disaster.
It is a mark of good breeding to suppress undue emotion, whether of disappointment, of mortification, or laughter, of anger, or of selfishness in any form. Emotions of all sorts are the cornerstones of romance written about any era. If everyone in our stories was too polite to show how they feel, we’d be reading about robots in historical romance. Not good.
If you chance to be in the company of an inferior, do not let him feel his inferiority. When you invite an inferior as your guest, treat him with all the politeness and consideration you would show an equal. This one is simply condescending and rude just the way it’s written. And isn’t it ironic that one of the rules is built on bad manners?
I’ve broken all these rules of etiquette and proper manners in my stories and many others, too. My latest book, A Pure Heart from theCutter’s Creek Series, is about a girl who thinks she’s better than everyone else in town. She doesn’t hold back in letting others know that they’re inferior. Creating Mary Pershing as a prim and proper young woman living at the time Mr. Houghton’s book was published, would have been a travesty. She’s a woman you love to hate, but at the same time you want her to see the truth and change. If she is perfect to start with, how can she grow? How could there be much of a story?
So, I intend to keep reading about heroines who break the rules. I’ll keep writing about them, too.
P.S. If you'd like to see American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness by Walter R. Houghton, you can find it in the Smithsonian Libraries.
Annie Boone writes sweet western historical romance with a happy ending guaranteed in every single story. Inspiration comes in many forms and Annie finds more than one way to make her stories entertain and inspire.
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