Formality

When Mrs. Beeton lived, new industrialists were buying up houses from impoverished aristocrats. The parvenues were looked down upon by the lofty elite because they didn’t know how to behave in the world to which they aspired. They didn’t know how to manage their servants; they didn’t know what fork to use at the dinner table; they didn’t know what wines went with which dishes at the dinner table. Simply put, they didn’t know the aristocratic rules and regulations.

Mrs. Beeton to the rescue!

When the Industrialist Ecks Whyzed married the eighth daughter of the Earl of Whatnot, the rich esquire needed serious polishing. He was not alone. While the aristocracy declined, the upper  middle class arose. They could buy their way into country houses but they couldn’t buy their way into becoming blue blooded. Marrying into the upper crust didn’t help these new barons of industry integrate, but their progeny were quick to learn; and they coulc more easily mix and mingle.

Recognizing that this emerging class needed to be told what to do in order to fit in, Mrs. Beeton wrote a hugely successful tome called The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress which spelled out the various functions in a large household – the housekeeper, cook, kitchen maid, butler, and dozens of other household positions.  (see Wikipedia). The book is a collectors’ item now, and if ever you get the chance to read through it, it will tickle your funny bone. Some of the directions seem hilarious in our current day mode of informality.

Similarly, when North America was populated with Europe’s almost-starving masses in the huge waves of migration that took place in the mid-1800’s and the early 1900’s, a common desire of these people was to rise out of poverty through education.

The first generation of immigration was bound to work in conditions that we would find intolerable now. Many of the immigrants had no idea what conditions they were coming to. They expected that they would find accommodations when they came, but instead, they found there was practically nothing.  The land had to be cleared. Houses had to be built. Farms had to be fenced and fields created then planted. Many on the prairies began their North American life in sod houses dug down into the ground, or in tents in cruel weather conditions.

Nevertheless, the immigrants could own land – something most of them could never aspire to in the Old Country, which ever one they came from. They were free, but they had so little that it hurt. In the first generation, acquiring a stability of home and occupation had to be the first goal. In the second, the immigrants were able to educate their children and education was a way out of poverty and subsistence living.

My grandfather on my mother’s side came to Canada with nothing but his youth and enthusiasm when he was seventeen, a younger son of a large family. He profited from the offer of free land and homesteaded in Plumas, Manitoba. The details are fuzzy. Did he sell his land and buy another or homestead another? There is no one left to ask. In any case, the homestead from Plumas was traded up for one in Gladstone, Manitoba. Then eventually, he was able to buy a piece of land in Winnipeg and build a house on it.

By the time he was thirty, he had bought two more pieces of land in Winnipeg and farmland outside the city limits that he rented to a farmer. It was planted with potatoes. He went home to England and proposed to Grandmother.

She arrived in 1900 to a small house on the largest of his properties.  Envisaging a large family, he built a two story house with prosperous amenities – gas light, indoor plumbing and telephone.He had come up in the world by dint of his frugality and hard labour, his entreprenerial spirit and his guiding vision. He wanted an education for his children and a much better life than that which he had come from fifteen years before.

During the Depression of the ‘Thirties, he was able to rent out the two houses he built on his properties. They paid for the taxes on all his properties. The living was not rich; but a certain stability and ease had been acquired.

(Get to the point! I can hear you all thinking)

My Aunt became a teacher at the age of nineteen. My mother was too young when she finished high school to go out teaching. She was the last child, brilliant, and having skipped two years of school, she was barely sixteen when she graduated. Grandfather found a way of sending her to University and she had her first degree by the time she was twenty. Then she taught school until she married.

My father similarly came from very modest beginnings, grandfather having also immigrated and homesteaded. His father, too, was adamant that the children acquire as much education as they could afford. Father became a Civil Engineer  and when he got his first long term job, he asked for Mother’s hand in marriage and got it. Soon he was teaching at the University of Toronto.

In one generation, both families had moved from the labouring class to the educated class.  This is not so remarkable, in many ways, because our family was not the only one with these aspirations and these success stories. Many of those pioneering families went on to produce architects, doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, scientists, et cetera, et cetera – in a word – professionals.

Akin to the Industrial Revolution, the Educational Revolution had people moving out of their sphere of comfort in the social world.

Emily Post to the rescue!

Like Mrs. Beeton, Emily Post wrote in magazines of the day – and in books – about how one should behave in polite society.  My mother live by Emily Post’s rules.

One never telephoned before ten o’clock nor after eight at night. When setting a table, the knife blade is always turned inwards. The handle ends of the cutlery should be placed one inch from the edge of the table. If you are having a multi-course meal (soup, dinner, salad, dessert for example) then your cutlery is arranged from the outside inwards in the order that you eat your meal. Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right.

So that means, starting from the far right, soup spoon, dinner knife, plate; and from the left, dinner fork, salad fork and dessert fork.

Ladies remained seated when a man came into the room; men rose and waited until a woman, coming into the room, was seated. Men always took their hats off then they came inside. Women wore their hats at luncheons. The rules were legion. If you wanted to succeed, you learned them. If you didn’t, nobody but Emily Post would tell you and you might easily be ostracized for a slip of the tongue or an incorrect deference to some aspiring-to-be notable person.

My generation never lived through all the aspiring. It’s that third generational thing about fortunes. When we were young, we never understood the passion that lay beneath the desire to succeed to high places. All we saw were the formalities that were like ligatures on one’s freedom of activity.

“It’s just not done!” my mother would admonish me. “What will people think?”

I saw her write and rewrite  her replies to invitations, to tea, to weddings, to showers, to convocations. They had to be flawlessly spaced, flawlessly written, flawlessly composed in her flawless, Maclean’s handwriting.

I rebelled.I went Hippie. I swore (Bon Dieu! What would people think!”). When I lived on my own, all the niceties of table setting and invitation making went out the window – and I wasn’t alone. I’d taken my gloves off. I no longer had a hat. Peace, love and liberty.

The third generation has children. I wasn’t alone in rejecting so many formalities of the ‘Fifties and the  “Sixties. From my loft age, now, I look upon the upcoming youth and am often appalled at their language. How can we blame them? Almost every television program uses the language that a sailor would have been unable to say in decent society.  The formality has gone almost totally from our lives.

Mrs. Stepford, my next door neighbour, and I are the same age. We both still like to set a good table. We still go to theatre and concerts, but we no longer dress up. The only hats we will wear are for going out in the sun, and that’s more likely to be a straw one. Gloves are to keep the hands warm, not a de rigeur part of evening dress or luncheon garb.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” says Mrs. S when I come to visit. It comes in a mug with a shared spoon for sugar. We sit at a table strewn with the detritus of our daily occupations – the newspaper, a book of telephone numbers, bills and letters, advertising to be scanned and chucked, this morning’s dishes, if there hasn’t been time or inclination to get to them. I do the same.

And so, last Sunday, I went to see some of Mother’s aged friends – young in spirit; friends who were faithful visitors and supports of my dear Mom as she lay dying. These same friends living by that generation’s style and code of behaviour, invited me to tea.

As I sat at their maple dining table covered with a lace cloth, I had spread before me two plates of cheeses cut and arranged beautifully on the plate; another plate of Turkish Kisses, small drop cookies with dates and coconut; a long bread plate with two kinds of crackers; and a plate with pecan tarts. All the china matched. It was Royal Albert’s Old Country Roses.

“Would you care for a cup of tea?” she asked so naturally, so politely in her soft, gracious way. It came to her as if she were born with the formalities and had lived them all her life. I was born to them and had struggled against them all my life.

“Please, help yourself to some cheese. Take some crackers. ” She poured the tea holding the lid with one hand, the other tipping the pot towards my cup and saucer. Each one of us had a little spoon for sugar and a little knife for spreading the cheese. I smiled.

Here was a way of life dying out. Or maybe, just dying out in my sphere, and I missed them. I momentarily thought of my mother and her pernicious attention to details.  (Oh no! Not those serviettes! They’re the wrong size! the wrong colour! They’re too frivolous for the occasion. Kay! Just what could you be thinking!)

I thought of her life-long passion for the formality that allowed her to become a matron of academic society. I had absorbed the upbringing and could function within the same spheres, but for myself, I had let go so much of the time intensive formalities and was glad, because I had been able to forge a different life, a life in art and creativity. I had been able to pass through many doors, both high and low, and manage.

After our little tea, Mr. White said, “Will you play the piano for us?”

I’ve never liked playing for others. I always have this sense that mother is standing two feet behind me criticising my mistakes.  But Mrs. White added her plea to his.

“It doesn’t matter what you play. Don’t worry. We just had the piano tuned and we’d like to hear someone use it. Pam (their daughter) comes by every weekend, but she doesn’t usually have time to play.”

So I sat on the adjustable piano stool – one of those ones with a turned post that you can twirl up and down for a change in height. I played one of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, probably the only piece that I know by heart. They made appropriate ooh’s and ah’s. and asked for more. I played another and got stuck in the middle somehow going round and round because I had no music to go by. I played Bumble Boogie until I got lost in it somewhere on the fourth page. I tried another Fugue and started the Raindrop Etude by Chopin but couldn’t get past the first page.

I finished the last bit with something I made up since I’d lost my place and couldn’t do otherwise. I turned on the stool. They were sitting side by side on their French Provincial settee, leaning forward to hear every note, holding hands so sweetly. I could have cried.

It was time to go and I did. They stood at the door  waiting till I got to the car. I got in and they waved me off as I drove away, thinking of the value of formality.

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One Response to “Formality”

  1. wrjones Says:

    I wasn’t thinking “Get to the point”, I love reading your stories; don’t care if there even is an end.

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