Mind Your Manners!

Should I have the desire or opportunity to personally address a cardinal, I now know that I’d greet him by saying “Your Eminence.” Should I write him by mail I’d write “Most Rev. John Cardinal Doe” then end said letter with the following words: “I have the honour to remain, My Lord Cardinal, Your Eminence’s devoted and obedient child.”

I also know that, should I be invited to join a game of cards, I should inquire as to whether the game is “serious or social or chatty.” Likewise, I know that kumquats (a small lemon-like fruit that grows on trees belonging to the flowering plant family Rutaceae) are to be “picked up in the fingers, bitten into or eaten whole, depending on the size.”

How on earth do I know such things? How do I know that perfume should be a “subtle, not overpowering reminder of the presence”? Well, I recently inherited a book called Mind Your Manners: A Complete Dictionary of Etiquette for Canadians by Claire Wallace, a Harlequin book that, in 1953, cost fifty cents. This book is a gem. I am absolutely in love, not only with its bewitching “old book smell” but with what the books represents… It provides a kind of portal that transports me to an earlier time. Today I know few women who would inquire (using an alphabetized etiquette dictionary nonetheless) how to eat frogs’ legs, serve fruitcake or candy (note: candy should be served in bon-bon dishes placed between candelabra at a formal dinner.)

While I’ll admit to getting a kick out of this book (who knew that one should pay attention to pedestrians?) this book offers my life a lot more than mere humour. I discovered this book on my dear Aunt Mary’s bookshelf (my great Aunt who, at 97, passed away only last week.) I felt as though I’d found a treasure chest. Why, you ask? Well, my first thought was the following: “this book is going to give me so many ideas for stories!” So I suppose it depends on what “treasure” means to you.

The book’s description begins with: “Every day you meet situations in which you are unsure of yourself.” This book was published to provide women (at least women were the targeted audience, especially considering the book is bright pink and the “i” in “mind” is topped with a curly heart) guidance when navigating everyday social situations. Meanwhile, I was born in 1994 so writing about the fifties is a tad outside my comfort zone.

You often hear people say “write what you know.” As many writers learn, this advice is rarely followed. Sure, I could write about topics I’ve studied or my own personal life, that of my family or friends, but eventually I’ll develop a desire to learn and grow as a writer. Writing what you don’t know, however, requires careful research and genuine curiosity. So while this book was published to guide Canadian women of the fifties, I, too, am benefitted. I am provided with the necessary tools to properly portray how a woman might react in those very “unsure situations” of which the book speaks. Meanwhile, if I may offer one small piece of advise… never underestimate the power of research and for those of you who imagine research as an act conducted solely in libraries and stuffy archive rooms, you are mistaken! This book is proof of that.

I may now write about a particular woman’s garden party, knowing how one should dress, act, eat etc. Thus, this book is, in many senses, a research tool. At the moment, it’s also a reminder of my wonderful Aunt who always dressed and acted in an appropriate, though incredibly loving and genuine, manner. I’m not quite sure what I’d like to write about yet but as I flip through the book’s pages (carefully as it’s beginning to fall apart) I am continually prompted and day-dream of writing a series of short stories about manners misused or parties gone awry.

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