History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

17 September 2012

May I please present ...

I’ve been having a fascinating discussion on Twitter about introductions. My understanding of “the rules” is that gentlemen are always introduced to ladies (and here we’re talking about people of the same class, not the lower orders or servants).

High Change in Bond Street by Gillray, 1796

Men being anything but gentlemanly
as they crowd the ladies into the dirty street.

This is because women are the ones with reputations to guard and it should always be up to them if they wish to have a gentleman presented to them or not. But one of my favorite people to blab with (who also happens to be British) quite firmly believes that a viscount’s daughter would be introduced to a duke because the duke is of a higher rank.

On the one hand I get what she’s saying, as “the rules” also state that inferiors are introduced to superiors, but I’ve always understood that “the lady rule” trumps the “inferior/superior” rule.

I went digging for some kind of actual documentation to clear the issue up, but I can’t find anything from the Georgian period. My guess is that etiquette books only really became a necessity in the Victorian era when the burgeoning middle class was becoming a power to be reckoned with. Before that, the proper way of doing things would have simply been instilled by your family. This might also explain why the vast majority of these guides (especially the earlier ones) are American. The “great unwashed” wasn’t learning these things at their mother’s knee.

The oldest source I can find is American, but it expresses the concept just as I understand it:

Etiquette for Ladies (Philadelphia, 1840)

“…in the introduction of ladies to each other, and to gentlemen, infinitely more care is necessary, as a lady cannot shake off an improper acquaintance with the same facility as a gentleman can do, and their character is much easier affected by apparent contact with the worthless and dissipated.”

“No person of correct feeling will make an introduction to a lady, without having first apprized her of it, and obtained her consent.”

The first English source I can find is The Hand-Book of Etiquette (London, 1860).

“Introduce gentlemen to ladies, not ladies to gentlemen, for etiquette takes a chivalrous view of the subject and looks upon the lady as the superior. It is the law of introductions to introduce the inferior to the superior.”

Emily Post says the same thing in 1922: “No lady is ever, except to the President of the United States, a cardinal, or a reigning sovereign, presented to a man.” And Debrett’s agrees: “If you are the link between people who have never met it is up to you to make the introductions. Remember the hierarchy: men should be introduced to women, juniors to elder people and higher ranks.”

None of these sources says anything about a peerage trumping the gender rule, but of course they’re not written for the haut ton. I tried to find plays or novels that might show me such a scene, but I came up with nothing. Anyone have a resource I’m missing?

Let’s be honest, this is all just academic, because if a duke was bad enough that a viscount’s daughter wouldn’t want to be acquainted with him, no one in society would introduce him to her in the first place! But I still love kicking these things around …


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There were very strict rules governing etiquette during the Regency, possibly because it was a society in transition and it's often the arrivistes who are keenest to observe proprieties.

I am surprised by the idea that the 'ladies first' rule would trump the title, particularly the titles of duke, marquess or earl. Even today, one would still present a lady of lesser title or standing to an earl or a duke--and particularly in the Regency when most of the dukes were of the Blood Royal. And even today, that rule still holds. At least, that has been my personal experience.

There were etiquette books available at the time. The first ones date back to the Restoration and they were written--there was a whole series of them--ostensibly by a Hannah Someone, I think her name was. And there was all sorts of information for wives in them about raising children, cooking a good meal for the husband, and other bits like that. But it turned out that the real Hannah person died and then her husband kept on churning these works out, still under her name, but with his own take on submissive wives and all sorts. There's even sexual advice in some of them.

There was an interview at the time the BBC made the most recent Sense & Sensibility, where they talked about just how much was covered by etiquette in the early 19th century. Everything down to how one had to place one's hands in one's lap was covered. You will notice that the ladies never 'fold' their hands, they place them one atop the other with the palms up--that is correct for the Regency. Anything else would have been deemed boorish...As I say, very strict. I fancy few of us would manage...

8:30 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Where are you finding the rule about peerage trumping? Because as I showed in the post, that's not what Debrett's or any other source I can find says (and you've now looped us back to the orginal disagreement on the topic).

11:53 AM  
Blogger Candice Hern said...

I have a several reference books on the peerage, titles and forms of address, etc -- from 1805, 1807, 1832, and 1918. All cover precedence in minute detail, but none of them mention rules of introduction. Odd.

12:12 PM  
Blogger C. P. Lesley said...

Did you check Georgette Heyer? I know she wrote in the 20th century, but she had an excellent grasp of 18th-century and Regency etiquette. I am almost certain that her gentlemen are aways introduced to ladies, regardless of station.

5:03 PM  

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