The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 1 August

On the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, Thomas Blaikie delves into The Lady archive to revisit two etiquette dilemmas of the time
In a few days, on 4 August, we will mark the Centenary of Britain’s entry into the First World War. To commemorate this historic anniversary, I delved into The Lady archive to uncover the particular difficulties of manners and etiquette that the war brought. I started in January 1915 when the war was five months old. At first glance, ladies were still preoccupied with remedies for grey hair gone yellow and the correct cleaning of muslin curtains. Acres of tiny print (the entire magazine can only be read with a magnifying glass) are devoted to the labyrinthine complexities of visiting cards. But among all this I came across the following dilemmas in the 4 February 1915 issue:

DAILY DIFFICULTY, 4 February 1915
‘Mrs A has called on Mrs B, the English wife of a German officer, newcomers to the district, and Mrs B has duly returned her call. After the outbreak of the war, Herr B, the husband, is arrested under grave suspicion of being a spy. Mrs A has no desire to fraternise with her country’s enemies, but pities her possibly innocent countrywoman. Being near neighbours, they are bound to meet sooner or later. When they do, what should Mrs A do?’

This Daily Difficulty was a regular feature in The Lady at the time. Readers were invited to provide solutions and a round-up, with editorial comments, was published in a later issue. In this case, 87 readers were credited with solutions – and all had written in using bizarre pseudonyms, such as ‘Brat’, ‘Try Again’ and ‘Beech-nut’.

Given the level of violent anti-German sentiment we’re told was prevalent at the time, with the smashing of German shops (of which there were many) and the internment of enemy aliens, the readers of The Lady proved themselves to be remarkably mild and civilised. One even wonders whether Herr B might not turn out to be innocent. Certainly, most seem to agree that there is nothing to implicate Mrs B as yet. Herr B’s arrest should not be mentioned unless Mrs B raises the subject herself, many suggest.

One reader, called ‘Pallant’, gets singled out for castigation. She (or he) said that Mrs B should be cut dead for marrying a German. Quite wrong, they are corrected. She must be treated as if nothing had happened; and always politely. This is very touching and I shed a tear for the greatness of our nation.

DAILY DIFFICULTY, 18 February 1915
‘Colonel and Mrs A go to spend a few days with their friend, Mrs B, the Colonel’s regiment being in camp in the neighbourhood. They arrive in a big motor, with a huge trunk, which the chau­ eur, who is in khaki, deposits in the hall. Mrs B asks the chau­ffeur to carry the trunk upstairs, as it is too heavy for the maids. He does so. During dinner that evening some mention is made of the chau­ffeur, and Colonel A remarks that he is the son of Lord C, who has enlisted as a private during the war. Mrs B has told her maid to take the chau­ffeur into the kitchen for some refreshment, and knows that he is still there. What should Mrs B do?’

What indeed? A Lord’s son in the kitchen? Can you imagine? I am reminded of Mrs McLean, my grandmother’s somewhat stuck-up neighbour in the Second World War, who said that during air raids her maid was ‘in her proper place’ under a sturdy kitchen table in the basement, while Mrs M cowered beneath some “ imsy bit of Sheraton upstairs in the drawing room, at far greater risk of a direct hit.

But the verdict is that Mrs B should do nothing, except perhaps to remark, ‘How splendidly our young men are behaving in this war.’

The chau•ffeur is present as the Colonel’s servant, a role he has apparently accepted readily. To – fish him out of the kitchen and treat him as a guest would be ‘a bêtise, altogether improper, and a serious breach of etiquette’.