The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 7 November

Thomas Blaikie delves into The Lady archive and uncovers the dilemmas faced during the First World War
Modern-Manners-Nov07-00-176In August, I explored the archive issues of The Lady covering the early months of the First World War. The horrors were yet to come and there was instead a preoccupation with enemy aliens and the upsetting of the social hierarchy occasioned by the war when the sons of peers joined the ranks as lowly soldiers.

Every week, The Lady set a ‘daily difficulty’, essentially an awkward social dilemma, to which readers were invited to submit ‘answers’. Some weeks later, the magazine would pronounce as to the ‘correct’ answer and readers, using bizarre pseudonyms, who had got it ‘wrong’, were subject to a severe dressing down in print. Perhaps surprisingly the ‘right’ answers proposed by the magazine always showed an advanced liberal attitude.

Going into the Covent Garden offices last week to delve further into the archive (the same offices, of course, where the magazine was produced 100 years ago), things got rather desperate. In the first four months of 1915, the ‘daily difficulties’ were to do with people gossiping on trains, overhearing things they shouldn’t, paying or not paying the entrance fee for a bazaar, borrowing books and not returning them. I began to wonder whether the subject of the war was being avoided deliberately. Then, in June 1915, the bound archive ran out. I had to descend to a troglodyte cellar where individual issues are kept in plastic wrappers. At last, on 1 July 1915, the ‘daily difficulty’ was about someone proposing to sing I Hear You Calling Me at a musical evening, which the hostess knew would upset a ‘young widow’ present. But was she a War Widow?

I’d just have to press on and so dragged a pile of The Lady upstairs, and continued my search. It wasn’t until 26 August 1915 that I made the breakthrough I was hoping for:

‘Miss C is staying at the seaside with her sister’s children. She takes her chair down to the sands for a long morning of reading and sewing. Before she sits down…’

To summarise, she leaves her chair temporarily and returns to find it occupied by a wounded soldier with a bandaged head who has mistaken it for a public one. The man is lying back, perhaps asleep. How is she to retrieve her needlework from under the chair without disturbing him? She is anxious to finish it for a friend’s birthday. All the public chairs are occupied.

At once, I scurried down to the remote cellar, begging colleagues at least to enquire if I was not heard of again, to find the subsequent issue in which the answer would be given. But, oh dear! The remaining numbers for 1915 were missing.

Back upstairs, the office was abuzz. What was the solution? The modern consensus appeared to be that the woman politely should explain to the wounded soldier that it was her chair, take away her sewing and of course insist that he stay in the seat.

‘I’ll have to go to the British Library,’ I was saying, or even to the Bodleian, to find the missing issues.

At this point, our editor, Matt Warren, appeared and said that there was another archive in an even deeper cellar. I continued to fret about getting to the British Library, but I found a bound volume and flicked through the pages as fast as their fragility allowed.

‘What is it?’ colleagues cried. Finally I reached the right place:

‘Miss C should on no account disturb the wounded solider. She should not even go to him and say, “Please excuse me, but may I have my things from under your chair?”’

The answer continues, ‘She can easily approach quietly from behind and take them [her sewing] away without his knowledge – while his eyes are closed. Or, better, she can send one of her sister’s children to do so for her… Nothing more would be necessary for the purpose than an umbrella, or a sunshade, or even a child’s spade…’

So, we, the modern-day Lady workers, had got it quite wrong.

How interestingly times change.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER