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Self-Help, Circa 1937

by Stephanie Piper

I met an old friend at a used book sale. She was lying face down on a card table, looking remarkably fresh despite her advanced years. I snatched her up, paid my $4.50, and carried her home in triumph. It's not every day you find Emily Post's Complete Etiquette, copyright 1937.

Emily and I go way back. I first discovered her 30-something years ago, browsing through my school library in search of escapist fiction. The pickings were pretty slim, but a thick blue volume caught my eye. I read one paragraph and was hooked.

It wasn't the correct placement of fish forks that captured my imagination. It was Mrs. Wellborn, and the fabulously rich Gildings, and the gracious Mr. and Mrs. Kindheart. It was Mr. Stocksan Bonds. It was Clubwin Doe. It was the description of exotic locales and a way of life so meticulously arranged and deliberately serene that no historical romance novel could touch it.

The empress of etiquette taught by parable, and her characters fairly leapt off the page. The Wellborns were "well-to-do," not wealthy; the Gildings lived in "beautiful houses," never "elegant homes." And they lived in a state of perpetual social motion, borne from dinner party to society wedding to state funeral on a wave of perfect courtesy.

Well, almost perfect. There were exceptions, like Richan Vulga and Sylvia Newrich, whose crimes against good taste were held up for our horrified inspection. Sylvia smoked on the street. Richan (gasp) discussed his income. Somehow we knew that they also called curtains "drapes" and referred to parties as "social affairs."

The 1937 Emily left nothing to chance. From correct deportment for young ladies at fraternity house parties ("Don't forget that the friendship of other girls is the crown of your own success") to the Letter No Woman Should Ever Write ("Never, as long as you live, write a letter to a man that you would be ashamed to see in a newspaper above your signature"), she packed 860 pages with rules for virtually every occasion.

In an era when self-help books were unknown, she must have been a comforting voice. Coaxing, cajoling, exhorting and scolding, Emily insisted that good manners were mostly a matter of good sense—and that no amount of correctly placed silverware could excuse a snob. For all her antique charm, she had some surprising insights.

When I think of the handful of truly great ladies I have known, I am struck by the fact that they would have been instantly recognizable to Emily Post. Some were Southerners; some were rock-ribbed Yankees. One was a French woman, the wife of a doctor and mother of a large and demanding family. None had titles or vast estates, but they all shared a certain patrician grace.

It had something to do with the way they drew you instantly into their circle, a light hand on your arm. It was the way their eyes never wavered when they listened to you, the way their questions drew you out and convinced you, just for a moment, that you were the guest for whom the party had been planned. In their presence, you stood straighter and smiled more and understood that the root of courtesy was simply kindness.

An updated Emily Post gathers dust on my bookshelf. The Gildings and the Wellborns have vanished from its pages, replaced by seating charts and sample wedding invitations. But in my mind's eye, I see them still—drifting through a set of French doors into a twilight garden, waving a reluctant, ever-gracious goodbye.

February 22, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 8
© 2001 Metro Pulse