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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Of 'Fearful Morsels' and Downton Abbey Manners

I admit it. I love Downton Abbey, even if it really is just a high-class soap opera.

I imagine a lot of you watch it. No doubt you giggle at the Dowager Countess and the extremity of household protocol. Surely people were never so silly!

Or were they?

I am a history nut. When digging around in musty book shops, sometimes a treasure is unearthed... like a book of etiquette from times past. One such tome is a prized possession of mine by one Emily Holt, and bears the rather florid title:

[Augmented by Eight Half-Tone Illustrations]

(*Whew* I feel under scrutiny even before I crack open the cover, don't you?)

This is not an English book, but Canadian! Brought to you by the good people at Toronto's Musson Book Company Ltd., it lays it on the line for the more uppity colonials precisely how to behave in a civilized society. I cannot find a date, but I would guess it must be just about pre-WWI, due to some references to proper motorcar etiquette.

It is packed full of gems. I will share my favourite here today-- as the holidays are drawing close, and you wouldn't want to make a fatal social blunder at a dinner party, now would you?

[Tip: it is best read aloud in your most convincing Maggie Smith impersonation.]


'MISHAPS will overtake the best regulated diner, who, however, when anything flies from the plate or lap to the floor, should allow the servant to pick it up. Should grease or jelly drop from the fork to one's person, then to remove the deposit with the napkin corner is the only remedy.

How often, oh how often! does the apparently well-conducted man or woman, when such an accident befalls, gravely wipe his or her knife on a bit of bread or the plate's edge and heedfully scrape away at the the offending morsel. This is decidedly the wrong way to do it, just as it is an egregious error thoughtfully to scrape up a bit of butter or fragment of fowl from the tablecloth where it has fallen beside the plate. At the family board this is well enough, but to do so at a restaurant or a friend's table is wholly unnecessary.

If an ill-starred individual overturns a full wine or water glass at a dinner table, profuse apologies are out of place. To give the hostess an appealing glance and say: Pray forgive me, I am very awkward, or, I must apologize for my stupidity, this is quite unforgivable, I fear, is enough.

Should a cup, glass or dish be broken through carelessness, then a quick, quiet apology can be made and within a few days sincere repentance indicated by forwarding the hostess, if possible, a duplicate of the broken article and a contrite little note.

A serious and unpleasant accident is that of taking into the mouth half done, burning hot, or tainted foods and the one course to pursue is quickly and quietly to eject the fearful morsel on the fork or spoon, whence it can be quietly laid on the plate, or into a corner of the napkin. This can be so deftly accomplished that none need suspect the state of affairs and the napkin folded over and held in the lap throughout the meal.'

(I would be tempted to add, 'Whilst the juices of the of the fearful morsel may then stealthily seep in the fabric of one's dinner jacket or evening dress, this unfortunate side-effect of one's masochistic politeness must be borne without complaint. If one has a close family relationship with the hostess, a discreet bill for the cleaning may be sent in due course with a polite request for recompense, but, in the case of business partnerships or nobility, a stiff upper lip and a greasy lap is the only remedy'.'

Until my next post, dear Reader, I remain faithfully yours,

Ms. Ruth Anne Barrett


  1. I thought that I had manners at the dinner table until I read that! Maybe while I am in Afghanistan I will have my guys follow these rules while we are in the chow hall, get them prepared to slide back into the civilian life. Haha, good read. Take care.

    1. Now *there's* a great mental image-- soldiers carefully ejecting fearful morsels into their linen napkins and holding them daintily on their laps... ! YOU guys take care, okay? Nice to hear from you, TJ.