CHAPTER XXV.ETIQUETTE FOR ELDERLY GIRLS.


Next Section || Previous Section || Table of Contents


Page 223 { page image viewer }

A Brisk correspondent writes to us that she finds our restrictions as to the etiquette which single women should follow somewhat embarrassing. Being now thirty-five, and at the head of her father’s house, with no intention of ever marrying, she asks if she requires a chaperon; if it is necessary that she should observe the severe self-denial of not entering an artist’s studio without a guardian angel; if she must never allow a gentleman to pay for her theatre tickets; if she must, in short, assume a matron’s place in the world, and never enjoy a matron’s freedom.

From her letter we can but believe that this young lady of thirty-five is a very attractive person, and that she does “not look her age.” Still, as she is at the head of her father’s house, etiquette does yield a point and allows her to judge for herself as to the proprieties which must bend to her. Of course with every year of a woman’s life after twenty-five she becomes less and less the subject of chaperonage. For one thing, she is better able to judge of the world and its temptations; in the second place, a certain air which may not be less winning, but which is certainly more mature, has replaced the wild grace of a giddy girlhood. She has, with the assumption of

Page 224 { page image viewer }

years, taken on a dignity which, in its way, is fully the compensation for some lost bloom. Many people prefer it.

But we must say here that she is not yet, in European opinion, emancipated from that guardianship which society dispenses with for the youngest widow. She must have a “companion” if she is a rich woman; and if she is a poor one she must join some party of friends when she travels. She can travel abroad with her maid, but in Paris and other Continental cities a woman still young-looking had better not do this. She is not safe from insult nor from injurious suspicion if she signs herself “Miss” Smith, and is without her mother, an elderly friend, a companion, or party.

In America a woman can go anywhere and do almost anything without fear of insult. But in Europe, where the custom of chaperonage is so universal, she must be more circumspect.

As to visiting an artist’s studio alone, there is in art itself an ennobling and purifying influence which should be a protection. But we must not forget that saucy book by Maurice Sand, in which its author says that the first thing he observed in America was that women (even respectable ones) went alone to artists’ studios. It would seem wiser, therefore, that a lady, though thirty-five, should be attended in her visits to studios by a friend or companion. This simple expedient “silences envious tongues,” and avoids even the remotest appearance of evil.

In the matter of paying for tickets, if a lady of thirty-five wishes to allow a gentleman to pay for her

Page 225 { page image viewer }

admission to picture-galleries and theatres she has an indisputable right to do so. But we are not fighting for a right, only defining a law of etiquette, when we say that it is not generally allowed in the best society, abroad or here. In the case of young girls it is quite unallowable, but in the case of a lady of thirty-five it may be permitted as a sort of camaraderie, as one college friend may pay for another. The point is, however, a delicate one. Men, in the freedom of their clubs, recount to each other the clever expedients which many women of society use to extort from them boxes for the opera and suppers at Delmonico’s. A woman should remember that it may sometimes be Very inconvenient to young men who are invited by her to go to concerts and theatres to pay for these pleasures. Many a poor fellow who has become a defaulter has to thank for it the lady who first asked him to take her to Delmonico’s to supper. He was ashamed to tell her that he was poor, and he stole that he might not seem a churl.

Another phase of the subject is that a lady in permitting a gentleman to expend money for her pleasures assumes an obligation to him which time and chance may render oppressive.

With an old friend, however, one whose claim to friendship is well established, the conditions are changed. In his case there can be no question of obligation, and a woman may accept unhesitatingly any of those small attentions and kindnesses which friendly feeling may prompt him to offer to her.

Travelling alone with a gentleman escort was at one time allowed in the West. A Kentucky woman

Page 226 { page image viewer }

of that historic period, “before the war,” would not have questioned the propriety of it, and a Western man of to-day still has the desire to pay everything, everywhere, “for a lady.”

The increase in the population of the Western States and the growth of a wealthy and fashionable society in the large towns have greatly modified this spirit of unwise chivalry, and such customs are passing away even on the frontier. Mr. Howells’s novel, “The Lady of the Aroostook,” has acquainted American readers with the unkind criticism to which a young lady who travels in Europe without a-chaperon is subjected, and we believe that there are few mammas who would desire to see their daughters in the position of Miss Lydia Blood.

“An old maid,” as our correspondent playfully calls herself, may do almost anything without violating etiquette, if she consents to become a chaperon, and takes with her a younger person. Thus an aunt and niece can travel far and wide; the position of an elder sister is always dignified; the youthful head of a house has a right to assert herself–she must do it –therefore etiquette bows to her (as “nice customs courtesy to great kings”). There is very much in the appearance of a woman. It is a part of the injustice of nature that some people look coquettish who are not so. Bad taste in dress, a high color, a natural flow of spirits, or a loud laugh have often caused a very good woman to be misinterpreted. Such a woman should be able to sit in judgment upon herself; and remembering that in a great city, at a crowded theatre, or at a watering-place, judgments must be hasty and superficial,

Page 227 { page image viewer }

she should tone down her natural exuberance, anti-take with her a female companion who is of a different type from herself. Calm and cold Puritanical people may not be more respectable than the fresh-colored and laughing “old maids” of thirty-five, but they look more so, and in this world women must consult appearances. An elderly gift must even think how she looks. A woman who at a watering-place dresses conspicuously, wears a peignoir to breakfast, dyes her hair, or looks as if she did, ties a white blond veil over her locks and sits on a hotel piazza, showing her feet, may be the best, the most cultivated woman in the house, but a superficial observer will not think so. In the mind of every passer-by will lurk the feeling that she lacks the first grace of womanhood, modesty–and in the criticism of a crowd there is strength. A man passing such a person, and contrasting her with modestly dressed and unobtrusive ladies, would naturally form an unfavorable opinion of her; and were she alone, and her name entered on the books of the house as “Miss” Smith, he would not be too severe if he thought her decidedly eccentric, and certainly “bad style.” If, however, “Miss” Smith were very plain and quiet, and dressed simply and in good taste, or if she sat on the sands looking at the sea, or attended an invalid or a younger friend, then Miss Smith might be as independent as she pleased: she would suffer from no injurious comments. Even the foreigner, who does not believe in the eccentricities of the English mees, would have no word to say against her. A good-looking elderly girl might say, “There is, then, a premium

Page 228 { page image viewer }

on ugliness;” but that we do not mean. Handsome women can conduct themselves so well that the breath of reproach need not and does not touch them, and ugly women may and do sometimes gain an undeserved reproach.

There are some people who are born with what we call, for want of a better name, a pinchbeck air. Their jewellery never looks like real gold; their man her is always bad; they have the faux air of fashion, not the real one. Such people, especially if single, receive many a snub which they do not deserve, and to a woman of this style a companion is almost necessary. Fortunately there are almost always two women who can join forces in travelling or in living together, and the independence of such a couple is delightful. We have repeated testimony in English literature of the pleasant lives of the Ladies of Llangollen, of the lives of Miss Jewsbury and Lady Morgan, and of the model sisters Berry. In our own country we have almost abolished the idea that a companion is necessary for women of talent who are physicians or artists or musicians; but to those who are still in the trammels of private life we can say that the presence of a companion need not destroy their liberty, and it may add very much to their respectability and happiness. There is, no doubt, a great pleasure in the added freedom of life which comes to an elderly girl. “I can wear a velvet dress now,” said an exceedingly handsome woman on her thirtieth birthday. In England an unmarried woman of fifty is called “Mrs.,” if she prefers that title. So many delightful women are late in loving, so many

Page 229 { page image viewer }

are true to some buried love, so many are “elderly girls” from choice, and from no neglect of the stronger sex, that to them should be accorded all the respect which is supposed to accrue naturally to the married. “It takes a very superior woman to be an old maids” said Miss Sedgwick.

Advertisements