Etiquette

As I watched Thursday night’s run, it struck me that we’ve not really discussed period etiquette in detail especially protocols of greeting. Just to start off on a light note, here’s a clip from Penn & Teller’s Bulls#*t that cuts right to the heart of the power dynamic between men and women in the Victorian era. It features Walter Nelson, an “expert” in Victorian etiquette, whose website, The Gentleman’s Page, I reference below.

Here is a short list of basic protocols between Ladies and Gentlemen:

  • Gentlemen, rise to your feet when being introduced, or when someone, particularly a Lady, enters the room.
  • “Between gentlemen, an inclination of the head, a gesture of the hand, or a mere touching of the hat is sufficient; but in bowing to a lady, the hat must be lifted from the head. [...] The body is not bent at all in bowing; the inclination of the head is all that is necessary.” From Our Deportment 1881.
  • Ladies make a small curtsey in response to a Gentleman’s greeting, especially if they are meeting for the first time.
  • Hostesses greet invited female guests cordially, shaking hands, making all feel welcome.
  • “In passing through a door, the gentleman holds it open for the lady, even though he never saw her before. he also precedes the lady in ascending stairs, and allows her to precede him in descending.” From Polite Society at Home and Abroad 1891.
  • Never turn your back on someone.
  • If you have to remove yourself (to answer a door or look out the window) always asked to be excused.
  • Ladies are never seen opening their own doors in the presence of a man, or carrying anything heavy.
  • Ladies do not call on gentlemen except on matters of business. Gentleman call on one another with little ceremony but still an awareness of class and public position.
  • Gentlemen, never sit beside or in near proximity to the hostess on a sofa unless expressly invited to do so.

Given this list, we can see how Nora breaks the number one rule of all interactions: avoid arousing “the passions.” She’s also a bit with a number of these interpersonal conventions (perhaps not surprisingly since all the scenes we see happen in her space of the home) perhaps with the exception of Krogstad.

For their first scene in Act 1, I think Krogstad is scrupulous about manners, so he’d bow to start off, and Nora responds by coming towards him and speaking more informally until she gestures for him to go to Torvald’s office. Christine moves away to the window and, since Nora doesn’t bother to introduce them, Jamie you don’t make any kind of greeting gesture or acknowledgment. Just know that if you turn your back on the two of them suddenly without asking to excuse yourself, you too are breaking a code of manners.

For the second scene in Act 1, Krogstad knows he’s breaking the rules by coming alone to her house, but when their moment begins he seems apologetic for the breach. Since they’ve been engaged in this “business” for a while, it seems logical that they go through the motions of behaving according to proper rules. However, by Act 2, as they both become more desperate, most if not all pretenses to decorum have vanished, and Krogstad really breaks into her physical space in ways that are really gross breaches of behavior.

We can see how Nora’s situation influences her behavior when, by the beginning of Act 2, we find her coming back in from going out alone, to call on Kristine. Being unescorted on the street is a big no-no. That’s why Torvald’s shows his gentlemanly character when he offers to “go down the road together” with Kristine towards the end of Act 1 and we get to see how far that mask of the gentleman has slipped by Act 3 when he lets her go off into the night alone: “It would be my pleasure to … but you don’t have such a very long walk have you?” (99)

As a widow, Kristine has more ‘freedom’ to be on her own in public (and to work outside the home) than Nora. But, while she might not be assumed to be a prostitute since she is unescorted and looking for work, Kristine must know that a woman alone still needs the sanction of Gentlemen. So I think that upon her meetings in Act 1, first with Dr. Rank and then with Torvald, both men would bow their heads and Kristine would courtsey. She probably continues her part of the etiquette in Act 3, when Torvald and Nora return from the party (maybe a curtsey to accompany her line of “Good evening”?). However, in the first part of Act 3 when she is alone with Krogstad I think they might start out acting more formal with each other (but dispense with any bowing or curtsey) and then that melts as they get to the heart of the matter.

Just for extra information, here are a few pieces of advice from The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette that also touch upon the Doll’s House world

  • No gentleman should use his bare hand to press the waist of lady in the waltz. ┬áIf without gloves, he should carry a handkerchief in his hand.
  • Swinging the arms when walking, eating upon the street, sucking the parasol handles, pushing violently through a crowd, talking and laughing very loudly and boisterously on the streets, and whispering in public conveyances are all evidences of ill-breeding in ladies.

If you’re feeling gutsy, you can try this interactive game hosted by the McCord Museum (Montreal, Quebec) where you gain points by how well you navigate social situations (as either a man or woman) according to Victorian rules of etiquette.

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