“An English lady without her piano, or her pencil, or her fancy work, or her favorite French authors and German poets, is an object of wonder, and perhaps of pity.” (The Habits of Good Society: By Unknown Author, originally published 1872. Copyright 2012 Forgotten Books).
Chapter VI is another fascinating look into life in 1872 as penned by someone who lived during the time period. In order to be a member of good society, young ladies should possess a skill besides dancing. Women are discouraged from being talkers. “We are not, we English, a nation of talkers; naturally, our talent is for silence.” (Perhaps that is where the stiff upper lip mentality comes in because one never talks of their misfortunes or petty irritations.) Since the female population should not be prone to excessive conversation, they must compensate through some form of talent to be shared with others.
Music, of course, is the number one choice because it soothes the soul. The piano keeps it’s preeminence as the instrument acceptable for society, because the harp, by 1872, is no longer fashionable. A guitar is more compatible for a man to play rather than a woman. The writer of this book, however, thinks it to be a monotonous instrument. A zither is another acceptable musical form, which is Bavarian in origin. It is considered soft, romantic, and unsophisticated. The violin is unsuitable for young ladies, even though there have been women who have cultivated the playing of the stringed instrument.
Possessing the skill to play an instrument is imperative but also choosing the right piece of music to perform. Loud thumping scores should be avoided, as well as mournful pieces or music that is too rapid. A young lady, when sitting down and using a piano, should never complain that the instrument is out of tune because it is considered rude and an insult to the owner. A single piece is sufficient rather than dominating the instrument for long periods of time thereby preventing other ladies the opportunity to play.
Singing is a form of accomplishment. One must not be too young or inexperienced before singing in public. The voice must be trained and have tone. You should choose a song that suits the audience. A simple one for a homely group. On the other hand, if your audience is more sophisticated and you possess the talent to impress, a more complicated piece is suitable for the occasion.
Accomplishments give a lady something to do. Beyond music, “Sketching and archery stand first among outdoor amusements. They are healthy, elegant, and appropriate…” The writer seems to think that if more young ladies were accomplished, they would not appear so bored at public parties.
All this talk about accomplishments reminds me of the conversation between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth:
It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.”
“All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?”
“Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”
“Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” said Darcy, “has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”
“Nor I, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley. “Then,” observed Elizabeth, “you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman.”
“Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it.”
“Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”
“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”
(Picture: George Goodwin Kilburne – A Young Woman at a Piano 1880)