Jan. 23, 2006

Dear Wendy,


I just finished reading "A Return to Modesty", based upon a recommendation from a friend who happens to be an Orthodox Jew. While I didn't agree with your recommendations regarding curing society's ills, I found your critique on women's magazines quite refreshing.


In the back of the book you had a list of citations, one involving proper conduct regarding a man and a woman walking arm-in-arm. I believe the reference is from a book in the 1950's, and it says that a woman should only walk arm-in-arm with a man if she is related or married to him.


I've been reading a lot of Victorian Novels lately, and it seems that they weren't so strict. It seems that long-time friends of the family are allowed this privilege, and possibly lovers if they're really serious and aren't yet betrothed, but probably will be soon.


I am writing a novel where the 19-year-old woman lead, who happens to be a virgin, and really likes Victorian Novels, and gets the idea of walking arm-in-arm with a guy she's kind of interested in. Now obviously a woman in Victorian times wouldn't suggest walking arm-in-arm. But the novel takes place in 1987, and the woman character is a little confused about the proper etiquette.


In your research, have you come across any Victorian-era etiquette books that clarified what was and wasn't permitted with regard to arm-in-arm conduct?


Sincerely,


Tom

 



Dear Tom,

Let me get this straight: you’re writing to tell me that you “didn’t agree” with my book, and you expect me to help with yours? I admire your chutzpah. Sounds to me like you already have the makings of a great writer! Most likely you do not even need me to reply, really, yet surely someday I will be honored that I once shared this correspondence with you.

(I hope you don’t mind me teasing you a bit--it is all in good fun.)

Seriously, I do appreciate that you liked my points about women’s magazines, and I don’t expect people to agree with me on everything. (Just some things would be nice.)

Now, the question of whether or not it's proper to take a man's arm seems beside the point in that particular manual, as "most of us do it anyway."

Your idea sounds very promising, though. You could research more about Victorian conduct online or find some old Victorian books on etiquette through interlibrary loan. Godey's Lady's Book would be a great place to start and much of it is even available online.

The real question seems to be whether or not real Victorians always followed their own moral code and the answer is probably no. Private behavior didn't always live up to its public face, but at least they bothered with a public face and that was something.

The tension between the real and the ideal makes for the best fiction, as long as you don’t paint everyone as a hypocrite (as that usually isn’t the case either).

As long as your protagonist believes that here is an ideal code of behavior, culled from her reading and romanticism, her attempts to make the vulgar modern "real" world conform to this ideal should be interesting. You mention that you’ve read a lot of Victorian novels but you don’t say which ones. You might want to take a look at Henry James and Edith Wharton if you’re interested in the authentic tensions of Victorian life. Because characters don’t canoodle in the drawing room, they have coded ways of conveying the romantic.

And since your Orthodox friend was kind enough to give you my book, I feel compelled to point out that in Hebrew there is the concept of “derech eretz”-- loosely translated as “the way that things are done” but it is generally taken more seriously than etiquette.

Best of luck and please keep me posted on how your novel unfolds,

Wendy

p.s. Just curious: why 1987?







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