15 Things Historical Fiction Writers Should Keep In Mind About Victorian Society

victorian etiquette

Currently I am teaching Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest.  Upon doing research for the class, I stumbled upon an old book by Anna R. White entitled Youth’s Educator for Home and Society (1896).

It occurred to me that some of you like to write steampunk or historical fiction set in the Victorian Era.  If you do, then the following 15 etiquette rules are important to emulate in characters of higher social class and are taken from White’s book:

For the women:

  1. Upon being introduced to gentlemen, a lady will never offer her hand.  She should bow politely and say, “I am happy to make your acquaintance,” or words to that effect.
  2. When bowing on the street, it is appropriate to incline the head gracefully, but not the body.
  3. When traveling by train, tramcar, or omnibus, the well-bred lady has a delicate sense of self-respect that keeps her from contact with her neighbor, as far as such contact is avoidable.
  4. A lady never looks back after anyone in the street, or turns to stare at them in the theatre, concert hall, church, or opera.
  5. A lady never, ever smokes.
  6. In crossing the street, a lady raises her dress a little above the ankle, holding together the folds of her gown and drawing them toward the right.  Raising the dress with both hands exposes too much ankle and is most vulgar.
  7. A lady (or gentleman for that matter) will always rise to her feet in respect for an older person, or one of a higher social standing.
  8. Above all, the lady strives to be dignified and elegant in everything she does.

For the men:

  1. A gentleman will always tip his hat to greet a lady.
  2. When walking in the street, the gentleman always walks on the outside to protect his lady from the dangers of the road.
  3. If a gentleman is smoking and a lady passes by, he should remove the cigar from his mouth.
  4. A true gentleman should always rise when a lady enters or leaves the room, and remove his hat upon entering a room where ladies are present.  He should also precede a lady in ascending the stairs, and follow her in descending them.
  5. A gentleman always stands to shake hands.
  6. During the daytime, a gentleman never offers a lady his arm unless to protect her in a large crowd.  In the evening, it is appropriate for her to take his arm.
  7. A gentleman should never place his arm on the back of a chair occupied by a lady.

I hope this helps the historical fiction/steampunk writer in their endeavor to stay true to the history of the period, as many these days are falling to bits of fancy and falderal.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

9 thoughts on “15 Things Historical Fiction Writers Should Keep In Mind About Victorian Society

  1. Fun. Ladies didn’t smoke but they could chew tobacco (lower class – workers, mostly in the tobacco growing areas). I still can’t imagine that but they did. Nice list. 🙂

  2. I cannot tell you how much I am in love with your post. Though, this is probably because I’ve been reading a lot of fiction set in the Victorian Era lately and many of the stories fail to take into account the Victorian sense of propriety. 🙂

  3. Personally, #4 in the men’s list doesn’t make sense-don’t you think a man would proceed a woman down the stairs in case she tripped on her skirt or the step? I’d love to know the thinking on that one. Otherwise, fun to read, even if I don’t write Victorian era. 🙂

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