Mar 252013

Fans of the blog, thank you by the way, will know that I like delving into the historical on occasion. It’s fun to do, and allows me the opportunity to take advantage of the three years I spent studying history at university. There aren’t that many other chances I get, to be honest, so I really look forward to writing on the subject whenever the mood takes me. What I usually do is go into a bit more detail on a specific weapon or fighting style, and add a few tips about how to integrate them into a role playing game. If you know the kind of games I like to run and play though, you’ll know that combat is never a huge part of what I like about the hobby. instead I tend to veer more towards social interactions and intrigue. With that in mind, I have for you, some small snippets that could make for a more rounded social environment from periods of history that interest me, starting this week with the Victorians.

Although historically based games tend to take part in alternate history, one that largely does away with prejudice based on gender or race, the fact of the matter is that the Victorians were a very polite bunch of people, and even more so when it came to how women were addressed. This becomes obvious in one simple gesture, and is probably the best for summing up the gentlemanly attitudes towards the fairer sex; if a Lady stands, then no man should sit. This will be used often during meals, with the men getting to their feet if a woman walks into the room, or if a woman stands up to leave. It is a simple little thing, but gets across quite nicely how social convention becomes so ingrained into every day life. I could now go on at length about how obnoxious most men were about women in their modes of address and general feelings, but since most games are set in a world where this is not the case, I instead invite you to do some reading of your own.

This next one might very well be known to any readers who like the BBC TV show Qi as much as I do, but I discovered this one independently, and as such was actually pretty proud of myself for getting a question on that show correct. The best example I know of it, if you want to see it in action is the rather wonderful HBO show Deadwood. A man asks  young child, “How do you do?”, and the boy responds with a slight nod and the same question, but with a slightly different emphasis: “How do you do?”. This might not seem like much, but again highlights just how polite people were that the correct response to someone asking about you is instead to inquire as to their situation. It is a question that will be asked repeatedly in a character’s life, and knowing the basics just adds a layer of immersion that feels very satisfying.

This of course is the standard response, but it leads quite nicely to the basic concept of respecting one’s elders. I know this is seen as a bit hokey these days, but I like it – and not just because I’m getting on a bit myself – and it was very important to the Victorians. If one was perambulating along the pavement and someone your senior was also making use of the walkway, then it was a given that you would move to the right and allow them to pass. (As an aside, how much better would it be if we all just agreed to move to the right when two people were walking towards each other, instead of all that bimbling back and forth?) Although this was also expected from people of lower social classes if their ‘betters’ were walking towards them, age was to be universally respected.

I could go on at length here, but would rather suggest a few things that one should be very careful to avoid doing while out and about. if you are the guest in someone’s house, then they deserve the utmost respect, as does the house itself. What with a lack of electronic communication in the Victorian era, a lot of social interactions take place in person, and quite often at the domicile of one person involved in the conversation. There’s a whole list of things you should know about how a calling card is delivered, but space here is limited. When you do end up round at someone else’s place of residence, all due care should be made to avoid offending your gracious host.

So be careful to not touch or alter anything in the house; this includes touching and moving ornaments in the sitting room, opening or touching a piano if it is already open, or opening the curtains in the sitting room. Importantly, one should never stride around an empty room if you are waiting for the person you are calling on to enter it. Instead, stand respectably near the middle of the room, or near the fireplace. If someone has taken the time to visit you, then you must at all times give them your attention. This is another that strikes home I think, as visiting a friend who spends half his time on a smart phone is more than slightly annoying.

One final point, as I know my word count could sky-rocket on this subject. If you are inviting someone to attend you at any entertainment, then the written invitation should be composed in the third person. A strange one, but taking the time to compose such a letter should be time well spent, and creates an artificial distance between the two persons, and since the social mores of the time were tightly focused on keeping a distance between unmarried men and women, I can see the point.

I hope that some of that was useful for you, and I think I’ll take a shot at some medieval etiquette next. It was more than just the code of chivalry you know.

  9 Responses to “Historical Etiquette: The Victorians.”

  1. The Victorians were such strange people, with their formality on the outside and the things that went on behind closed doors (Victorian sexuality is a very mixed bag for example, full or prudery and kink).

    As for the lack of electronic communication, the telegram should not be neglected, at least for the later period. There were whole codebooks that would allow anyone to convey a long message with the minimum of words ect. It’s not really such a tool for social interaction as texting is today, but there are similarities.

    I played a Cthulhu game set in Victorian times and since we had a male and a female character, we had to ignore many of the conventions to make this even possible (after all, they were not related or married…although they are now). But we did our best to observe as many rules as possible and it made the game a lot of fun.

    • I play/run a lot of games in this very loosely defined period, and it’s always troublesome trying to figure out which bits to leave in and which to ignore completely. Attitudes to race are another big kettle of fish, and always make me want to play an Indian in that type of game.

      • We’re finished with the Cthulhu game, but the character are still alive and sane (!) and we are going to do some freeform roleplaying with them. Their honeymoon will take them to India, where my character served as a soldier for a long time. And we will definitely make racism a problem in the game. Our characters are for various reasons fairly tolerant and that will make them outcasts among the British in India for sure, to begin with.

        I think even playing an Italian would be quite hard in a game set in the period…the Sherlock Holmes stories have some examples of the prejudice the character would be met with. An Indian or Asian character would be even more challenging, so many things are just made impossible. But I’d love to try it.

        • For quite a while now I’ve been thinking about playing a character of a different race, when it would be the norm for white Anglo-European characters. Mind you, reading up on Masai hunters will do that to a fellow…

  2. “The past is another country, they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley

    A truism but how best to capture those differences? Little things, like the cards and men standing when a woman is, are good ways to remind people that it is not the modern world. You do not have to go overboard (but can, if everyone enjoys such) but finding the proper ‘just enough’ for a group is important.

    • when I was studying history, it was actually a degree course called History and heritage, and that quote was at the top of every bit of literature.

      I’m with you, in that it should be the little things that capture the differences, rather than being too heavy handed. As an extra nugget of information to add some flavour, it was customary for Gentlemen and ladies to serve themselves at breakfast, rather than have the servants do it…

    • Just surfing this morning and saw this, and thought of you…

  3. [...] broadly covering the period. Shortymonster gets into much more detail, listing some very specific points of Victorian etiquette. Not only would the ideas be useful for someone playing a Victorian character, but they also gets [...]

  4. Well done, sir.
    The intricacies of the Victorian era (all historical eras really) are so often overlooked yet make for a much more immersive, interesting experience.

    It also let’s the players know they aren’t in Kansas anymore and thier cultural assumptions may be amiss.

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