Not having any motivation to pick up self-improvement books, Miss Manners is free to spend her time meandering about in the emotional landscape with those writers who are her old friends.
Unfortunately, the majority of Miss Manners' writer-friends have been dead for upwards of 50 years. They seldom surprise her by bringing out new books. But this melancholy circumstance ought to enable her to view their personal troubles with a degree of detachment.
Right now, however, she is distraught over an account of the social difficulties of a friend -- a whiny friend, it is true, but a valued one -- who was only trying to entertain a few congenial souls at dinner.
Here is Miss Manners' friend's predicament:
Although he didn't feel well, in fact had hardly felt well a day in his life, and his apartment was as disarranged as it was the day he had moved into it, he said casually to an editor friend that he would like to have him to dinner some day. The day he had in mind, he later confided to another friend, was years off.
But the editor immediately got out his engagement book and mentioned which days he was free. So Miss Manners' friend, cornered, resigned himself to hoping that he would be able to engage a public room secluded enough that he could hope to survive the evening without choking to death. (Miss Manners warned you he was whiny.)
In mid-June, he invited some friends to dinner on July 1 at 7 p.m., with a recital of music to follow. He planned to have about 20 people.
Here are some of the responses:
Mme. Lemaire couldn't give him a definite answer because she didn't know whether she would be back from London by then.
Mme. de Brantes apparently had an ill cousin and she reserved the right to cancel, should the cousin die.
Mme. d'Eyragues said that she didn't know if she would be spending that time on the banks of the Loire or not.
Mme. de Noailles said she probably wouldn't be back from London until July 2.
Mme. de Chimay said she didn't know whether she would be back from Holland before July 3.
M. Hahn said he would be in London.
Mme. de Chevigne said to be sure to keep a place for her, but later said she wouldn't attend after all. Then she arrived after dinner.
Mme. Straus said she would be going to the theater and might stop in afterward, but then said she probably wouldn't. In any case, M. Straus, who was known to dislike the other prospective guests, would certainly be too tired.
M. Dufeuille, who wanted to know if Mme. Straus was attending, said he wouldn't know until the last minute whether he would be free. It depended on whether some friends of his who were away would have returned.
Mme. de la Rochefoucauld, after hearing that Mme. Straus would not attend the dinner, said she was not free.
Mme. d'Haussonville said she would definitely come, but without her husband. Mme. de Clermont-Tonnerre said she would come with her husband. But M. de Clermont-Tonnerre's political opinions were such that it was imprudent to invite M. Reinach, who represented the opposite views. M. Reinach's views were acceptable to the host and M. de Clermont-Tonnerre's were not, but the host owed M. de Clermont-Tonnerre and not M. Reinach.
The poor host was in despair. Suppose none of the people who said they might come did? But then, suppose he invited others to fill their places, and then they all showed up? Couldn't anyone give him the least little idea of what they would feel like doing on July 1, he begged.
It was July 1, 1907, and the host was Marcel Proust.
All these years later, Miss Manners is joining him in despair. Rather than taking comfort in the fact that guests' manners then were just as bad as they are now, she is desolate about the thought that nothing will ever change.
Q. Is it still true that one should not wear brown in the country? And if so, why?
This etiquette rule has always perplexed me. Does it extend so far as to forbid brown shoes?
A. It is black that you are not supposed to wear in the country. Brown is wonderful in the country, especially for shoes, because it is the color of -- oh, never mind. This rule isn't observed anymore, anyway.
Q. My son recently asked me why there are thin translucent papers that come with invitations and/or announcements. I responded that they were the engraver's assurance that the ink wouldn't smear, and that they (the little papers) should be discarded before the inviter and/or announcer send out their invitations and/or announcements. Did I give him the wrong information?
A. No, you are right, and no and/or about it.
Keeping the tissues is like keeping the cellophane covering on a new lampshade. It suggests a state of timidity, in which one is in perpetual waiting for an occasion grand enough to remove the protective wrappings and take one's chances with life.
Q. My mother has moved from the family home into an apartment with many blank walls. No longer having use for a varied and beautiful assortment of service plates collected by her own mother and used by both for formal dinners over the years, she has stored them in a closet.
I suggested she mount and display some of these colorful and well-crafted plates on the dining room wall, in lieu of the usual decorator's art.
Mother argues that a plate created and used for service is not a suitable wall hanging. The depression in the center, covered always by doily and first course, prevents the plate from becoming "decor" in the sense that a Chinese cloisonne' plate in standing frame or made for hanging on the wall is "decorative."
Since she would consider hanging the china but is uncertain whether her old friends would consider it gauche, we await your reply with interest.
A. Etiquette's interest in this decorating matter is only in the type of item that can be used for display, not whether the individual pieces are suitable, which is best left to the owner's esthetic judgment.
China plates, even though they are designed for practical use, are proper for dining room decorative duty, in cabinets or on walls. So if these make an attractive display, Miss Manners has nothing to say against them. If, however, you wanted to tack up the forks and knives on the wall, Miss Manners would raise an objection, no matter how they looked. 1985, United Feature Syndicate