Nobody could be more surprised than Miss Manners at the return, in a slightly modernized form, of the institution of arranged marriages.
It was once widely believed, at least by parents, that the major ingredients of a successful marriage were similarity of financial resources, social status and living habits. That elusive ingredient called love was, mammas and papas would explain, something that was bound eventually to grace an appropriate union, but hardly substantive enough to serve as the sole foundation for a social structure as important as marriage.
Parents were naturally more qualified to judge and check out the family and personal qualities of candidates than were the inexperienced and emotionally befuddled young themselves. But adults were never really able to persuade the young to accept this system, and even tyrannical Victorian papas knew that it was hopeless to impose their choices on their docile-looking daughters, who knew a thing or two about wearing down parents at their own hearthsides.
After a period in which parents limited their interference to providing ample opportunities for suitable candidates to meet and attempting to discourage or ratify their children's romantic choices on practical grounds, parental participation became the merest empty formality.
Love, which only the couple themselves could judge, was finally acknowledged to be the essential ingredient for successful marriage. It may have been desirable to have other common grounds, but love was supposed to be able to transcend differences, while a loveless marriage was considered doomed, no matter what the objective advantages.
Well, now look what has happened. With parents no longer allowed to provide the social life from which prospects are drawn, young people must find their own mates, according to their own qualifications.
And look at those qualifications: The classified advertisements, or the merely longingly stated requirements of the single, refer to career status, stability of personality, physical presentableness and such details of living arrangements as no ancient matchmaker would have deigned to notice -- eating and smoking habits, choice of sports and how one feels about old Humphrey Bogart movies.
If these requirements are matched, the current theory goes, love ought to follow. We are back with the exact premise of the arranged marriage, with the difference that the candidates have the unseemly task of conducting their own searches.
You would think that Miss Manners would be pleased. Although not quite the period piece that she sometimes finds it convenient to pretend, she does have a sentimental attachment to the graceful forms of the past and is generally happy to see tradition altered for modern use.
But not in this case. Miss Manners has always subscribed to the romantic notion that love is erratic and inexplicable, and that the most sensible matching of requirements is no more likely to produce it than differences are to discourage it.
The concept of romance as something for which one can organize a reasoned search, as opposed to something that knocks one senseless while one is trying to go about the ordinary activities of life, repulses her. And the funny thing is that when love was not openly pursued, it always seemed to arrive anyway, with remarkable frequency and force.
Turning love into a business, in which goals are frankly declared, practical advantages shamelessly sought and techniques scrutinized for the efficiency with which they are likely to achieve quick results, strikes her as vulgar. She also notices, from the flood of loneliness and unhappiness in modern society, that it does not seem to work.
But while her sympathies were always quickly engaged on behalf of the lovers of olden times who fought for the spirit of romantic love against the materialistic cynicism of their parents, she can hardly figure out how to comfort those who inflict such tyranny upon themselves.
Q: I am a single woman expecting a baby. Would it be improper for me to send out birth announcements? Since the father and I do live together, would both our names or just my name go on them?
A: Miss Manners is always pleased to hear of a lady's wish to refrain from doing anything improper.
Yes, certainly, you may announce the birth in the name of both parents. It is not, however, customary to use the occasion to explain the relationship between the parents.
Q: My husband and I disagree about whether it is proper to eat spareribs with your fingers. I said if the sauce gets all over your hands, you should just cut the meat off. It actually ruins my meal to watch him, and I'm not that particular about table manners.
A: Miss Manners thought she was particular, but even she considers it a little extreme to cut the meat off the man's hands just because he got sauce on them.
The fact is that there is no way to eat sauce-drenched spareribs both effectively and genteelly, which is why one doesn't serve them at formal dinner parties. But the silly things are delicious, so one has them at barbecues or family-style dinners, with huge absorbent napkins and gobs of tolerance.
Q: I have read that it is proper to ask bridesmaids to pay for their own outfits, but most of mine are from out of town, and to keep the cost low I am having the dresses made by a seamstress friend, so I may initially have to pay. How do I discreetly ask them to reimburse me?
A: To keep the emotional cost low, ask your seamstress to bill your friends directly. Bridesmaids traditionally hate the dresses they are asked to wear, and while Miss Manners knows there are your best friends, she assures you that they will not be above resenting your bill-collecting.