Whether it is talking in your mobile loudly on train, not saying please and thank-you or asking for the receipts for your birthday presents because you don’t like your Mum’s choices, manners are expected and ignored everywhere. In Britain more than most places in the world, there is an overriding sense of anguish if the strict code is ignored or if a child is not imbued from birth with a decent moral fibre. And yet, many of the habits and rituals that are today accepted as the custom were once seen as immoral or would now appear alien to any of our predecessors lucky enough to have a time machine and the will to visit the 21st century.
The eighteenth century was awash with literature, print, pamphlets and a plethora of other ephemera telling one how to behave. To conduct one’s self appropriately and lead a morally righteous life there were strict guidelines that dictated the dos and don’ts in everything from what to wear, what books to read and games to play with whom and when. Nothing was left to the possibility that desire and vice would tempt the god-fearing away from the moral path. In reality though, the picture was somewhat different. A large proportion of the educated populous were questioning the place for religion in society. Even larger portions were indulging in the heady world of fashion, luxury and worst of all, pleasure.
In 1754 a pamphlet was published entitled “Admonitions from the Dead in Epistles to the Living” and consisted of several letters purporting to be, as suggested, from those that had passed proffering advice to those left behind. Each letter highlights a particular evil that the author/ess feels needs to be addressed. For example, Letter XII is from a father to his son on “Intemperance in Eating” using both definitions of the word to ward against excessive drinking and partaking in pleasures deemed unsavoury from the heavenly realms. Through several protracted pages of brow beating, the Father shows his concern at the vice of his son (although by the end one feels like a swift gin).
Further advice comes from Lady ****** to Miss G*****G amusingly allaying the fears of the latter by assuring her that whilst ghostly apparitions are frightening, the dead write letters as much as the living and should therefore not fear her advice. The theme of this counsel is the ‘Insignificancy of Beauty’ deriding beauty over character. The Lady writes “to have one man say we are good, is worth a Thousand calling us handsome.” She warns her reader to beware the advances of men who prey on beautiful girls and bestows the wisdom that it is better to avoid parties of pleasure should one feel ill at ease with the company. Good advice indeed but whether heeded by the young Miss, we shall never know.
There are a multitude of pieces like the “Admonitions” although many perhaps not so sinister in nature and yet in allows a glimpse into the contradictory world of the period. At once both indulgent in pleasure and terrified of vice.
So, should we all feel lucky or privileged that no herald bears down on us when we break wind or forget to thank Aunty Sue for the lovely dinner? When your epistolic admonition arrives, don’t say I didn’t warn you!