21 May 2013

Etiquette on meeting a lady writer

If, when admitted into her study, you should find her writing-table in what appears to you like great confusion, recollect that there is really no wit in a remark too common on such occasions, - "Why, you look quite littery," - a poor play on the words literary and litter. In all probability, she knows precisely where to lay her hand on every paper on the table: having in reality placed them exactly to suit her convenience. Though their arrangement may be quite unintelligible to the uninitiated, there is no doubt method (her own method, at least) in their apparent disorder. It is not likely she may have time to put her writing table in nice-looking order every day. To have it done by servants is out of the question, as they would make "confusion worse confounded;" being of course unable to comprehend how such a table should be arranged.

If you chance to find an authoress occupied with her needle, express no astonishment, and refrain from exclaiming, "What! can you sew?" or, "I never supposed a literary lady could even hem a handkerchief!"

This is a false, and if expressed in words, an insulting idea. A large number of literary females are excellent needle-women, and good housewives; and there is no reason why they should not be. The same vigour of character and activity of intellect which renders a woman a good writer, will also enable her to acquire with a quickness, almost intuitive, a competent knowledge of household affairs, and the art of needlework. And she will find, upon making the attempt, that, with a little time and a little perseverance, she may become as notable a personage (both in theory and in practice) as if she had never read a book, or written a page.

The Dora of David Copperfield is an admirable illustration of the fact that a silly, illiterate woman may be the worst of housewives. Dickens has unquestionably painted this character exactly from life. But that he always does. He must have known a Dora. And who has not?

- Eliza Leslie, Miss Leslie's Behaviour Book, Philadelphia, 1839(?)

[Via Lapham's Quarterly. Miss Leslie's book is subtitled, 'A guide and manual for ladies as regards their conversation; manners; dress; introductions; entree to society; shopping; conduct in the street; at places of amusement; in traveling; at the table, either at home, in company or at hotels; deportment in gentlemen's society; lips; complexion; teeth; hands; the hair; etc., etc. With full instructions and advice in letter writing; receiving presents; incorrect words; borrowing; obligations to gentlemen; offences; children; decorum in church; at evening parties; and full suggestions in bad practices and habits easily contracted, which no young lady should be guilty of, etc., etc.' 

The expression 'confusion worse confounded' refers to mix-ups that have gone from bad to worse and comes from Milton's Paradise Lost (1667): 'With ruin upon ruin, rout upon rout, confusion worse confounded'.

The date of the book is unclear. The title page seems to indicate 1839, but David Copperfield, mentioned in the text, was not published until 1849-50.]


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