Letters, Invitations, and Social Calls

If there were rigorous standards to be maintained at balls, dinners, and other social gatherings, there was just as much protocol surrounding the communication leading to those events. Writing letters to another person was seen as either an act of business, or an act of extreme intimacy: if single men and women wrote letters to each other with any regularity, it would be seen as a sign of engagement. To begin correspondence with a stranger or slight acquaintance (without their express permission, and especially if they were socially above you) would be a big liberty to take, sometimes to the point of insult.

Stationery and seals were chosen with great care. The content of a letter had to be very carefully worded, since letters could easily be circulated to other people and misinterpreted. Since this was before the onset of the ‘penny black’ stamp, the receiver of a letter had to pay for it. It was therefore considered extremely rude to send enormous and heavy epistles.

Social calls were heavily scheduled events, especially in women’s lives. Society women would have days ‘at home’, where they would remain at home specifically for other women to pay a brief social call. Tea would be served and they would usually gossip and discuss social news for up to half an hour, before the visitor would leave to continue on her rounds. A cards with the visitor’s name on it would be left on a table in the entrance as a sign that the visitor had paid a call (or attempted to pay a call, if the woman in question was not at home). It was considered vulgar (but was common practice) to prominently display the cards of distinguished visitors, so all other visitors entering one’s home would see one’s grand circle of acquaintance.

The socially superior visitor had to make the first visit, which read to the less distinguished person as an invitation to return the call and to continue the acquaintance.

A lady's calling cards and carrying case.

A lady’s calling cards and carrying case.

Letters and Letter-Writing

  • “’Is it true, then, that his letters are of the awful length that is whispered?’ ‘True! Oh! they are something beyond all conception! Perfect epistolary Boa Constrictors. I speak with feeling, for I have myself suffered under their voluminous windings’” (Vivan Grey 138).
  • “’Be not diffuse in your style. Never turn over leaf in a letter if it can possibly be avoided: it is always assumed that men in office have no leisure. Write on large paper to a minister, and on note-paper to his secretary; the first looks respectful, the second confidential. Above all things, don’t draw your similes from Ballyfoyle. Ireland should never be quoted on this side of the Channel, except in Parliament’” (At Home 1:75-76).
  • “Vulgar! Familiar! Vile scrawl! . . . Who ever began a letter with such an address? ‘Dear old cock!’ Odious!” (Confessions of an Old Bachelor 46).
  • “’do not commit yourself on paper, even to me [your father]. In writing, I always recommend initials; mere speaking is not so dangerous, as it is no pledge without witnesses’” (At Home 1:75).
  • “Only when her pupils quitted the establishment, or when they were about to be married, and once, when poor Miss Birch died of the scarlet fever, was Miss Pinkerton known to write personally to the parents of her pupils; and it was Jemima’s opinion that if anything could console Mrs Birch for her daughter’s loss, it would that pious and eloquent composition in which Miss Pinkerton announced the event” (Vanity Fair 8).
  • “It was a beautiful letter, highly scented, on a pink paper and with a light green seal” (Vanity Fair 620).
  • “The note expressed the usual number of fears, honours, and pleasures, which usually accompany invitations; was written in a hand of even more than usually elegant unintelligible expansiveness; was on pale sea-green paper, sealed with lilac wax; and came from Lady Alicia” (Romance and Reality 1:15-16).

Calling Cards

  • “Lady Steyne’s carriage drove up to Mr Rawdon Crawley’s door, and . . . delivered in a couple of cards, on which were engraved the names of the Marchioness of Steyne and the Countess of Gaunt. If these bits of pasteboard had been beautiful pictures, or had had a hundred yards of Malines lace rolled round them, worth twice the number of guineas, Becky could not have regarded them with more pleasure. You may be sure they occupied a conspicuous place in the china bowl on the drawing-room table, where Becky kept the cards of her visitors” (Vanity Fair 561).
  • he’s “a sort of man who . . . sticks his best [calling] cards on his chimney piece, and writes himself billet-doux [love letters] from duchesses” (Pelham 1:152).

Social Calls and Visits

  • “’I am certain only very stupid people visit in country-houses; I have never seen any person I could like down here’” (Tales of Fashion and Reality 11).
  • “Their reception of their guests was kind and cordial; and the hearty shake of the hand bestowed by them on many of the visitors, absolutely shocked Lady Oakeley, who witnessed this vulgar ebullition of country hospitality with surprise and disgust” (The Governess 117-118).
  • “Sir Charles hastened into Vernon-street, to pay his adieux to the Forresters; but twelve o’clock was far too unfashionable an hour for any visitor to gain admittance at that house” (Finesse 1:147-148).
  • “The intercourse between the two families had always been scrupulously maintained by the regular alternation of prescribed visits; and the acceptance of the expected invitation always was received on both sides with great appearance of satisfaction. Not that much pleasure was ever anticipated by either; but any falling off in their reciprocal cordiality would at once have threatened to disturb the political peace of the country” (Yes and No 1:139-140).
  • “’we, of course, never think of accepting invitations to any but the best places. Mamma has, very properly, always objected to such a complete waste of time as that would be’” (Dacre: A Novel 1:41).
  • “Of all seasons of the year, March is perhaps the least propitious to a formal country visit” (The Fair of Mayfair 1:277).
  • “Nothing can be more grievously inconvenient than the arrival of a great man in a small establishment” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. III 10).

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