AT Tradition in Action, Marian Horvat examines the life and influence of Emily Post, the famous etiquette writer. Mrs. Post, she says, went through a gradual transformation over the course of her life and ultimately embraced many of the abuses she once condemned. Ms. Horvat writes:
Emily Post’s central commandment was to always put others at their ease. More than relying on rules, she held that kindness and consideration for others covered all evils. This is true in the matter of a broken glass or a spilled drink, but good manners must also be governed by absolute morals. At times, one must choose to do or say what is right and correct over what is kind or accommodating. Such morals are missing in Emily Post’s Etiquette.
Ms. Horvat later writes:
Emily Post was proud of being the “modern woman” and considered her accommodation to the times her greatest legacy. The Emily Post Institute continues to follow her philosophy to this day, with the 18th edition of Etiquette covering how to politely deal with live-in boyfriends and to plan same-sex marriages. …
… [A]s she got older, she made so many concessions that one could say in several points – morality, equality of men and women, feminist attitudes, democratizing manners – she came quite close to some of the ideals of Socialism.
— Comments —
I have my grandmother’s copy of the 1945 revision of the 1922 original “Blue Book of Social Usage.” (It is, by the way, nicely hardbound, with a dust jacket, runs to 650 pages, and sold for five dollars in 1946.) Some of her comments in Chapter 16, “The Vanished Chaperon and Other Lost Conventions” are revealing. For example:
“The laws of morality, whether we think of them as ethics or the proprieties, are, after all, rules of the Game of Life–rules essential to know so thoroughly that obedience to them is as instinctive as a thoroughbred’s obedience to the rules of sportsmanship.”
She’s not particularly concerned with whether the “rules” she’s propounding spring from some ethical base or simply from convention and the court of public opinion. And they’re useful, not as a means of living truly and lovingly–of being, in other words, more fully human–but merely as a means of playing the “Game” of Life.
In this light, Mrs. Post’s dedication takes on the air of a cautionary tale:
To ANNE KENT — my invaluable assistant in affectionate recognition of her liberalizing influence throughout the course of our long association
When you can’t tell (or don’t care about) the difference between ethics and the proprieties, a little liberty will get you in a lot of trouble over time.