In a bargain bookshop I picked up an etiquette book first published in 1935. It was titled ‘The Nice Girl’s Guide to Good Behaviour’ by Monica Redlich. I checked the contents page and was intrigued to see a chapter dedicated to ‘Scandal’ and another to ‘Unpleasantness’. My curiosity well and truly aroused, I purchased the book, took it home and began to read.
I was in for a surprise. The etiquette book was an extremely sarcastic and hilarious piece of satire. In the early pages Monica Redlich puts forth:
‘The girl who knows what to say and when to say it has the secret of perfect behaviour.’
Her advice although dressed in language of politeness and self-sacrifice actually encourages ‘the nice girl’ to indulge in selfishness to the extreme whilst still claiming the high ground. The book is wicked and witty, charming and devilish. It is the little red book of the Scarlet O’Hara’s of the world.
With delightful results Monica Redlich ridicules the outlandish selfishness and cattiness of some women whilst at the same times mocks the unrealistic ideals that are placed on the gentler sex. The 1930s still carried the weighty burden of female reputation. Women were meant to be sweet, kind, polite and self-sacrificing. But at the same time constraints were beginning to be relaxed, in London the entertainment scene was opening up. Young women were gaining more freedom in their social lives and society would soon depict them in one of two categories; The Nice Girl who stood firm in the values of the century before or The Wicked Girl who embraced the debauchery made popular in the 1920s. ‘The Nice Girl’s Guide to Good Behaviour’ explores this conflict with a heavy dose of sarcasm and humour.
Examples of how to compliment a friend:
‘Darling Cynthia – so bright. You’d never suppose that she’s ten years older than I am.’
‘They always say a big nose is a sign of character.’
‘There are certain people of limited tastes who from choice include in private conversation talk about books, history, geography, and other branches of what is generally described as Culture. Anyone who does so in your presence shows a grave lack of human understanding and it is unlikely that you will ever feel any strong mutual sympathy.’
‘Some men are so boorish and unreasonable that they do not like you to ring them up at their office. There are various ways of dealing with such discourtesy, but I dare say you will feel that the truest kindness is to go on ringing them up as much as you possible can, in the hope that you may reform them.’
‘If you have rung up a friend six or seven times, and each time, when you have greeted him, the connection is immediately cut off, you may begin to suspect that he is purposely avoiding you. In such a case you must instantly write to him pointing out that he is not worthy of you and that you do not intend ever to see him again, no matter how much he pesters you.’
‘But above all, the nice girl will want her friends to improve their characters. If you should hear people saying something unpleasant about any one of your friends, it is plainly your duty to tell her about it at once’
‘You will naturally want to be nicest to the people who do most for you. Common courtesy alone would demand it.’
And my favourite, on how to handle a situation involving ‘the nice girl, her friend, and her friend’s wife’:
‘It is possible that the wife, on her tactless intrusion, will have made certain remarks before the nice girl has a chance to explain the purity of her motives. If not, however, the following observations are appropriate.
- Hullo, darling, you’re late. We were getting quite anxious about you.
- Selina, I pity you.
- Your husband tells me that he has a fly in his eye
- Edward is just like a father to me
- You have a vulgar mind
- My dear, I’m only trying to make up to Edward a little for all he has missed.’
All in all, the book is great fun. Especially as throughout the chapters contemporary photos are included which help make the image of the 1930’s girls about town image come alive. The women in these photos are beautiful, bewitching and mischievous, They remind me that our sisters of the 1930’s, whether nice or nasty, were above all, daring!