In the early 1800s, if you were a woman in America or England who wanted to know how to cook, how to run a household, and how to behave, you were likely to turn to Eliza Leslie, also known as Miss Leslie. As a member of the middle class (her father was a watchmaker) who lived in England and America, Miss Leslie imparted advice that could help the reader cope with an aristocratic ball or a low-grade boarding house, at home or abroad, with equal aplomb.
She wrote or edited 19 books ranging from the specialized (The Indian Meal Book, which was all about cooking with cornmeal, 1847) to the general (The Lady’s Receipt Book, A Useful Companion for Large and Small Families, 1847). Her cookbook Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches, first published in 1837, proved to be the best-selling cookbook of the 1800s. She also wrote and edited fiction, including a yearly anthology called The Gift, which featured several works by Edgar Allen Poe. I’d give an awful lot to know if Poe and Miss Leslie ever met, and if so, how it went down.
In 1834, Miss Leslie branched out from cooking to talk about etiquette with Miss Leslie’s Behavior Book. It was reprinted in 1864 with a new title: The Ladies Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners. I expected to flip through this as an occasional reference, but I found myself completely fascinated by Miss Leslie’s personality, her perspectives, and all the little nuggets about middle class and upper class life that are revealed in these pages.
The thrill of this book isn’t so much the manners as all the other details of life that are revealed. For instance, this book contains detailed instructions on how to make ink and how to make paste. It describes changes in speech and customs, and differences between American and British social mores. There’s a comprehensive guide to British titles for the benefit of Americans who are travelling abroad or entertaining. The stuff about grammar and slang reveals when phrases were coming in and out of fashion. The advice regarding letters is full of history about envelopes and stamps and general geography. There’s a chapter on how to treat literary women that is just as apt now as it was then, a chapter on children that is full of solid common sense, and enough information about fashion and clothes to make any historical re-enactor or cosplayer proud.
All this information would be terribly dry if not for the fact that, like Miss Manners and Dear Abby, Miss Leslie has a powerful and often humorous personality. Generally, Miss Leslie is funny, personable, and employs a combination of excellent common-sense and logical civility. Behold my favorite quote in the history of ever:
If a person begins by telling you, ‘Do not be offended at what I am going to say,’ prepare yourself for something that she knows will certainly offend you.
I read quite a few of Miss Leslie’s comments to my tween daughter and nieces on a family road trip. Miss Leslie became quite a presence – almost an extra person on the trip. Before I knew it the kids were spending dinnertime in heated discussion about what Miss Leslie would say about our table manners. The children were of the opinion that Miss Leslie needs to lighten up, but they also got their elbows off the table.
I could easily devote an entire essay to Miss Leslie’s opinions regarding class, race, and gender. Because I think it’s crucial to not gloss over aspects of our history, I’m going to talk about them at length; however, they comprise a fairly small amount of the book. I enjoyed this book because it allowed me to learn a great deal of habits and attitudes of upper and middle class people in Yankee America in the 1800s from a primary source. It’s hardly surprising that some of what I learned (or was reminded of) was unpleasant, but it’s important to be reminded of these aspects of our history.
Because this was written in the 1800s in America, it’s full of stuff about class, gender, and race. HUGE trigger alert for sexism, racism, and ablesism. Interestingly, Miss Leslie seems to think much more highly of people who are “coloured” than people who are immigrants, and woe betide you if you’re Irish. Miss Leslie can hardly be thought to be progressive in modern terms in her ideas about race – at best, she’s condescending. She highly respects “coloured” servants and waiters in high positions and clearly regards them as not only capable but often better at etiquette than the white people they serve (she also instructs the reader not to refer to young men of color as “boys”). But here’s a sudden reminder that shit was real, from a chapter on conversation:
Avoid all discussions of abolition (either for or against) when coloured people are nearby.
Immigrants are another story. Miss Leslie fears that they might take your children to the tenements, where they will pick up bad speech patterns and horrible diseases, and the Irish might whisk your babies away and have them baptized as Catholic. I do not relate this, or some of Miss Leslie’s other prejudiced opinions because I find them amusing – I find them appalling. However, I also find these kinds of comments to be instructive in the sense that Miss Leslie allows me a look at how people of her place, time, and class thought of class and race from a primary source. I feel this is important not because these attitudes are part of our past, but because they are immediate, painful part of our present, although in some cases the identities of those discriminated against have changed.
BTW, as someone who could, quantitatively, be said to be “deformed,” I was immensely upset to discover that Miss Leslie advises that no “deformed people” dance at balls or parties because they are distressing to watch. Should I ever have occasion to dance, and Miss Leslie be present, I’ll politely trip her and pin her to the carpet so that she can’t see me, thus saving her considerable distress. Seriously, Miss Leslie, get a grip.
Alas, it is my painful duty to inform you that despite the fact that Miss Leslie was a brilliant woman who built a thriving business and achieved fame and fortune, she was not in favor of women’s rights. She was a fan of the Victorian “Angel in the Home” concept – the idea that women are inferior to men intellectually and physically, but superior morally, and that they should turn their energies towards making the home a moral and physical sanctuary. Women, says Miss Leslie, are best at parenting and nursing and other nurturing activities. While Miss Leslie acknowledges the accomplishments of some women, she believes they are unusual:
Truth is, the female sex is really as inferior to the male in vigour of mind as in strength of body; and all arguments to the contrary are founded on a few anomalies; or based on theories that can never be put into practice.
Oh, Miss Leslie. Why must you break my heart into teensy bits? If we had you on the suffragette team, we would have had the vote a lot sooner. You would have informed the men in power that to deny women the vote was un-gentlemanly and they would have dissolved under your stern gaze like wet tissue paper. Sigh.
Some of Miss Leslie’s ideas seem silly today (a short list of things she dislikes includes calico, old ladies who don’t wear caps, people who drum on the keys of a piano with one finger, slang, the polka, rocking chairs used for any purpose other than rocking a baby, and small dogs). Some are offensive and distressing. But all are grounded by the idea that whatever you may think of the status and condition of people around you, you should treat them as kindly and politely as you can given the information you have and the situation you are in. We all have our own prejudices, preconceptions, and biases, and I’d argue that Miss Leslie’s general principle remains sound. I’d only add that it is also our job to continually attempt to educate and challenge ourselves, so that our prejudices and preconceptions may diminish.
The bottom line for Miss Leslie is that it is your job to behave in a way that makes others comfortable and it is your right to be treated with respect. Miss Leslie does not expect you to be a doormat and, regardless of your personal feelings, you’d better not be a snob. Be as kind and courteous as you can possibly be to everyone you encounter – Miss Leslie is specific in stating that this includes people who are below you in social standing, including the lowest servant.
Without any further ado, here are some tips from Miss Leslie. First, some health and safety advice:
Sleeping with the windows closed in a room newly painted has produced fatal diseases. To some lungs the vapour of white lead is poisonous. To none is it quite inoxious. Its dangerous properties may be neutralized by placing in newly-painted rooms, large tubs of water, into which has been mixed an ounce of vitriol.
THE MORE YOU KNOW. Vitriol is sulphur, by the way.
There’s an entire chapter about tea that includes two long paragraphs about butter, to my vast delight. An excerpt:
By-the-by, the use of cooking-butter should be established in all genteel-houses. If the butter is not good enough to eat on the surface of cold bread or on warm cakes, it is not good enough to eat in the inside of sweet cakes, or in pastry, or in anything else…The use of butter is to make things taste well; if it makes them taste ill, ley it be utterly omitted, for bad butter is not only unpalatable but unwholesome…We know by experience that it is possible to make very fine butter even in the State of New York, and to have it fresh in winter as in summer, though not so rich and yellow.
Don’t laugh at people who hurt themselves. It makes you look unladylike and it also makes you look like a big jerk:
When you see persons slip down on the ice, do not laugh at them…It is more feminine, on witnessing such a sight, to offer an involuntary scream than a shout of laughter. And still more so to stop and ascertain if the person has been hurt.
Time travelers, this simple tip can save you much embarrassment:
Do not travel in white kid gloves. Respectable women never do.
On that one neighbor that we all have:
There are certain unoccupied females so over-friendly as to take the entree of the whole house…never for a moment do they seem to suppose that their hourly visits may perhaps be inconvenient or unseasonable…If they find that the front door is kept locked, they glide down the area-steps, and get in through the basement. Or else, they discover some back entrance, by which they can slip in ‘at the postern gate’- that is, ‘alley-wise’ – socialists are not proud…Her talk to you is chiefly gossip, therefore her talk about you is chiefly the same.
Any time I review a classic, I run into a balancing act problem. There’s always at least one “Oh no you did not use that word” moment in an older book (and a TON in this book) and I don’t want to derail the whole review by dwelling on that aspect, but it would be horribly insensitive for me to ignore it altogether. In some aspects, Miss Leslie is “fair for her day” and in some aspects she is markedly conservative for her time. Miss Leslie herself points out certain areas of controversy between her opinions and those of other people, showing that her social and political attitudes were not universally adopted been in her time. These issues are so glaring to the modern reader (and rightly so) that they threaten to take over the whole book even though 99% of the book is about more innocuous topics such as how to shop in a new city:
If you are a stranger in the city, do not be always exclaiming at the prices, and declaring that you can buy the same articles much lower and much handsomer in New York, Boston, or Baltimore. For certain reasons, prices are different in different places. If an article is shown to you in Philadelphia as “quite new”, refrain from saying that it has been out of fashion these two years in New York. This may injure its sale with bystanders, chancing to hear you. You need only say “that it is very pretty, but you do not want it now.”
I am giving this book a B+ for its entertainment values and historical values, both interesting and sometimes appalling, with the strong caveat that many of its attitudes are (and certainly should be) offensive to modern readers.
If there is any chance that you may find yourself in the Victorian Era (TARDIS, portal, enchanted portrait, whatever) I highly recommend you prepare yourself by studying this book and, if possible, taking it with you. How else will you know that wearing white kid gloves in 1834 in Philadelphia marks you as a hussy? How else will you know how to prevent lead poisoning and make your own ink?
Now I’m off to write my Miss Leslie/Edgar Allan Poe fan fiction, and Miss Leslie has advice for me, and perhaps you, too, as writers. Above all, be polite about it:
An authoress has seldom leisure to entertain morning visitors; so much of her time being professionally occupied either in writing or in reading what will prepare her for writing. She should apprize all her friends of the hours in which she is usually engaged; and then let none who are really her friends and well-wishers, will encroach upon her convenience for any purpose of their own, unless under extraordinary circumstances.