Bed Manners by Dr Ralph Hopton and Anne Balliol

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Reviewed by Simon Thomas

One of the more niche tastes I have, when it comes to books, is for fake etiquette guides (for which I am sure there is a neat portmanteau; suggestions in the comment section…). It’s not all that easy to come across them, but the first half the 20th century saw a bit of a vogue for this variety of tome – as, of course, the etiquette guide itself was on the wane.

Thankfully, some of these are now being published as nostalgic curiosities in themselves. To look at the cover, size, and presentation of Old House Books’ reprint of the 1936 title Bed Manners: a very British guide to Boudoir Etiquette, it looks a bit like those gosh-weren’t-they-strange-in-the-past reprints of ‘rules for husbands’ or How To Run Your House Without Help. But it’s important to know, before opening the book, that the authors were definitely in on the joke. How could you doubt it, when you come to this introduction to a chapter on ‘The Great Problems of Marriage’?

We begin this chapter with  a frank statement that it leaves a lot of ground uncovered. It isn’t so much for bachelors and spinsters, of all ages, as it is for people who have plunged right into matrimony in the good old English spirit of learning an art just by practising it. Never once in all the former books about etiquette has there been a word about pleasing that one person whose displeasure most affects your life. Say “Good night” properly to the Joneses. It doesn’t matter, apparently, whether you say “Good night” to your wife, or hit her over the head with the fire bucket.

Luckily, Hopton and Balliol are on hand to offer their advice. There are sections on the correct way to undress, to get into bed, to get out of bed, and even ‘how to be a charming invalid’ (rule number one, in the Things Not To Say, is as pertinent now as in 1936: ‘This soup tastes so good it must have come out of a tin’). Here, since you were wondering, is their edict on what a man should wear in bed:

The eye of a sensitive, delicately reared girl is shocked by such an inartistic sleeping costume [long woollen drawers]. It is your own fault if she screams. You should be wearing a Japanese brocade dressing-gown over silk pyjamas. Lumberjacks who do this make good husbands. So do other men. Socks are not being worn in bed this year. The whole art of dressing for bed, in fact, is not to wear anything that could irritate your bolster-buddy or counterpane-chum, call her whatever you will. It is true that “misery makes strange bedfellows,” as the proverb says. It is even more true that bedfellows make strange misery – unless they are determined in advance to be nice to one another at all costs. 

They do not try to caution women against wearing face masks and curlers to bed; they simply warn the would-be husband in advance.

It’s all very silly and good fun – but there are two things on which a parody rests. Firstly, the familiarity of the audience with the thing being mocked, and secondly, the distance between the mocked and the mocking. The first is out of the authors’ hands, of course. I spent a lot of doctoral research time looking at behaviour manuals for spinsterhood and marriage, but I recognise this is not a common pursuit; I cannot say how much would be appreciated by others. However, in general, I think the tone is done excellently. The distance is not too great – the parody does not exhaust itself by reaching too far or being fantastic – and only occasionally is it too close. It is not particularly amusing to read sentences that could equally well have appeared in the books being spoofed.

As it is packaged, Bed Manners certainly seems to be being marketed as a gift book. And it would, I think, make an excellent and amusing gift – but it is not doing the book justice to class it as something to chuckle over for a few minutes and dismiss. Yes, it’s light, but it’s also clever and witty, and a joy to have republished.

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Simon Thomas is one of the Shiny New Books editors and not the least bit like a lumberjack.

Ralph Hopton and Anne Balliol, Bed Manners: a very British guide to Boudoir Etiquette (Old House Books, Oxford, 1936 repr.2014), 978-1908402912, hardback, 151pp.

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