Edited by George Justice

Gargling Finger Water and Other Helpful Hints

Early Victorian Men, containing The Tailor’s Masterpiece: All Kinds of Coats, by George Walker; and Hints on Etiquette (1836) with Fashion Illustrations from Modes de Paris 1836-1838

Edited by R. L. Shep.
R. L. Shep, 2001. viii + 194 pages.
20 pages of figures and B/W illustrations.
Paper. $23.95.

By Emily Hipchen.

R. L. Shep’s facsimile edition of The Tailor’s Masterpiece and Hints on Etiquette may be most interesting to Jane Austen scholars for what these texts suggests about the notion of social class, or perhaps more accurately, what they call to mind about Austen’s discussions of the issue. For whom were The Tailor’s Masterpiece and Hints on Etiquette written and for whom were they reprinted? “Agogos,” the author of the latter, is clear on this point. The original was “not written for those who do but for those who do not know what is proper. It would be absurd to suppose those persons who constitute the upper ranks of the middle classes in LONDON are ignorant of the regulations here laid down; --but [those] in the country (especially mercantile districts), where the tone of society is altogether lower,” Agogos suggests, very well may be, and these are his audience. His hints on etiquette are intended for outsiders, those without sufficient “tone,” and everything in the tailoring manual implies the same, a sense that this is all written down for the man (and his garment-maker) who is not in the know naturally, whose place is too obvious from his clothes and behavior, and whose ambition is to disguise himself.

I think the reissue is designed for exactly the same people (however different their ambitions), only the outsiders now are very much outside, in time, probably also in place, and also, if only by virtue of its changes, in class as well. One audience for this book among Austen fans may be those who wish to dress and behave as they believe people did during Austen’s lifetime. But it may find a larger audience among those readers who will use it to imagine better how class was enacted in novels of the early Victorian period, perhaps including Jane Austen’s, readers who wish to understand the subtle differences in rank indicated by dress and behavior which we no longer experience in the same way. And, with luck, readers interested in continuing to explore the notion of “class” itself.

Apparently both George Walker and Agogos saw the social class structure as paradoxically innate, eternal, and comprehensible, and simultaneously as purely theatrical: “class” could be acted if one just had the role and the right costume. The paradox gives the text both a profound sincerity of tone and a shyster-quality the italics, arbitrary boldface, and frequent typographical errors underscore, the same quality one finds in modern dress-for-success pamphlets, for instance. In Walker’s text, clothes are obviously understood to be part of social class drama: embedded in the purely descriptive passages are indications of correct (meaning “classy”) uses of the garment as well as modifications clearly marked by class. For instance, in the section for gaiters, the author suggests that “These are the best things that can be possibly contrived either for COACH TRAVELLING or for RIDING ON HORSEBACK, when intended for the latter purpose, it is necessary that the heel be hollowed out a little for the spur to sit free.” The section on etiquette is obviously written more overtly as a script for those wishing to be taken for their betters, and yet it seems difficult to believe that people who needed to be told not to “practice the filthy custom of gargling [your finger water] at table” could pass in good society, and impossible to believe that anyone who did not know not “to leave your hat in the hall when you pay a morning visit, [as] it makes you look too much at home” couldn’t pass. Can men who gargle finger water disguise themselves as gentlemen, regardless of their gaiters? Is a man who sets his hat on the hall table in the morning not a gentleman, despite his well-wrought spats? How can anyone tell without a map? And, frankly, is this the right map?

Shep’s edition of The Tailor’s Masterpiece and Hints on Etiquette is a facsimile edition of Walker’s and Agogos’s texts, in paperback, without an editor’s introduction or notes. Though I can certainly understand the value of printing such a thing as a facsimile since they are apparently easier and less expensive to produce, thus making the text available more readily to more readers, I found myself wishing for a more scholarly edition, one that corrected obvious typographical errors and provided explanatory notes, especially for the esoterica of tailoring. I would have liked a long introduction, too, even if I disagreed with its understanding of the importance and use of the documents it introduced. For other Austen scholars, more problematic than the nature of the edition may be the age of the texts: Shep’s version of The Tailor’s Masterpiece was revised in 1838 and Hints on Etiquette was written 1836, nearly two decades after Austen’s death.

Emily Hipchen is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.   

JASNA News v.18, no. 2, Spring 2002, p. 19

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