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Tuesday, August 19

Mrs. Elton Sez: Vulgar is As Vulgar Does

Dear Mrs. Elton,

I do hope that the quarrelsome Mr. Arden has not deterred you from giving your sound advice, as you have been wont to do on occasion. My problem is a small one. Nevertheless, it is vexing enough to prompt me to seek your council. You may simply tell me to mind my own business, but I hope to elicit a more elaborate reply, one that I may use as a guide as I escort my motherless niece during her first London Season.

My niece Mary is my youngest brother's eldest daughter. She is a taking little thing, I suppose, if one is predisposed to like an abundance of curves. Her disposition is sweet and she is most obligingly malleable except in one crucial area - her manner of dress. To put it mildly, the Prince Regent's light o' loves display less flesh at three in the morning than Mary reveals at breakfast. I must add that Mary's endowments cannot be ignored or denied. She is brazenly proud of her attributes, calling them her "twin sisters in courtship."

I am near my wit's end trying to cover the girl up. These new revealing fashions made with thin muslins and inspired by those Grecian PAGANS aren't helping the situation at all. Oh, how I long for the days of brocade! I have given Mary a variety of scarves, fichus, and high necked chemises, but she calls them old-fashioned and dislikes their "restriction." Aside from locking my niece up during the daytime (for, to give Mary her due, she does look appropriate for the evening), what is a blushing aunt to do?

Miss Anne B. Goode

La! My dear Miss B. Goode, there are some, no doubt, who would stand amazed to hear of your niece, and scarcely conceive that one so young could be so bold; but to me it is no matter of astonishment in the least. I can see instantly from whence the error has arisen. It is all the fault of education. If a girl has not been taught good principles, as poor Miss Mary plainly has not, you see the result. Whether the bad instruction, and example, are to be laid at the door of your brother, your late sister-in-law, or yourself, is not for me to presume to answer. Yet a little reflection shows me that the girl’s mother is not likely to be very much to blame; and at any rate we must give her the benefit of the doubt, being dead. If she at all resembled the ordinary run of mothers, however, her dearest wish must have been to guard her daughter from falling into unwisdom’s ways, and when she died and left her most precious treasure in your hands, how have you fulfilled your trust?

You are older than your brother, and it is in the way of human nature for him to look to you still, at least as a directrice in female matters. I make no doubt that he depends upon you to instruct his daughter, and to provide an example of right feminine behavior which his own dear wife, having left the world, is no longer able to do. Yet see how you have failed him! Here you have written a letter full of improper expressions (actually referring to the Prince’s mistress, in a polite letter to a stranger! Only fancy!), and going so far as to repeat this poor girl’s own coarse speeches. I will not revive them here. You know what they are.

If you, yourself, cannot obey the ordinary conventions of intercourse in speech, how can you feel surprise when the young girl under your care imitates you in vulgarity? She can have no compunction against using the loosest of language, nor can she have any exampled modesty before her. To be sure, the fashions of the age are rather against modesty, but a young woman’s innate circumspection would keep her from following London fashions, unless her natural instincts have been harmed and corrupted. And here is Miss Mary, having lost her mother, entrusted to her own aunt – a woman who writes a letter filled with coarse expressions, and without having the least conception of the true evil of her niece’s situation: the loss of distinction of the chasm that lies between the states of being In or Out. Do you not realize that you have described your niece going about in a condition of half-undress when she is not yet even Out? How then can you affect concern about what will happen when she goes to London, where such an immodest ensemble would attract little attention among the ton, while here she has been breaking every law of good country society? Yet she has been in company, improperly dressed, when not yet Out, and more than once!

It is clear that this poor girl’s education has been sadly neglected. Her father would be justified in locking her up for the next year and not allowing her to go to London until she has grown more sober, and learnt to think. And you, madam, would do very much better to go to London without cumbering yourself by attempting to chaperone such a charge. You will never catch a husband with a great grown girl in your train. Of what are you thinking? Have you never heard the expression of how mutton looks, standing next to lamb? No, no, go to London yourself, under the protection of a married woman friend perhaps; and let Miss Mary remain to cool her heels in the schoolroom for another season.

Your sincere well-wisher,
Mrs. Elton

Mrs. Elton Sez is written/channeled by Austen-esque author Diana Birchall, whose latest book, Mrs. Elton In America, is now available. Please join her once a week for her sage and sometimes sardonic voice, as she graciously condescends to advise on a variety of subjects. Laurel Ann and Vic admit to channeling their Regency doppelgängers as they take turns writing the letters. They are usually surprised by Mrs. Elton's responses, whose mind is as unpredictable and lively as her tongue.

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Image detail: Cruikshank, 1799, Parisien Ladies

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