Littell's Living Age/Volume 152/Issue 1969/Dutch Etiquette

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Originally published in Leisure Hour.

Dutch Etiquette

Some years ago a book was published on "German Society, by an English Lady." It contained many things that gave great offence, and the critics said that the writer must have seen very little of German society, and could not he a true lady! Taking warning by this book, I think it best to say that I write only my own experience — what actually came under my own notice. Though I know most parts of Holland as a tourist, I know Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, and several villages socially. I will not say (for I do not positively know it) that all the points I mention as Dutch etiquette hold good in all parts of the country, but from the class of people I know, I am perfectly certain they do in the places I speak of.

It seemed to me that in Holland — and I have been there pretty often, and know all the principal places — the woman is nowhere; man is everything, the first and foremost consideration.

There is a great lack of chivalry in the manners of a Dutch gentleman. He displays none of that sentiment which the French embody in these words, Place aux dames. I do not altogether blame the men for this deficiency in what we should consider good manners, for I think to a very great extent the women have themselves to thank for it. There is much that is absurd and prudish in their etiquette, and yet they permit slights, and even impertinences, which an Englishwoman would never overlook.

Then, too, a Dutch lady outside her own door is always acting on the defensive, and tacitly guarding herself, as it were, from any possibility of insult. She behaves as if men were her natural enemies, going about like roaring lions, seeking to gobble her up alive-o. I must say that I have never seen any disposition on the part of the men to simulate the rôle of the wild beast aforesaid, unless the lady happened to have a large dot. The first thing I noticed in Holland was that gentlemen walk on the pavé and ladies turn into the road; how dangerous and muddy that road may happen to be makes no difference to the universal custom — it is invariable. It is not etiquette for a gentleman to speak to a lady in the street, no matter how well he knows her. That is as well, for, as in France, the gentleman bows the first, so that though a lady may be saluted by a hundred men who have never been introduced to her, and whose names she does not even know, none of them have the privilege of addressing her, though they may have bowed for ten years. The etiquette, by the way, of bowing is most extraordinary. I used to tell my Dutch friends that their politeness begins and ends with a bow. Everybody bows — nobody nods, and touching of the hat is unknown. You bow to every one you may have met when calling on a friend, for callers meeting are introduced. You give an order to a gardener or a workman, and he takes off his hat with a bow which would not bring discredit on a duke. Everyone bows on passing a house where they visit. I often used to amuse myself by watching behind a curtain, to see every second man take off his hat to the window, it being quite immaterial whether any of the family are visible or not; and every second lady make a polite bend of the whole body, not a mere inclination of the head, as our ladies do. Everybody bows. Men take off their hats to each other; tradesmen do the same to all their customers. A well-known lady is bowed to by all her father's, husband's, or brothers' friends, and any gentleman knowing a lady is staying at a house where he visits, will bow to her. I even had a bowing acquaintance with a student, whom I never met and did not know from Adam. I could not imagine what made the boy bow so profoundly, until I got some one to ask if he knew me. I found I had once met his father somewhere, and that was the — shall I say — excuse? I should if he had been English. Well, after an absence of three years, I returned to the town where he lived, and there he was grown into a man, bowing still. For some months we had quite a lively bowing acquaintance, and there it ended, as afore-time. I must, however, include "compliments" with bowing in the Dutch idea of politeness. Every parcel is sent home with the sender's compliments, and I once heard this message delivered at the door of a house where I was calling: "My compliments to the mevrouw, and has she any dust?" It was the dustman! Surely any comments are needless.

In accordance with the roaring-lion idea, a lady must not pass a club. She must, if she has to pass down a street where there is one, cross to the other side, and, if necessary, cross back again. In winter this becomes a great nuisance, for there is much wet weather and roads are very muddy, but no Dutch lady of high class will brave the obnoxious windows, though she will allow the very men who are sitting at them to smoke in her drawing-room without an apology.

In Utrecht, perhaps the ultra-aristocratic city in the country, where every second house has "Baron" on the lintel, and where professors, lecturers, and officers are as plentiful as blackberries on a bramble-bush, there is a street called the Line Maart, in which is the principal club of the students. The ladies of the town will not even pass down it. I was walking once with the wife of a professor, a woman of very high standing, and quite above most of the little, prim restrictions to which others yielded, but she would not pass along the Line Maart even when hurrying home late for dinner, and that the nearest way. She made a round of several streets to avoid it. As the students were, for the most part, raw lads from sixteen to one or two and twenty, it did seem to me absurd that they should have any influence over the movements of one of the most influential ladies of the town.

It is the fashion, if a lady take young ones out for a promenade, if gentlemen walk with ladies, or if two girls walk together, to go to a confectioner's and eat taatjes, ices, or drink chocolaat. For this purpose all confectioners have one or two rooms adjoining their shops, furnished with little tables, sofas, and chairs. If several ladies go into such a room, where there happen to be one or two gentlemen, they rush out as if they had seen a ghost. It always seemed to me a most undignified proceeding; sitting quietly down and taking what one wished, without noticing the presence of strangers, would, in my opinion, have been very much more ladylike. I do not say that it would be good for girls alone to go into a room where there were half-a-dozen scatter-brained students drinking absinthe, but why a lady, the wife of one of the first men of the town, cannot take her daughters into a shop because there are a couple of gentlemen sitting at a table talking quietly does puzzle me. Now I can mention an instance in which the rule seemed to me most absurd. I was staying with a family who were certainly known by every one in the town; people whose position was so perfectly assured that I should have imagined they would be rather above certain trivialities of etiquette, which, to people of less social eminence, would be all-important. Three times during one week I walked in the afternoon with one of the daughters, and each day we went to a confectioner's to eat taatjes. Each time there were two officers in possession, so that we could not go in, or rather, she would not do so. On the fourth afternoon she said, —

"Kitty, let us go to Van Dam's and eat taatjes."

"Oh, I'll go," I answered, "but only on condition that if you get into the room and there should be any one there you do not rush out as if a mad dog was after you. It is positively lowering to let a man see you run away from him as if he wished to eat you."

Troide van Maarne agreed, and even went so far as to say it was a very silly custom. When we reached Van Dam's the room was empty, and I, leaving her to order what we wished for, went straight in and seated myself at the nearest table. Now the joke of the rule is, that if young ladies alone are in possession of the room first, they may remain an hour if they like, even though twenty gentlemen should appear. Knowing this, and feeling my taatjes were safe, I said, with a laugh, to Troide, who was still in the shop, —

"Be thankful there are no stupid officers to run away from to-day."

Then I heard a little jingle of spurs behind me, and looking back at a table in the shadow of the folding door which divided the room from the shop, saw, to my disgust, two pairs of military boots and two pairs of military legs.

They succeeded very politely in smothering their laughter, though it must have been amusing to hear my frank opinion, and I, still keeping my back turned, began an animated discussion with Troide, who hovered about just outside the door, as if I had been in a den of lions.

"Come in," I urged, in a whisper. "Sit down; they won't eat us. Why should they want even to look at us? Come in, and don't be so silly. It looks far worse running away than sitting down and behaving yourself quietly, like a gentlewoman."

The two men — harmless , gentlemanly men enough — got up then. I dare say they had caught some of my whispered remonstrances, for one of them addressed me with a salute, and in very good English. He said they had already finished, and were just going when I entered. Troide literally fled. I, of course, had to follow, but, in spite of my annoyance, I replied with English frankness to the soldiers.

"Thank you for disturbing yourselves for us, mynheer," I said. "My friend, being a Dutch lady, will not remain, as I should do. We Englishwomen do not fear an insult from every man we meet. Perhaps that is why we so seldom receive one."

The taller of the two made me a grave bow.

"I think that is very probable, mademoiselle," he answered, and he said it as if he meant it.

It is not strict etiquette for a lady to buy her own stamps, or send her own telegrams or post-office orders; she must send a servant. And why? Because the post-office clerks are highly paid, and gentlemen of the highest classes. I wanted to send a parcel to England one day, and went alone (not knowing the rule). I had a confab with a very good-looking young gentleman, whom I afterwards found was a baron, and I got such a lecture from my hostess when she returned and heard what I had done.

And there is another fashion prevalent amongst Dutch ladies which has, I think, a bad effect on the sterner sex. I refer to their morning dress. If you receive a general invitation to or pay a long visit in a Dutch house, you certainly have the satisfaction of knowing that your hostess does not put herself out of the way on your account. She comes down to breakfast with her hair in curl-papers or crimping-pins, according to the fashion of her coiffure; her person is garbed in an old flannel dressing-gown; she wears neither collar nor brooch; and I have indeed seen a lady appear at breakfast with stocking-less feet, thrust into old, downtrodden slippers; in short, she is strictly en demi toilette, and makes no pretence whatever of being anything else. She dresses in time for the second breakfast — koffij it is called.

Should a visitor call between the two meals, she receives him or her, as the case may be. She says, "I do not profess to have made my toilette."

Once or twice I have suggested. "What will he think?" and I always received the same airy reply, "1 do not make my toilette until koffij-time."

I do not like the custom myself. I once stayed at the same house with two officers — a general and a colonel — who came to breakfast in their usual full dress. The ladies of the house wore their charming dégagé costume. I really had expected otherwise. If gentlemen can appear fresh and clean and well-dressed at breakfast, I cannot see why ladies should not do the same; and what man can have any respect for a lady who spends four or five hours of every morning looking more like some idle, unwashed creature gossiping at the end of an alley than a gentlewoman by birth, educated far above the average of her English sisters? As I have told them many a time, an English lady, if she is ever so ill, will make herself neat and tidy before her doctor comes.

I went to pay a short visit at a house where I only knew one of the daughters — a charming house — where I met some of the greatest artists and musical celebrities in Europe. I arrived in time for dinner, and was delighted with everything. The salle, filled with pictures and china, won my keenest admiration, and finally I went to roost in one of the nicest bedrooms and most utterly luxurious beds it was ever my good fortune to have allotted to me. And the next morning I arose, dressed, and found my way to the huis kamer, or ordinary living-room. On the stairs I passed a stout, elderly person, with a queer white net on her head, no hair to be seen, clad in a very dirty grey cotton wrapper. She was scolding vociferously at a manservant, and I took her for a housekeeper, wondering the lady of the house would allow her to go about such an untidy object. Judge of my surprise when she follow-ed me into the room and accosted me with, "Well, you child, and will you not speak with me this morning?" It was my hostess! I felt myself turn scarlet as I stammered out an apology. I never should have known her except from her voice; and the shrill tone of anger and the language in which she spoke prevented me from recognizing that.

I cast further glances at her as I ate my breakfast, not surprised that I had not known her. How was it possible? I had seen the previous evening a handsome, fair-faced lady, dressed in the richest of silken gowns, real lace round her fair throat, her hair all waved and crimped — brown, rich, and shining; a dignified, gracious being, who could talk well and pleasantly upon any subject, who spoke four foreign languages fluently — and what did I find in the morning? Just a dirty, untidy shrew Really, I wondered how her face could have become so dirty in those few hours — it looked as if it had not been washed for a week.

Perhaps the etiquette which differs the most from ours is that of the table. I cannot say I like it. No Dutch people live in as good a style as we do. I only know two houses where the table is pleasant to look at — one that of an enormously wealthy shipowner at Rotterdam, the other that of a very wealthy professor. The wife of the latter once said to me, "I do like to see you eat. I like to see you at my table. You do eat so prettily." I laughed, and disclaimed the compliment; but she was right — the English are more elegant eaters than the Dutch. I never saw a Dutch man or woman — not even one who was a countess in her own right, and ought to have been a good example — eat straight away with a knife and fork as we do. They first cut the whole plateful into pieces — a most disagreeable process — then lay the knife on the edge of the plate, farthest away from the eater, and resting the left hand, loosely folded, on the table beside the plate, eat all with the fork, shovel-fashion. Why, using only the fork, it is not proper to lay the left hand on the knee I do not know. I noticed many points of that kind which they could not explain beyond that "such a thing is etiquette."

I never saw food eaten otherwise. Sometimes glass rests are provided for each person, and very, very necessary they are, for never is a change of cover provided. I never saw such a thing at a friendly dinner, and once I was at a large evening party where I met some very grand people, and saw a supper of thirteen courses served with one knife and fork and two spoons for each person.

The first time I dined at the house of the lady I have just mentioned, she said, "If you will make a mark in your serviette I will have it put aside, to be ready when you come again."

I thanked her, and turned down the corner of my dinner napkin, wondering a little that people who had a dinner en famille of five courses and a lavish dessert should be so saving as to retain a guest's serviette for another time. On my return to the house where I was staying I mentioned the circumstance, and then it was explained. It was merely a delicate way of telling me that she meant frequently to invite me again. I dined there many times, but I never saw the serviette with the folded corner any more. This lady copied my method of eating my dinner from the first time I dined there, and made her children do the same. The last time I was in Holland I found they still kept up the custom.

As regards the other meals, they consist of breakfast, koffij and supper. They are prepared entirely by the ladies of the house, and are exactly alike, except that there is tea at two meals — breakfast and supper — and coffee at the one which bears its name. Breakfast is early — from eight to nine — and often visitors are privileged to have it in bed. They always ask if you prefer it so. Koffij is at noon; dinner — eeten, they term it — is from half past four to half past five, according to the tastes or habits of the household, but never later. Tea is going from seven to nine, and merely consists of tea in small cups and sweet biscuits, such as macaroons or the like, and it does not in any way interfere with music, cards, work, or any other employment which may be on hand it is taken in the drawing-room, and visitors appear for it, certainly in sociable houses, five nights out of six. Supper is at any time; I know some houses where it is served at half past nine, others not till eleven. At one charming house, where I have had many pleasant visits, it was never served before eleven, often half an hour later, and no one seemed to think of bed before one or two o'clock; even then the girls would come into my bedroom and chatter round the stove till there was neither wood nor peat left wherewith to mend the fire. Perhaps the late hours most people keep account somewhat for the attire of the morning.

As I said, the minor meals are prepared by the ladies; they are precisely alike. The tea-things, often of valuable china, are kept in a cupboard, usually concealed in the wall, and with several pictures hung on the papered door, which to your horror suddenly swings forward. In the huis kamer one of the ladies first fetches a white cloth about a yard square, which she places in the centre of the table. For dinner a large one is used, as with us. Then she brings out a very small tray, bearing cups, saucers, plates, and knives — these last black-handled — putting one for each person.

She sets the slop-basin and cups in order, and brings out a little spirit-lamp with a silver stand, on which to set the teapot or cafetière, whichever is to be used, and a box of matches. She sets the tea-caddy handy, or if it must be coffee, grinds up with a little hand-mill a sufficient quantity for the meal. Then she gets the butter-pot, which is a deep, round pot of common delf, with a lid. It is filled to the brim with butter, and emptied, not by cutting, as we do, but by each person scraping out, with his own knife, as much as he wishes to use for each piece of bread he takes. It is not a pretty fashion, by any means.

Then appears an oblong basket, with a long roll of bread, of which she cuts several slices about an inch thick, usually allowing two for each person. They remain in the basket with the bread, and no d'oyley is used. Near the basket stands a tray a size smaller, with black bread, currant loaf, gingerbread made with honey, almond-cake, or some such dainty. There is always cheese, which is handed round, and often a pot of some thick, sticky substance, like very dark treacle, called appel stroop. No one could ever tell me how it was made, except that it was of apples. I bought some in Brussels, but I could not understand the French of the woman from whom I got it. I found her Flemish easier to follow.

Appel stroop is delicious, and, though sweet, not at all sickly. When the meal is ready, a maid appears bringing a jug of milk — I never saw cream — and a large brass pan, like an upright coal-pan, in which is a brazier of burning charcoal and a kettle of boiling water. Then the tea or coffee is made, the little spirit-lamp lighted, and the meal is ready.

It is eaten in the same ungraceful fashion as dinner; the bread buttered and "cheesed," if I may coin such a term, for the cheese is cut in the thinnest wafers, and laid on the top of the butter; then it is cut into strips, the knife laid aside, and the strips disposed of.

Probably mynheer will light up his cigar before you have finished, without so much as a "Hope you don't mind it;" then mevrouw or mejevrouw brings out a bowl (of rare old china often), and washes up, using the snowiest of cloths, and neither spilling one drop of water nor wetting the fingers. The maid appears again to take away the pan and kettle, and all is over.

Servants do very little waiting in Holland, because in very few houses are more than two kept — two and a man are enough for people of noble birth — and then there is so much scrubbing and washing done. Many families visiting a great deal keep but one servant; and where there are children a kinder-jevrouw, a person answering in class to our nursery governess, though often she does not teach at all. To my mind the lack of waiting was very uncomfortable — I never got accustomed to being waited upon by my hostess. Nor did I like the serving of the meals at all. The little scrimpy cloth, basket of bread, the fifty knife-marks in the butter-dish, and the continual hiss-hiss of the tea or coffee over the spirit-lamp! It was so uncomfortable

Claret is drunk cold, and I once heard an Englishman dining for the first time in Holland gasp to himself, " Good lack, they drink their claret cold!" I had got used to it.

But, what is much worse, they never heat plates or dishes, to the ruination of the best dinners. I converted one family to hot plates and dishes so thoroughly, that in their zeal they even warmed the gravy-spoon and the soup-ladle.

I was once staying in a country house, where I created a positive sensation by simply asking a young man to be so good as to fetch my scissors from the adjoining room — I had my lap full of work, which I could not lay down. The young man himself looked astounded — fairly astounded — as if he could not believe his ears; and such a blank silence fell upon the company that I asked outright if I had committed some terrible breach of etiquette. Mr. Doorman recovered himself, and said, " Not at all," but my hostess told me afterwards that she had never heard of such a thing in the whole course of her life.

This young man was the son of one of the richest bankers in Amsterdam, but his manners — oh! they certainly were of the roughest. However, I have the satisfaction of feeling I improved them. I remained five weeks a guest in the same house with him and I taught him, amongst other trifles, that it is polite for a gentleman to allow ladies to leave the room before him — that it is a delicate attention to offer to turn the leaves of their music, and that it is better not to smoke when they are singing.

But perhaps the oddest of all the Dutch etiquette is that concerning the paying of calls. It seemed so odd to me to find the members of a family have each their separate visiting list. Daughters never make calls with their mothers. The moment a girl is out of the schoolroom she has cards of her own, printed in the objectionable style, which never succeeded here,—

Rosetta van der Welde.

She has her own friends, and makes her calls with scrupulous regularity, never omitting to pay a visit on birthdays, when every lady holds an afternoon reception. If she has a friend staying with her, all her friends, and all daughters of people visiting the parents, call upon her, and the calls are returned by the guest and daughter of the house.

If, however, the young lady has friends in the town who are strangers to the family where she is visiting, they call and are received by the guest alone, and thus does she return the calls. Even a very young lady may accept invitations quite independently of her hostess, and dine out several times a week, the mere mention of the invitation at the time being quite sufficient.

The last time I was in Holland I was staying in the house of a professor, and wished to go and call on the wife of another professor, who did not know I had arrived. I could not, however, induce the daughters to go with me, though they were acquainted.

"We do not visit," was the reply.

So I had to go alone, but I asked Mevrouw van Kampe if it would have been a very impossible thing for them to have gone with me."

She said very cordially, "I should have been pleased to see them, but the Tourneys are very stiff people."

When her daughters returned my call, they therefore asked for the two Miss Tourneys, who would not come down. But absurdly enough, it seemed to me, they, about a week afterwards, invited the Van Kampe girls to a tea-party given in my honor to half-a-dozen girls I had known on the occasion of a previous visit. It must have been a very bold stroke, for they worried all day, lest the invitation should not be accepted. It was accepted, however, and in the sweetest terms.

Strangely enough, at that little party Mevrouw Tourney did not appear; it was etiquette — it was a young party, they said. Mevrouw herself was, I think, a good deal hurt at being excluded; but her daughters were firm, and I scolded in good round terms their hearts and their etiquette alike. I told them I had never heard of anything so absurd in my life, and at last declined to come down myself. They were firm, and so was I; but at last I had to give in, for mevrouw begged me so sweetly to do so that I had no choice.

However, to return to the paying of visits. Husbands and wives make formal calls together, usually on Sunday, between koffij and dinner; and, by-the-by, I may as well mention here that, on being shown into a drawing-room, it is not etiquette to help yourself to a chair — you must wait until your hostess begs you to take one, a custom which, if she happen to keep you waiting ten minutes and you are weary, becomes rather trying.

On New Year's Day (and I believe on Christmas Day also, but I will not be sure, for I have only once been in Holland at that season) all young people call at any house where they have been invited during the year. I really do not know if this rule extends to older people also. And they have another singular fashion: as soon as a young lady becomes engaged, she has to march the unfortunate man round to all her friends, and introduce him with a speech as her future husband, and a very pleasant process it must be for him. After that they go everywhere together, like a married couple, pay visits together, go to all amusements and parties together, and he escorts her home when they are over. There is not, however, the slightest fear of their being mistaken for a married couple, for they sit hand-in-hand, not furtively, as we sometimes see young and foolish people do here, but openly and with a good deal of ostentatious display. They take exhaustive notes in the study of the human eye, they bill and coo — I use the term literally — and then they get married and — drop it! It is perfectly wonderful how soon, too, the wife develops into an upper servant, and the husband, from a dozen endearing names, sinks into plain "Smit;" for no wives address their husbands or speak of them by their Christian names; it is considered affected and namby-pamby.