Saturday, June 27, 2015

Russia's Mistress of Etiquette Tangles with Gossip

An American Girl Vanquishes a Russian! Ugly American Tourist? We at Etiquipedia Believe So
Was this Great Mistress of the Court, first class (the Ober-Hofmeisterin, or Upper-Governess) the "Mistress of Etiquette?" In typical court ball dress for Russian women of rank – All of the ancient occupations of the women at the Court of Russia, were traditionally held by boyardins (wives of boyards – a boyar was a privileged member of the old nobility of Russia), or nurses, housekeepers, servants and nannies. These roles were abolished and replaced by a new hierarchy inspired by Versailles Court etiquette and German models. Many Muscovite and post-reform positions were in charge of nearly identical functions to the previous funtions. The new hierarchy, however, used German terminology. 

The following is a narrative of an incident which occurred in St. Petersburg some years ago. The American lady concerned is the daughter of a prominent public benefactor, has for years been a social leader in society, is the wife of a leading Republican statesman and would be recognized instantly if her name might be mentioned.

The "Russian Mistress of Etiquette"

A grand reception was in progress at the palace of a high Russian dignitary. Members of the Cabinet, Generals of the army, Grand Dukes, the nobility of the empire, and the diplomatic corps were present. It was a notable affair. Four young ladies —three Russian and one American—had gathered into a little nook screened in palms, and were discussing in French, the dowdy appearance of a high court lady. Some eavesdropper caught their remarks and bore them to the criticised lady. She in turn reported the conversation to a noble Duchess, who held the peculiar office of Mistress of Etiquette. 

She retired to a private room and had the four culprits summoned before her. They appeared, the Russian girls in fear and trembling, the American calm and selfpossessed. "Young ladies," said she, "you have been commenting discourteously upon the personal appearance of Lady ——. You have committed a grave breach of etiquette, and it is my duty as court mistress of etiquette to punish you. Olga, your slipper!" The trembling Olga took off her slipper and meekly received a sound punishment of the kind confined in America exclusively to the nursery. "Katia it is your turn. Give me your slipper!" said the inexorable duenna, as the weeping Olga arose from her castigation. Katia took her gruel with audible lamentations, and Tania followed the suffering Katia. All the while the American girl watched and waited. The indignities thrust upon her companions roused the Hail Columbia in her. Her eyes flashed and her little fists clenched with excitement. "It is your turn now," said the Mistress of Etiquette to the fair American, "your slipper, please." 

Columbia's blood was up. There was fighting stock back of her for generations. She removed her slipper and drew near, but she held the slipper by the toe. At proper range she swung the missile and struck the old lady in the mouth a fearful clip. Then she sailed in. 

Lace, feathers and furbelows flew. Finger nails fetched blood. Gray hair and the St. Petersburg fashions of 1863 filled the air. The screams of the thoroughly frightened Mistress of Etiquette brought a crowd. The door was battered down. The three Russian girls were screaming in their respective corners. The old lady was hors de combat, and a fieryeyed goddess of the room, waving a tuft of gray hair in one hand and a jeweled hair dagger, with which she had been trying to stab the Russian, in the other. The Mistress of Etiquette fairly screamed with impotent rage, showered maledictions in broken French, German and Russian upon her conqueror, and demanded that the most condign puuishment be meted out to her. 

The matter was carried to the Czar. Nicholas made a pretense of punishing the young lady by issuing some orders against her appearing at any ball for a certain period, but the old liberator was immensely tickled. He showered the most embarrassing presents upon the American, beautiful slippers of every kind and description, silver slippers and gold slippers, and finally wound up by sending her a hair dagger set with diamonds. –From the Washington Post, 1890

Submitted by Sisters, Toni and June, at the  Etiquette Facts Blog

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Moderator for Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia