The Hat usually hosts this gathering of a dozen of us every Christmas Eve, but this year the party was postponed. The cause is three new-born babies, M's father in an Oxford hospital, a nervous breakdown, and a neighbour who has gone into care.
I never really know how to behave at The Hat's. It's all more polite than at ours, and the cups are bone china. Usually, I come away feeling I have messed it up. I drink the 1982 burgundy reserved for H which has been hidden behind the refrigerator, the children eat all the grapes, and then I eat all the crisps. Talking with my mouth full to deny it is the prelude to someone saying Is that the time? It must be time to go.
I expect it will be the only social event to which I am invited all year. The evening usually serves to ensure no more invitations anywhere are forthcoming.
But I thought, this year, I will try and carry in my head a few hints on how to behave conversationally at social functions. As you might see, I am trying already. But a few pointers from the wise might stop me getting into trouble this year, especially with that little woman who dresses in black. Peepah has already given me advice by way of saying how it always gets awkward when you tell that joke about the nuns and then realise you're the only one laughing.
So here is my guide. Extracts from Cassell's Hand-Book of Etiquette: Being A Complete Guide to the Usages of Polite Society (1860) London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin.
'Attention to the following rules will put you on your guard against becoming either boring or offencive in conversation, or of committing those faults that etiquette condemns.
Look at the person to whom you speak, but do not stare at him. Endeavour both by your expression and manner to show confidence without boldness, and ease without familiarity.
Be sparing of puns and proverbs. Too many of them render conversation trite and stiff.
Ill-natured reports are among the sins of conversation. Never be the bearer of them. People may listen greedily to the report (which, after all, may be a slander), but they will beware of you, as being likely to speak ill of themselves.
Never flatly contradict any one, and show especial deference to the opinions of the aged and of the fair sex.
Recollect that the drawing-room is not a debating club, and it should never be made a field for disputants.
Do not be led into angry political discussions before ladies, and avoid controversy.
A lady cannot very decorously challenge a gentleman to a future argument, but she should always firmly dissent from opinions that savour of immorality or impiety.
If you interrupt a speaker in the middle of his sentence, you act almost as rudely as if, when walking with a companion, you were to thrust yourself before him and stop his progress.
Profane swearing, always an infringement of religion, is now, in conversation, a great breach of etiquette.
By constantly putting questions, you render yourself wearisome, and sometimes very impertinent in conversation.
Conversation should bring into play all the amiable qualities of kindness, politeness, patience, and forbearance. These qualities may be shown by the learned and unlearned, and they contribute greatly to the charm of the conversation.
In polite society, it should be understood that what passes in conversation is, to a certain degree, sacred, and cannot honourably be repeated to the prejudice of the speaker.
Finally, remember not to eat all the crisps, nor deny it with your mouth full. And never, ever, ever, tell that joke about the nun. Especially when there is one in the room.'