Through a writer with whom we’ve recently formed a pleasant acquaintance, we were invited to a small dinner party given by a prince belonging to one of Italy’s oldest and most illustrious houses. The kind that owns a collection of two millennia’s worth of fine art and one of Rome’s most stunning palaces. The kind that, a few centuries ago, produced a Supreme Pontiff.
“What can we take him?” H. asked. “We can’t afford the kind of wine he’s probably accustomed to drinking.”
Meanwhile, I was searching through our books. “Where’s my Debrett’s?”
“You own a copy of Debrett’s?”
“Of course,” I replied as one who takes it as read that a copy of Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners is as staple in any household as a city street map.
My mother had given it to me on my sixteenth birthday. “I can’t afford to throw you a coming out party but I still expect you to be polished by the time you’re seventeen,” she’d said sternly.
A coming out party. The words evoked glossy magazine pictures of Princess Stéphanie of Monaco in a suitably demure white evening dress and pastel flowers in her hair.
For my mother, manners – like languages – constituted a key into yet another world. In this case, one she had fallen into elegantly as a young woman, and in which she was determined I should build my future life, totally impervious to the fact that our very pronounced lack of funds might prove to be a hindrance.
Still, I learnt to walk, sit and even serve tea with a book on my head without so much as rocking. “A gentleman must always light a lady’s cigarette first if he uses a lighter,” she said, “but his first if matches. Why? (there would be the usual pause, to prompt me to answer) Because when you first strike a match it has an unpleasant smell of sulphur.”
Then, there was “If you ask someone to post a letter for you it is very impolite to seal the envelope. It’s as though you don’t trust the person. You must always hand it open and it’s up to the other person, as a mark of appreciation for your trust, to seal the envelope right there before you.”
For the most part, my mother’s strict etiquette instructions have remained at the level of theory in my life, with the rare exception of a few dinners at Cambridge, where my ex-husband was doing his PhD, in the early Nineties. The Master of the College, formerly headmaster of Eton, would sometimes invite graduate students for dinner at the Lodge. The first time we went, I gave my name to a man in a black morning coat. He appeared a little ruffled. “If you would please give your name to the under-butler, Madam,” he said, directing us to another, as far I could see identically-dressed man on the opposite side of the hall. The latter then swung open the door into the parlour, and announced, “Mr and Mrs –” while ushering us through.
At dinner, the main course was accompanied by beautifully-cut, thin dry slices of salted potato, the sort commonly known as crisps, which provided a challenge even to the most skilled knife-and-fork operators. A few, in fact, were purposefully ignored while flying across the dining room like shooting stars. After dinner, the Master’s wife rose from the table, and invited all the ladies present to “join [her] for coffee in the drawing room upstairs,” while the men passed around a decanter of whiskey, smoked cigars, or took pinches of snuff from a lion-shaped silver tobacco holder with a head that swung open thanks to a tiny hinge. I wondered if any lady guest in history had ever declined the invitation and stayed downstairs with the gentlemen. I don’t suppose so. Not in a world where the only way to win is to play the rules to your advantage.
Our writer acquaintance had assured us that the prince was very “easy-going” but I worried that, when applied to an individual with at least six centuries of aristocracy behind him, this adjective might refer to the invaluable skill of – there’s no other word for it – somewhat lowering your usual standards in order to make the less sophisticated or educated feel at their ease. I wanted to be up to the occasion, whether or not I found my Debrett’s for a quick revision session.
While trying to recall the basic principles of what my grandmother called “good breeding”, I studied my wardrobe. I wanted to show respect to our host with a smart outfit but, this not being London, I had to take care not to overdress inappropriately. I settled on a pretty lemon-yellow dress with white embroidery on the front and back, which I’d bought from Laura Ashley’s a few weeks earlier but had not yet had the opportunity to wear. The kind of dress my mother would describe as “an afternoon dress”. Midnight-blue suede and patent sling-back shoes, and a black pashmina, should the evening turn chilly on the way home.
As H. and I were walking towards the appointed address, I suddenly noticed passers-by staring at me. For the briefest of seconds, I flattered myself that they were looks of admiration, before I realised that I was engulfed by a retinue of tiny flies. The front and back of my dress were covered in them, and there were several dozens inside the dress, on my skin, too, all the way down, ahem, to my waist and tummy. We walked the rest of the way with H. vainly trying to brush them off without squashing them. We couldn’t fathom what was happening. I often wear yellow, and have never experienced anything like this – one or two flies at the most.
When the prince opened the door with a welcoming smile, he was confronted by the spectacle of me trying to shake the flies down from inside my dress, and H. whipping me with my shawl, looking up and saying, “Oh, hello. It’s not how it looks – I promise I’m not a wife beater.”
My entrance provided the topic of conversation during the apéritif, with the other guests engaged in earnest speculations as to what might have attracted the swarm of storm flies. Perhaps they’d thought I was a Christmas-size helping of pollen. I sipped my wine and smiled politely, fully aware that I need not trouble myself with providing any effervescent conversation for the rest of the evening. The impression had been made as Enter, pursued by swarm of storm flies.
A few days later, I walked into the Laura Ashley shop, explained the situation, and asked for advice. After all, I hadn’t bought the dress to wear it just the once. Predictably, I was met by puzzled, knitted eyebrows and “Nobody else came in to say this.” A couple of sales assistants suggested I go to the camping shop next door, and buy insect repellent. “I’m not going to smear myself with pesticide!” I said. One lady thought perhaps I had just been unlucky, and walked past a nest. I left the shop without a viable solution.
I have worn the yellow dress several times since that evening and, oddly, only attracted one or two flies, which have been easily brushed off. I still have no idea what happened that first time. Perhaps the swarm of storm flies felt it had to rise to the occasion.