What?! “Ladies don't applaud”? I found this statement while looking through composer C. Hubert H. Parry's unpublished diaries. He was writing about the fortnightly musical salons held at the London home of his teacher, Edward Dannreuther. Tucked away in the middle of the entry about this concert, Parry’s throwaway comment astonished me:
The casualness of Parry's remark suggests that the ladies' conduct was a cultural norm. Yet I'd never come across if before and neither had the colleagues who I asked about it - and they had poured through hundreds of documents describing Victorian concert etiquette. They were similarly amazed.
When a scholar finds a gamechanger statement like this, it’s like catching the scent of the hunt. It’s intoxicating, exciting, and alluring. Academics who work on the topic of daily life, like I do, are up against a challenge because we sometimes engage with topics that were so usual as to have escaped mention in published writing. In this sense, nineteenth-century documents are unlike historic novels (written today, but taking place in the past), where commonplace objects and interactions are recorded in exquisite detail as a way of establishing the setting as historic.
An off-handed mention like Parry’s requires us to reassess what we thought we already knew. Precisely because practices like applause saturated daily experiences in domestic and public life, discovering something like this diary entry can be significant for revealing nuances of belief systems.
In the case of “ladies don’t applaud”, there are two important elements, and they inform one another. How is gender performed (what did it mean to act like a “lady”) and what does applause imply? In Britain, a “lady” is more than a designation for a female adult. In one sense, it is a class marker (upper class), but even more, it signifies dignified behavior. Ladies carry themselves with grace, treat others with respect, and are well-spoken. To say that “ladies don’t applaud” suggests something about the nature of applause as a performance of gender. Because both Victorian men and ladies wore gloves when they went out, the sound of clapping probably wouldn’t have been the issue (as it might have been if only ladies wore gloves). But then, does applaud mean clapping or simply calling out, as when an individual shouts "Bravo" or "Brava"?
I went hunting right away for more evidence and found the above cartoon from the satiric Punch magazine. It shows men applauding to the accompaniment of their exclamation, "Beautiful!" To the side, a woman sits stolidly, quietly, with neither hands nor voice raised. The drawing lampoons a non-musical event, but the image still supports the idea that in public and in semi-private settings, ladies did not put their hands together. In fact, the artist does not even draw the hands; ladies’ hands are invisible.
This new perspective offers greater insight on writings where applause occurs. Mary Gladstone’s diary from 1871 thus assumes that we know things (the text is reproduced exactly, including grammatical and spelling errors):
Joseph Joachim was the preeminent concert violinist of the day. Previously, I had assumed that Mary joined in with the applause and the encoring (she says “we encored”). But with our new knowledge in mind, her wishing to kneel at Joachim’s feet gains greater importance; it suggests a reverent excitement (the exclamation point, the underline). “[B]ringing down thundering applause” then becomes something that Mary feelingly observes, rather than something in which she participates by herself applauding.
Similarly, when Mary attended a competition concert at the Crystal Palace the following year, she records in her diary how the winning choir from Wales:
In one sense, this passage records how choirs were supported by audience members from the same region, somewhat like today’s multinational sporting events (e.g., the Olympics, the World Cup). Since Mary was from Wales, she identified most strongly with this Welsh choir. Today, she would probably respond by clapping. However, 145 years ago, she observed the stormy applause alongside the musical performance.
Mary’s response was not unlike her role at her father’s political speeches. Around the same time as the citations from Mary's diary, when W.E. Gladstone was serving the first of his four premierships, Mary began to accompany her mother to the Ladies’ Gallery overlooking the House of Commons. At this time, women did not have the vote, which meant that they could not stand for parliament. But they could and did participate in a sort of involved spectatorship.
For example, one of Mary’s earliest encounters with her father’s public engagements occurred at Whitby:
The 23-year-old observes the working-class enthusiasm with an excitement similar to what she experienced when hearing a truly outstanding concert. Here, she gloats with a pride that reveals her positive response to “ecstatic applause”; she may not join in the last, but the quality of the speech and the standing ovation exhilarates her all the same.
This triangulation between listener, performance, and other audience members is a concept that I develop further in my book, Mary Gladstone and the Victorian Salon. What is important here is what is left unsaid. The passage reveals that Mary was a well-known person because her father was prime minister, and she enjoys being recognized. She would have been identified at the Congress Hall, too (she certainly was at other, similar events), but she does not mention it. The men’s ecstatic applause shows male behavior (to clap in public draws the gaze), just as Mary’s not writing about being looked at shows ladylike reserve.
Yet there is no doubt that Mary had a feeling response. To my way of thinking, the diary functions, in part, as Mary’s emotional outlet; she cannot applaud, except in the semi-private space of her diary. When she passed her diary around to friends and family (as Victorian diaries often were), it would then communicate the excitement that she could not immediately release through clapping and waving her hat in the air.
This topic clearly calls for more research. What is apparent is that men's and women’s expressions of approval differed. And it is also clear that Parry would have liked the feeling of a warmer reception when his trio was performed. In our March 2018 recreation of an after-dinner concert organized by Mary Gladstone, we will be building in a consideration of what it meant for ladies to withhold applause. Please visit our website in progress to see what we find, Sounding Victorian.
Weliver, Phyllis. “Real Ladies Don't Applaud." Gladstone's Daughter: Living Liberalism. March 7, 2018. Web log post. Date accessed (https://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2018/3/2/real-ladies-dont-applaud).
Weliver, P. (2018, Mar 7). Real Ladies Don't Applaud. Web log post. Retrieved from https://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2018/3/2/real-ladies-dont-applaud