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"Too Early" (1873) by James Tissot appears in The Impressionists In London: French artists in exile, 1870-1904, at Tate Britain until May 7(©Guildhall Art Gallery (London, UK).)



What’s the best way to avoid embarrassment when turning up to a party prematurely? I try to remain unnoticed outside although others are content to waltz right in. We’ve all faced the dilemma that the artist James Tissot addresses in a satirical painting of 1873, currently displayed at Tate Britain’s Impressionists in London. Who better than a Frenchman to point out a faux-pas? Although in this case it is less sincere than it is a send-up of the awkward absurdities behind Victorian England’s rigid social codes. A retiring couple linger at the door with affected nonchalance, successfully in the shadows of the rather colourful cluster that occupies the centre of the room. Forming an uncomfortable island on the empty dance floor, they can hardly look each other in the eye, let alone bear to acknowledge the eager amusement of two spying servant girls. The timid disappointment of their drooped heads and sideways glances belies the damning candour of the painting’s title — Too Early.

Their evident unease might appear a little over the top, but it is less for the actual act of arriving early than for the misunderstanding of manners in polite society that it suggests. Social mobility could be stifled by such a gaffe, and so various handbooks met a growing demand for strict guidelines on how to conform, such as Samuel Ochart Beeton’s All About Etiquette (1875). When attending a ball, Beeton instructs, one ought to enter “at an hour suited to the habits of those who invite you. It is extremely inconvenient, however, to be too early as you may disconcert your friends.” It is advice that, as far as I can see, is as apt now as it ever was.

In the absence of a modern manual, however, we are left to rely on instinct if we want to avoid barging in on the host in their dressing gown. And so we strive to be “fashionably late”, a delightfully vague time of day that can be defined as desired. A distinctly informal survey I carried out suggests that among the middle-aged this means 15 to 30 minutes after the time stated on the invitation. Members of my generation err much more on the side of caution however, waiting at least an hour, preferably two. In fact, counting down to the new year in an Uber is not at all unheard of. Everyone agrees, however, that it is better to arrive at a party in full swing — so RSVP, get dolled up and please don’t be punctual!

 
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