The new American Victorianism will surely fizzle Etiquette, etc.: Despite the popular revival of formal social rules and customs, modernity will win.

The Argument

September 14, 1997|By Dorothea Straus | Dorothea Straus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It has often been observed these days that the pendulum is swinging back to the Victorian era. Does anyone give credence to this careless cliche? There are no ways to escape the present - attempts have been undertaken and they have failed.

The hands of the clock won't be turned back. The past cannot return. The very old may indulge in useless nostalgic ruminations, while the smug will be consoled by the thought that we know better now.

Now, in 1997, there is an increasing desire for laws to govern private life. The Sixties Revolution brought Sexual Liberation and the Feminist Movement in its wake, but the demolition of so many boundaries has produced unease in both men and women, bringing to mind the child in the progressive school who asks, "Do I have to do anything I want to do today?" There is an illicit longing for the closed door, an end to the confusion of choice and the juggling of conflicting goals.

Abstract ideologies endure; Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the words of the 18th-century French encyclopedists, are alive today, but human behavior will go its way despite philosophers and the rules put forth by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider in their optimistic recipes for the desperate single woman. "The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right" (Crown, 171 pages. $5.95 paper) has been on the best-seller lists for more than two years and is still being devoured by lonely women, of whom there are too many. It seems to have inspired almost as many spoofs as Hemingway.

The method here is to blind the reader to the complexities of sexual relationships, by reducing them to the most uncomplicated common denominator. All men are beasts of prey who enjoy the chase, but they can be tamed by women if they will return to the good old days.

Be your grandmother. Assume the metaphoric strictures of her boned corset, although your ancestor did not discover the prohibitions in a book; they were as natural to her as a second epidermis, derived from the zeitgeist of her day.

Modern equals dangerous

But modern women have grown accustomed to breathing naturally, to following the instincts of sexual desire, and to

competing with men in the marketplace. Schneider and Fein, Girl Scout leaders, promise to untangle the knots of living by a simple set of tricks.

There may be some particles of truth in their advice, but one could ask: What about the male narcissist who prefers to admire his charms reflected in the spontaneous capitulation of his woman, rather than to engage in the sport of the chase? Or is the hero-worshipper, male or female, extinct? The answer is: Doubters will not be admitted to Camp Schneider and Fein.

A sampling of the Rules: Don't talk to a man first; Don't ask him to dance; Don't call him and rarely return his call: Don't accept a Sunday night date after Wednesday; How to act on Dates 1, 2 and 3; No more than a casual kiss on First Date; Don't live with a man or leave your things in his apartment; Be Mysterious (very important); Don't discuss the Rules with your therapist.

"Do the Rules and live happily ever after." "Practice, practice." "Be a Rules Girl."

Be a Girl Scout!

In the Life Style section (sometimes known as the Society Page) of the New York Times the standard formal image for brides, as alike as cookies shaped from a single mold, the pampered, wealthy WASP Virgin, has vanished with the snows of yesteryear. Instead, we find couples, usually of mixed ethnic origin (despite the current trend of ethnic separatism).

Experts on the past

The ideal of the melting pot has given way to the reality of assimilation, with its accompanying adjustments. A Japanese stock analyst bride stands beside her Hispanic groom, a Jewish husband is joined to an African-American TV anchorperson.

The photographer has caught also the carefully selected sites for eccentric nuptial rites: the kitchen of a Korean restaurant, the deck of a Circle Line tourist boat, venues commemorating the first date that occurred, in all likelihood, years earlier. It is correct for wedding ceremonials to come after a lengthy period of domestic cohabitation.

Through shifting fashions, a reliance on the "expert" is evidenced by an increase of books on etiquette. "Emily Post's 75th Anniversary" has been compiled by Peggy Post, a great-granddaughter-in-law (HarperCollins. 845 pages. $49.50).

This giant compendium includes guidelines for every facet of social intercourse: conversation, correspondence, party protocol, travel and tipping, to name a few. Weddings are featured, no detail overlooked: dress, attendants, pre-wedding "showers," bachelor dinners, flower arrangements, the Cake. But a puzzling fact remains: Only the tried-and-true customs of yesterday fill these pages. Two sections of suggestions, for the pregnant bride and the office worker, I assume to be late additions.

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