For 250 years, it has guided readers through the minefield of polite society, offering advice on everything from posture and deportment, to how to behave at Royal Ascot and how to address the wife of a Duke.
Today, Debrett's drags itself kicking and screaming into the 21st century, with the publication of a new book listing previously unspoken codes of behaviour for the "ladettes" of modern Britain. It makes for eye-opening reading. Unlike the Debrett's referred to in Jane Austen's Persuasion, the new Etiquette for Girls deals with a host of decidedly thorny social situations, including how to conduct one-night stands, react to office sleaze, and commit adultery.
Where a previous Debrett's might advise on what to wear on the grouse moor, today's version deals with "gym etiquette", and whether it's acceptable to go topless on the beach (only if you're in a secluded spot, and other sunbathers are also deshabille).
Not surprisingly, the publisher - whose "toff's Bible," the Peerage and Baronetage, was first published in 1769 - expects Etiquette for Girls to send the marmalade-spoons of traditional readers clattering to the floor. However, the book's editor, Jo Aitchson, wasn't offering any apologies yesterday.
"In some ways this book marks a change of direction for Debrett's, since it is full of glossy pictures and has been written in a fairly informal style," she said. "But in others, it's just a continuation of what we've been doing as an arbiter on taste and behaviour.
"Modern society is more liberal than ever, so things that weren't traditionally covered by etiquette now need a proper set of rules to govern them. Etiquette for Girls deals with the sorts of things every 18 to 35-year-old working woman might need advice on.
"It is meant to be like having a trusted friend and, in that respect, you can't simply ignore the fact that girls today might have a one-night stand, or get a little carried away at the office party. What we're trying to do is to tell them how to do it in the nicest possible manner."
Today's book launch comes two years after Debrett's was the subject of a £1m buyout by a group of venture capitalists eager to update the publisher's dusty image and expand its operations on to the internet.
The firm's director, Conrad Free, said yesterday that Etiquette for Girls will be the first of a series of new titles aimed at adapting the values endorsed in its traditional etiquette guides for a modern readership.
"We have an iconic brand, but in many respects it's still stuck in the 19th century, bound up with the aristocracy and the peerage," he said. "We really bought Debrett's with a view to creating modernity. This book shows the leap we are making from Victorian values to those of the modern day.
"Will people say the new book is immoral? It's hard to tell. The aim is to reflect society rather than change it, and our initial feedback has been that people are increasingly confused about 'proper' behaviour and will welcome a product that sets out the rules.
"Another interesting discovery has been that male readers are just as interested in the book's content as female ones. It's a bit like the way you often hear of men surreptitiously enjoying a leaf through the wife's glossy magazines."
However it goes down, Etiquette for Girls isn't the only new title that's likely to cause claret-spitting over the coming months.
The firm has two other new books in the pipeline: a celebrity guide called People of the Year and a wedding manual that (among other things) is expected to look at the rights and wrongs of stag weekend visits to lap-dancing clubs.
Before getting involved, consider the risks and what is at stake. If you're still powerless to resist, keep the truth to yourself: gossip has wings, and observers will pour scorn on your transgressions.
When cheating on a husband/partner, be sure to cover your tracks. Destroy receipts you cannot explain away, delete incriminating text messages as soon as they're received, and be wary of e-mail.
No secret is ever totally watertight, but try not to make things difficult for yourself: avoid using elaborate lies, and be wary of using friends as alibis without their permission beforehand.
If you are the "other woman" remember not to get too involved: a married man rarely leaves his wife, and even if he did, he could well do the same thing to you.
In general, don't be reckless with other people's hearts, and don't put up with other people who are reckless with yours.
Office romance and sleaze
Many a true love has been discovered at work, but it's a risky business. A bit like dropping a big boulder into a small pond, it will always create waves: you may end up being dumped in the office, and could even get fired. Only go public once your liaison has become regular reality. A well-timed newscast to colleagues may cause blushes, but it will also clear the air - presuming you've checked the small print to make sure an office affair isn't a sackable offence. If romance turns sour, be mature, keep a stiff upper lip and switch to auto-pilot. Give it time and hope to conquer the cringe phase. Should an unwanted suitor appear, act cool and be utterly unimpressed. If predatory behaviour persists, tell him calmly that you feel uncomfortable and (in extremis) be prepared to inform your superiors.
The one-night-stand (ONS) is a bit like fast food: tempting, but with nauseating afterthoughts.
Make health and safety a priority. Always try to invite him back to yours, but if you insist on playing away, text a friend to inform them of your whereabouts.
Avoid dark-alley gropery, and unladylike fumbling in the back of a cab. Once home, leave him to select a CD from your collection while you embark on a turbo-tidy.
In the bedroom, forget about your normal night-time routine and leave pyjamas in their drawer. Discuss the necessaries to avoid planting any love children or disease, and you're away.
If you're at his, the ONS isn't over until the following morning's "walk of shame" home in last night's outfit.
Steel yourself and hold your head up high.
At yours, offer him breakfast and (assuming you want no more of him) say that your mother is on her way round.
A few decades ago, no social occasion was complete without a cigarette box being regularly passed from host to guests, and back again.
Today, smoking is a minority sport. Smokers are therefore advised to cushion their indelicacy with suitable manners and consideration for others.
The host, and then those sitting near to the smoker, should be asked if they object to lighting-up. A furtive glance must then be cast around the room for children or pregnant women.
Social smokers, who do not actually buy cigarettes, should rotate the suppliers of their freebies; if asked to donate, it is churlish (though tempting) to refuse.
Always use a proper ashtray - never a wine bottle, flower plot, or used plate - and avoid allowing smoke to billow out of the nostrils. It is also inelegant to leave the cigarette unsupported in the mouth, or to exhale into someone's face.
Planet celebrity is an alien world peopled by psycho fans and fame hags, so don't expect your idol to offer anything more than a glacial reception. With chance spottings - particularly when en famille - it's polite to ignore them. Permit yourself a brief smile if you must, but don't gawp, and if you must take a photo with the mobile phone, be discreet. When introduced, keep the chat pithy and pacy, and remember: there's no such thing as an original line, they've heard it all before. Feigning ignorance of their fame is a risky strategy: the wildly unfamiliar concept of anonymity may delight them, but these people have hefty egos, so you run a risk of incensing them and blowing it. Exploit their insecurities, butter them up, but keep it brief. And never ever remind them of previous meetings: they won't remember you.
Gossip, bitching, lies and excuses
The best gossip is always the most dangerous, but bear in mind that those who peddle gossip and bitch incessantly get a reputation. Rule number one is to watch your back. If you're overheard bad-mouthing someone, and are sure that umbrage was taken, apologise at once. If you're too spineless to do it in person, e-mail. Lies, on the other hand, can have a positive role (for instance to protect another's feelings), so it's worth learning how to tell a good 'un. The key is to keep it simple, involve no one else, and tell as few people as possible. If talking to a pathological liar, either ignore completely, or (in the case of a good friend) confront them with a well-timed "come off it!" Excuses are fundamentally the same as lies, so similar rules apply. False doctor's appointments can be useful, toothache is handy, but migraines and food poisoning are over-used and have lost all credibility.Reuse content