Etiquette exists – just ask a mother-in-law

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The Independent Online

Come back Roy Chubby Brown, all is forgiven! And how about a public apology to Bernard Manning while we're at it? Why? Because the dreaded mother-in-law figure that they spoke of so caustically is alive and kicking – but unlike those comedians' crude caricatures, this time it's the daughter-in-law's mother-in-law who's doing the kicking. She is one Carolyn Bourne, 50, whose admonishments to her son's prospective bride, 29-year-old Heidi Withers, raised not only eyebrows but also questions about etiquette in the internet age.

"When you are a guest in another's house, you do not declare what you will and will not eat," Mrs Bourne wrote to Ms Withers in an email that was soon winging its way round the world. "You do not take additional helpings without being invited to by your host [and] ... you do not lie in bed until late morning in households that rise early – you fall in line with house norms."

"You should never, ever insult the family you are about to join at any time and most definitely not in public," Mrs Bourne continued. "I gather you passed this off as a joke, but the reaction in the pub was one of shock, not laughter."

These diktats are, for the most part, utterly fair enough. You don't drag up the little rascal – funny smells, smart-arse remarks and all – only for him to disappear into the sunset with someone who makes you want to eat glass.

Tensions between mums and their son's partners run high on both sides of the relationship. It's a tricky bond to negotiate, because each party judges the other on the same standards – that is, on simply being a woman. And, by default, the criteria that both are being marked on vary wildly, given generational divides and more immanent concerns. Your mother-in-law might take a dim view of your tattoo, for instance, but she hasn't taken into account the number of celebrities you've met and how good your manicure is.

But that's not to say that Mrs. Bourne should have put the lot in an email and fired it off. That the entire diatribe has now become a public spectacle is, possibly, no less than both of them deserve. "Unfortunately for Freddie, he has fallen in love with you," Mrs. Bourne added in her e-tirade. "If you want to be accepted by the wider Bourne family, I suggest you take some guidance from experts with utmost haste. There are plenty of finishing schools around."

This, quite clearly, is the stuff of nightmares – in a fluid society where eligible young men aren't simply packaged off at birth to the pallid daughter of the neighbouring estate, mothers-in-law have lost some of their dominion. And for any woman entering the household of an older, wiser, redoubtable matriarch, pitfalls abound.

"You regularly draw attention to yourself," Carolyn Bourne continues. "Perhaps you should ask yourself why. No one gets married in a castle unless they own it. It is brash, celebrity-style behaviour." Four easy tips that would have helped Heidi out: it's the "sitting room" not "the lounge"; taking your shoes off as soon as you get through the door is common; always leave your knife and fork at quarter to four on your plate; and don't be fussy, obnoxious or lazy. Simple enough, really.

But does the "monster-in-law" of popular myth – the jealous, protective, imperious Gorgon at the head of the table – actually exist? Well, not really. It's much more a misogynistic And Mrs Bourne's email – while flagging up the importance of manners more generally – certainly contravenes what most people would think of as a dignified response; we're far more likely to put up and shut up in the face of anti-social behaviour, which is why the outspoken doyenne has garnered quite so much support for her actions. There is clearly a fervent but subliminal feeling out there that yobs too often get away with their antics, without being told what's what.

But the Venn diagram of legend – warring women either side of a baffled young man – is a cartoon that simply doesn't exist in households that get on with each other. I just hope my future mother-in-law, whoever she may be, isn't reading this column. And if she is, she hopefully won't understand email.

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