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20 March 2006
Etiquette in the Eighteenth Century
The society of
Eighteenth century manners were not restricted to the specific social customs of the day. In fact, more emphasis was often put on the morality of the individual instead of the specific manners. Courtesy books were vastly popular; most assuredly, Jane Austen had encountered them during her lifetime (Fritzer 2). Originally written by parents of the aristocracy for their children, courtesy books began to appeal to all social classes as the standard of conduct (Fritzer 2). Although courtesy books did outline specific, accepted manners, conduct books focused heavily upon the morality of genteel society. “One of the most significant characteristics common to courtesy books was their underlying assumption that manners and morals were inseparable and indistinguishable” (Morgan 11).
Great portions of the courtesy books emphasized the importance of moral virtues. Lord
virtue expounded by English courtesy books was that of silence. Conversation,
in general, was limited. At dinner parties, it was proper to only speak to
those sitting next to you. Conversation across the table was thought to be
vulgar and unnecessarily loud (Langford 185). This explains
attention given to the individual morality and general characteristics of the
English, courtesy books endeavored to outline the specific manners of the ideal
gentleman. Lord Chesterfield’s courtesy books specify such manners. He
addresses the “voice and manner” of the “genteel carriage” (
of laughter (neither too much
or too loud), and other various particulars, such as picking of the teeth,
smelling of food, and spitting on the carpet (
In addition to individual manners, the conduct of social intercourse was strictly outlined.
Even slight breeches of social etiquette would be interpreted as
slights or vulgarity of character. Basic etiquette constituted of certain rules
for both men and women. Men were always to “give the wall” to a lady. To “give
the wall” meant to allow the lady to walk close to the wall and furthest from
the road. This would keep her from the grim of the street as well as protect
her from any filth being disposed of from upstairs windows (Olsen 258). There
were specific instructions concerning meeting and introductions in society.
Gentlemen are introduced to a lady, never a lady to a gentleman. Inferiors of
class are only introduced to those of higher status if the superior has agreed
to the introduction (Langford 188). This explains why
Men always preceeded a woman into the room, followed her down the stairs, and preceded her on the way up (Pool 54). Also, first names are never used as they are thought to be too personal for social intercourse between men and women (57). Women were forbidden to walk or communicate alone with men. They were always chaperoned, and writing personal letters to a man was highly improper (55). One can easily understand the confusion, shame, or suspicion any breach of accepted etiquette could reflect on both sides of an acquaintance.
Calling cards were a very popular means of formal social interaction. It allowed those of a lower class the opportunity of advancing in society; however, it also allowed the genteel class a polite way of refusing such attempts at acquaintance (Pool 66). In coming to town, no one would presume to call upon and actually see the lady of a house. Ladies would leave calling cards, bearing their name, at the door. One card was left for each member of the household, although women were not allowed to leave one for the man of the house. The cards received were left
displayed in the entry in order to impress any visitor with the social status of the house. Those who presumed to call could sometimes be rejected even if the lady of the house was present. She had the right to decline any visitor she pleased. “This was perfectly acceptable, and it was understood that many people were physically at home when they were not socially at home, although it was crass if they got caught” (Pool 68). Once a card had been left, the lady of the house was required to return a card or pay a visit. This rule explains Jane’s horror that Ms. Bingley sent “not a note, not a line” after Jane’s previous call (Austen 99). Such a slight could not but be felt. Calls were to be short and restricted to polite, impersonal conversation.
One of the most major social rituals of the time was the ball. Such extravagant social events were themselves regulated by a plethora of customs and manners. Invitations were normally sent three to six weeks prior to the ball, and replies were expected within a day (Pool 78). Personal invitations were considered a great honor. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bingley’s personal call and invitation to the ball at Netherfield is met with great excitement: “Mrs. Bennett... was particularly flattered by receiving the invitation from Mr. Bingley himself, instead of a ceremonious card” (Austen 59).
On the day of the ball, the hostess would receive her guests at the door. Men were expected to wear black suits, and both men and women were required to wear gloves (Pool 79). A master of ceremonies, often a chaperone or friend of the family, was present to make introductions and introduce dancing partners. The hostess and the most significantly ranked gentlemen present began the dancing. Bowing and curtseying occurred at the beginning of every dance, and the gentlemen was required to accompany his partner for a short while after they were finished dancing. Men were allowed to dance no more than three dances with the same women (Pool 80). As regards dancing in general, the practice was thought completely proper, even of clergymen, as long as it was done in moderation (Fritzer 34).
The manners and customs of the eighteenth century world were nothing if not structured. Basic etiquette was the reflection of good and steady character. Morality played just as great a role in society as basic manners. Through the instruction of courtesy books, the general populace was instructed in the behavior dictated by society. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, manner is emphasized as the combination of morality and behavior as well as the applying of good judgment in society. “It is apparent that Jane Austen’s system of values in many ways matches that of the courtesy writers... the best characters follow courtesy recommendations, and the flawed characters do not” (Fritzer 111). Manner and morality went hand-in-hand.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Donald Gray.
Joan. Jane Austen and
Eighteenth-Century Courtesy Books.
Langford, Paul. Englishness
Identified: Manners and Character.
Morgan, Marjorie. Manners, Morals and Class in
Pool, Daniel. What Jane
Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.