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Megan Hennecke

ENL 4122.001

Dr. Runge

20 March 2006

Etiquette in the Eighteenth Century

            The society of eighteenth century England was characterized by strict structure and social expectations. Great importance was placed on the outlines of social conduct. Both men and women were trained, often by the ever-popular courtesy books of the time, to follow the accepted rules of conduct. Vast amounts of attention were addressed to proper manners, and any divergence from such regulated etiquette constituted disrespect for either society or the individual. These characteristics of genteel society were often reflected in the literature of the time. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice offers a close look at the conduct of the day. It is vital, for a truly close reading of Pride and Prejudice, to understand better the accepted manners of the eighteenth century world. Without such, the subtleties of the text are left unnoticed and the true import of the character's actions and words are overlooked. Therefore, an understanding of courtesy books and the basic etiquette of everyday life and social interactions is essential.

            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).

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            Great portions of the courtesy books emphasized the importance of moral virtues. Lord

Chesterfield wrote several such books. Written in 1796, Chesterfield’s Principles of Politeness and of Knowing the World addresses the subjects of modesty, lying, and good breeding, to name a few. He suggests the importance of regulated behavior: “No one is at liberty to act in all respects as he pleases, but is bound by the laws of good manners to behave with decorum (Chesterfield 24). Modesty was fundamental to the eighteenth century gentlemen. No man should speak in such a way as to bring attention to himself or to praise himself (Chesterfield 7). Lying, also, was a vice to avoid. In fact, visiting foreigners thought lying to be a truly “un-English” characteristic (Langford 122). It has been suggested that the “idea that it was sufficient to make a man swear on the Bible to accept his word was a highly original English one” (Langford 123).

            Another specific 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 Elizabeth’s reasons for being ashamed of her mother’s loud and personal conversation at Netherfield (Austen 68). Also, conversation typically did not go beyond general pleasantries (187). In fact, it was thought to be rude to enter into any personal conversation. “Sociability as non-interference was an intensely English concept” (Landford 239).

            Beyond the 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” (Chesterfield 40). Likewise, in Pride and Prejudice, Ms. Bingley asserts that the accomplished woman should “possess a certain something in... the tone of her voice, her address and expressions” (Austen 27). Chesterfield speaks of elegance of expression, regulation

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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 (Chesterfield 107, 33).

            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 Elizabeth is terrified at the thought of Mr. Collins introducing himself to Mr. Darcy (Austen 66).

            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

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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).

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Donald Gray. New York: W.W. Norton and Company,                      2001.

Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of. Principles of Politeness and of Knowing the World. Greenfield, MA: Thomas Dickman, 1796.

Fritzer, Penelope Joan. Jane Austen and Eighteenth-Century Courtesy Books. Westport, CT:                       Greenwood Press, 1997.

Langford, Paul. Englishness Identified: Manners and Character. Oxford: Oxford University              Press, 2000.

Morgan, Marjorie. Manners, Morals and Class in England. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. New York: Simon and Schuster,    1993.