Niceties and Courtesies: Manners and Customs in the time of Jane Austen


For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?

-Mr. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

Nineteenth Century British literature, while enormously entertaining, can be a quagmire of confusion for the reader unfamiliar with the manners and mores of the time. Read enough about country dances and "coming out" balls and you're bound to figure it out, but a primer would certainly come in handy. I cannot reccomend a better one than Daniel Pool's What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist - the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England. However, for those with limited time and a desire for very general knowledge, I have put together this website. It is by no means comprehensive, but I hope it will be useful.

This website is my final project for a class called Selected Authors: Jane Austen, affectionatly known as Multimediea JA. Obviously, I am most interested in the period at the beginning of the nineteenth-century, when Jane Austen was writing. Emma Thompson, screenwriter (and actress) of the recent adaptation of Sense and Sensibility wrote in her Diaries of the film that, "The bow is the gift of the head and the heart. The curtsy (which is of course a bastardization of the word 'courtesy') a lowering in status for a moment, followed by recovery" (212). Such little rules make up the fabric of everyday life for Austen's characters.


Basic Etiquette (quoted from Daniel Pool's What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, pp. 54-56)

The Gentleman

1. In riding horseback or walking along the street, the lady always has the wall.

2. Meeting a lady in the street whom you know only slightly, you wait for her acknowledging bow- then and only then may you tip your hat to her, which is done using the hand farthest away from her to raise the hat. You do not speak to her - or to any other lady - unless she speaks to you first.

3. If you meet a lady who is a good friend and who signifies that she wishes to talk to you, you turn and walk with her if you wish to converse. It is not "done" to make a lady stand talking in the street.

4. In going up a flight of stairs, you precede the lady (running, according to one authority); in going down, you follow.

5. In a carriage, a gentleman takes the seat facing backward. If he is alone in a carriage with a lady, he does not sit next to her unless he is her husband, brother, father, or son. He alights from the carriage first so that he may hand her down. He takes care not to step on her dress.

6. At a public exhibition or concert, if accompanied by a lady, he goes in first in order to find her a seat. If he enters such an exhibition alone and there are ladies or older gentlemen present, he removes his hat.

7. A gentleman is always introduced to a lady - never the other way around. It is presumed to be an honor for the gentleman to meet her. Likewise a social inferior is always introduced to a superior.

8. A gentleman never smokes in the presence of ladies.

The Lady

1. If unmarried and under thirty, she is never to be seen in the company of a man without a chaperone. Except for a walk to church or a park in the early morning, she may not walk alone, but should always be accompanied by another lady, a man, or a servant. (Note: this would seem to have become a more general rule later in the century, as Austen's women are seen walking alone.)

2. Under no circumstances may a lady call upon a gentleman alone unless she is consulting that gentleman on a professional or business matter.

3. A lady does not wear pearls or diamonds in the morning.

4. A lady never dances more than three dances with the same partner.

5. A lady should never "cut" someone, that is to say, fail to acknowledge their presence after encountering them socially, unless it is absolutely necessary. By the same token, only a lady is ever truly justified in cutting someone.

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