In reading Jane Austen, one of the things I think students might find most foreign is the very different sense of propriety. Manners and customs were quite different from our own time as evidenced in her novels.
The first thing students might notice is that her characters tend to refer to each other as Mr. Darcy or Miss Dashwood rather than Fitzwilliam or Elinor. Students tend to think this formality is cold and detached; however, at that time, it would have been considered inappropriate to address most people by their first names. Exceptions could be made for married couples, siblings, and friends of the same gender. For example, in Northanger Abbey, Catherine becomes close enough to both Isabella Thorpe and Eleanor Tilney to eventually address them by their first names, but when she first becomes acquainted with both, she refers to them as Miss Thorpe and Miss Tilney respectively. After Mr. Knightly has asked Emma to marry him, the following amusing exchange takes place:
“‘Mr. Knightley.’–You always called me, ‘Mr. Knightley;’ and, from habit, it has not so very formal a sound.–And yet it is formal. I want you to call me something else, but I do not know what.”
“I remember once calling you ‘George,’ in one of my amiable fits, about ten years ago. I did it because I thought it would offend you; but, as you made no objection, I never did it again.”
“And cannot you call me ‘George’ now?”
“Impossible!–I never can call you any thing but ‘Mr. Knightley.’ I will not promise even to equal the elegant terseness of Mrs. Elton, by calling you Mr. K.–But I will promise,” she added presently, laughing and blushing–”I will promise to call you once by your Christian name. I do not say when, but perhaps you may guess where;–in the building in which N. takes M. for better, for worse.”
Emma is clearly joking with Mr. Knightley, but there is something to her assertion that she thought calling him by his first name would be offensive. Indeed, some married couples continued to refer to each other as Mr. __ and Mrs. __. Indeed, in the opening of Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet refers to her husband as “My dear Mr. Bennet.”
In addition to this rule for address, rules for visiting were also fairly conservative in the eyes of modern readers. Early in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet expresses a desire to visit Mr. Bingley, but she says to her husband, “Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him if you do not.” As Mr. Bingley is a man, it would be improper for him to become acquainted with the Bennet ladies without Mr. Bennet. Indeed, it was considered highly improper for unmarried men and women to be alone together without a chaperon, which is a rule her characters are known to fretfully break on occasion. For instance, Catherine Morland is talked into going to Blaize Castle by Mr. Thorpe on the grounds that if she does not go, his sister Isabella will be the only woman on the trip, and think how that would look! Catherine later frets about the appearance of riding alone with Mr. Thorpe, and even her chaperon in Bath, Mrs. Allen, frets that she should not have allowed Catherine to go. Indeed, Marianne Dashwood visits Combe Magna — unchaperoned — with Mr. Willoughby. Let’s not even get started on Mr. Wickham and Lydia! However, I contend that Austen usually punishes her characters who deviate too far from social norms. Marianne loses Mr. Willoughby to a woman who has more money, and Lydia winds up with a nasty jerk of a husband who only marries her because Mr. Darcy — Mr. Darcy! — gives him money to pay off his debts if he marries her. Of course, Marianne winds up with an arguably better man in Col. Brandon, but poor Lydia is most likely doomed to an unhappy marriage and a whisper of scandal hanging about her for the rest of her life.
Country dances provided an opportunity for couples to meet and mingle. If you’ve read Gone With the Wind, you may recall that Scarlett’s youngest sister, Careen, begs her parents to be allowed to go to the ball that evening after the Wilkes’ barbecue; however, because she is not yet “out” in society, she cannot go to a ball. Presumably, girls would “come out” at marriageable age, which was perhaps a bit younger for Scarlett and her sisters than it usually was in Austen’s time. After a girl’s “coming out,” she could go to balls and dances. It was considered rude to decline a gentleman’s offer to dance and then agree to dance with another gentleman, and likewise, a young woman had to be careful how many times she danced with a particular gentleman or tongues would wag. Isabella intimates that she has danced with James Morland too many times, and thus they will be gossiped about in Bath (yet she dances with him again anyway) in Northanger Abbey.
If it became known that an unmarried man and woman corresponded with each other, others would assume they were engaged. Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax in Emma keep their correspondence very quiet. The only hint that Jane might be corresponding with someone comes when Mrs. Elton chides her for going to the post office in the rain. When Elinor Dashwood finds out that Lucy Steele and Edward Ferrars are writing each other, she is sure they are engaged (which they are), and when she wonders whether or not Marianne and Mr. Willoughby are engaged, she looks for correspondence to confirm her suspicions. Of course, it’s interesting when characters break this rule of etiquette. Who could forget the scene in which Captain Wentworth writes his letter to Anne to set the record straight after overhearing her (Persuasion) or Mr. Darcy’s hand-delivered letter to Elizabeth? In both cases, the gentleman was discreet about delivering the letter lest gossip ensue (and each feeling fairly certain their affection was unreturned).
Propriety was a large concern in Austen’s novels. Characters strove to appear to be doing the correct and/or acceptable thing in society. Those characters who didn’t — such as Marianne or Lydia — were frowned upon by others in society. While today’s teenagers might relate to Marianne and see Elinor as detached or cold, one could argue that Elinor’s strength is that she always maintains proper decorum even in the face of being hurt by doing so; therefore, in the end, Ms. Austen rewards her heroine with the true love she thought she had lost. Indeed, most of her characters who act with propriety come out all right in the end.
This post is the third in a series on teaching Jane Austen’s novels.