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Archive for the ‘Regency Etiquette’ Category

Understanding the subtle nuances behind formal introductions and customary greetings during Jane Austen’s lifetime is a lot of fun, and it can provide a unique level of insight into her books. The reason: Austen uses breaches of etiquette and manners as commentaries on her characters. In her book Those Elegant Decorums, Jane Nardin says, “In Jane Austen’s novels, a person’s social behavior is the external manifestation of his moral character” (12).

Austen utilizes greetings such as formal introductions, handshakes, curtsies, bows, and even the infamous “cut,” in order to help drive her plots, provide insightful information about her characters, and give subtle hints to her readers.

Making Introductions

 Throughout her novels, Jane Austen makes clever use of the rule that two strangers cannot interact socially until they have been properly introduced by a third party or mutual acquaintance. Today, it might seem rude to mingle with someone in a social setting and not introduce ourselves, but Kirsten Olsen says in All Things Austen that “genteel people who had not been introduced simply did not speak to one another” (132). Austen is able to use this code of conduct to the advantage and disadvantage of her characters.

Catherine Moorland feels the disadvantage of this rule acutely when she first goes to Bath: “she longed to dance, but she had not an acquaintance in the room” and Mrs. Allen only says, “every now and then, ‘I wish you could dance, my dear—I wish you could get a partner.’” (Northanger Abbey 21). Because they have no acquaintance, Catherine cannot dance. When they find a place for tea next to a large party of people, they even spend the meal “without having anything to do there, or anybody to speak to, except each other” (22). But if a girl cannot get a dance partner or find friends at the tea table without an acquaintance, how can she meet a marriage partner? Luckily, there was an exception to this rule: The master of ceremonies at the Lower Rooms could make a proper introduction, which is how Catherine meets Henry Tilney. (See Vic’s article on The Lower Assembly Rooms and Bath Society for more.)

Austen also uses this rule of introductions as the essential “hook” that grabs the reader’s attention at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice when Mrs. Bennet harasses Mr. Bennet to pay a visit to Mr. Bingley. Among the gentry in the country, when someone moved into the neighborhood, it was polite for his neighbors to call on him. Obviously, Mr. Bennet must introduce himself so that his daughters can meet Mr. Bingley. However, there is another reason for Mrs. Bennet’s insistence: Once the call is made, it must be returned. As Olsen says, “virtually all visits required a reciprocal visit so that once one started visiting at a particular house, it was hard to stop” (Olsen 385). This bit of information makes Mrs. Bennet’s shrewd scheming even more humorous for she knows it will inevitably lead to her daughters being introduced to Mr. Bingley.

Later in Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Collins introduces himself to Mr. Darcy without having been formally introduced, it is an embarrassing breach of conduct, especially as he is of inferior social rank: “Elizabeth tried hard to dissuade him from such a scheme, assuring him that Mr. Darcy would consider his addressing him without introduction as an impertinent freedom, rather than a compliment to his aunt; that it was not in the least necessary there should be any notice on either side; and that if it were, it must belong to Mr. Darcy, the superior in consequence, to begin the acquaintance” (PP 79). This is not merely a terrible social faux pas—Austen is bringing attention to Mr. Collins’s ignorance and over-inflated sense of pride in regard to his connection to Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Polite Gestures and Greetings

Austen also uses bows, curtsies, nods, and other physical gestures purposefully; body language carries a lot of meaning in her books. Bowing and curtsying, for instance, was to be done elegantly and gracefully. However, the depth and duration of a bow depended on the circumstances. For example, “A short, curt bow, more like a nod, could indicate displeasure or mere formal acknowledgement, while a long bow could be ridiculous in some situations and lend emphasis to one’s words or departure in others” (Olsen 131). We see an example of this subtlety when Mr. Darcy only bows slightly and moves away after Mr. Collins comes forward to introduce himself. Mr. Collins tells Elizabeth that the introduction went well, but from mere observation Elizabeth can see that the opposite is true.

Gentlemen were also expected to bow upon taking leave of a lady. Bows or tips of the hat were given in greeting to women, social superiors, and to acquaintances seen at a distance. Nodding was also important. Nodding was also common courtesy among women. And, much like a visit, a tip of the hat or nod of the head must be returned, as we see in Northanger Abbey when Catherine is looking for Mr. Tilney but is also occupied with “returning the nods and smiles of Miss Thorpe,” which “claimed much of her leisure” (Austen NA 35).

Shaking hands was generally used between men of the same social class. However, Olsen says that “women could choose to shake hands, even with a man, though conduct books indicated that this was a favour (sic) to be distributed with care” (131). We see in Sense and Sensibility that Marianne has become accustomed to granting this favor to Willoughby (and is hurt by his apparent indifference) when she holds out her hand to him and cries: “Will you not shake hands with me?” when they see one another at a party in London (176). When she first sees him, he merely bows “without attempting to speak to her, or to approach.” After spending so much time together, he is incredibly uncomfortable and acts as though they do not know each other as well as they do. Austen uses this scene to reveal to the reader that Willoughby’s feelings and intentions toward Marianne have changed abruptly.

The Cut

Finally, we see that once two people have been introduced, each one must give and return the appropriate calls, bows, curtsies, and nods. When someone deliberately chose not to engage in these polite customs and acknowledge an acquaintance, it was known as a “cut.” Olsen explains that “[a]n introduction was a matter of some importance, as once two people were introduced, they had to ‘know’ each other for good, acknowledging each other’s presence every time they met and accepting visits back and forth. The only way out of perpetual acquaintance was for one…to do something so horrific and unforgivable that the other might ‘cut’ him” (Olsen 132).

For instance, when meeting on the street, if one man saw a gentleman acquaintance, he would tip his hat. The other could then nod back. However, to ignore the other person and refuse to acknowledge him was a “cut.” The “cut” is used pointedly in Pride and Prejudice when Darcy sees Wickham in Meryton: “Mr. Wickham, after a few moments, touched his hat—a salutation which Mr. Darcy just deigned to return. What could be the meaning of it? It was impossible to imagine; it was impossible not to long to know” (73).

The cut is highlighted several times in Austen’s novels because “in her social world it was almost as dramatic an incident as could possibly happen” (Olsen 133). We see the cut used several times as a way to show that a relationship between two people has been broken for one reason or another. In Sense and Sensibility, after Willoughby breaks Marianne’s heart and she become ill, he tells Elinor that Sir John spoke to him for the first time in two months when they met in public. He says “[t]hat he had cut me ever since my marriage, I had seen without surprise or resentment” (330). Depending on the situation, sometimes it is the one being cut or the one giving the cut who is at fault.

In Pride and Prejudice, when Jane visits Miss Bingley in London, Miss Bingley waits several weeks before returning the call (though a call should be returned within a day or two. Jane writes to Elizabeth: “It was very evident that she had no pleasure in [the visit]; she made a slight, formal, apology, for not calling before, said not a word of wishing to see me again, and was in every respect so altered a creature, that when she went away, I was perfectly resolved to continue the acquaintance no longer” (148). This is a subtle cut and was considered highly impolite.

In each of her novels, Austen utilizes social gestures such as they to give her readers special insight into her characters and plots. When someone is in error, we should always look closely to find out why Austen has written it that way. Often, when the code of conduct is not followed, something (or someone) is amiss. Exploring these nuances is one way to understand the underlying meaning in Austen’s books. For more on these topics, see… (links/references)

Rachel Dodge, May 24, 2017

Inquiring readers: About Ms. Dodge, the author of this article (and more to come):

Rachel Dodge’s knowledge of Jane Austen and the Regency World is impeccable. She has an M.A. in English literature in creative writing and public relations, and is a free freelance web and marketing content writer/editor for churches, missionary organizations, and small businesses. Rachel is a frequent speaker at libraries, literary groups, and reading groups about Jane Austen, 18th-century literature, and the Regency Era. Her written works include: “Exploring Womanhood: Moral Instruction, the Ideal Female, and 18th-Century Conduct in Pride & Prejudice.” (Master’s Thesis on the topic of female etiquette in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). She belongs to JASNA National, JASNA Greater Sacramento, and Inspire Writers.

You can see why I am so pleased to add Rachel to the Jane Austen’s World group of contributing writers! Please welcome her aboard.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane, and R. W. Chapman. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.

–. Pride and Prejudice. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.

–. Sense and Sensilibity. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Nardin, Jane, and Jane Austen. Those Elegant Decorums the Concept of Propriety in Jane Austen’s Novels. Albany, State Univ. of New York Press, 2012.

Olsen, Kirstin. All Things Austen: A Concise Encyclopedia of Austen’s World. Oxford, Greenwood World, 2008.

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The History of Goody Little Two Shoes was one of the moral lesson books that Jane Austen owned as a child. These seem to have been popular in the Georgian era. Another book with moral lessons came out two years after her death. Entitled The Accidents of Youth, its tales were meant to warn children of risky behaviors and improve their moral conduct. The tales would have been scary enough to make me think twice as a child. I love the Internet Archive, which allows you to read the books virtually intact, with illustrations and original font type. The only thing you can’t do is hold the book or feel the thickness of the pages.

Fronticepiece of The Accidents of Youth, 1819

Fronticepiece of The Accidents of Youth, 1819

accidents of youth2

accidents of youth3

Interestingly, these accidents beset children today, especially those left to their own devices in the countryside.

accidents of youth4

One young man aims at a bird with a slingshot and kills his mother, a horrific tale. Another’s hair is set on fire by a candle.

accidents of youth5

Kitchen accidents were quite common. After death from childbirth, kitchen fires killed more women than other accidents combined. In these stories children are warned of the dangers of hot kettles and catching one’s clothes on fire from coming too close to a fireplace. In the first image, a cast iron pot, hanging directly over the fire on an iron hook tips over, burning the child. Billowing skirts caught fire in fireplaces, as the second image attests.

accidents of youth6The final image in this post shows the danger of a broken glass window and a young boy falling from furniture that he had rearranged at play. Another, earlier book entitled The Blossoms of Morality and published in 1806, concentrates on the instruction of young ladies and gentlemen”. The stories include “Juvenile tyranny conquered” and “The melancholy effects of pride”.  One can imagine that, after reading Fordyce’s Sermons to his young children, Mr. Collins would have picked up these books to read to his children.

I wonder how long the concentration of today’s youth would have lasted when listening to these morality tales. One nanosecond? I think not.

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This image of a bourdaloue might be somewhat confusing to the uninitiated. Could this small and elegant vessel be a gravy boat? Or a blood-letting container?

Sevres bourdaloue, 1831.

This image by Francois Boucher says it all. A fully dressed lady is relieving herself into an object called the bourdaloue or bourdalou, careful not to soil her skirts. Her maid, no doubt, stands nearby, waiting to receive the small chamber pot in order to empty it. The lady (or woman of ill repute) is in a public place – a theatre or tavern, perhaps – but certainly not a church. Wherever she is, the place has no public toilet. And so she must relieve herself standing up, taking care not to soil her skirt and petticoats.

Louis Bourdaloue. Image @Wikimedia Commons

According to legend, the name of this porta potty comes from  Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704), one of Louis XIVs Jesuit priests. His oratorical skills were reputedly so accomplished that people felt they could not miss a single word of his sermons. It is said that women sat through his masses with a bourdaloue placed under their dresses, whose skirts were held out by panniers. Since the priest’s  sermons were somewhat longwinded, the chances that ladies would need to relieve themselves were almost certain.  As a rule, churches and theatres had no toilets, and there were no breaks given during sermons. Ergo these portable urinals, which were ergonomically designed to accommodate the female body.

The vessel was oblong, rectangular, or oval in shape. A slightly raised lip at one end and a handle at the other allowed the woman to relieve herself from a squatting or standing position. The edges curved inward to avoid hurting her tenderest parts.

Sevres bourdaloue, with medallion depicting a scene from Watteau, blue lapis and framed in gold leaf. 1892.

It is a little hard to distinguish truth from fiction, so I am a bit skeptical about this apocryphal tale. Were the priest’s sermons in the early 18th century so truly awe-inspiring that a lady would squat in her pew, however discreetly, to relieve herself in front of her family and other parishioners so as not to miss a word?

In truth it was her maid who brought the vessel in, for bourdaloues were compact and came with a cover. When a lady had to relieve herself she would, I imagine, retreat discreetly to a private corner of a tall pew or to a back or side room in the church. Her maid would then hand the vessel over to her mistress, who took care not to spill any liquid on her skirts. When the lady was finished, she would hand the bourdaloue to her maid to empty its contents.  When attending a play or opera at the theatre, I imagine she would again retreat to a darker more private corner of the box to urinate.

A PAIR OF SEVRES BOURDALOUES (POTS DE CHAMBRE OVALE) CIRCA 1776,

Designed only for women, these bourdalous are quite beautiful. Made of faience or porcelain, they are decorated with flowers or painted scenes. Many are gilded. The portable pots, or coach pots as they were known in England, could be decorated inside as well.  They were quite small and compact, designed for travel, which made it easy to carry them and pack them for coach trips. They were also taken to long banquets, where ladies would scurry behind curtains when they needed to go.

Bourdalou made in France c. 1840. It has an engraved crest and a leather case to contain it. The silver bourdalou is a small urinary receptacle for female use, of compressed eliptical shape and generally made of porcelaine or earthenware, but also made occasionally of silver. Its front end has an incurved rim and, usually, stands on a simple foot ring with a simple loop handle. Also known as a coach pot in England.

Bourdaloues were used throughout the 18th and for most of the 19th century. As water closets began to be built inside homes and buildings, the use of these chamber pots began to be reduced dramatically.

Plain bourdaloue made of creamware. The shape is quite elegant.

Gentlemen had it a little easier, although this satiric French cartoon, which I have shown before, depicts the disgust that Frenchmen felt towards Englishmen who freely pissed in a pot in the dining room. In this instance, the man misses the chamber pot and hits the floor. There seems to be a lack of modesty among these men, which largely holds true today.

c1816, from Fitzwilliam Museum.

Modesty is also lacking in this cartoon of ladies relieving themselves inside a public restroom at Vauxhall Gardens. Four are arrayed on a long latrine against the wall. One lady is refreshing her make up and another is tightening her garter. If such scenes were common for upper class women in public spaces, perhaps many felt no modesty relieving themselves in church as well.

The Inside of the Lady’s Garden at Vauxhall, 1788 by SW Fores. Image @British Library. The interior of a ladies’ cloak-room. Against the wall on two sides of the room is a bench forming a latrine on which four fashionably dressed ladies are seated. On the right a woman in profile to the right, resembling Lady Archer, applies paint to her cheeks before a mirror lit by two candles. A young woman seated beside her on the extreme right ties up her garter.

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When Lady Caroline Lamb met Byron in 1812, the waltz was starting to gain traction with the more progressive elements of Society. This couples dance was considered rather racy in an age when stately group English country dances were the primary offerings at Almack’s.

Thomas Rowlandson’s image of the waltz in 1806

The vivacious and racy Lady Caroline Lamb met Lord Byron in 1812. She recalled that time in a letter she wrote 12 years later:

Devonshire House at that time was closed from my uncles death for one year – at Melbourne House where I lived the Waltzes and Quadrilles were being daily practised – Lady Jersey, Lady Cowper, the Duke of Devonshire, Miss Milbank, and a number of foreigners coming here to learn…

You may imagine what forty or fifty people dancing from 12 in the morning until near dinner time all young gay & noisy were.
In the evenings we either had opposition suppers or went out to Balls and routs – Such was the life I then led when Moore and Rogers introduced Lord Byron to me… Caroline Lamb, 1824, in a letter to Captain Thomas Medwin

It is interesting to note that Caroline mentions Lady Jersey and Lady Cowper, two of the patronesses of Almack’s, where the waltz was banned. Eventually, however, the ultra exclusive Almack’s would cave in, and by 1814 the waltz was finally sanctioned. Young ladies would still need approval before a gentleman could clasp his arm around her waist, but the doors had been opened beyond the confines of the upper classes.

La Walze, Le Bon Genre, 1810. This caricature has a feeling of decadence.

By 1815, when Jane Austen’s Emma was published, the waltz has become so respectable that it would be danced in Highbury at the home of the Coles.

Mrs Weston, capital in her country-dances, was seated, and beginning an irresistible waltz; and Frank Churchill, coming up with most becoming gallantry to Emma, had secured her hand, and led her up to the top.” – Emma

The waltz looks gentrified in this 1816 illustration.

More on the topic:

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Elegancy and Decadence: The Age of the Regency is a BBC production hosted by Lucy Worsley, the author of If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home. The video is one hour long. So, sit back and enjoy.

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Gentle Readers: To celebrate the 3 millionth visitor to this blog, I will be giving away Tea With Jane Austen, a delightful and informative book by Kim Wilson. Deadline: The contest will end the moment my blog meter records 3 million or July 4th, whichever comes first! Contest Closed! Congratulations, Sherry, and thank you ALL for participating and leaving such excellent questions!

All you need to do is leave a comment and a way for me to reach you. Please address this question: If Jane Austen came over for tea, which burning question would you want to ask her?

Thank you all for visiting my blog and for making it such a joy to meet you online.

Page 16 of Tea with Jane Austen. Image @Amazon.com

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Fashionable mourning dresses, Ladies Museum, 1805

According to Jane Austen chronicler and scholar, David Nokes, when Martha Lloyd’s mother died on April 16, 1805, Jane Austen showed few signs of grief or emotion over that woman’s earthly departure. Instead, Jane wrote a jaunty verse to an uncivil (and imaginary) dressmaker. I surmise that these verses were meant more to cheer Martha up than to bring Martha’s mood down by reminding her of her loss. Mrs Austen, who was known for her droll verses, wrote a mythical reply by the dressmaker. At this time the Austen women were still reeling from Rev. Austen’s death in January and their own change in financial circumstances, having moved to more modest lodgings and becoming accustomed to a drastically reduced style of life. They would soon invite Martha to live with them in Bath. (Martha would remain with the Austen women through their move to Southampton in 1809.) After Jane’s death in 1817, Martha joined Cassandra in Chawton to help look after Mrs. Austen.

The poem that Jane wrote gives us a glimpse into how mourning clothes were made to order quickly. In this for-instance, the dressmaker, Miss Green, was slow to respond.

Lines sent to an uncivil Dress maker

Miss Lloyd has now sent to Miss Green,
As, on opening the box, may be seen,
Some yards of a Black Ploughman’s Gauze,
To be made up directly, because
Miss Lloyd must in mourning appear –
For the death of a Relative dear –
Miss Lloyd must expect to receive
This license to mourn & to grieve,
Complete, er’e the end of the week –
It is better to write than to speak – Jane Austen

Mrs. Austen’s reply as Miss Green

I’ve often made clothes
For those who write prose,
But ’tis the first time
I’ve had orders in rhyme – .
Depend on’t, fair Maid,
You shall be obeyed;
Your garment of black
Shall sit close to your back,
And in every part
I’ll exert all my art;
It shall be the neatest,
And eke the completest
That ever was seen –
Or my name is not Green! – Mrs. Cassandra Austen

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