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Fashion Plate (Afternoon Dress for Decr. 1800) LACMA M.86.266.37Just as fire was the centerpiece of most evening gatherings in Jane Austen’s time, candles also played a vital role in Regency life and culture. Today, family members work or read in separate rooms in the evening and go to bed at different times (due to the advent of electricity), but people in Austen’s day lived differently: They sat together to read books, write letters, and socialize in the evening—all by candlelight.

As readers, we should consider Austen’s evening scenes with a careful eye to the lighting. Dinners, dances, card games, and music were all undertaken by candlelight. Many of our favorite scenes—in which Austen brings her heroines and heroes, villains and vicars to life—take place in the evening. Candlelit rooms provide the perfect spot for Emma and Frank Churchill to gossip, for Fanny to sink into the shadows unnoticed, for Lydia and Kitty to romp with the officers, and for Anne Elliot to hide her tears at the piano while the others dance. Indeed, when Darcy watches Elizabeth and Caroline Bingley walking around the drawing-room and quips that their “figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking,” (PP 56) he watches them walk by candlelight after dinner and tea (served later in the evening). Austen uses candle-power (or the lack thereof) to communicate the rank and financial status of her characters as well as set the stage for some of her best scenes.

Candles in Regency Life

In Austen’s lifetime, virtually every task after dusk required candles. Fall and winter months in England are cold and dark with only 8-9 hours of sunlight during some months. It was a mark of wealth to have enough candles to burn in the evening for work and pleasure. In working class homes, people might burn a rushlight (which burned for 20-30 minutes) or simply retire early. In genteel homes, where candles were plentiful, people stayed up later. In her JAW article “Lighting the Dark,” Vic Sanbourn tells us, “Only the more affluent members of society could afford to burn a large number of candles at a time, and their homes were characterized by spacious windows and well placed reflectors and mirrors.” This was common in most of the grand homes in Austen’s novels, which we see when Elinor and Marianne accompany Lady Middleton to a party in London and “enter a room splendidly lit up, quite full of company, and insufferably hot” (SS 175).

During quiet evenings at home, families and small groups shared the firelight or a few candles together. As Austen states in one of her letters to Cassandra: “We have got the second volume of “Espriella’s Letters,” and I read it aloud by candle-light. (Letters 147). As one might imagine, working by candlelight was not easy on the eyes. Austen alludes to this when Lady Middleton remarks that it might “hurt [Lucy’s] eyes to work filigree by candlelight” and suggests that she “ring the bell for some working candles” (144). And in Northanger Abbey, when General Tilney stays up to read at night, he says his “eyes will be blinding” from reading so late by candlelight (NA 187).

Candles Speak Volumes

Everything in Austen’s novels means something—including the kind and number of candles used in different households. Beeswax candles burned brighter and more efficiently but were more expensive. Tallow candles were cheaper but gave off less light, smoked, and smelled of mutton. In her article “Let there be light! Candles in the time of Jane Austen,” Sue Dell of the Jane Austen’s House Museum says that “[t]allow candles would have been the most common candles in such a home as the Austens’.” She explains: “Even the very wealthy used wax candles sparingly; Jane’s brother, Edward, would have used them for entertaining, but tallow candles would have been used for everyday life” (Dell). In Emma, Mrs. Elton boasts that a certain Mrs. Bragge even has wax candles in her school room (300); however, Dell says this “would have been instantly recognised by contemporary readers as untrue” because “no-one would do such a thing” (Dell). Mrs. Elton also decides she will educate Highbury society and give “one very superior party—in which her card-tables should be set out with their separate candles and unbroken packs in the true style” (290). In affluent and pretentious homes like General Tilney’s in Northanger Abbey, candles are plentiful. When it is time to retire, Miss Tilney rings the bell for candles, which the butler comes to light (187). They each take their candles to bed, but the General stays up to work. In Emma, when they have supper at the ball, Mrs. Bates says, “I never saw any thing equal to the comfort and style—Candles everywhere” (329).

Conversely, at the Price home in Mansfield Park, even one candle is hard to come by. When Mr. Price arrives, Austen paints the scene vividly: “with something of the oath kind he kicked away his son’s port-manteau and his daughter’s bandbox in the passage, and called out for a candle; no candle was brought, however, and he walked into the room” (MP 379). Fanny rises to greet him but sits down again “on finding herself undistinguished in the dusk, and unthought of” (379). When a candle is finally brought, Fanny is still forgotten as her father reads the newspaper, “without seeming to recollect her existence. The solitary candle was held between himself and the paper, without any reference to her possible convenience” (382).

Candles Set the Stage

As anyone who has ever camped, had their electricity shut off, or eaten dinner at a romantic restaurant knows, everything looks different by candlelight. Shadows grow and dark corners emerge. The mood changes. Austen uses candles to set the tone in many scenes in her novels, and she capitalizes on the mere lack of a candle to throw rooms into confusion, provide cover for secret goodbyes, send people to bed early, and propel one imaginative young girl into hysterics.

In Austen’s novels, candlelight provides cover for all sorts of things. In a practical sense, candles hide visible flaws as when Mrs. Weston comments on the wallpaper at the Crown Inn in Emma: “[T]his paper is worse than I expected. Look! in places you see it is dreadfully dirty; and the wainscot is more yellow and forlorn than any thing I could have imagined” (253). Her husband responds that she will “see nothing of it by candlelight. It will be as clean as Randalls by candlelight.”

In a more romantic sense, Austen uses semi-darkness to cover a goodbye between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. We read the following scene in Emma:

[Jane Fairfax] was afterwards looking for her shawl—Frank Churchill was looking also—it was growing dusk, and the room was in confusion; and how they parted, Mr. Knightley could not tell.  He remained at Hartfield after all the rest, his thoughts full of what he had seen; so full, that when the candles came to assist his observations, he must—yes, he certainly must, as a friend—an anxious friend—give Emma some hint, ask her some question. He could not see her in a situation of such danger, without trying to preserve her. (349)

We have no proof that anything more than “certain expressive looks” pass between Frank and Jane as they part under the covering of the dusky room; however, Austen uses this moment to give Mr. Knightley a hint as to the true nature of their relationship while everyone else is busy, before the candles are lit.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen uses a “single lamp” and the light it emits to set the stage for a nervous Catherine Morland in the gothic-style scene she paints on Catherine’s first night at the Abbey. The light from her candle and the fire are, quite humorously, the only thing standing between Catherine and emotional stability. Catherine enters “her room with a tolerably stout heart” at the end of the evening (167). However, once the fire dies down, she is left with only her candle to light the room. When Catherine “snuffs” the candle, meaning to “cut or pinch off the burned part of a candle wick” (Dictionary.com), she accidentally extinguishes it as well. Her response is hilarious:

Alas! It was snuffed and extinguished in one. A lamp could not have expired with more awful effect. Catherine, for a few moments, was motionless with horror. It was done completely; not a remnant of light in the wick could give hope to the rekindling breath. Darkness impenetrable and immovable filled the room. A violent gust of wind, rising with sudden fury, added fresh horror to the moment. (170)

Catherine’s bravery dissolves once the candle is out. Austen says, “A cold sweat stood on her forehead, the manuscript fell from her hand, and groping her way to the bed, she jumped hastily in, and sought some suspension of agony by creeping far underneath the clothes” (170). She is unable to sleep until 3 a.m. The reader chuckles, but Austen is well aware that we understand Catherine’s plight. Though some of us may not like to admit it, we all—at some point in our lives—have jumped under the covers when the wind blew, the curtains moved, and the lights suddenly went out.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen. Edited by R. W. Chapman, Oxford UP, 1988.

—. Jane Austen’s Letters. Edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 4th ed., Oxford UP, 2011.

Dell, Sue. “Let there be light! Candles in the time of Jane Austen.” Jane Austen’s House Museum, 12 Jan 2016. https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/single-post/2016/1/12/Let-there-be-light-Candles-in-the-time-of-Jane-Austen. Date accessed: 1 October 2017.

Sanborn, Vic. “Lighting the darkness.” Jane Austen’s World, 29 April 2007. https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2007/04/29/lighting-the-darkness-in-the-regency-era/. Date accessed: 1 October 2017.

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At the heart of every household in Jane Austen’s time, a fire burned. Fires provided a fixed source of heat and light, around which people gathered and moved, cooked and cleaned, lived and socialized. And while it’s lovely to imagine that families in Austen’s day gathered together in the evening simply because they enjoyed one another’s company, drawing near the fire on cold, damp days and evenings was a necessity. In a letter to Cassandra in October, Austen says, “It is cold enough now for us to prefer dining upstairs to dining below without a fire” (Letters 151). A warm fire provided heat, comfort, and community; at it, cold feet were thawed, conversations were held, prayers were said, books were read, and tea was made.

Chawton Cottage Fireplace

Chawton Cottage fireplace. Image Rachel Dodge

In her novels, Austen uses fires—and the heat and light that emanate from them—as a centerpiece for household and social activity, and she spins her characters and plots into motion around them in unique and surprising ways. Austen’s ingenious use of fires is fascinating to consider. In many scenes, she uses fires as clever props. However, fires also signify something deeper about the physical, mental, and emotional state of several key characters.

Fires as Clever Props

Let’s first consider the creative way Austen uses fires and fireplaces to move her characters in and out of rooms, group them together, and provide insight into their personalities. Many of these examples are quite humorous:

  • Edmund Bertram goes to the fire on numerous occasions when he is upset and sits down to “stir the fire in thoughtful vexation” (MP 128),
  • Meddlesome Mrs. Norris is, of course, found “fresh arranging and injuring the noble fire which the butler had prepared” (MP 273),
  • Reserved Edward Ferrars finds a safe place to talk and read in the small family circle “drawn round the fire” after dinner with the Dashwood women (SS 90),
  • Just the “slight remains” of a fire on a warm day are enough to push an over-heated, hot-and-bothered Frank Churchill over the edge (E 364),
  • In Emma, they have “nothing else to do” and form “a sort of half-circle round the fire,” discussing the fire itself “till other subjects [are] started” (E 320),
  • Fickle Collins changes his mind from Jane to Elizabeth in the matter of a few moments—in the time it takes Mrs. Bennet to stir the fire (PP 71), and
  • When Captain Wentworth wants to cross the room to sit by Anne, he goes first to the fire-place, “probably for the sake of walking away from it soon afterwards” before he goes to sit “with less bare-faced design, by Anne” (P 255).

Fires as Subtle Clues: Marianne Dashwood, Mr. Woodhouse, and Fanny Price

Austen also uses fire to provide significant clues as to the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of her characters. During Austen’s lifetime, the spot nearest the fire was reserved for the elderly or infirm, as is seen throughout her novels. Furthermore, giving someone the chair closest to the fire indicated care and concern for their well-being. In the case of Marianne Dashwood, the distracted way she walks to and from the fire signals to Elinor that her mind and heart are in turmoil over Willoughby: “Marianne, too restless for employment, too anxious for conversation, walked from one window to the other, or sat down by the fire in melancholy meditation” (SS 172). In response to Marianne’s visible unhappiness, Mrs. Jennings treats her “with all the indulgent fondness of a parent,” tempting her with delicate foods and giving her the “best place by the fire” (193). However, when the usually healthy and active Marianne later spends a whole day “sitting shivering over the fire with a book in her hand…or in lying, weary and languid, on a sofa,” it’s clear she is suffering from more than emotional distress (307). Elinor hopes that a good night’s sleep will revive Marianne, but Colonel Brandon suspects the danger of something more serious. After a “very restless and feverish night,” the apothecary is sent for and Marianne sinks lower (307).

For Mr. Woodhouse, the very presence or lack of a fire has the power to give him comfort or cause him alarm. In “Mr. Woodhouse is not a Hypochondriac!,” Ted Bader argues that Mr. Woodhouse is aging, frail, and perhaps even suffering from “hypothyroidism” based on his diet, physical state, and behavior (Bader). In this case, Mr. Woodhouse’s concern for a fire is actually another clue toward the state of his health. Austen tells us that “Mr. Woodhouse’s tender habits required” a fire “almost every evening throughout the year” (E 351). He talks of fires repeatedly and can only be coaxed to leave his fireside when he is assured of a good fire elsewhere. On the day of the Donwell Abbey outing (on a sunny June day), the concern given to assure Mr. Woodhouse’s comfort and happiness is most touching: “Mr. Woodhouse was safely conveyed in his carriage, with one window down, to partake of this al-fresco party” (357). Emma and their friends wish to include him in the day’s activities, and so, “in one of the most comfortable rooms in the Abbey, especially prepared for him by a fire all the morning, he was happily placed, quite at his ease, ready to talk with pleasure of what had been achieved” (357). This kind of special care is given to someone in delicate health.

In Mansfield Park, a fire for Fanny denotes admittance into the family circle. Fanny finds great comfort in her “little white attic” at Mansfield; however, Mrs. Norris has cruelly “stipulated for there never being a fire” in Fanny’s room (MP 151). This signals to the reader both Mrs. Norris’s true character and Fanny’s station in the Bertram family circle. As Fanny lives there, not quite a family member, not quite a servant, she has no sense of belonging and feels keenly the lack of warmth from the Bertrams. Similarly, when she visits her family in Portsmouth, she again finds herself outside the family circle. In the very place she hopes to find solace, she is again (literally) left in the cold. She finds refuge “sitting together upstairs…quietly employed” with Susan, away from the family and “without a fire” (398). In both homes, she is an outsider. When she is given the luxury of a fire in her room at Mansfield, it reveals the change occurring at Mansfield: “She was struck, quite struck, when, on returning from her walk and going into the East room again, the first thing which caught her eye was a fire lighted and burning. A fire!” (322). This new “indulgence” coincides with her gradual movement into the heart of the family there. As the Bertram sisters continually disappoint Sir Thomas, and Fanny steadily wins his favor, Fanny takes her rightful place as a true member of the family and is treated as such.

Chawton Great House Fireplace

Chawton House fireplace. Image Rachel Dodge.

Fuel Sources in Austen’s England

So what kind of fire did Edmund “stir…in thoughtful vexation” at Mansfield (MP 128)? Many of the examples in Austen’s novels appear to be wood fires, but the “coal fog” of London that lasted well into Queen Elizabeth II’s reign was already present during the Regency period. In All Things Austen, Kirsten Olsen says coal was quickly replacing wood during Austen’s lifetime, due to the “rate at which the English were consuming their natural resources” (Olsen 135). However, Deirdre Le Faye notes in Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels that in country houses, the open fireplaces were very large and burnt mostly wood because coal was transported by water, making it “a scared and very expensive fuel” (Le Faye 145).

The question of coal versus wood fires in Austen’s novels can most likely be answered by looking at the size and location of the houses featured, as well as the easiest and most economic fuel available to each. When Mr. Bingley spends a half hour “piling up the fire, lest [Jane] should suffer from the change of room” and suggests that she move “further from the door,” it’s clear he’s piling up wood (PP 54). Catherine Morland’s “spirits” are “immediately assisted by the cheerful blaze of a wood fire” in her room on her first night at the Abbey (NA 167), and the “roaring Christmas fire” in Persuasion must be wood (135). In Mansfield Park, however, the Price family has a coal fire (MP 379). At the Price home, coal was most likely burned because they lived in Portsmouth, a port city, but on the larger estates, away in the quiet countryside, wood was more commonly burned. Matthew White explains that the “growing demand for coal after 1750 revealed serious problems with Britain’s transport system.” A network of canals was build to cut down on the price of coal and by 1815 “over 2,000 miles of canals were in use in Britain” (White). By the time of Austen’s death, coal had become increasingly available even to the country homes of England.

You can follow Rachel Dodge at www.racheldodge.com or on Twitter (twitter.com/RachelEDodge), Instagram (@kindredspiritbooks), and Facebook (facebook.com/racheldodgebooks).

Works Cited

Austen, Jane, and R. W. Chapman. The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen. Oxford UP, 1988.

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters. Edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 4th ed., Oxford UP, 2011.

Bader, Ted. “Mr. Woodhouse is not a Hypochondriac!” Persuasions On-Line, vol. 21, no. 2, 2000 http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol21no2/bader.html. Accessed 1 September 2017.

Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. London: Frances Lincoln, 2002.

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

White, Matthew. “The Industrial Revolution.” British Library, bl.uk, 14 October 2009, https://www.bl.uk/georgian-britain/articles/the-industrial-revolution. Accessed 1 September 2017.

 

For additional articles related to this topic:

Read more about keeping warm in Regency England here: https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2009/01/21/keeping-warm-in-the-regency-era-part-one/

Learn more about coal in Regency England here:
Kane, Kathryn. “Coal: Heat Source or Gemstone?” The Regency Redingote, 3 June 2011, https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/coal-heat-source-or-gemstone/.

Enjoy these entertaining directions to servants on the proper care and lighting of a coal fire:
Boyle, Laura. “Directions how to make a fire with Lehigh coal.” JaneAusten.co.uk, 20 June 2011, https://www.janeausten.co.uk/directions-how-to-make-a-fire-with-lehigh-coal/.

Find out more about London’s air quality during Jane Austen’s time here:
Sanna, Antonio. “Jane Austen’s London.” Journal of Medical Humanities, 16 April 2017, pp. 1-10. Research Gate, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316156566_Jane_Austen%27s_London.

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Exploring Jane Austen’s Prayers, by Rachel Dodge

As we reflect this month on the beautiful written treasures Jane Austen left behind her in this world, we also celebrate the wonderful life that she lived. Though she has been gone 200 years now, her novels are a continual gift we can enjoy again and again. And though we never knew her personally, we feel as though we have met her through the lives of her characters.

But what was Austen like? As we read her novels and letters, we see her sense of humor and her incredible intellect, but we often long to know more about what she thought and how she felt. We know that she was a beloved daughter, sister, aunt, and friend and that she lived a simple but full life. However, it is her personal life that is perhaps the most intriguing to us today.  

The Prayers of Jane Austen

The Prayers of Jane Austen. Image Rachel Dodge

One way we can better understand Austen’s rich inner life is by looking at one of the other treasures she left behind—her prayers. Though Austen may have written additional prayers in her lifetime, three prayers were kept by Cassandra with these words written on them: “composed by my ever dear Sister Jane” (Stovel). The date of her prayers is unknown, but many Austen scholars note that the writing style and handwriting is similar to her adult writing. Framed copies of her prayers hang in the churches at Steventon and Chawton, as well as in her bedroom at Chawton Cottage (Jane Austen’s House Museum).

Austen Framed Prayer

A Prayer by Jane Austen. Image Rachel Dodge.

Austen’s father, the Reverend George Austen, was an Anglican clergyman, and religion played a large and important role in their family life. By all accounts, the Reverend Austen took his role as the spiritual leader of his parish seriously and was a devout and capable clergyman. Austen’s letters and prayers suggest that she, too, was quite devout in her faith. It does not appear that she went through the rituals of the Church of England out of mere duty.

With the exception of Mansfield Park, Austen doesn’t openly discuss matters of faith in her novels, even though they all include characters who are clergyman (some of whom—think Mr. Collins or Mr. Elton—are not the most exemplary representatives of the church). In Mansfield Park, however, matters relating to religious activity and the clergy are discussed in more detail. In particular, Fanny comments on the habit of daily prayer being given up by families:

“It is a pity,” cried Fanny, “that the custom should have been discontinued. It was a valuable part of former times. There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one’s ideas of what such a household should be! A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer, is fine!” (MP 86)

Steventon Plaque (1)

Steventon church plaque. Image Rachel Dodge.

In the evening, the Austen family often enjoyed reading together from novels, poetry, and sermons, as well as from the delightful pieces that Jane wrote. Before going to bed, they also had family prayers. While we don’t know the exact details of what their devotions entailed, Austen wrote the following to Cassandra in a letter: “In the evening we had the Psalms and Lessons, and a sermon at home” (Austen Letters). It is possible that her prayers could have been shared during these gatherings.

Austen’s prayers closely echo the prayers found in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the liturgy of the Anglican Church. She would have grown up hearing the prayers in it at church services and likely during morning and evening prayers at home. The BCP contains prayers for Sunday services, special services, and morning and evening prayers. Each of Austen’s prayers is roughly thirteen sentences long and is written in the beautiful and elaborate style of the BCP prayers.

Interior Steventon Church

Interior Steventon Church. Image Rachel Dodge.

Each of Austen’s “evening prayers” expresses heartfelt reflection on the day that has passed, sincere gratitude for the many blessings given, and specific requests for continued safety, health, travel mercies, and comfort. The first prayer begins with the words, “Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our Hearts, as with our lips.” This highlights the beautiful language of the prayers and the heartfelt reverence they evince. While each prayer is personal in nature, asking for God’s aid to live lives that are loving and gracious, they also express kind concern for those ill or traveling, as well as widows, orphans, and prisoners. Each prayer ends with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Austen’s prayers suggest a sweetness and sincerity that is hard to miss. Like her novels, there is much more to Austen’s prayers than just eloquent words. They are not only beautiful—they are deeply heartfelt and founded on biblical principles. It is important that we do not gloss over them too quickly because of their length or language. Taking a closer look can teach us much about Austen’s inner life and faith. To read the prayers themselves, please follow these links:

Helen LeFroy Winchester Cathedral

Helen LeFroy at a private JASNA ceremony at Jane Austen’s grave, Winchester Cathedral, 2007. Image Rachel Dodge.

When Austen died, Cassandra wrote this to her niece Fanny Knight:

“I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.” (July 18, 1817)

As we consider all that has come and gone in the 200 years since Austen’s death, we can all give thanks for the gifts she left behind her and reflect upon the rich life she led—a life full of family, friends, fiction, and faith.

Further suggested reading:

Bruce Stovel also wrote an article in Persuasions that gives a detailed history of Austen’s prayers and how they fit into her life and novels. To read Stovel’s article, “‘A Nation Improving in Religion’: Jane Austen’s Prayers and Their Place in Her Life and Art,” please follow this link: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number16/stovel.htm

In recent years, books such as Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter by Irene Collins (2007) and The Spirituality of Jane Austen by Paula Hollingsworth (2017) have provided a deeper look into Austen’s spiritual life and faith. Terry Glaspey also released a beautiful gift book called The Prayers of Jane Austen (2015) that provides a short introduction to Ausen’s prayers and the prayers themselves, along with illustrations from the Regency period.

To read the full text of Cassandra’s letter and more articles about Austen’s final illness and passing, please follow this link: https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/cassandra-writes-about-jane-austens-death-july-18-1817/

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters, Edited by Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Austen, Jane, and R. W. Chapman. Mansfield Park, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.

“Letters of Jane Austen — Brabourne Edition.” Pemberley.com, 2011, http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/brablt17.html.

Stovel, Bruce. “‘A Nation Improving in Religion’: Jane Austen’s Prayers and Their Place in Her Life and Art,” Persuasions, 16 (1994): 185-196.

Other posts on this blog about Jane Austen’s death: Click here

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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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