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Posts Tagged ‘Regency Manners’

Lady Catherine de Bourgh's formal table: Pride and Prejudice 2005

When dinner is announced, the mistress of the house requests the lady first in rank, in company, to shew the way to the rest, and walk first into the room where the table is served; she then asks the second in precedience to follow, and after all the ladies are passed, she brings up the rear herself. The master of the house does the same with the gentlemen. Among the persons of real distinction, this marhalling of the company is unnecessary, every woman and every man present knows his rank and precedence, and takes the lead, without any direction from the mistress or the master.

When they enter the dining-room, each takes his place in the same order; the mistress of the table sits at the upper-end, those of superior rank next [to] her, right and left, those next in rank following, the gentlemen, and the master at the lower-end; and nothing is considered as a greater mark of ill-breeding, than for a person to interrup this order, or seat himself higher than he ought. – John Trusler, 1791

The Bennets seated at table en famille, with the two oldest daughters next to their father at the head of the table. Mrs. Bennet sits at the lower end. Pride and Prejudice 1995

As the eldest daughter, Jane and Elizabeth sat nearest their father during family meals, with Jane to his right. When Lydia returns as Mrs. Wickham, she unceremoniously bumps Jane to a position towards the middle of the table, for her married state gave her a higher rank than her eldest sister:

Elizabeth could bear it no longer. She got up and ran out of the room; and returned no more till she heard them passing through the hall to the dining parlour. She then joined them soon enough to see Lydia, with anxious parade, walk up to her mother’s right hand, and hear her say to her eldest sister, ‘Ah, Jane I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman.’ – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Sumptuous dining table at Castle Howard. Image @Tony Grant

As hostess at her father's table, young Emma Woodhouse sat opposite her father at the upper end of the table. The ladies sit next to Mr. Woodhouse in hierarchy. As in the description by John Trusler, the gentlemen are seated nearest Emma's end of the table.

Emma Woodhouse (Kate Beckinsale)

Custom, however, has lately introduced a new mode of seating. A gentleman and a lady fitting alternately round the table, and this, for the better convenience of a lady’s being attended to, and served by the gentleman next to her. But notwithstanding this promiscuous seating, the ladies, whether above or below, are to be served in order, according to their rank or age, and after them the gentlemen, in the same manner. – John Trusler, p 6

From: The honours of the table, or, Rules for behaviour during meals : with the whole art of carving, illustrated by a variety of cuts. Together with directions for going to market, and the method of distinguishing good provisions from bad; to which is added a number of hints or concise lessons for the improvement of youth, on all occasions in life. By the author of Principles of politeness, &c. … For the use of young people, John Trusler

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Gentle Readers, Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy has been reissued by Source Books. This 1950 novel features a feisty Mark I heroine who flies against social conventions at almost every turn. Georgette Heyer, who was known for her research and historical accuracy, wrote a novel about a single young woman who frequently bent the rules. Given the strictures of the age, this post explores why Sophy’s actions were tolerated.

Lady Sarah Jersey, Almack's patroness, from a drawing by Richard Cosway

Lady Sarah Jersey, Almack's patroness, from a drawing by Richard Cosway

By 1820, a strict code of conduct had evolved for polite society that protected the upper crust from vulgar and improper behavior. The code was particularly stringent for young ladies of good breeding, for one false step could permanently injure their chances of making an excellent match. As the century progressed, the rules of precedence became so complicated that inexperienced Victorian hostesses would often consult Burke’s Book of Precedence or their relatives and friends in order to avoid critical mistakes in leading guests to the dining room in the right order and seating them properly at the table. Rules of conduct covered visitations, invitations, introductions, balls and assemblies, morning and afternoon walks, rides in the park, relations between men and women, and modes of dress. A budding young hostess would spend countless hours learning the code in order not to offend family, friends, strangers, and guests.

While a young lady of high rank would enjoy some protection from Society’s censure when she made a mistake, those who were rising up the social ladder or whose families were placed on the lower rungs or moved along the fringes of the Ton, were given no such license. It was particularly important for them to develop a certain elegance of manners and deportment, and to adhere strictly to the rules. One snub from a major patron could end one’s social standing, as Beau Brummel fatally discovered when he offended the Prince Regent. In Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, Miss Eugenia Wraxton never quite understood how highly placed Miss Sophy Stanton-Lacy was in the eyes of the world. While it was true that Sophy had largely lived abroad with her father and had been allowed a great deal of freedom in her actions, her father’s exalted rank protected her to a certain degree and allowed her some leeway when she broke the rules outright* (as in the case of visiting the money lender unescorted in a bad part of Town) or disregarded its strictures (as when she drives Charles’s carriage without his permission through The City.)

The snobbish Miss Wraxton, mistakenly thinking that Sophy has no social standing to speak of, tells her fiance, Charles Rivenhall: “I am afraid her visit has brought extra cares upon you, my dear Charles. Much must be forgiven as a girl who has never known a mother’s care, but I confess I had hoped that under your Mama’s guidance she would have tried to conform to English standards of propriety.” Charles, who at first sides with Miss Wraxton in his opinion of his cousin, exclaims,  “It’s my belief she delights in keeping us all upon tenterhooks!”

How true. Miss Sophy Stanton-Lacy is a larger than life heroine who oozes self-confidence. Combining  brains, connections, and ability, she is an unstoppable force. Although she is the object of Miss Wraxton’s jealousy, Sophy commands the respect of her influential family and father’s friends, as well as that of Lady Jersey, Lady Castlereah, Countess de Lieven and Princess Esterhazy, who were the gatekeepers of Almack’s. Just after Miss Wraxton cautions Sophy about the difficulty in obtaining vouchers at Almack’s, she discovers, much to her chagrin, that Sophy is already well acquainted with these ladies and that her entry into that select club is assured.

Pall Mall

Pall Mall

Miss Wraxton is the sort of person who outwardly follows the rules of propriety, but whose sense of self-importance and mean-spirited intentions prompt her to overstep the boundaries time and again. Sophy will brook none of her interference and her hackles are raised when Miss Wraxton lectures her, “I wonder if I might venture to put you a little on your guard! In Paris and Vienna I am sure you would be able to tell me how I should go on, but in London I must be more at home than you.” Miss Wraxton continues in this vein, saying, “I do not think you can be aware of what is expected of a woman of quality! Or – forgive me! – how fatal it is to set up the backs of people, and to give rise to such gossip as must be painful to the Rivenhalls…” Unaware that she has put Sophy’s aristocratic nose out of joint, Miss Wraxton goes on with her harangue, prompting Sophy to say, “I am only afraid that you may suffer for being seen in such a vehicle as this [high perch phaeton], and with so fast a female!” Miss Wraxton reassures her, saying that her own character was sufficiently well established to withstand a faux pas or two.

“Now, let me understand you!” begged Sophy. “If I were to do something outrageous while in your company, would your credit be good enough to carry me off?”

“Let us say my family’s credit, Miss Stanton-Lacy. I may venture to reply, without hesitation, yes.”

This is all the boasting Sophy needs to spur into action, and she swings her phaeton out of Hyde Park and into the streets of Mayfair. When Miss Wraxton orders her to stop, Sophy tells her she can always walk. “What, and walk along Piccadilly unattended?” Miss Wraxton retorts. Heedless of her pleas and saying that Miss Wraxton’s spotless reputation will protect them, Sophy drives her phaeton down the exclusive male haunts of Pall Mall and past the famed bow window of White’s Club. “No lady would be seen driving there! Amongst all the clubs – the object of every town saunterer! You cannot know what would be said of you!” Miss Wraxton screeches. But Sophy, intent on teaching her a lesson, continues to drive along a section of London that is strictly forbidden to single young ladies. By the time Sophy drops her rival off in Berkeley Square, Miss Wraxton is white with rage.

Berkeley Square, 1813

Berkeley Square, 1813

In this masterful scene, Georgette Heyer captured the essence of Sophy’s and Miss Wraxton’s characters, and taught us in her delightful style about the 19th century’s narrow expectations of women and how their every move was controlled. Except for her spitefulness, Miss Wraxton represents the traditional Regency society woman, whose life was strictly proscribed by a seemingly endless list of rules. The most important decisions in her life were made by her male relatives and, because she was not allowed to work  or manage her own money, she had almost no opportunity to break out of her gilded prison. When she had no choice but to work, only a few poorly paid positions were open to her. A rich widow seemed to have the most liberty in leading a self-fulfilled life, but even she needed to arrange for an acceptable companion when traveling or attending public gatherings.

By disregarding society’s rules, Sophy demonstrates her independence of spirit, as well as the absurdity of those strictures. In reality, many smart, capable, and resourceful women of that era, like Mary Wollstonecraft or the Duchess of Devonshire, must have chafed against these constant restraints. Thankfully, Sophy’s father was rather progressive and he provided her with sufficient funds to allow her a degree of freedom in making her own choices, such as purchasing her own carriage and arranging for a stable. Sophy’s independence and control over her own finances rubs her cousin Charles the wrong way, for this goes counter to everything he knows about dealing with women.

Grand SophyWith the exception of her visit to the money lender, Sophy ignores the more banal rules that define her world, but she does adhere to a strict code of honor, which sets her apart from Miss Wraxton. It is this code, her unerring sense of what is right and wrong, her loyalty, generosity of spirit, and her unassailable rank in Society that save her time and again. Towards the end of the book, Charles eyes are opened to Sophy’s warmth and humanity, but he is still stuck with his pragmatic and unromantic fiancee, for, in another one of Society’s arcane rules, a man cannot cry off an engagement. Only the woman has that power. Half the fun of the plot is in discovering how Sophy manipulates Miss Wraxton into seeing Charles’s “true character” and releasing him from his bond.

The Grand Sophy is so much more than a mere love story. In this outrageous and funny tale set in London two hundred years ago, Georgette Heyer manages to inform the reader in the most charming way about the customs and mores of a bygone era, and how dramatically women’s lives have changed since then.

*Plot spoiler: Some comments about Sophy’s visit to Mr. Goldhanger in a seemy part of London – because she told no one where she was going and because no one caught her in the act of visiting such a disreputable man unescorted, Sophy’s reputation escaped being ruined. Had she been caught in the act, her Social standing would not have provided her with enough protection to save her. By the time Charles learned of Sophy’s actions, he had become inured to her willfulness. Because her intentions were pure and because she was successful in saving his brother, he cut her some slack and chose to remain silent about her deed. He even found humor in her use of the pistol. Had Miss Wraxton learned of the visit, she could have used the information to harm Sophy, and then the novel would have taken another turn.

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Rowlandson illustration from Wikipedia

‘What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing, after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies.’

‘Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world; every savage can dance.’

Sir William only smiled. ‘Your friend performs delightfully,’ he continued, after a pause, on seeing Bingley join the group; ‘and I doubt not that you are an adept in the science yourself, Mr. Darcy.’

‘You saw me dance at Meryton, I believe, sir.’

‘Yes, indeed, and received no inconsiderable pleasure from the sight.
– Conversation between Sir William Lucas and Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter VI.

Dances figure prominently in Jane Austen’s novels. Whether performed in public assembly rooms in Meryton or in private at the Netherfield Ball, dances offered social opportunities for young people to mix and mingle and converse in an acceptable fashion. In an era when a young lady of good breeding was strictly chaperoned and escorted everywhere she went, she would find it difficult during a routine day to meet privately with a single gentleman, even one who was courting her. Indeed, such conduct was strictly forbidden (and the reason why Marianne Dashwood’s behavior with Willoughby was considered shockingly forward). The ballroom, however, afforded a social situation in which a couple could arrange to be together for one or two sets. Since a dance would often last for half an hour, the dancers had ample time to converse, flirt, and even touch one another in an accepted manner.

A gentleman would, of course, never ask a young lady to dance unless he was first introduced to her. This is one of the reasons why Henry Tilney made sure to arrange a formal introduction to Catherine Morland and Mrs. Allen through the Master of Ceremonies.

During this era people were often judged for their ability to dance skillfully, and a gentleman was pressured to cut a fine figure on the dance floor. In his advice to his son about manners and deportment, Lord Chesterfield wrote: “Now to acquire a graceful air, you must attend to your dancing; no one can either sit, stand or walk well, unless he dances well. And in learning to dance, be particularly attentive to the motion of your arms for a stiffness in the wrist will make any man look awkward. If a man walks well, presents himself well in company, wears his hat well, moves his head properly, and his arms gracefully, it is almost all that is necessary.”

It is notable that Mr.Collins movements are awkward, and that his conduct on the dance floor mortifies Lizzy: “The first two dances, however, brought a return of distress; they were dances of mortification. Mr Collins, awkward and solemn, apologising instead of attending, and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave her all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give. The moment of her release from him was exstasy.” (Pride and Prejudice) Mr. Collins’ ineptness as a dancer would have been immediately understood by the contemporary reader to mean that he was not a polished gentleman. To compound his lack of manners, he boldly walks up to Mr. Darcy to introduce himself.

Young ladies and gentlemen practiced their dancing steps, belying Mr. Darcy’s assertion that “every savage can dance.” Professional dancing masters were employed to ensure that a young lady and gentleman learned the steps to a variety of intricate dance movements. Such instruction also helped a young gentleman to keep his bearing upright. Lord Chesterfield wrote his son, who was taking The Grand Tour, “Remember to take the best dancing-master at Berlin, more to teach you to sit, stand, and walk gracefully, than to dance finely. The Graces, the Graces; remember the Graces! Adieu!” Learning the steps was easier said than done, since “between 1730-1830 over twenty-seven thousand country dances with their tunes were published in England alone.” Thankfully, the Master of Ceremonies would choose only a certain number of dances to be performed for the evening, most likely consisting of the most fashionable dances of that particular year.* (Thompson, The Felicities of Rapid Motion)

The most important lady present would open the ball by dancing the first set, as Elizabeth Elliot did as the eldest daughter. Emma Woodhouse would have also been given the honors. Mr. Darcy’s rank and friendship with Mr. Bingley most likely put his position at the top of the line of dancers. Thus, when he asks Elizabeth to dance at the Netherfield Ball they would figure prominently in the line of dancers. The other couples in a country dance set would follow the lead of the top couple, and progressively work their way down the line. Sets of five to eight couples were popular during this period, with partners standing opposite each other as the other couples completed a sequence of movements

Standing and facing each other in line, therefore, was typical for couples engaged in a country dance. However, they were expected to make some conversation as they waited for the next movement. A gentleman, if he applied himself, could skillfully lead the conversation and put a young lady at ease, or pretend to be interested in any topic she brought up. Mr. Darcy chose to remain silent.

They stood for some time without speaking a word; and she began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it; till suddenly fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with:

“It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. — I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.”

He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.

“Very well. — That reply will do for the present. — Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. — But now we may be silent.”

“Do you talk by rule then, while you are dancing?”

“Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together, and yet for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as as possible.” – Pride & Prejudice, Volume 1, Chapter 18

In a public assembly, where people paid a fee to attend, people from various walks of life would come in contact with one another. “Aristocrats would interact with gentry, tradespeople, or even servants who were called in to make up a set if there were not enough couples…” (Sullivan, p 168). Mr. Darcy chose to dance only with Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley at the public assembly rooms in Meryton, thereby displeasing a wide variety of people, particularly Mrs. Bennet, who was vocal about her displeasure, for there was a scarcity of gentlemen and Lizzy had been forced to sit out two dances. For her part, once a lady refused a gentleman, she was honor bound to pass on other invitations to dance for the rest of the evening.

Private balls became more popular towards the end of the century, when many grand houses began to boast their own ballrooms. At private affairs, the host and hostess could invite the ‘right’ sort of people. These balls were not only more selective, but they provided music played by more professional musicians, and offered delicious and elaborate refreshments as well.

Illustration from The English Folk Dance and Song Society

Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot is the music featured at the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice 1995 (You can listen to it by clicking on the YouTube video above). The piece was written by Johan Playford in 1695, and published in Playford’s Dancing Master, a country dance guidebook. Maggot in those days meant “favorite,” and the term probably was used in conjunction with a favorite dance. “Today there are two modern versions of the dance – one published by Pat Shaw and one by Cecil Sharp. Shaw’s version of Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot is generally accepted to be the most authentic since it follows the AAB structure of the music, and Playford clearly states that the second, or B, line of music should be ‘played but once’.”

Links and Resources:

Festival Ball Tickets for September 27, 2008 are now on sale at The Jane Austen Centre, Bath. Tickets this year are £65. To purchase tickets and for further information on the ball and dance workshop taking place in the afternoon of the ball, contact Farthingales or call 44 (0)1225 471919

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On Becoming a Gentleman: Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son

Next to good-breeding is genteel manners and carriage, and the best method to acquire these is through a knowledge of dance. Now to acquire a graceful air, you must attend to your dancing; no one can either sit, stand or walk well, unless he dances well. And in learning to dance, be particularly attentive to the motion of your arms for a stiffness in the wrist will make any man look awkward. If a man walks well, presents himself well in company, wears his hat well, moves his head properly, and his arms gracefully, it is almost all that is necessary.

One can imagine that Mr. Darcy’s and Mr. Bingley’s deportment and good breeding in Pride and Prejudice reflected the etiquette and manners described by Lord Chesterfield in his letters to his sons dating from 1737. Although Samuel Johnson derided these letters for teaching “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master,” their collections were published and became well known during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Influenced by his own neglect as a child, Lord Chesterfield began to write the letters to Philip, his illegitimate son by a Dutch governess, when the boy was only five years old. When Philip turned twenty-five, Lord Chesterfield’s godson (another Philip) was born. Lord Chesterfield continued to send advice to this boy as well. Though quite illuminating about a father’s expectations of his son’s deportment, these letters were private and were never meant to be read publicly. (Bartleby.com) However, Lord Chesterfield’s advice remains fascinating, and much of what he related in them still holds true today. Regardless of what one might think of the information contained therein, the letters provide a fascinating insight into the manners and etiquette of the a gentleman in the 18th century:

Many people lose a great deal of their time by laziness; they loll and yawn in a great chair, tell themselves that they have not time to begin anything then, and that it will do as well another time. This is a most unfortunate disposition, and the greatest obstruction to both knowledge and business. At your age, you have no right nor claim to laziness; I have, if I please, being emeritus. You are but just listed in the world, and must be active, diligent, indefatigable. If ever you propose commanding with dignity, you must serve up to it with diligence. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do to-day.

Read the letters and about Lord Chesterfield in the following links:

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The Mirror of Graces, written by a Lady of Distinction in 1811, is a first-hand source that describes the dress and manners of ladies during the Regency Period. Some speculate that the book was written by a governess or lady’s companion who was a close observer of the upper classes, but not a member of it.

Here is her observation on “the detail of dress.”

The mantle, or cottage-cloak, should never be worn by females exceeding a moderate en bon point; and we should recommend their winter garbs, such as Russian pelisses and Turkish wraps, to be formed of double sarsenet, or fine Merina cloth, rather than velvets, which (except black) give an appearance of increased size to the wearer. In the adoption of furs, flat-ermine or fringe fur is better suited to the full-formed woman than swan’s down, fox, chinchilli, or sable; these are graceful for the more slender. Women of spare habit, and of a tall and elegant height, will derive considerable advantage from the full-flowing robe, mantle, and Roman tunic. The fur trimming, too, gives to them an appearance of roundness, which nature has denied;and to this description of person we can scarcely recommend an evending-dress more chaste, elegant and advantageous, than robes of white satin trimmed with swan’s-down, with draperies of silver or gossamer net.”

Find a listing of fabric and cloth on the Phrontistery site:

This is a rather odd category, listing 269 names of kinds of fabric and cloth. There is an enormous variety in fabrics, with many different national, historical and regional varieties. It is interesting to note, however, that almost all of the types of fabric listed below are variants or blends of just five basic fabric types (silk, cotton, linen, wool and worsted).”

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