Saturday, May 05, 2012

Miss Austen, may I introduce ...?

My battered late 19th century copy of Manners and Rules of Good Society by A Member of the Aristocracy deals with everything a novelist could possibly want to know about how Society operated and, as far as I can tell, the same rules apply to the Regency period.

Take the knotty question of Introductions. The basic rules are simple: a gentleman is always introduced to the lady, not the other way about, no matter what his rank. This allows the young lady to say, ‘Mama would not wish me to be introduced to Lord Wildblood’, thus avoiding an acquaintance which might damage her reputation.

For example, in 1814, Lord Byron sought an introduction to Lady Charlotte Leverson-Gower from a mutual friend. The friend was eager to oblige. Lord Bryon wrote in his diary, ‘I stopped him and said he had better ask her first, and in the mean time, to give her entire option, I walked away to another part of the room.’ Byron’s good manners paid off; Lady Charlotte agreed to the introduction – though one does wonder what her Mama thought.

However, this rule could cause problems for a young lady. The Season was her opportunity to find a husband and there were not too many years to do it in. She needed to find out discreetly whether a gentleman wished for an introduction since this meant he’d have to dance with her. We see this at the Meryton Assembly scene in Pride and Prejudice where Bingley offers to get Darcy an introduction to Elizabeth: ‘Do let me ask my partner (Jane) to introduce you’. Note Bingley’s assumption that Elizabeth would not refuse.

Darcy declines: ‘She is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me, and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.’ In practice, it is Darcy who has the power, not Elizabeth who is forced to sit out because of the shortage of men.

Fortunately for Catherine in Northanger Abbey, the Bath Master of Ceremonies introduces her to the hero, Mr Tilney. However, we note that her host, Mr Allen, ‘had early in the evening taken pains to know who her partner was, and had been assured of Mr Tilney’s being a clergyman, and of a very respectable family in Gloucestershire.’ Mr Allen is aware that his young guest’s reputation is at stake.

It is obvious that the rules apply mainly to ladies and, from a 21st century feminist perspective, they seem designed as a means of social control to keep women in their place. In theory, they give ladies the right to decline an introduction but, in reality, this is little more than a sop. The real power remains with the men.

Turning to the rules for gentlemen meeting other gentlemen: ‘The host seldom introduces gentlemen to each other as they address each other as a matter of course.’ We note that considerations of reputation do not apply here. However, rank still matters, as we see in the episode where Mr Collins thrusts himself on Mr Darcy’s notice at the Netherfield Ball.

Elizabeth is horrified, she ‘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 …’  She is only too aware of Darcy’s pride in his rank.

When introducing ladies to each other, ‘a hostess should always give the lady of higher rank the opportunity of declining the introduction’. If she agrees to it, then the lady of lower rank is introduced to her thus: Miss X, Lady Y. The first named lady is the one being introduced, making it clear who stands where in the pecking order. When Lady Catherine de Bourgh visits Longbourn, she doesn’t speak directly to Mrs Bennet. Instead, she says to Elizabeth, ‘That lady, I suppose, is your mother?’ As far as Lady Catherine is concerned, there is no introduction and she doesn’t know her.

Once we understand the rules, we can fully appreciate what it means to Elizabeth when Darcy begs to be allowed ‘to introduce my sister to your acquaintance’ after they meet again at Pemberley. It should be Elizabeth who is introduced to Georgiana but by reversing their respective ranks Darcy lets Elizabeth know just how highly he values her.

What about those people whom one knew by sight or exchanged a few commonplace words with? Without a formal introduction, it is only a ‘bowing acquaintance’. In Persuasion, Lady Dalrymple spots Captain Wentworth and says to Sir Walter Elliot, ‘A very fine young man indeed! More air than one often sees in Bath. Irish, I daresay.’

Sir Walter replies, ‘No, I just know his name. A bowing acquaintance – Captain Wentworth of the navy. His sister married my tenant in Somersetshire, the Croft who rents Kellynch.’ However, Lady Dalrymple’s opinion is important to him and it is not long before the mere ‘bowing acquaintance’ is invited to the Elliots’ At Home.

For a novelist, these rules can admittedly be irksome but they also allow us the opportunity to indicate shifts in status or intimacy. And, surely, for all of us, novelist or reader, knowing the rules allows us to appreciate the subtle changes in the relationship between the hero and heroine, and enhances our enjoyment of Jane Austen’s incomparable novels.

Elizabeth Hawksley


Jane Jackson said...

Another fascinating post, Elizabeth. Life during the Georgian/Regency period appears to have been a minefield of rules relating to correct behaviour. Yet by learning these a shrewd woman from any background might, provided she had money, rise in society. Being the mistress of a powerful man helped!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I think you're right, Jane. The social rules could be learnt by any intelligent man - or woman. You'd also need either money or exceptional good looks. After that - confidence is everything!

I feel a story coming on!

Shannon Donnelly said...

Excellent post -- it's the details that always matter.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Shannon, much appreciated. I agree that details are important - but they must be the right ones. I've always thought that the moment just after Louisa's accident in Lyme when Captain Wentworth calls Anne by her first name for the first time in over eight years, is so telling. They are discussing who shall stay to look after Louisa and he says, 'but if Anne will stay, no-one so proper, so capable as Anne.'

Anne has to pause 'to recover from the emotion of hearing herself so spoken of'. It's a wonderful moment for her and we, the readers, really feel with her.

Jane Odiwe said...

I loved reading this post, Elizabeth-the intricacies of manners and behaviour make for fascinating reading. I think when they are understood it makes Austen's books so much more enjoyable-all that restraint, and then just a name spoken - wonderful!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I agree, Jane. All that polite restraint must have been paid for emotionally, I suspect. Especially, perhaps, for women who had few other outlets - at least the chaps could go out and shoot something!

On the other hand, that sudden release of tension when Captain Wentworth calls Anne by her Christian name, the first time for over eight years, packs a real emotional punch.