Jane Austen For Dummies
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Jane Austen is the queen and inventor of the Regency romance (courtship literature set in England's Regency period, 1811–1820). Jane Austen's six most famous works (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion) highlight the strict social etiquette of her day and the legal limitations that women of her social class endured. She also created memorable characters, from flirts and fools to some who displayed abnormal personality disorders.

Social etiquette in Jane Austen's world

Strict rules of etiquette abounded for Jane Austen’s characters, who revealed a great deal about themselves by following them — or not. Etiquette is the French word for ticket; think of it this way: Good manners and polite behavior were (and still are) the ticket to social acceptability.

Here are some of the ways Austen’s characters followed social guidelines:

  • Introducing and acknowledging people: People lower in the social hierarchy waited to be introduced to those higher — unless the higher-class person introduced himself to the lower-class person. When not properly introduced, people had to remain silent.

  • Speaking appropriately: Group conversation did not include jokes about young couples’ love interests, a woman’s pregnancy, or a child’s being born out of wedlock. Also, rude or suggestive comments were uncouth, as was boasting, interrupting, and pushy or loud conversation.

  • Courting: Prior to their engagement, couples met at dances and dinner parties, where friends and family were also present and observing (chaperoning) them. Society forbid unengaged couples to take long walks alone; ride in carriages (open or closed) alone; go for a horseback ride alone; or even write letters to each other.

  • Dancing the night away: Dancing was not close-body dancing: Dancers held hands with their arms extended. Unless they were engaged or very serious about each other, a couple could dance together only twice during a social event. With each dance consisting of two 15-minute dances, a couple had one hour together.

Four legal limits for ladies in Jane Austen's time

In Jane Austen’s day, the legal rights for a lady were minimal. A lady was a member of a social class called the gentry, who were landowners and had the good taste and refinement associated with polite society. What seems like a life of leisure for these women, however, came at a cost.

Under the law, a lady couldn’t do things that many women today take for granted. She could not:

  • Vote.

  • Attend a university.

  • Enter a profession.

  • Control her money and property (including her clothes!). Rarely did a married lady hold property in her own name. When a woman got married, she had to surrender her money and her legal rights to her husband. A lady’s one option for securing her own property was to place it in a trust.

    Her husband had

    • Control of their children. If he wanted, he could deny her access to the children or take them away from their mother.

    • Control over their sex life. He could demand sex and even rape her or commit adultery with impunity.

    • The right to hit her. She was his property, so he could do as he liked.

Now that you know the downside of being a woman in Austen’s time, don’t think that she lived in a nation of wife-beating brutes; a majority of marriages were happy or at least satisfactory, and most wives weren’t beaten!

Jane Austen's most memorable abnormal personalities

Writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jane Austen created a number of characters who displayed abnormal personality disorders — two centuries before they were identified as such.

For example, Aunt Norris of Mansfield Park and Lady Catherine of Pride and Prejudice are controllers. Lucy Steele of Sense and Sensibility is passive aggressive toward Elinor Dashwood. And in the same novel with Lady Catherine, the attention-seeking Lydia is narcissistic. But with all of these characters vying for the most abnormal, it’s sociopath John Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility who takes the prize.

Sociopaths are superficially charming and amiable. They tend to engage in casual sex and feel no guilt for any wrong they’ve done. Rather, they feel themselves to be victims.

Now here’s a look at Willoughby:

  • He’s attractive and appealing; the Dashwood women think he’s marvelous.

  • He seduced and impregnated Eliza Williams and promptly forgot her.

  • He admits to first paying attention to Marianne simply for the fun of it.

  • He feels that Mrs. Smith (his wealthy relative) disinherited him simply because she’s acting like a prude after she learned how he mistreated Eliza.

  • He blames his wealthy wife, the former Miss Grey, for making him write the callous break-up letter to Marianne.

With Willoughby’s unprincipled and dishonorable behavior, he could be called a cad (those who behave irresponsibly with women). But, Willoughby crossed too many lines with the Eliza pregnancy and abandonment. “Cad” would be too generous.

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