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.