Ah, Jane Austen’s world — a simpler time, less stress, no climbing the corporate ladder, more time for the relaxing pleasures of life. Think again.
Jane’s life crossed over the Georgian and Regency eras, both times of rules, regulations and the all-important social ladder — which dictated that if you were born with the wrong accent, make a social misstep or marry the “wrong” person you could be left clinging to the bottom rung forever.
And coming into the world at the top was no guarantee of a charmed life, either. A social misstep could send you plummeting down one golden rung at a time, landing you in a heap of crinoline and titled pedigrees.
Although not as formal, straight-laced or corseted as Victorian England, both Georgian and Regency England still had strict, complicated rules for the proper mode of behavior. So, in case you ever find yourself among the gilded tearooms of 18th century England, here’s your etiquette survival guide to avoid those embarrassing faux pas.
Jane Austen frequently made fun of the social niceties of her time in her letters and her books. We’ve selected a few of her most pointed barbs.
The Rules of Mingling
Be a thoughtful Correspondent
Hetty receives a letter (Emma)
Use abbreviations generously and do not forget to “cross” your letter by turning the paper at right angles and writing between the lines of your already written page. This will save adding weight to your letter, and your recipient will think you a most genteel and kind correspondent.
Catherine visits Miss Tilney (Northanger Abbey)
When first arriving in town (of course we are speaking of London town), it is important to make your presence known. To do this you must pay a visit to all the important houses and present your card within a week of your arrival.
It is better only to present your card as opposed to asking for admission to avoid the risk of rejection. (Too dreadful to imagine is the case in which the lady is physically at home, but is not socially at home to receive your visit.) Present your card to the servant who is generally primed in what manner to answer.
Figures of Speech
Elizabeth sets the pace while dancing (Pride and Prejudice)
The quadrille is pronounced to be essentially a conversational dance. As couples are forced to wait their turn in executing figures, the first necessity for dancing a quadrille is to be supplied with a fund of small talk.
Coming soon: Part II-Keeping Up Appearances