Catherine Morland travels with John Thorpe, against her will. C.E. Brock
"I am glad of it; I will drive you out in mine every day."
"Thank you," said Catherine, in some distress, from a doubt of the propriety of accepting such an offer.
Northanger Abbey Ch. 7.
Propriety was constantly on the minds of Jane Austen’s characters. Doing what was right was important in the acts of everyday life. In the quote at the beginning of this article Catherine Morland is worried about the propriety of riding alone in a carriage with John Thorpe. Of course, doing almost anything with John Thorpe would be inappropriate, but Catherine has not yet learned to navigate the shoal waters of propriety.
Later, Catherine goes with her brother and the Thorpes to visit Blaize castle, inadvertently standing up the Tilneys. On seeing the Tilneys, she realizes her blunder and begs Thorpe to stop, to no avail, as depicted by C. E. Brock.
Aggrieved at the possible slight to the Tilneys, she attempts unsuccessfully to visit Miss Tilney.
“At the bottom of the street, however, she looked back again, and then, not at a window, but issuing from the door, she saw Miss Tilney herself. She was followed by a gentleman, whom Catherine believed to be her father, and they turned up towards Edgar's-buildings. Catherine, in deep mortification, proceeded on her way. She could almost be angry herself at such angry incivility; but she checked the resentful sensation; she remembered her own ignorance. She knew not how such an offence as hers might be classed by the laws of worldly politeness, to what a degree of unforgivingness it might with propriety lead, nor to what rigours of rudeness in return it might justly make her amenable.” Northanger Abbey, Ch. 12.
Somerset Buildings in Milsom Street, Bath. James Gandon, 18th century
Ignorance of the laws of etiquette could have serious consequences. Catherine has much to learn.
However, a thorough understanding of those same laws could be used to assert social standing or define relationships. Emma desperately hopes for an invitation from the Coles so she can have the opportunity of turning down the invitation in order to teach them a lesson.
“The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them. This lesson, she very much feared, they would receive only from herself; she had little hope of Mr. Knightley, none of Mr. Weston.” Emma, Ch. 25
Caroline Bingley uses the occasion of a proper call to define her relationship (or lack thereof) with Jane Bennet. Jane reports on the visit in a letter to Elizabeth.
“Caroline did not return my visit till yesterday; and not a note, not a line, did I receive in the mean time. When she did come, it was very evident that she had no pleasure in it; she made a slight, formal, apology for not calling before, said not a word of wishing to see me again, and was in every respect so altered a creature, that when she went away I was perfectly resolved to continue the acquaintance no longer.” Pride and Prejudice, Ch. 26
So manners can be a trap for the unwary or a weapon in the hands of the skilled. At our next meeting of JASNA CWNY, Lynn Festa, JASNA’s Traveling Lecturer for the East, will tell us about the use of manners for both offense and defense. Her talk is titled Manners as Martial Art in Austen: Jujitsu in the Drawing Room. Here is the abstract:
“This paper examines manners as offensive weapon and as defensive shield, as smooth art and as hard labor, in Austen’s novels. Austen was, of course, aware of the conduct book strictures that delineated ideal female comportment, and her novels show her characters both using and flouting the rules of propriety. What is being attacked, and what is being defended, in these violations of decorum—in those moments where manners falter or are allowed to drop, in which Austen, her narrator, or her characters are not inadvertently but deliberately rude?”
Lynn Festa is associate professor of English at Rutgers University. She is the author of Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France. In addition to being the 2014 JASNA North American Scholar, Lynn has written on a wide range of topics including eighteenth-century wig-wearing, cosmetics as a sign of national difference, tales recounted by anthropomorphized things, the slave trade, the history of human rights, and Jane Austen.
Please join us for what promises to be a fascinating look at the use and abuse of manners in Jane Austen’s works. Be sure to review your conduct books before arriving.
See you there.
Event: JASNA CWNY February Meeting
Topic: Manners as Martial Arts in Austen: Jujitsu in the Drawing Room
A talk by Lynn Festa, JASNA traveling lecturer for the East
When: Saturday, February 20, 2016 at 1 pm
Where: Barnes and Noble, Community Room, Pittsford NY