Today, it is my pleasure to welcome author Maria Grace back to Outtakes. You might remember Grace from a post she did about laundry in the Regency, which made me all the more grateful for my front loader. Grace is visiting Outtakes as she promotes her most recent title, All the Appearance of Goodness, the third book in her Given Good Principles series. In her post about Regency etiquette, Grace shows us a lot more than good manners is at stake. – Kim
By Maria Grace
During the Regency era, a young lady’s social standing depended on her reputation, which could be marred by something as simple as an immodest fall while exiting a carriage. So, to preserve her chances of making a good marriage – which for most was the making or breaking of their future life – the utmost care to all aspects of etiquette was required.
To complicate matters further, well-bred women were thought to have a “natural” sense of delicacy. Taste and poise, it was believed, should come naturally to a lady. It was an indictment against their breeding to be worried about looking correct. The significance of these matters could not be underestimated, for once a young woman’s reputation was tarnished, nothing could bring it back. Her future could be forever dictated by a single unfortunate incident.
Thus, although these patterns of etiquette might appear awkward and restrictive, especially for women, they safeguarded against misunderstanding and embarrassment.
Ladies were encouraged to maintain an erect posture when sitting or standing. Slouching or leaning back was regarded as slothful unless one was infirm in some way. A well-bred young woman walked upright and moved with grace and ease. She maintained an elegance of manners and deportment and could respond to any social situation with calm assurance and no awkwardness.
Proper ladies behaved with courteous dignity at all times to acquaintance and stranger alike. They kept at arm’s length any who presumed too great a familiarity. Icy politeness was their weapon of choice to put so-called “vulgar mushrooms” in their place. Extremes of emotion and public outbursts, even including laughter, were unacceptable, as was anything pretentious or flamboyant. A woman, though, could have the vapors, faint, or suffer from hysteria if confronted by vulgarity or an unpleasant scene.
Young women were protected zealously in company since to be thought “fast” was the worst possible social stigma. Young, unmarried women were never alone in the company of a gentleman, save family and close family friends. A chaperone was also required for a young single woman to attend any social occasion. Under no circumstances could a lady call upon a gentleman alone unless consulting him on a professional or business matter, and she never forced herself upon a man’s notice.
Except for a walk to church or a park in the early morning, a lady could not walk alone. She always needed to be accompanied by another lady, an appropriate man, or a servant. Though a lady was permitted to drive her own carriage, if she left the family estate, she required the attendance of a groom. Similarly, on horseback she should bring an appropriate companion to protect her reputation.
The need for formal introductions was another means by which women’s reputations were protected. Until a formal acquaintance was recognized, individuals could not interact. Once the man of the house performed introductions for the women in his household, they could socialize with their new acquaintances.
Once introduced, it was essential for a lady to politely acknowledge that person with a slight bow of the shoulders anytime she encountered them in public. If she did not make such an acknowledgement, a gentleman did not acknowledge her. Failure to recognize an acquaintance was a breach in conduct and considered a cut. Manuals warned that a lady should never “cut” someone unless “absolutely necessary.”
The heart of polite sociability was conversation, and ladies were encouraged to develop the art of pleasing and polite exchange. Acceptable topics were highly limited; the list of unacceptable topics far outnumbered the acceptable ones.
One did not ask direct personal questions of new acquaintances. Remarks, even complimentary ones, on the details of another’s dress might also be regarded as impertinent. Personal remarks, however flattering, were not considered good manners and might be exchanged only with close family and intimate friends. Similarly, scandal and gossip were omitted from public conversation. Proper ladies were expected to be shocked at the mention of anything evil, sexual, compromising, or related to bodily functions. Ladies were even warned against blowing their nose in company for similar reasons.
Not surprisingly, all forms of touching between members of the opposite sex were to be kept to a minimum. A gentleman might put a lady’s shawl about her shoulders, or assist her to mount a horse or enter a carriage, or take her arm through his to support her while out walking. Shaking hands, though, was considered less proper. A pressure of the hands was the only external signs a woman could give of harboring a particular regard for certain gentleman and was not to be thrown away lightly.
In a society governed by such strict rules regulating the interaction of the sexes, the dance floor provided only of the only places potential marriage partners could meet and courtships might blossom. The ballroom guaranteed respectability and proper conduct for all parties since they were carefully regulated and chaperoned. Under cover of the music and in the guise of the dance, young people could talk and even touch in ways not permitted elsewhere.
At a public ball, the master of ceremonies would introduce gentlemen and ladies to enable them to dance, as a lady could not dance with a gentleman to whom she had not been introduced. At a private ball, though, all guests were assumed to be introduced and a lady could dance freely.
A young woman did not dance more than two pairs of dances with the same man or her reputation would be at risk. Even two dances signaled to observers that the gentleman in question had a particular interest in her. The day after a ball, a gentleman would typically call upon his principle partner, so a young lady who danced two sets with same gentleman might rightfully expect continued acquaintance with him.
At the Dining Table
A private ball also meant a dinner service. Depending on the hostess, the ladies might proceed to the dining room together, parading in rank order, or might be escorted in on the arm of a gentleman whose rank matched their own.
Within the dining room, guests were not assigned seats. The hostess sat at the head of the table with the ranking male guest at her right. The host took the foot of the table with the ranking female guest at his right. Other guests were free to select their own seats as they chose, though there was a tacit understanding that seats closest to the hostess should be taken by the highest ranking guests.
Each gentleman would serve himself and his neighbors from the dishes within his reach. If a dish was required from another part of the table, a manservant would be sent to fetch it. It was not good form to ask a neighbor to pass a dish. It was equally bad manners for the ladies to help themselves. Gentlemen also poured wine for the ladies near them.
Eating quickly or very slowly at meals was considered vulgar as was a lady eating or drinking too much. She must not eat her soup with her nose in the bowl nor bring food to her mouth with her knife – a fork or spoon was the proper implement for the job. Her napkin belonged in her lap, not tucked into her collar as the gentlemen did. She must not scratch any part of her body, spit, lean elbows on the table, sit too far from the table, pick her teeth before the dishes are removed, or leave the table before grace is said.
The so many strictures, it is no wonder etiquette manuals abounded in the era and even less wonder that they were diligently studied by young ladies and their mothers alike.
A Lady of Distinction – Regency Etiquette, the Mirror of Graces (1811). R.L. Shep Publications (1997)
Black, Maggie & Le Faye, Deirdre – The Jane Austen Cookbook. Chicago Review Press (1995)
Byrne, Paula – Contrib. to Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge University Press (2005)
Day, Malcom – Voices from the World of Jane Austen. David & Charles (2006)
Downing, Sarah Jane – Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen. Shire Publications (2010)
Jones, Hazel – Jane Austen & Marriage. Continuum Books (2009)
Lane, Maggie – Jane Austen’s World. Carlton Books (2005)
Lane, Maggie – Jane Austen and Food. Hambledon (1995)
Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L. – The Regency Companion. Garland Publishing (1989)
Le Faye, Deirdre – Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams (2002)
Ray, Joan Klingel – Jane Austen for Dummies. Wiley Publishing Inc. (2006)
Ross, Josephine – Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners. Bloomsbury USA (2006)
Selwyn, David – Jane Austen & Leisure. The Hambledon Press (1999)
Trusler, John – The Honours of the Table or Rules for Behavior During Meals. Literary-Press (1791)
Vickery, Amanda – The Gentleman’s Daughter. Yale University Press (1998)
All images are in the public domain and from Wikimedia Commons, with the exception of the author photo and book cover image.
About Maria Grace
Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was 10 years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six cats, seven Regency-era fiction projects and notes for eight more writing projects in progress. To round out the list, she cooks for nine in order to accommodate the growing boys and usually makes 10 meals at a time so she only cooks twice a month. She is also a contributor to English Historical Fiction Authors and Austen Authors.
She can be contacted at:
E-mail: author (dot) MariaGrace (at) gmail (dot) com
Her website, Random Bits of Fascination: AuthorMariaGrace.com