Etiquette in Early 19th Century Britain

Hello All!

I have something very special for you all today! A paper that I wrote on social standards in the Regency Era. Enjoy!

Etiquette in Early 19th Century Britain

Have you ever read or watched Pride and Prejudice or something similar, and been left boggled by their odd behavior in comparison to modern times? If you are like me, you are wondering how they remember every rule of etiquette or how they can be so polite to someone they secretly detest. No doubt it was a constant struggle, however it was one at which they must succeed if they wished to retain a good reputation. Rules of propriety among the members of British high society in the early 19th century affected their gatherings, their relationships, and their everyday life.

High Society gatherings were rigorously held up to the social standards of the day. For example, if one were to hold a dinner party, seating arrangements and order of entrance were carefully devised by the hostess according to rank and situation in life. The host would escort the highest ranking lady, who would sit to his right at the table, while the hostess was escorted by the highest ranking male guest and was seated next to him. Others were arranged accordingly into couples and seated in a male female pattern, again, according to rank. If this dinner party was formal, one could only speak to those on their immediate right and left at the table. Aside from these few, several other rules of etiquette must be strictly observed. Another sort of gathering, the ball, was considered the most important of all. These dances were held in the late evenings and could last until well past midnight. As you can imagine, there were specific rules for dancing as well. A lady should never dance more than three dances with the same partner, and after the conclusion of one, the gentleman should walk at least halfway around the room with the lady on his right arm. He should also ask if she desired refreshments, and if she answered affirmatively, escort her to the refreshment room (which was a necessary addition). Failing to serve supper at a ball was unaccountable, a cloakroom was never unavailable, and if older people were invited, a card room was set up for their enjoyment.

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Whether an engagement or simply a friendship, relationships were monitored very closely by those who moved in higher circles of society. One could not choose with whom they associate due to their excellent personality or taste in style, but rather, their family status, reputation, and wealth. To marry for love was a rarity, as we see in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, unless you fortunately fell in love with someone of 5 or 10 thousand pounds a year. What a stroke of luck! A marriage, sadly, was often more of a business move then an act of true love. For example, if a gentleman were the second son in his family, he was not the heir; therefore, he was forced to carve his own path to fortune; the easiest road being to marry into wealth. After the marriage virtually all the lady’s fortune transferred to the man. Even the wealthiest of men were hardly tempted to marry beneath them, though they had enough for two, because this could be scorned by their family, as we see when Mr. Darcy’s aunt declares, “Are the shades of Pemberly to be thus polluted?” (Austen, 445)  On the other hand, a lady of little fortune must do her best to impress a man of at least some wealth. The bold among them all may marry for love despite the pressure to marry only someone the same as or above their rank, as long as their family name was respectable, if not important. Friendships were similar in many ways. Your respectability was often determined by the acquaintances you held. You should by no means attach yourself to a family of bad name; however, if you were even distantly related to someone of noble blood or importance, you were blessed and far more likely to be accepted in London’s social hubbub.

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Gatherings and Relationships were not the only things affected by strict social standards, but everyday life as well. Because it was not proper for ladies to have jobs, much of their time was spent at home. Their pastimes must, of course, be genteel, and included much reading and sewing, card games and gossip. Gentlemen of significance were not expected to have a vocation, but rather protect and manage their inheritance to pass down to their eldest son one day. Aside from matters of business, the men must also have proper pastimes for their comparatively large amounts of free time. Activities such as fox hunting and games such as whist were favorites among them.  Conversation took up a large portion of their time, as you can imagine. There were, however, guidelines for this as well. If a man meets a lady friend in passing, for example, and wishes to speak to her, it would be considered rude to make her stand in the street; therefore, he must walk with her to hold a conversation. As for friendly “morning” calls, these were usually done in what we would consider the afternoon, and generally lasted for 15 minutes or so. This saved one from having to stay to long at the house of a friend they weren’t particularly fond of. A lady was never to call on a gentleman alone unless it was a business matter, and if a gentleman called at a house with a young lady present, he was wise not to stay for over half an hour, unless he wished to insinuate an interest in said young lady. A gentleman did not call a lady by her first name alone unless they were engaged, at least. Rather, the Lady was Miss “last name” if she were the eldest or Miss “first name” if she were not. If they were married, the lady would call her husband Mr. “last name” in public and vice-versa. This was a sign of good breeding. Lastly, the gentleman was always introduced to the lady, and not the other way around, because the gentleman should consider it an honor to meet her.

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The gatherings, relationships, and everyday life of those who moved in prominent social circles were all directly affected by the high social standards of early 19th century Britain. Their lives were often transparent and they were chained by their lifestyle, to put it in few words. Some relished it, some detested it, and others simply found it a small price to pay for fortune and acceptance. As with most things, it all depended on how one perceived it and reacted to it. They could decide in their mind whether it was to be a blessing or a curse. Nonetheless, etiquette must be upheld and manners must be remembered.

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