The Etiquette of Visiting in Georgian society
As we saw in our previous post on the importance of location in Jane Austen’s novels, a great deal of social interaction amongst the wealthier classes in Georgian society depended on visits. Of course, to maintain the social structure and hierarchy of the world in which Jane Austen and her characters moved, visiting or ‘calling’ was controlled by a strict etiquette that seems bewildering to us nowadays. The Jane Austen Detectives delved into the curious business of ‘At-Homes’, calling cards, and the formal forging of acquaintances.
‘Morning calls’ were amongst the first priorities for members of society when they first arrived in a new neighbourhood. In places like London or Bath, where families would often reside temporarily, it was a way of ensuring that all the necessary people were aware of one’s arrival, so that the family could be included in formal invitations to other social events such as assemblies or card parties.
A ‘call’ would be preceded by the presentation of the visitor’s ‘calling card’ to the mistress of the house. The card would be taken into the house by a servant who would inquire whether the intended recipient was ‘at home’ or not. The Jane Austen’s House Museum’s website explains the mortification Catherine Morland feels when she is informed that Miss Tilney is not ‘at home’ to her in Northanger Abbey as follows:
‘The card was conveyed to the mistress of the house, who would then decide whether or not to receive the caller. If the mistress was ‘not at home’, it was a rejection of the visitor. A reciprocal card may be given to the caller, but if not presented formally, that usually meant there was no desire to further the acquaintance. If, however, a formal call was returned with a formal call, there was hope for the relationship to grow.’
Similarly, for young men who were interested in pursuing an acquaintance with an attractive young lady encountered at a ball, observing the correct etiquette was crucial to being allowed to get to know her. The gentleman would request to be formally introduced to the young lady’s chaperone – and, as was understood, to her at the same time. After some conversation he would request to be permitted to call on the mistress of the house at which the young lady stayed – not, crucially, to call on the young lady herself. From this first morning call he could pursue an intimacy with the lady’s family or hosts, in which he would endeavour to find opportunities to get to know her.
Even if the less formal atmosphere of a country neighbourhood might encourage men to invite home other men they met in more casual settings, for women the rules for calling and developing new acquaintances were no less strict in the country than in the city.
Although Jane Austen makes Mrs Bennet’s persistence seem rather ridiculous, Mr Bennet’s apparent reluctance to call on Mr Bingley to welcome him to the neighbourhood is obviously obstructive, as Mrs Bennet and her daughters will not be able to make the formal call required to make Mr Bingley’s acquaintance until he has done so. From this point onwards, Mrs Bennet is permitted to further the acquaintance with invitations to domestic parties and dinners, but the initial contact must be made by the male head of the household.
This explains why the ease with which the Bennet girls do form new acquaintances is something Mr Darcy is simultaneously judgmental and envious of: it reflects a change in the way society was structured as the eighteenth century progressed into the nineteenth – a change which necessarily reached the straight-laced upper class to which Darcy belongs more slowly and gradually than it did the class of the Bennets, a rural family not well-known by virtue of their rank and therefore subject to less close social control than someone of a higher social status, as Lady Catherine de Bourgh does not hesitate to make clear.
As the author of the Austenised blog suggests:
‘One book to shed light on the social etiquette of the time is Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, written by Jennifer Kloester. Although she writes with specific reference to Georgette Heyer’s novels, we can equally well use this book as a guide to the world of Jane Austen.
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