Today I have a guest post by the lovely and talented author Maria Grace. Maria writes fiction set in the Regency era, and the following is her account of the complex manners and mores of polite Regency society...
In the 1800s, the moneyed minority in any local was expected mix socially with one another, whether or not they were personally agreeable to one another. In general, people only mixed socially within their own social class, so the company could become confined and unvarying quickly. Hence, new families of the right social standing would quickly be paid an obligatory visit by their neighbors in order to initiate an acquaintance and effectively broaden the social circle.
Until a formal acquaintance was recognized, members of the families could not socialize with one another. Established members of the neighborhood would take it upon themselves to call upon the new comers. Only men called upon men, women did not initiate the relationship themselves. Once the man of the house performed introductions for the women in his household, they could interact socially and even introduce the newcomers to others.
Commonly the social inferior was introduced to the superior, and men to women, rather than the reverse. Unlike in town, where one had to wait for the call of a superior, in the country it was acceptable for a man to make a call or leave a card with someone of higher social standing if that person was new to the neighborhood. Acceptance by those above one’s social status was a key to social mobility in Regency society, so such acquaintances were highly sought after.
Social connections were usually formed through a series of meetings, usually beginning with morning calls to the homes of those in fashionable society.
Examples of calling cards
Morning calls or visiting upon a household had an established protocol. Those who failed to follow it risked being shunned. First a calling card was presented to the household’s servant.
Calling cards became popular at the end of the 18th century and bore the visitor's name, title and residence. Their purpose was to prevent errors by forgetful servants. After all, one could not trust one’s social future to a mere servant’s memory.
One would generally leave not a single card, but three: one from the lady for the house’s mistress; one from the gentleman for the house’s mistress and another for the house’s master. Calling cards were displayed on special trays often set up on the front hallways, visible to all who came into the house. Cards from high ranking individuals and titled folks gave additional status to the household displaying their cards.
If one came without a card, he or she might be snubbed. When a servant received the cards, they would be conveyed to the mistress who would then decide whether to admit or reject the caller. If the servant informed the caller that the mistress was 'not at home', this was code for not wishing to make the acquaintance. On the other hand, if a reciprocal card was formally presented to the visitor, this indicated there was a chance for the relationship to develop.
If one was uncertain as to the reception one might receive, the safest course would be to leave his or her card without asking if the mistress was at home. This would oblige her to reciprocate the call the next day, if only by leaving her own card. Failure to do so was a rebuff, but certainly a less painful one that being rejected at the door.
There were several other types of 'visits in form', calls considered a duty rather than a pleasure. Duty visits were hard to evade as a decent level of social exchange was expected and individuals could be rebuked for their inattentiveness. These duty visits included calls to acknowledge hospitality, the newly-married, childbirth, bereavement and those in straitened circumstances.
Calls for condolence and congratulations were typically made about a week after the event. Ceremonial visits to acknowledge parties, balls and other invitations were paid sooner, a day after a ball, within two days of a dinner party and within a week of a small party. These calls would be paid later in the day than ‘morning calls,’ typically between three and four in the afternoon.
Wedding visits were rigorously observed, extending a month or two after the marriage. The neighbors of gentry status would call on the couple in their own home. Then the visits would be returned and possibly one or more parties held in the couple’s honor.
Calls to the bereaved and suffering were part of the duties of an estate’s mistress. It was up to her to look after her less fortunate neighbors a personal visit every week or two. On such visits she might deliver food and medicinal preparations made in her own kitchen and still room, give advice, and lend an ear to their complaints. These visits were often the only support system for the indigent in the neighborhood.
Less formal visits, morning calls were actually paid between the time of rising and that of eating dinner, effectively between eleven in the morning and three in the afternoon. Earlier calls might interfere with breakfast or a lady’s morning household duties. Later visits might suggest indecorous attempts at securing an invitation for dinner. The earlier in the day, the less close the acquaintance, the later the greater degree of intimacy between the parties.
Morning visit were expected to last for at least fifteen minutes, but certainly not more than half an hour. Callers were received by men in their business room or library. Women took calls the morning room or in their drawing-room. Pets and children, both regarded as potentially destructive and annoying, were not welcome on morning calls.
What to do during a visit?
The heart of polite sociability was conversation. The whole purpose of conversation was to please other people and to be deemed pleasing. In general, conversation was tightly controlled by rules of etiquette as well. The list of unacceptable topics far outnumbered the acceptable ones.
Politeness demanded a visitor inquire after the health of absent members of the household.
Similarly, polite individuals did not ask direct personal questions of recent acquaintances. To question or even compliment anyone else on the details of their dress might also be regarded as impertinent. Personal remarks, however flattering, were not considered good manners. Etiquette manuals counseled such comments should be exchanged only with close family and intimate friends.
Unsurprisingly, scandal and gossip should be omitted from public conversation. Any references to pregnancy, childbirth, or other natural bodily functions were considered coarse and carefully sidestepped. A man could sometimes discuss his hunters or driving horses in the presence of ladies though it was generally discouraged. Greater latitudes of conversation were allowed when the genders were segregated, particularly for the men.
In order to take advantage of afternoon light, women would continue their needlework during a call. Sometimes visitors brought their own work or the hostess would offer her visitors pieces to work on. It was considered more genteel to continue with one's 'fancywork' rather than 'plain' shirt-making or mending.
A Lady of Distinction - Regency Etiquette, the Mirror of Graces (1811). R.L. Shep Publications (1997)
Banfield ,Edwin -Visiting Cards and Cases, Baros Books, Wiltshire, (1989).
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)
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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)
Pool, Daniel- What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by, Simon & Schuster, New York, (1993).
Randall, Rona- The Model Wife Nineteenth-Century Style, The Herbert Press, London, (1989).
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)
Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten 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 ten meals at a time so she only cooks twice a month.
She can be contacted at:
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On Twitter @WriteMariaGrace
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English Historical Fiction Authors (EnglshHistoryAuthors.blogspot.com)
Austen Authors (AustenAuthors.net)
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