Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Question of Etiquette

[Here's the latest installment in Eberle's Women's Art is Women's Work series—get your dance cards ready!]

Famous for her insight into the human heart, Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote of the everyday lives of women, connecting the surface of life’s small-scale realities with the very depths of the soul’s experience. She understood thoroughly the constraints that social customs placed on women, both physically and psychologically, and much of her writing addressed the way that women dealt with those restrictions. As a writer she distinctly felt the constraints of the feminine duty of household management:

Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb.
Letter of September 8, 1816

The Austen household employed numerous servants even in times of straitened circumstances, and the women of the family would not themselves have been roasting mutton or chopping rhubarb. However, they would have been responsible for organizing and supervising the whole range of household activities—a responsibility that allowed for very little uninterrupted solitude in the course of the day.

Jane’s writing might strike twenty-first century readers as sophisticated, but in actuality she was a small town girl, preferring the life in the sticks to life in the city. She grew up in a rural setting and her writing is intimately linked with the natural and social landscape of a small country town. As Jane said herself in an 1814 letter to her niece Anna Austen about novel-writing: “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on….” After spending her first twenty-five years in the Hampshire countryside and starting her writing career, Jane moved with her family to the busy town of Bath. It was to be eight years before Jane moved back to the countryside she loved and she did not write much during this time. Between 1809 when she moved back to Hampshire, and her death at the age of forty-one in 1817, she published most of the novels that have made her a household name.

As a setting for the
writing of novels of manners, small town life has several advantages. One crucial element of the village setting is gossip, and Jane gives a perspective on this in Pride and Prejudice (1813):

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in o
ur turn?

Village reality also i
ncludes constant social scrutiny and a limited cast of characters and patterns of social interactioncreating the perfect backdrop for the drama of a young heroine’s quest for identity within her social framework. Balls, where a larger circle of acquaintances met to examine each other’s finery as well as behavior, played an important role in this drama. Jane refers to balls with mixed feelings in her own letters:

There were more dancers than the room could conveniently hold, which is enough to constitute a good ball
at any time. I do not think I was very much in request. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it; one's consequence, you know, varies so much at times without any particular reason. There was one gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good-looking young man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me, but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we never could bring it about…. One of my gayest actions was sitting down two dances in preference to having Lord Bolton's eldest son for my partner, who danced too ill to be endured.
Letter of January 8, 1799

One of the
rules governing balls was that a gentleman could not ask a lady to dance unless he had been introduced to her. Other precepts from the following ballroom etiquette guide are recognizable from balls described by Jane:

A lady refus
ing to accept a gentleman as partner for a dance, cannot accept another during the same dance.

When asking a lady for her programme, observe the following: That you cannot engage a lady for two succeeding dances, but you can put your name down to any other (for instance, 3 and

Having once taken up a position in a quadrille with your partner, you cannot leave the same place, although your bitterest enemy was to place him or herself opposite to you.

The slightest excuse is sufficient for a lady not to dance, and it is highly ungentlemanly to press or force a lady to dance.

Having at the end of a dance taken your partner to the refreshment-stall or room, you cannot leave that lady there
, but should conduct her back to her chair. So ladies should endeavour not to keep gentlemen too long, on account of other engagements he might have to fulfil.
It is extremely vulgar to eat or drink to excess at a ball.

Gentlemen are expected, as well as ladies, to join in pleasant conversation while resting; and to introduce topics rather more entertaining than the heat of the room, the weather, or criticising the various styles and attitudes of dancers and their dress.

The Royal Ball-Room Guide And Etiquette Of The Drawing-Room, Rudolph Radestock, London, 1877

Drunkenness at balls was by no means unheard of, and Jane described such
a scene in the letter below. Punch was a popular drink of the upper classes in the eighteenth century, and could indeed be a knock-out, involving a mixture of several different liquors and fruit juices.

Mrs. B. and two young women
were of the same party, except when Mrs. B. thought herself obliged to leave them to run round the room after her drunken husband. His avoidance, and her pursuit, with the probable intoxication of both, was an amusing scene.
Letter of May 12, 1801

A lady at a ball might carry a dance card holder made of bone, silver, or ivory in addition to her other paraphernalia. Dance cards listed the order of dances to be performed, with a space where a lady could indicate the name of the partner to whom she had promised the dance. A small pencil accompanied the dance cards and they could dangle from the wrist or be attached to the waistband of a dress. The presence of a gentleman’s name on a lady’s dance card, however, did not necessarily give him entry into a lady’s circle of acquaintances:

It is not necessary to recognize a ball-room acquaintance the next day unless you choose to do so. The introduction is for a dance and not for future acquaint
anceship. To act on it afterwards depends entirely on the will of the lady; and she is not ill-bred if she ignores her partner’s existence the next day.
Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen (London, 1876)

Flowers, either artificial
or hothouse, made up part of the accessorized outfit for a ball. The evocatively named tussie-mussie was a small bouquet or nosegay, and elaborate holders were designed for thesejeweled, enamel, or silver—that could contain damp moss to help preserve the flowers. These small posy-holders could be sewn into a dress at the bodice or waist or incorporated into a coiffure. In addition to her dance card and flowers, a ball-going lady needed to keep track of her fan as well.

In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman; the wo
man to make the home agreeable to the man; he is to purvey, and she is to smile. But in dancing, their duties are exactly changed; the agreeableness, the compliance are expected from him, while she furnishes the fan and the lavender water.
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818)

Fans did have a practical use in hot and crowded ballrooms, but they also took off into their own flights of fashion during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Fans also becam
e one of the seemingly endless means of separating the upper class elite from the merely wealthy stormers of those sacrosanct gates—and for defining that most complex of abstractions, ladylike behavior, on which class distinction depended so heavily.

Camilla had recourse to her fan to conceal a smile…
Fanny Burney, Camilla (1796)

There were w
edding fans, mourning fans, church fans, and souvenir fans; the queen had her own appointed fan maker. Collecting autographs on the inside surface of fan sticks was a popular past-time for a while. Folding fans had leaves of paper, parchment or "swan skin" (the very fine leather of lambs or kids) and opened to show painted scenes, often idyllic, with well-dressed shepherdesses folded into the pastoral beauties of a fantasized Golden Age.

Printed fans were an innovation appearing in the late eighteenth century, and they recorded the changing whims of fashion—popular songs were printed on them, with music as well as complete lyrics, directions for popular dance steps, rules of whist and other games. Fortune telling became a favorite subject for fans as well as the reproduction of maps. When the invention of the hot-air balloon was all the rage, many fans depicted the daring exploits of ballooners.

Puzzle or mystery fans showed different scenes or colors depending on how they were opened. The “lorgnette fan” had peepholes cunningly concealed in the decoration so that a lady could observe ballroom dynamics while apparently shading her eyes, or perhaps take a look at what was on the refreshment table without showing an unseemly preoccupation with food. One of the many ironies of feminine behavior in the nineteenth century was that although an upper class woman held ultimate responsibility for the quality of food served on her husband’s table, she was not supposed to show any marked interest in consuming food herself. Women writers were aware of this irony—as expressed below, with Ouida describing a prospective suitor as horrified when he discovered that the appetizing creature of his fancy was possessed, herself, of an appetite:

“Well," resumed Bertie, "I did nothing but watch her; she saw me, and I felt she was as flattered and as touched as she ought to be. She blushed most enchantingly; just enough, you know; she was conscious I followed her; I contrived to get close to her as she passed out; so close, that I could s
ee those exquisite eyes lighten and gleam, those exquisite lips part with a sigh, that beautiful face beam with the sunshine of a radiant smile. It was the dawn of love I had taught her! I pressed nearer and nearer, and I caught her soft whisper as she leaned to her mother: 'Mamma, I'm so hungry! I could eat a whole chicken!' The sigh, the smile, the blush, the light, were for her dinner—not for me! The spell was broken for ever. A girl whom I had looked at could think of wings and merry-thoughts and white sauce! I have never been near a proposal again."
Ouida, Under Two Flags: a Story of the Household and the Desert (1867)

As an aside: A “merry-thought” is a term for what we call the wish-bone of a chicken, and an old riddle went like this: Why are two young girls together are said to be like the side-bones of a chicken? Because they always have a merry-thought between them.

No matter
how expensive or fashionable a fan was, however, its possessor would be judged on her elegant handling of it—elegance being an understanding of the code of behavior created by the fashionable wealthy class. Mockery would be made of a woman unsuccessful in this and other mysteries of elegance and the proper public expression of what was feminine. Young ladies were therefore instructed on how to handle their fans. Matthew Towle, a dancing master at Oxford, included a discussion of the proper way to hold a fan in his Young Gentleman's and Lady's Private Tutor (1770). The real “language of the fan” was most likely this method of creating a class distinction; however, a romanticized language of the fan existed in which the use of the fan allowed silent conversation to take place in a crowded ball room. For example:

The fan placed near the heart: “You have won my love.”
Half-open fan pressed to the lips: “You may kiss me.”
Twirling the fan in the left hand: “We are being watched.”
Carrying the open fan in the right hand: “You are too willing.”
Fan held over the left ear: “I wish to get rid of you.”

The more elaborate a code of “politeness,” the more opportunities it contains for ruthlessly marking degrees of social privilege. In Jane’s novels, much of the heroine’s quest is to find personal independence within the social limitations of behavior imposed on her. This accounts for the fact that while the content of Jane’s novels may involve small daily realities and seemingly minute social behaviors, they can read like swashbucklers where the adventure is one of identity. Though the behaviors involved are of an upper class and from a specific period, the quest for identity in the maze of social custom is, for women, perennial, familiar, intimately inspiring.

Love and personal integrity are not small matters to Jane; in Sense and Sensibility, M
arianne’s pursuit of love beyond the bounds of etiquette puts her in actual danger of her life. On the other hand, Jane has little respect for the empty lives of women who merely inhabit the acceptable forms of womanly behavior, such as the indolent Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park who “spent her days in sitting, nicely dressed, on a sofa, doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children.…” Nonetheless, Jane warns of the peril of simply seizing independence as Lydia does in her elopement with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. Even though there is something perhaps enviable in Lydia’s imperturbability, social exile is her ultimate lot. Jane’s heroines are able to balance a true interior selfhood with the forms of behavior required by the world around them —a balance that women still seek to make meaningful today.

Pix from top:
An 1870 engraving of a Jane Austen portrait
An English village
Illustration of a ball at Almack's Assembly Rooms, King Street, London
C. E. Brock illustration for the 1895 edition of
Pride and Prejudice
Hogarth, The Ball
An 1884 U.S. Dance Card
A 19th Century Tussie Mussie (from Piedmont Fossil at Flickr)
An 18th Century Folding Fan
Photograph of Ouida
Sophie Gengembre Anderson:
Ready for the Ball
Title page to the 1813 edition of Pride & Prejudice


  1. That is a mammoth post and full of interesting facts of social history. A post to savour, in fact.

  2. I must try Jane again.I read her at School & found her hard work.Not her style as much as my distaste for her Social Circle (the English Upper Classes yuk!)However.as i grow older I have to admire her honesty.she could only write about what she knew.I now respect her clarity.SORRY JANE !I was wrong i guess!

  3. Hi Dave & Tony: Great to see some of our UK friends at the Austen post!

    Dave: Yes, some of this series are a big bite to swallow, but they're all savory as you say. Glad you found this interesting.

    Tony: It's interesting how tastes/biases etc. change with age. There are writers & works that really captured my imagination when I was younger that really don't say as much to me anymore-- & vice-versa.

  4. Somehow, I don't think I would have fit into Jane Austen's circle. The whole affair sounds absolutely exhausting.

  5. Hi Sandra:

    I'm with you. I've only been to one formal dinner party in my life & it just about did me in!

  6. I love this post filled with tidbits of information, illustrations and ephermera from another place and time. I've never read Jane Austen, but since I've begun reading again I will add her to my list. I thouroughly enjoyed my visit to your blog. I'm so happy to have found Rene' and taken her recommendation to visit your space in the blogosphere. I will definitely be back soon.

  7. Hi dragonfly dreamer & thanks for stopping by; & thanks from Eberle, too, who's in charge of this particular series. There will be a new post in this series within the next few days.


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