Jane Austen’s novels often depict many precise aspects of courtship among the growing middle class and elites of the 18th and early 19th centuries. One such was the ‘coming out’ of a female from a quote, unquote ‘good family’, a step into young adulthood.
The ‘Coming Out’
During Jane Austen’s time, a young woman might ‘come out’ between the ages of 15 and 18, with 16 perhaps the norm. But it wasn’t done on the basis of age alone. Coming out was a social formality that signaled that a daughter’s parents decided she was ready to be courted and was marriageable. She could start to attend social events like assemblies and balls.
These were costly events, with some requiring tickets or subscriptions. All such events required fashionable clothing. Proper introductions, too, were needed. The whole process could be rather time-consuming. Transportation had to be arranged. For those who lived in the country, an assembly only eight miles away required complicated advanced planning for carriages and accommodation.
Hence, parents were often quite calculating about how many daughters were ‘out’ at once. The ideal would have been for each daughter to come out and be married off in age order. The family could focus on settling each daughter, or set of daughters close in age, before turning to the next one or next group.
Breaking the Norm in Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice, portrays the Bennets following no such pattern, perhaps because Mrs. Bennet enjoyed the parade of her five daughters as a social spectacle or because she was desperate to marry any of them off, regardless of the order.
This is made evident by Austen in the conversation the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh has with heroine Elizabeth Bennet on the subject: Lady Catherine asks, “Are any of your younger sisters out, Miss Bennet?” Elizabeth answers, “Yes, ma’am, all.” Lady Catherine replies, “All! What, all five out at once? Very odd! And you only the second. The younger ones out before the elder ones are married! Your younger sisters must be very young?” Elizabeth acknowledges that, and its oddness: “Yes, my youngest is not sixteen. Perhaps she is full young to be much in company.”
Pleasures and Relationships More Important
But, Elizabeth goes on to defend her family’s choices. She tells Lady Catherine: “I think it would be very hard upon younger sisters, that they should not have their share of society and amusement, because the elder may not have the means or inclination to marry early. The last-born has as good a right to the pleasures of youth as the first. And to be kept back on such a motive! I think it would not be very likely to promote sisterly affection or delicacy of mind.”
This shows us that Elizabeth has a mind of her own. She isn’t afraid to have and express an opinion contrary to that of powerful Lady Catherine. It also shows us that Elizabeth values women’s pleasures, and women’s relationships with other women, as much or perhaps more than the purported successful outcome of snagging a husband.
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In Austen’s world, thus, being out meant that a young woman was romantically approachable and was, to some degree, matured, polished, and accomplished.
There was a noticeable difference in her dress and conversation, or so says Mansfield Park’s Mary Crawford to Edmund Bertram. Mary sees the difference this way: “A girl not out has always the same sort of dress: a close bonnet, for instance; looks very demure, and never says a word.”
Less Fuss with Men
There was less parade or fuss made about young men being out or not out. One reason for the difference is that bachelors of means were likely to have already spent time away from their homes, either at school or university, or on a sort of do-it-yourself study abroad trip, called the Grand Tour.
On such tours, young men traveled in pairs or small groups, to see cultural sights and sow their wild oats.
A young woman’s taking a Grand Tour was not unheard of for the very wealthy, but even then, it wasn’t nearly so common. And it wouldn’t have been taken with only another young single woman as her companion.
Carefully Orchestrated Opportunities
Women, regardless of class, were supposed to have older or married chaperones. Their pleasures were usually closer to home and carefully orchestrated. Once a young woman was out, she and her family sought opportunities to meet other young people. It was expected that a young woman would eventually leave her parents’ home for her husband’s.
In between those two homes, she might stay with family or friends, during the season in London or in a spa town, such as Bath. Bath was considered a marriage market, where young people could meet each other with ease.
Gatherings and Balls
And yet, the best place to meet other young people was in local gatherings in mixed company with conversation, music, and dancing, especially at evening gatherings or balls.
Dancing was the most popular form of recreation, but a ball might also include card playing, tea, and late-night supper. Dancing was viewed, too, as valuable exercise, especially for women, who had few outlets for it.
A Power of Refusal
Importantly, in both matrimony and country dancing, “Man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal.”
This flippant line is spoken by Henry Tilney, the hero of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, who says it while dancing. His comment is a perfectly serious summation of the world within and beyond Austen’s novels.
Henry’s wit provides a great place to begin to make sense of Elizabeth Bennet. Men’s “advantage of choice” and women’s “power of refusal” crystallize the central aspects of courtship among the growing middle class and elites of the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Common Questions about ‘Coming Out’ in Jane Austen’s Novels
Coming out was a social formality that signaled a daughter’s parents decided she was ready to be courted and was marriageable.
In Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice, it shows us that Elizabeth has a mind of her own. She isn’t afraid to have and express an opinion contrary to that of powerful Lady Catherine.
During Jane Austen‘s time, bachelors of means would spend time away from their homes on a sort of do-it-yourself study abroad trip, which was called the Grand Tour. On such tours, young men traveled in pairs or small groups to see cultural sights.