By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
The social rules among middle-class and elite families were as intricate in Jane Austen’s novels as they were in real life in that age. To ‘call on’ someone in the 18th and early 19th century, meant to make a brief visit. Calls then, too, had etiquette as intricate as dance steps.
Social Visits in Jane Austen’s Novels
In Jane Austen’s world, married women were often the ones in charge of initiating and keeping up visits. Visits begat other visits, because they needed to be returned. Visits were made in rounds. They were made for courtship purposes, but they also happened at milestone events, such as welcoming new neighbors or congratulating the newly married.
A household’s servants were often the ones managing these interactions. The servants were instructed to tell visitors whether the family was ‘at home’. But this is the odd part: If a family were declared ‘not at home’, that didn’t necessarily mean that they were physically away from the house. ‘Not at home’ meant they were not receiving visitors, or maybe just a particular visitor, at that moment.
When a visitor was told the family was ‘not at home’, this was also called ‘being denied’.
Denying a Visit
Although being denied wasn’t necessarily happy news for the person who received the denial, it wasn’t considered rude. Only families that imagined themselves very closely connected might be surprised at receiving a denial when someone was actually home. Then they might suspect that they’d offended their acquaintance in some way.
This is what happens to Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland when she goes to visit Eleanor Tilney. The servant tells Catherine that Eleanor is not at home. But as Catherine walks away, she sees Eleanor leaving the house. Catherine is anxious about whether she’s offended her friend.
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But, let’s say a male suitor called on the family of a woman he wanted to court, and he was then admitted for a visit. In that case, he’d be joined not only by the young woman herself but by some chaperone.
This was usually either a married woman or an older unmarried or widowed one. It was the chaperone’s job to make sure that the suitor was never alone with the young woman.
This is one reason why, in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor is shocked that her sister Marianne Dashwood goes unaccompanied with Willoughby in his curricle—a kind of open-air carriage—to tour the estate at Allenham.
The visit is improper for several reasons, as Elinor points out. But the very first reason is that Marianne has traveled alone with him. Such an excursion would have been appropriate with a chaperone, or in a group with a combination of single and married people.
The Social Rules in Jane Austen’s Novels
Austen’s novels continually investigate moments in which the rules of romance, courtship, and social behavior are tested or broken. This is the crux of a novel of manners.
Sometimes the consequences for rule-breaking are shown to be minimal, such as when Marianne goes off alone with Willoughby in that curricle in Sense and Sensibility. The only negative consequence at that moment is gossip. It doesn’t ruin Marianne’s reputation.
However, that’s because the community assumes that Marianne and Willoughby are acting in this audacious way because they are secretly engaged to be married or are about to announce their engagement.
At other times in Austen’s fiction, flouting the rules does result in loss of reputation or romantic opportunity. In Northanger Abbey, the engaged Isabella Thorpe sees a chance for a better catch. She tries to exchange her fiancé for another man. She manages it poorly and loses both.
No Real Repercussions?
A cunning woman might get away with it. In Sense and Sensibility, Lucy Steele successfully navigates trading one fiancé for another and pays no long-term price for it. In Austen’s novels, most of the men and women who break social rules emerge, like Lucy Steele, relatively unscathed. They don’t die, or end up in prison, or without economic resources.
Instead, they may end up living lives at one remove from the polite characters, while being tightly bound to the bad, like Mansfield Park’s adulterous Maria Rushworth or Pride and Prejudice’s eloping Lydia Bennet. Maria is quietly exiled away from society, with her aunt Mrs. Norris. And Lydia’s elopement is patched over into a legitimate marriage to Mr. Wickham.
The rewards to those characters who follow the right rules, and make honorable choices in romance and courtship, are lives of intimacy among honorable people.
One might say that the point of romance and courtship in Austen’s novels is to empower readers to refuse and choose more wisely, whether it’s choosing their future books or their future partners.
What matters for Austen’s characters, always, are the large number of people with whom they ally themselves—not just their one romantic partner. That’s what leads Austen’s heroines and heroes to find their place in a more healthy and strong community—the wider circles that they inhabit and choose.
Courtship was important. But, as Austen’s narrator puts it at the end of Northanger Abbey, “We are all hastening together to perfect felicity.”
Common Questions about Jane Austen: Flouting the Social Rules
Visits were made for courtship purposes, but they also happened at milestone events, such as welcoming new neighbors or congratulating the newly married.
When Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland goes to visit Eleanor Tilney, the servant tells Catherine that Eleanor is not at home. But as Catherine walks away, she sees Eleanor leaving the house.
The point of romance and courtship in Jane Austen’s novels is to empower readers to refuse and choose more wisely, whether it’s choosing their future books or their future partners.