Manners back in Regency times were very interesting and different from the manners we see today, especially in certain countries.
The other day I read where an author/reader commented on Fitzwilliam Darcy’s insult of Elizabeth at the Meryton Assembly. There was one aspect in regard to that comment he made that makes one wonder just why he was so insulting.
“Which do you mean?” and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”
When one thinks about it, his words were more than insulting. He actually caught her eye before voicing his very contemptuous comments about a young lady he had never even met. He assumed she was left with no dance partner without noting the lack of men at the assembly, and his comment concerning her looks was not true. Why was he so rude? Was he just irritated at Bingley pushing him to dance or was the whole evening just irritating in general? Or was he sending a message to any of the young ladies at this assembly? “I am Fitzwilliam Darcy, the owner of a huge estate in Derbyshire, and I’m not looking for a wife, most especially NOT in this Podunk town.” Jane Austen never really goes into the reason or reasons why Darcy is so discourteous. But is it any wonder that Elizabeth was more than insulted at his rudeness and disdainful manner. It’s a miracle she ever forgave him for it. (Yes, Podunk is American, not British.) 🙂
In looking at the manners of the Regency period, we might consider them a little restrictive. But in hindsight, they could also be a protection for the young women of that day. Dancing with just anyone that asked could open the door for someone that was undesirable and could pose a danger to a young innocent’s virtue. Although it was considered practically a norm that young men would indulge in immoral behavior, young debutantes were expected to be virgins and of the purest sort. Talk about hypocrisy. In or out of marriage, for some of the husbands, a wife was just an inconvenience except for gaining an heir.
A formal introduction would protect a woman’s reputation and control who would be interacting with her. And her reputation was important. If for some reason it was ruined, it could spoil her chances at a good marriage or even leave her a spinster for the rest of her life.
But what about manners in general? Having a set way of meeting people, gathering for a party, or how one handled friendships could be rather comforting because one knew exactly how to act and what to expect of others. Darcy’s reaction to Bingley’s encouragement was not the norm and not nice as he publicly refused an introduction and insultingly said why he would not dance with Elizabeth. And he said it loud enough that Elizabeth, and probably others, heard everything he said. I doubt he whispered it to Bingley. If he had, Elizabeth would not have been aware of how ungentlemanly he had acted.
Bingley, on the other hand, must have expected Elizabeth to be friendly to Darcy and would accept his invitation to dance. After all, Jane had been the most perfect angel, and he probably felt that Elizabeth would be just as agreeable. Bingley was mistaken. I doubt that Elizabeth would have consented to dance with Darcy as she was aware he had ignored everyone and had danced only with Miss Bingley and her sister. Perhaps, she wasn’t all that surprised at his reaction to Bingley’s entreaty.
Although being of a higher social class, Darcy did display the characteristics of a snob instead of setting a good example. Yes, he was born a gentleman, part of the landed gentry class, and also was the nephew of an earl and countess. However, that did not give him license to display bad manners which he most thoroughly did at the Meryton Assembly. Can we fault the townspeople of Meryton because they thought he was rude and accepted Wickham’s assertions as to Darcy’s cruelty in denying him the living at Kympton? I think not.
Perhaps it all could have been avoided if Darcy had only displayed a measure of good manners while visiting his friend at Netherfield. What do you think? Please let me know in your comments below. 🙂