“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.”
Every true student of Austen’s writing knows this quote from Pride and Prejudice, and most of us can probably quote it. This is one of the many heated insults Elizabeth throws at Darcy during his ill-fated first proposal, and it’s the statement that seems to sting Darcy the most, as he reveals months later:
“Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: “had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.” Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me; — though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice.”
Why did Elizabeth hurl this accusation at Darcy, and why was it so painful to him? To the modern mind, being called less than a gentleman is, at best, a mild insult. But in Darcy’s day the word gentleman carried all kinds of connotations we don’t think of today. It encompassed a man’s status as a landowner, the rights and privileges he was born to, and his reputation in society. Elizabeth was not just delivering a mild put-down; she was attacking the very core of Darcy’s identity. This was very personal!
Part of the mystique of being a gentleman was that a gentleman wouldn’t have to be told how he ought to behave in social situations. A true gentleman would know the “code” simply because he was born to know it. Therefore the gentleman’s code of behavior was not written down. Nevertheless I have attempted to list below some of the more common rules of being a gentleman in regency times. How many of these traits does Darcy exhibit or violate in Pride and Prejudice?
- A gentleman was highly educated and knowledgeable on a wide variety of subject: the arts, history, etc. He could carry a conversation with ease.
- A gentleman did not earn a living with his hands, nor even work with his hands regularly. Manual labor was beneath his dignity. His income had to come from his property and investments.
- A gentleman avoided making those around him feel uncomfortable. He was the embodiment of tact and discretion.
- A gentleman always paid his debts, preferably without having to be reminded of them.
- A gentleman avoided speaking of money matters in public. Laying a few wagers in a friendly game was one thing; but giving details of his holdings or property was gauche.
- A gentleman avoided scandal. A gentleman’s name would ideally only appear in the paper when he was born, when he married and when he died.
- A gentleman never introduced himself to a lady, but waited to be introduced to her by someone else first. That way it was the lady’s choice whether to make his acquaintance or not.
- Once a gentleman and lady were introduced, he waited for her to acknowledge him before approaching her in public. Again, this was a chivalrous act, designed to put the lady in control of social situations.
- A gentleman did not insult a lady, nor would he ever allow a lady to be insulted in his presence.
- A gentleman did not debauch another gentleman’s daughter (but he might feel free to dabble with a willing lower class woman).
- A gentleman avoided putting a lady in a compromising position. Her honor was a delicate thing, and therefore it was his responsibility to protect it as much as possible.
- A gentleman never tolerated a personal insult from another gentleman. An insult to his honor would be called out and perhaps even settled in a duel.
- The flip side of this was that a gentleman could not turn down a challenge from another gentleman. To do so would be an insult against his honor!
- A gentleman defended his honor at all costs.
Obviously not all gentlemen followed these rules all the time! Regency literature would be a lot more boring if they did. 🙂
As you can see many of the rules of being a gentleman had to do with protecting the dignity of women, and that’s because many of these rules were handed down straight from the days of chivalry.The regency gentleman was in many ways a more modern version of a medieval knight, sworn to be honorable at all costs and to protect the weak whenever possible.
No doubt we can all think of a few Austen characters who were truly not gentleman-like in their behavior: George Wickham, John Willoughby, Henry Crawford and John Thorpe come to mind right away. But out of all of Jane Austen’s leading men, who do you think most epitomizes a true gentleman? I’d love to hear your answers! Tell me who you would pick and why, and I’ll give you my answer in an upcoming post.