Regency Era manners were based on the conduct of the upper crust of Renaissance Italy, as well as 17th Century France. The fashions and the codes of conduct were influenced by both, but the Regency Period carved out a specific style all its own. Social classes were more obvious during the Regency. It was important to know one’s place and to act accordingly. Social rank determined many everyday interactions.
Men of the period were taught how to be a “gentleman” from a very young age. Their tutors and formal schooling enforced such codes. A gentleman was expected to speak and act with confidence; to use correct English and to avoid vulgarity in speech; to be exceptionally dressed; to walk with confidence and proper posture; to dance well; to have a well-rounded education that included science, math, the arts, literature, etc.; to demonstrate proper manners; and to show of a lesser class consideration.
Women were expected to be meek, obedient, docile, fragile, and dependent on the men in their lives. A woman’s appearance was her crowning glory; therefore, women were expected to take care with their dress and hair. Women were taught to value beauty over education. Learning and intelligence was frowned upon.
Men of the period turned to courtesy books and guides on rules for behavior. Sir Thomas Holby translated an Italian courtesy book entitled Il Cortegiano from the early 1500s. It was very popular during the Regency. Women consulted conduct manuals such as Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women and Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughter.
Some of the stricter guidelines for behavior included proper ways to address others. For example, only close friends and family would use a person’s given name. It was permissible for a person of higher rank to use the given name of a lower class acquaintance, but not the reverse. The eldest daughter in a family was “Miss” + last name (as in Miss Bennet for Jane Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice”). Her sisters would be “Miss” + given name (as in Miss Elizabeth).
Only those of a higher rank could approach someone he did not know. People of a lower or equal rank had to wait for an introduction by a friend or a master of ceremonies. After an introduction, a person was considered an “acquaintance.” Shunning an acquaintance was considered rude and was a “direct cut.” If an acquaintance was in the same room in the company of an unknown person, one would simple acknowledge the acquaintance with a nod or an unobstructive wave or a bow. A handshake was only exchanged among close friends.
People entered a room by social rank. Members of the aristocracy entered by rank: Duke/Duchess; Marquess/Marchioness; Earl/Countess; Viscount/Viscountess; Baron/Baroness. The aristocracy were followed by the landed gentry. Family members entered according to their age and marital status. (Do you recall Lydia Bennet Wickham claiming precedence over her elder sister Jane. Although Lydia was the youngest Bennet sister, her marriage would place her above her sisters.)