Society during the Regency era expected strict propriety from its young people. Sometimes the rules were strict and unreasonable, but somehow the youth of Jane Austen’s time managed to come together.
Young men of the time were often older than the women they courted. Men were expected to establish themselves before seeking a wife. They were expected to have sound financial prospects, especially if they were not the eldest son and expected to inherit the family property. Men often sought wives straight from the schoolroom, meaning ages 16 and 17 because childbirth was difficult for a woman of the era. It was thought that a younger wife could withstand those difficulties more easily than a “woman on the shelf” (women of 25+ years of age). An heir and a spare was expected of the marriage. In addition, the woman was expected to secure her financial future with her marriage.
At age 16 a girl of the gentry made her Come Out, which was a formal introduction of the girl to Society. It was the “signal” that she was prepared to become a bride. New dresses and jewelry and riding habits and… were required for the young lady’s debut. She would be “on display” at all times, and people would be evaluating her elegance and manners. The Season in London involved balls, soirees, the theatre, assemblies, trips to the museum, etc. Finally, the young lady could participate in conversation with adults and her suitors.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine De Bourgh is flabbergasted by the news that all five Bennet sisters are Out at the same time “The younger ones out before the elder are married!” Of course, Elizabeth Bennet defends her mother’s lax sense of propriety by saying, “I think it would be very hard upon younger sisters, that they shouldn’t have their share of society and amusement because the elder may not have the means or inclination to marry early.” When Charlotte Lucas finally marries at age 27, her sisters her happy because “hopes of coming out a year or two sooner than they might otherwise have done” arise.
A proper young lady was to have a chaperone in tow at all times. Often, a chaperone traveled with the husband and his new bride on their “honeymoon.” Eligible gentlemen were only to give their attentions to the young ladies who had made their Society debut. A young woman who was Out could engage in conversation with eligible gentlemen, could attend formal dances and social outings, and could walk out with a gentleman, if she was properly chaperoned. Girls, who were not Out, could not engage in conversation until a parent or other familial adult asked her a question. She could only walk out with a male relative (again with a chaperone). Many girls wore what is known as a “close bonnet.” This was a hat with a deep brim, which hid most of the girl’s countenance from view.
Tom Bertram in Austen’s Mansfield Park relates a story of a young lady who did not practice decorum. The girl approached Tom at a party, claiming him an acquaintance and “talked and laughed till [he] did not know which way to look.” In sharp contrast is the novel’s heroine, Fanny Price. At Fanny’s Come Out, the guests note that Fanny is “attractive…modest…Sir Thomas’s niece…and soon to be admired by Mr. Crawford. It was enough to give her general favour.”