The Etiquette of “Visiting” and How Jane Austen Used It as a Plot Device
In the 1800s, morning calls or visiting upon a household developed a certain protocol, and those who broke protocol were often shunned. First a calling card was presented to the household’s servant. It was common for those who came to London for the Season to drive about with a footman in tow to present one’s cards to acquaintances. Do you recall Mrs. Jennings doing so in Sense and Sensibility? “The morning was chiefly spent in leaving cards at the houses of Mrs. Jennings’s acquaintance to inform them of her being in town.”
One would leave three cards with the servant: one from the lady for the house’s mistress; one from the caller’s husband for the house’s mistress and another for the house’s master. Displaying cards of those who had called was commonplace. It gave one social status to display cards from those of the nobility. In Persuasion, the Elliots took care to display “…the cards of the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and the Hon. Miss Carteret, to be arranged where they might be most visible.”
If one came without a card, he may receive a snub. From her drawing room on the second floor, the house’s mistress could see who called upon her home, and she could make a decision whether to receive the caller or not. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland calls on Miss Tilney and is sent packing. “She reached the house without any impediment, looked at the number and inquired for Miss Tilney. The man believed Miss Tilney to be at home, but was not quite certain. Would she be pleased to send up her name? She gave her card. In a few minutes, the servant returned, and with a look which did not quite confirm his words, said he had been mistaken, for she was walked out.”
Gentlemen did make calls, but they did not receive them from ladies. It would be a major breech in etiquette. Conversation remained light during the call, and one did not stay more than a quarter hour. One called between three and four in the afternoon if the house’s mistress was a casual acquaintance: Between four and five for a better acquaintance, and between five and six for a good friend. NO ONE called before one in the afternoon.
Visiting with one’s neighbors and acquaintances was a popular activity for those in the country and in Town. It was a common means to social mobility to be accepted by those above one’s social status. Visiting is a wonderful plot device in all of Jane Austen’s novels. Remember that Austen wrote of what she experienced. So, when in Pride and Prejudice is “visiting” an important plot ploy? Notice how key points in the story pivot around the event of a “visit” or an “invitation.”
How about Mrs. Bennet’s disappointment at not having Mr. Bingley’s acquaintance? “We are not in a way to know what Mr. Bingley likes,’ said her mother resentfully. ‘Since we are not to visit.’”
Mr. Bennet pleases his wife when he says, “It is very unlucky; but as I have actually paid the visit, we cannot escape the acquaintance now.”
Miss Bingley asks Jane Bennet for an evening at Netherfield by sending this message: “My Dear Friend: If you are not so compassionate as to dine today with Louisa and me, we shall be in danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives; for a whole day’s tete-a-tete between two women can never end without quarrel. Come as soon as you can on receipt of this. My brother and the gentlemen are to dine with the officers.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam feels “at home” at Hunsford and calls often. “Colonel Fitzwilliam had called at the Parsonage more than once during the time, but Mr. Darcy they had only seen at church. The invitation was accepted, of course, and at a proper hour, they joined the party in Lady Catherine’s drawing room.”
Mrs. Gardiner writes of Mr. Darcy’s unexpected call at Gracechurch Street. “On the very day of my coming home from Longbourn, you uncle had a most unexpected visitor. Mr. Darcy called, and was shut up with him several hours.”
Mr. Collins glories in his invitation from Lady Catherine De Bourgh. “Mr. Collins’s triumph, in consequence of this invitation, was complete. The power of displaying the grandeur of his patroness to his wondering visitors, and of letting them see her civility toward himself and his wife was exactly what he had wished for; and that an opportunity of doing it should be given so soon, was such an instance of Lady Catherine’s condescension, as he knew not how to admire enough.”
The Bennet sisters learn of the militia’s coming to Meryton. “Their visits to Mrs Phillips were now productive of the most interesting intelligence. Every day added something to their knowledge of the officers’ names and connections.”
Darcy brings Georgiana to Lambton to visit with Elizabeth Bennet. “Elizabeth had settled it that Mr Darcy would bring his sister to visit her the very day after her reaching Pemberley, and was, consequently, resolved not to be out of sight of the inn the whole of that morning. But her conclusion was false; for on the very morning after their arrival at Lambton their visitors came.”
Elizabeth Bennet deflects Miss Binley’s barbs while returning Georgiana’s call. “In this room they were received by Miss Darcy, who was sitting there with Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley, and the lady with whom she lived in London.”
Elizabeth arrives at Netherfield to attend the ailing Jane Bennet. “Elizabeth was glad to be taken to her immediately, and Jane, who had only been withheld by the fear of giving alarm or inconvenience from expressing in her note how much she longed for such a visit, was delighted at her entrance.”
Mr. Collins invites himself to Longbourn. “If you should have no objection to receive me into your house, I propose myself the satisfaction of waiting on you and your family, Monday, November 18th, by four o’clock, and shall probably trespass on your hospitality till the Saturday sennight following, which I can do without any inconvenience…”
Jane explains to Elizabeth how Caroline Bingley has snubbed her. “Caroline did not return my visit till yesterday; and not a note, not a line, did I receive in the meantime.”
The Bennets and the Lucases hold a post mortem of the Meryton Assembly. “That the Miss Lucases and the Miss Bennets should meet to talk over a ball was absolutely necessary, and the morning after the assembly brought the former to Longbourn to hear and to communicate.”
The Gardiners spend Christmastide at Longbourn. “On the following Monday, Mrs. Bennet had the pleasure of receiving her brother and his wife, who came, as usual, to spend the Christmas at Longbourn.”
Lady Catherine encourages Elizabeth to extend her stay at Hunsford. “Why, at that rate, you will have been here only six weeks. I expected you to stay two months. I told Mrs. Collins so before you came.”
Lady Catherine barges in on the Longbourn household. “They both set off, and the conjectures of the remaining three continued, though with little satisfaction till the door was thrown open and their visitor entered. It was Lady Catherine De Bourgh.”
Mr. Bennet reluctantly agrees to accept the unrepentant Lydia into his home, but his wife relishes in having a married daughter. “But Jane and Elizabeth, who agreed in wishing, for the sake of their sister’s feelings and consequence, that she should be noticed on her marriage by her parents, urged him so earnestly, yet so rationally and so mildly, to receive her and her husband at Longbourn as soon as they were married, that he was prevailed on to think as they thought and act as they wished. And their mother had the satisfaction of knowing that she should be able to show her married daughter in the neighborhood, before she was banished to the North.”
Bingley returns to Longbourn. “Mr Bingley arrived. Mrs Bennet, through the assistance of servants, contrived to have the earliest tidings of it, that the period of anxiety and fretfulness on her side might be as long as it could. She counted the days that must intervene before their invitation could be sent–hopeless of seeing him before. But on the third morning after his arrival in Hertfordshire she saw him, from her dressing-room window, enter the paddock and ride toward the house.”
Are there other scenes in Pride and Prejudice or any of Austen’s novels that are pivotal moments and are associated with “visits”? I can think of several dozen without much effort. How about you?
Are not we lucky that Miss Austen did not have a computer / word processor. Her stories are magic her people real. They visit they talk no text messages now if you’ll excuse me I have to get back to Mansfield Park which I am visiting this week, and I do need to cheer poor Fanny,
Between four and five for a better acquaintance,
Mr. Collins invites himself to Longbourn. “…I propose myself the satisfaction of waiting on you and your family, Monday, November 18th, by four o’clock…
Heh-heh! Now I understand the significance of his arriving at 4pm.
I would be miserable if I were in the Regency, June. My energies (body clock) go slack from 2-4 each day. When I get a bit older (older than 67, that is), I suspect I shall indulge in an afternoon nap between those hours.
This was fascinating. Thank you!
I am pleased you found it useful, Bar.
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