This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on August 23, 2021. Enjoy!
Social connection. It’s the pulse of civilization, the foundation of community, and a deeply held human need. You might have guessed that I’m not necessarily talking about networking with influential people here. I’m talking about friendship, camaraderie, recognition, love, and belonging. Jane Austen was particularly adept at infusing the relationships in her novels with an undercurrent vibrant with the nuances of social connection. Even the letters, though not face-to-face interaction, are deeply personal, written by the hand of the communicator. The texts, tweets and Facebook posts that are primary forms of interaction today are far removed from their ancient predecessor, the social call.
My thoughts have turned frequently over the past year and a half of social distancing to the once-common tradition of calling on one’s neighbors, friends, and acquaintances in their homes. Social calls were the glue that held Georgian, Regency, and Victorian societies together–at least for the gentry and upper classes. It’s how they tapped into the grapevine, networked, ministered to the poor and sick, navigated new, and nurtured existing relationships.
Consider that In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet was highly attuned to social opportunities that might benefit her daughter’s marriage prospects, and so too, was Mr. Bennet. In that society, an introduction was required for ladies to form an acquaintance, but gentlemen could call on other gentlemen without the benefit of an introduction. In this scene, Mrs. Bennet is lamenting that Mrs. Long has been able to visit Netherfield, but she has not.
Mr. Bennet was among the earliest of those who waited on Mr. Bingley. He had always intended to visit him, though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go; and till the evening after the visit was paid she had no knowledge of it.
… (fill in here with Mr. Bennet teasing his wife and daughters.)
“While Mary is adjusting her ideas,” he continued, “let us return to Mr. Bingley.”
“I am sick of Mr. Bingley,” cried his wife.
“I am sorry to hear that; but why did not you tell me so before? If I had known as much this morning I certainly would not have called on him. It is very unlucky; but as I have actually paid the visit, we cannot escape the acquaintance now.”
In Northanger Abbey, we experience with Catherine the pattern of making a social call: Presenting a card at the door to a servant and waiting to learn whether you will be admitted. After being tricked into a social blunder the previous day, she fears she has offended Miss Tilney. Anxious to make it right, she is eager to call.
“Mrs. Allen,” said Catherine the next morning, “will there be any harm in my calling on Miss Tilney today? I shall not be easy till I have explained everything.”
“Go, by all means, my dear; only put on a white gown; Miss Tilney always wears white.”
Catherine cheerfully complied, and being properly equipped, was more impatient than ever to be at the pump–room, that she might inform herself of General Tilneys lodgings, for though she believed they were in Milsom Street, she was not certain of the house, and Mrs. Allen’s wavering convictions only made it more doubtful. To Milsom Street she was directed, and having made herself perfect in the number, hastened away with eager steps and a beating heart to pay her visit, explain her conduct, and be forgiven; tripping lightly through the church–yard, and resolutely turning away her eyes, that she might not be obliged to see her beloved Isabella and her dear family, who, she had reason to believe, were in a shop hard by. She reached the house without any impediment, looked at the number, knocked at the door, 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 that Miss Tilney was walked out. Catherine, with a blush of mortification, left the house. She felt almost persuaded that Miss Tilney was at home, and too much offended to admit her; and as she retired down the street, could not withhold one glance at the drawing–room windows, in expectation of seeing her there, but no one appeared at them. At the bottom of the street, however, she looked back again, and then, not at a window, but issuing from the door, she saw Miss Tilney herself. She was followed by a gentleman, whom Catherine believed to be her father, and they turned up towards Edgar’s Buildings. Catherine, in deep mortification, proceeded on her way. She could almost be angry herself at such angry incivility; but she checked the resentful sensation; she remembered her own ignorance. She knew not how such an offence as hers might be classed by the laws of worldly politeness, to what a degree of unforgivingness it might with propriety lead, nor to what rigours of rudeness in return it might justly make her amenable.
This passage makes it evident that much was riding on the crucial question of admittance by the person being visited. If you’d like to learn more about all the nuances of social signals in the formal call, this article on calling card etiquette is excellent.
If you think through Austen’s novels, you’ll certainly come up with many references to calls made, since they are full of them. Darcy and Fitzwilliam calling at Hunsford, Lady Catherine doing the same, but for different reasons. Anne Elliot calling at Uppercross, and on her friend, Mrs. Smith in Bath. Emma calling on Harriet, Miss Weston, Miss Bates, and Jane Fairfax, etc. Emma coaching Harriet on the etiquette of paying a call to the Martins. Some of these visits feature what Austen called “cold civility,” while others show warmth and affection. In any case, I think a social call beats a tweet any day, although nowadays if you plan to pay a call, be sure to place a call to make sure it’s a good time. None of my friends have a butler to perform that service.
I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Have you paid a social call in the past five years or so? Have you ever left a personalized “calling card” that isn’t a business card? Do you appreciate people stopping by to visit? What do you consider proper etiquette for a social call in 2021?