The Polite Way to Pay Social Calls, According to Jane Austen, a Guest Post from Eliza Shearer

Paying and receiving social calls was one of the keystones of social etiquette during the Regency, and as such is a constant in Jane Austen’s novels. 

The socially acceptable time for ‘morning calls’ was between breakfast and dinner, so they spanned a good few hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or thereabouts, and an hour or so later in the case of fashionable urban households. 

Certain rules were to be observed at all times, as Jane Austen shows in her work. Here are some of the things she had to say about the behaviour of visitors. 

Visitors Should Always Have Calling Cards to Hand

Calling cards were beautifully printed pieces of paper with a lady or gentleman’s name and title, to which one could add by hand their address or an “at home” note. On arriving in Town, the carrier would leave calling cards in the homes of friends, relations and acquaintances, with an expectation that the call would be returned.

Calling cards were often placed on a silver salver or tray in the entrance hall, like Sir Elliot in Persuasion likes to do to show off his friendship with members of the nobility. 

The Art of Polite Conversation Was a Must

Visitors were expected to ask about the other person’s health, or that of their family. After satisfactorily settling those points, it was proper to follow-up with polite questions on the other person’s comings and goings, or their on the area and the entertainment (or lack thereof) on offer. Beyond that, finding common ground (and avoiding controversial topics) was ideal, but small talk sufficed – the weather was a subject that never failed to get conversation going.   

Calls Had to Be Returned Promptly

Social calls had to be returned promptly, or risk causing offence. In Pride and Prejudice. Jane Bennet, freshly arrived in London, pays a call to Caroline Bingley, but her supposed friend does not return it for two whole weeks. By the end of the encounter, Jane knows they are no longer on intimate terms, as she writes to her sister Elizabeth:

Caroline did not return my visit till yesterday; and not a note, not a line, did I receive in the meantime. When she did come, it was very evident that she had no pleasure in it; she made a slight, formal apology, for not calling before, said not a word of wishing to see me again, and was in every respect so altered a creature, that when she went away aI was perfectly resolved to continue the acquaintance no longer. 

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 26

A social break-up of this kind wasn’t pleasant, and it was pretty final: in any future encounter, the parties were allowed (even expected) to behave as if they didn’t know each other. 

Certain Social Calls were Unavoidable

As well as visits of pleasure to friends and family, there are visits of duty, which one must not avoid. Classic examples are visits to the bereaved, newly-weds, or charity visits. Visits to those in reduced circumstances also fell in this category. 

In Emma, Mrs and Miss Bates are a prime example of this. Emma abhors visiting them, although she knows she must. Even Mr Weston tells his son Frank Churchill when Jane Fairfax arrives to stay with the Bates that he should call on them early, as particular attention is due to them (little does he know…). 

Visitors Should Occupy Themselves 

After servants brought in refreshments, and once the conversation was flowing, visitors may also look at doing other things. Ladies were welcome to do needlework by helping themselves to the communal work basket in the room, containing perhaps baby clothes or clothes for the poor (no undergarments or stockings needing darning, please!).  

Gentlemen may pick up a newspaper, like Mr Darcy does in his first encounter with Elizabeth when he finds her alone in the Parsonage (probably more to hide his awkwardness more than anything else). However, doing it systematically, ignoring all conversation (like Mr Palmer in Sense and Sensibility), may come across as ever so slightly rude. 

Visitors Should Not Stay too Briefly

Visits had to be a quarter of an hour at least – anything less risked causing serious offence. In Emma, Emma doesn’t allow Harriet to pay but the briefest of calls to the Martin household, until then firm friends (and in the case of the son, suitor) of Harriet’s: 

The style of the visit, and the shortness of it, were then felt to be decisive. Fourteen minutes to be given to those with whom she had thankfully passed six weeks not six months ago!-Emma could not but picture it all, and feel how justly they might resent, how naturally Harriet must suffer.

Emma, Chapter 5

The shortness of the visit in effect tells the family (and her suitor in particular) that Harriet is no longer interested in continuing the acquaintance. 

Ladies Must Never – Ever! – Call Upon a Gentleman

Like in so many other things, women weren’t on an equal footing with men during the Regency. An unattached gentleman may call on a lady he is interested in courting to continue the acquaintance, for example after a night of dancing, if she was his main partner. However, such visits should always be undertaken with care, so as not to encourage gossip, or lead others to believe that the couple had entered a secret engagement. Ladies, however, were not allowed to do the same, or they may be thought wanton. 

Can you think of other does and don’ts for visitors during the Regency? Do you expect (or like) your visitors to behave in a certain way?


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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