A Modern Girl's Guide To Jane Austen Etiquette

Jane Austen. Many know the name and could likely quote the famous Pride and Prejudice novel, referencing the legendary Mr Darcy lake scene, whilst others are completely enraptured by not only her works but the rules of societal etiquette at this time. 

The UK is known to produce exceptional period dramas, some keeping faithfully to Jane’s novels, whilst others digress to adapt to the desires of modern audiences. Currently, ITV is showing an adaptation of Jane’s unfinished novel Sanditon, charting the highs and lows of society’s expectations of women, particularly in matters of the heart.

In an era when etiquette was the foundation of society, it would be welcome for some of the manners and courtesy to translate into the modern world. So here is your guide to Jane Austen etiquette in the 21st century.

During the Regency period, 19th century England, a young lady’s societal standing was based entirely upon her reputation and the natural poise she displayed. A mere slip when exiting a carriage could mar this impression irrevocably, tarnishing her reputation and dictating her future forever regarding marriage propositions!

There is no mistaking that times have changed and thankfully we no longer have to be concerned with minor incidents such as these being a societal disgrace, unless we’re a celebrity and it becomes front page news. Likewise, older customs of being chaperoned, only speaking to acquaintances after being introduced by an elder, not laughing aloud and not blowing your nose in company are no longer seen as reputation destroyers (aren’t we thankful for that as we near winter flu season!).

Too, with a diverse culture that welcomes LGBTQ+ and gender equality, the strict rules dictating a “strong gentleman looking after a delicate lady” are somewhat redundant. So just how can you adopt some of the etiquette of Regency England into modern society?

With a plethora of sources on Regency England and Jane Austen, two detailing the rules of etiquette at this time include Daniel Pool’s ‘What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew and Jennifer Kloester’sGeorgette Heyer’s Regency World’ from which I summarise those most pertinent:

  • Standing in the street to have a conversation was not the ‘done thing’ but to walk somewhere (‘taking a turn’ to use the old terminology), such as a park or round the block, whilst conversing could certainly make for a more pleasurable experience and getting in a few extra steps of exercise.

  • Ladylike deportment required an upright posture when sitting or standing and indeed today this is deemed to exude confidence, in both professional and personal situations. Remaining calm in unfamiliar or awkward circumstances likewise creates an air of being in control.

  • Emotions, actions and speech were composed at all times and a distinction of a well-bred individual. Maintaining composure in today’s society certainly helps to preserve a good reputation, from restraining outbursts of negative emotion to moderating raucous behaviour when enjoying a night out to not disturb others. 

  • On social occasions, ladies were not expected to wear shawls for warmth, no matter how cold they were. Ladies, forget that and put on a coat!

  • When dining, it was considered improper manners to sit with elbows on the table, to tuck a napkin into a collar rather than on the lap and to leave from the table without being excused. Unless you’re eating spaghetti bolognese when a sauce splatter over your favourite top would be unwelcome, I’d suggest these three are relatively simple to adopt. 

  • Though servants were generally ignored at mealtimes, I think in today’s age it is common courtesy to use manners when interacting with hospitality staff, as it costs nothing to make people feel respected and valued. 

  • Rude, suggestive or personal comments were uncouth. This is something I agree with in the modern day with a lack of discretion and thought to consequences of comments made. In an age when people experience verbal sexual harassment frequently, I do wish this was one area of conversation considered unspeakable.

  • Formal introductions were necessary before making someone’s acquaintance. This does have applicability to the modern day, particularly in terms of careers, however, greater approachability and confidence nowadays means it is much more likely that we can make our own introductions and impressions upon the person by taking the lead ourselves.

  • Gentlemen were expected to help ladies down out of their carriage and indeed today allowing a partner to open a door and offer their hand is certainly still considered gentlemanly (the old adage of “chivalry isn’t dead”). Nevertheless, modern perceptions are concerned with gender stereotyping, thus actions like these should be more about politeness than gender.

  • Dancing at balls was the principle means by which young ladies could meet potential partners and afforded greater personal contact than was allowed off the dance floor. As the popularity of television shows such as Strictly Come Dancing on BBC highlights, there is a unanimous joy of watching and partaking in dance that even those who claim to have two left feet can achieve. It may only be one signature dance move, but you’ll certainly feel more confident about dancing in social situations.

  • “A lady does not wear pearls or diamonds in the morning” – girls, if you have them, you wear them!

Many of the Regency etiquette rules are no longer applicable, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the rulebook should be discarded altogether. Perhaps Jane would be proud of us all breaking the mould; after all, her strong female leads are characteristically bold and challenge society’s norms.

Written by Hannah Bird

Follow Hannah on Instagram: @thehbird