Morals and Manners in Jane Austen
Manners are the prevailing customs, ways of living and habits of a people, class or period while morals are principles or habits based on ideas of right and wrong. In the early 19th century, the period in which Jane Austen’s novels are set, it was important to follow the established “good” manners. Well-mannered members of the gentry and the aristocracy spoke and acted with modest confidence, used proper language, were well educated, maintained emotional control and were considerate to others.
They also followed the protocol concerning social status such as the way they addressed each other, bowing and curtseying etc. Manners are constantly present in Jane Austen’s novels. Whenever a character is described their manners are invariably mentioned, for example, in Persuasion when Anne meets Captain Harville for the first time he is described as “not equaling Captain Wentworth in manners, [but] a perfect gentleman, unaffected, warm and obliging”.
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The continuous occurrence of descriptions of manners gives the reader the impression that, for Jane Austen, good manners are vital, as opposed to morals which are mentioned much less frequently.. Indeed, Jane Austen’s characters generally follow the protocol or social code of her time. Throughout her novels, characters refer to each other as Mr. and Miss, even when they know each other well. For example, Mrs. Smith calls Anne “Miss Elliot” while Anne refers to her as “Mrs. Smith”, despite their having known each other for a long time and being good friends.
Characters also bow and curtsey to acknowledge each other and speak correctly and with decorum: The manners of Jane Austen’s time are constantly present in her novels which can lead us to believe that she thinks these manners are important. However, while her characters do mostly follow the “code” of society, she does sometimes mock its rigidity or some people’s interpretation or use of it. For example, in Persuasion, “it was Mary’s complaint, that Mrs. Musgrove was apt not to give her the precedence that was her due”, this is not considered to be “very becoming of her”.
Through Mary, Jane Austen mocks some of the importance accorded to rank by the manners of the time while also deriding the “Elliot Pride”, or her bad morals. Those who do not follow the rules which belong to the “code” of society are generally unadmirable characters that are disliked by other characters and the reader. Two examples of such characters are Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice and Mrs. Elton in Emma. Mr. Collins commits a serious social mistake when he introduces himself to Mr. Darcy because he is of lower rank.
Elizabeth herself describes his actions as “an impertinent freedom”, while he is met with an “air of distant civility” and finally “contempt” from Mr. Darcy. Mrs. Elton also breaks decorum through being overbearing, constantly bragging, and like Mr. Collins, not honouring rank (she calls Mr. Knightley simply “Knightley” as though she were his equal) . Emma describes her as “absolutely insufferable! [… ] A little upstart, vulgar being”. These two characters illustrate the importance of good manners for a character to be liked. A character’s manners or attitude to manners can also show their moral nature.
In the examples already given Mr. Collins and Mrs. Elton are both bad-mannered but do not think they are. Indeed, after Mr. Collins introduces himself to Mr. Darcy he tells Elizabeth that “Mr. Darcy seemed much pleased with the attention”. This evidences both Mr. Collins’ lack of intelligence and his pride or bad morals: He does not consider that Mr. Darcy may not have been pleased by his introduction. For these characters and certain others, their manners and morals are given equal importance in describing the character to the reader.
Indeed, Tthe fact that bad manners often belong to dislikeable people is shown in Persuasion by the description given of “good company [which] requires only birth, education and manners”. While this description is made by Mr Elliot and Anne seems to disagree with it, the reader can imagine that she mostly disagrees with the idea of birth being very important as she often describes people’s manners herself and says that education is important. The fact that Anne is a very positive character who accords importance to manners orals emphasises their significance.
However, good manners are not the only virtue, indeed Anne’s own description of good company is of “clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation”. What is more, the value of manners is lessened by the fact that not all of Jane Austen’s heroines, or heroes for that matter, have perfect manners. For example in Emma, Emma insults Miss Bates at Box Hill during a picnic. After the picnic, Mr Knightley, probably the kindest and best-mannered character in the book, scolds Emma for what she did, saying “I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance.
How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? ” While this shows that Emma was wrong in her treatment of Miss Bates (and thus that manners are important, regardless of social rank), the reader could think that what is most important is Emma’s reaction: she is mortified by her treatment of Miss Bates, exclaiming, “How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! “. This shows how Emma is a “good” character who recognises when she has done wrong. Thus, while it is not necessarily important to have perfect manners all the time, if we do not always have good manners it is at least important to recognise this.
This recognition of our mistakes is proof of good morals and is why Emma is still a heroine (unlike Mrs Elton and Mr Collins, who do not realise their mistakes). Likewise, Wentworth does not always have the impeccable manners which Anne attributes to him. For example, several times in the novel he shows contempt or disdain on his face, which is not polite (however, we could perhaps argue that Anne was the only other character who recognised his true feelings as she knew him so well).
What is more he admits that he behaved improperly with Louisa Musgrove having “not considered that [his] excessive intimacy must have its danger of ill consequence in many ways; and that [he] had no right to be trying whether [he] could attach [himself] to either of the girls, at the risk of raising even an unpleasant report, were there no other ill effects”. However, his reaction to the realisation of the consequences of his behaviour (that he would marry Louisa if she wanted him to) shows that he is in fact a gentleman with good morals.
Indeed, while Jane Austen’s flawed heroes and heroines make them more credible as people to the reader, while their recognition of their own faults also implies their moral superiority to those who do not recognise their mistakes. Thus, to a certain extent, Jane Austen can show a character’s moral worth through their manners. However, their manners do not always match up to their value as a “person”, which is why certain characters, while possessing good manners are not always liked. This can be attributed to their morals. As already shown, manners, or a character’s reactions to their own manners, can be an indicator of their moral values.
However, this is not always the case. In Persuasion, “Vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter’s character”, his daughter, Elizabeth shares this vanity, as well as his “Elliot pride”. These two characters are disliked by Anne and are often criticised and mocked by the narrator for their vanity. We can also believe that they are disliked by other characters as well, as when they enter a room filled with people “the comfort, the freedom, [and] the gaiety [… ] was over”. What’s more Elizabeth is unable to find a husbandd. Their “well-bred, elegant manners” do not make up for their lack of good morals.
Thus allowing the reader to believe that in fact, Jane Austen considers morals to be more important than manners in judging someone’s worth. Similarly, Mr Elliot hides his moral nature behind his “polished” manners. Indeed, he hides it so well that Anne “could not fix on any one article of moral duty evidently transgressed”, despite his character as described by Mrs Smith. His falseness in manner is disliked by Anne and when she finally discovers the truth about him she evidently dislikes him. This shows again how “good” manners dto not compensate for bad morals.
This storyline of the heroine having to discover the true morals of a person hiding behind their good manners is common in Jane Austen’s novels, f, for example in Pride & Prejudice;, Elizabeth must discover the truth about Wickham. Despite the fact that this shows how manners can not be used to judge a person (and thus should not be considered too significant in that respect) and that morals confirm the real worth of someone, it also evidences how manners and morals can be intertwined themes, thus giving the themes of morals and manners equal importance. As with manners, not all of Jane Austen’s heroines and heroes always have good morals.
Indeed, some of her storylines greatly involve the idea of morals, such as Pride & Prejudice, in which “pride” isn obviously an important theme to do with morals. In this novel, Darcy has too much pride, as he thinks himself above Elizabeth, while she is prejudiced against him. In order for him to succeed in marrying Elizabeth he must stop being so proud and she must re-evaluate her prejudices. In the same way, Captain Wentworth in Persuasion refers to his trying to attach himself to Louisa Musgrove as “attempts of angry pride”, he then “deplore[s] the pride [… which had kept him from trying to regain” Anne. Thus we see that although some of Jane Austen’s heroines and heroes are not perfect people, they change and are only able to have their “happy ending” when they reject bad morals. The role that morals play in Austen’s plots shows the importance which she accords them. Not all of Austen’s heroines have bad morals. Anne Elliot of Persuasion seems to have perfect morals, as well as perfect manners. She is the heroine whohich is considered to be most like Jane Austen herself and thus who has the same opinions as Jane Austen.
The fact that she is both well-mannered and morally good evidences the importance of the two things, and her opinions of morals and manners can be thought to show Austen’s opinions of them. Anne dislikes those with bad morals (such as her sister, father and Mr Elliot) while admiring those she considers to have good morals such as Lady Russell. However, at the same time she accords a great deal of importance to manners, and in particular to “open” manners. Indeed, Anne’s love of the naval characters she meets seems to stem from their “openness”.
For example, she likes the Harvilles who are “unaffected” and “hospitable”, while also appreciating Admiral Croft’s “frankness”. The reason for her love of open, but still well-mannered, people is that “she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped”. This idea is proof of Jane Austen’s opinion that manners can not be trusted to show someone’s true moral nature and therefore that it is important in itself to be able to discover a person’s true morals.
Thus, Jane Austen gives a lot of importance to both morals and manners in her books. Manners are constantly mentioned, the social “code” of Austen’s time is followed by her characters and likeable characters generally have good manners. This can be contributed to the nature of Jane Austen’s stories as they are supposed to seem like credible accounts of relationships within the gentry (and aristocracy) of the early 19th century: a person’s manners would have been one of the first things remarked upon at the time, while their morals cannot be commented on until they are known better.
Yet, she accords even more importance to manners by sometimes making them, along with morals, a part of the actual storyline. However, the unlikeable immoral characters we find in Austen’s novels, the importance of morals to the whole plot as opposed to small parts of it (particularly in Pride & Prejudice), and the value accorded to open manners which evidence someone’s morals cannot be ignored.
Indeed, while manners seem to be most important in everyday life, and first introductions in Austen’s novels, it is morals which seem to be most important overall,, which is why a character with bad morals is always disliked in the end (whether they have good manners or not) and the changing and evaluation of a character’s morals morals of the characters are often part of the driving force of the plot.
The reader could ask themselves why, if morals are so important, Jane Austen does not refer to them more. This is because it would be less credible to always talk about them morals as well as less interesting for the reader, turning the books from a story into a sermon. Austen must content herself with criticising bad morals (and bad manners) through her characters and the ironic humour of herthe narrators.