Persuasions #10, 1988                                                                                                            Pages 70-75


Propriety versus Morality in Jane Austen’s Novels



Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wi. 53211


In the social world of Jane Austen’s fiction a set of well-understood rules governs the progress of a dinner party, an acquaintance, or a courtship, among people of a given social rank.  Although its details may be hard for contemporary readers to master, the Regency code of propriety supplies Austen with one of her most effective tools as a novelist.  Assuming that her readers will recognize even small deviations from this code on the part of a character, Austen can use such deviations to inform us about a character’s motivations or social background.

But where did Austen obtain the information about the rules of propriety which give her this framework for revealing character?  She might have obtained it from numerous eighteenth and early nineteenth-century conduct books that attempted both to prescribe an ideal code of manners and to offer a rationale for it – but in fact she did not do so.  Her own observation of everyday social life was Austen’s source for the code of propriety that governs her fictional world.  Rigid though that code may be, it is far less restrictive than the prescriptive code that emerges from the conduct books.

For example, the author of a conduct book written in 1769 and entitled, The Polite Lady, asserts that “ ‘tis the duty of a young lady to talk with an air of diffidence, as if she proposed what she said, rather with a view to receive information herself, than to inform and instruct the company.”  Such diffidence may characterize the behaviour of the dependent, repressed, and frightened Fanny Price, but the obligation to display it is not a rule of conduct that most of Austen’s heroines acknowledge.  So on this issue, as on many others, the code of propriety in Austen’s novels differs from that of the conduct books.

Why is the code of behaviour observed in Austen’s novels different from the one described in the conduct books?  The conduct books adumbrate a vision of a perfect society in which social behaviour is the outward manifestation of inward moral commitment.  And their vision is highly conservative – their ideal men and women act in ways that are calculated to preserve the existing social hierarchy.  Feminine diffidence, for example, is important to the conduct books because they see it as the external sign of an internal commitment to self-abnegating domesticity.  And nearly all the conduct books argue that such domesticity is woman’s god-given social role – her contribution to the moral health of an increasingly competitive society.

Like the conduct books, Austen’s novels are concerned with the relationship between an individual’s moral commitments and the social conduct through which they are expressed.  But unlike the conduct books, her novels never assume that the relationship between morality and propriety is clear or simple. Nor are her novels committed to the defence of existing social structures.  Austen’s novels often reprobate characters, like Isabella Thorpe or Mary Crawford, who disobey or question the code of propriety.  But the comments and behaviour of such characters also expose the deficiencies of the code itself.  Each one of Austen’s novels asks several questions about the Regency code of manners: What is it that confers authority upon this code of manners?  Should the code be obeyed – wholly or in part – because it is the social manifestation of sound morality?  Or because common sense dictates obedience?  Or because it is the social manifestation of our feelings of benevolence towards our fellow men?  Or merely because society will punish us if we disregard it?

Austen’s six novels offer slightly different answers to these questions.  Though Austen never completely renounced her initial commitment to the conventional code of propriety, she never formulated a permanently satisfying way of justifying that commitment.  The conduct books view morality and propriety as two sides of the same coin.  Austen sees them as competing practices that are not entirely congruent with one another.  And her sense of the incongruities between them seems to have increased as she grew older.  Because morality takes precedence over propriety in Austen’s work, her growing sense of the tension between these practices becomes one of the means through which she develops her critique of her society.

The social world portrayed in Sense and Sensibility is an extremely unpleasant one.  Its intelligent, warm-hearted heroines, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, live among a set of incredibly stupid and irresistibly sociable aquaintances.  Because many of the people they meet are also disingenuous, Elinor and Marianne are forced to judge and act in many potentially dangerous situations.  Elinor’s method of judgement is inductive and empirical, while Marianne judges people and situations impulsively, as they affect her feelings.  Though in general Elinor’s methods work a bit better than Marianne’s, neither heroine is wholly successful as a judge of character.  Empiricism doesn’t prove as superior to intuition as we might expect.  Both girls make serious mistakes in their readings of Edward Ferrars’ and Willoughby’s behaviour.  Both draw erroneous inferences about who might be secretly engaged to whom.

In a world where judgement is so uncertain that neither empiricism nor intuition produces reliable results, the issue of action assumes particular importance.  If one cannot feel sure that one’s judgements are accurate, how does one decide how to act?  To this question, Elinor and Marianne offer radically different answers.  Elinor obeys the rules of propriety even when they dictate conduct that is at variance with her judgements and feelings.  Marianne, on the other hand, chooses to act upon her own judgements in defiance of propriety.

When they discuss this issue, Elinor tells Marianne that her doctrine “has never aimed at the subjugation of the understanding.  All I have ever attempted to influence has been the behaviour.”  Whatever the understanding may direct, conduct must comply with convention – and certainly Elinor’s own highly conventional social behaviour is daily, even hourly, at variance with her judgements and feelings.  Elinor goes to all those awful parties she’d rather miss; Elinor is polite to all those vulgar people; Elinor pays visits of duty to the odious Fanny Dashwood.

And in handling life’s most significant crises, Elinor also chooses to play the roles convention dictates, regardless of how trying this endeavour may be to her feelings.  When Edward appears to be courting her, she conceals her feeling for him; when she learns that he is engaged to Lucy Steele, she conceals her jealousy – as propriety dictates.  Elinor implores Marianne to practice the same restraint in handling her love affair with Willoughby and her anguish at its termination.

Marianne, however, disdains to subordinate her own judgements to the dictates of propriety.  She has an impressive talent for ignoring the presence of those she dislikes, or for driving them to a safe distance with her spontaneous rudeness.  Nor does Marianne play the roles convention dictates as appropriate for a young woman in love.  Though no proposal has been made, Marianne behaves as if she and Willoughby were engaged.  When he jilts her, she flaunts the misery convention directs her to hide.

On the whole, Sense and Sensibility endorses Elinor’s view that convention is a better guide to action than individual judgement.  Where everyday social interactions are concerned, society exacts conventional conduct as the price for the benefits it confers.  Marianne’s rudeness does not prevent her from being invited to the parties where she meets her beloved Willoughby – but only because Elinor pays her social debts for her.  Thus Sense and Sensibility postulates a social contract in which civility is  exchanged for the benefits of participation in society – a contract which no one can really evade.  Since a contract implies an exchange, the duty of politeness in Sense and Sensibility is ultimately grounded in fairness.

But Sense and Sensibility offers a different reason for obeying the code of propriety in such important social situations as courtship.  We might expect a novel which mocks novels of sensibility to argue that feelings are, in fact, less powerful than such works imply.  But Sense and Sensibility does not take this line.  Feelings here, as in the novel of sensibility itself, are terrifyingly strong and destructive.  The experiences of Marianne and the two Elizas demonstrate this.  In a world of uncertain judgement, the individual must be protected from the worst consequences of misdirected feelings.  After she learns of Edward’s engagement, Elinor plays the role of calmness that convention dictates and finds that the role gradually becomes a reality.  Marianne, on the other hand, indulges her grief for Willoughby and finds this indulgence extremely debilitating.

Thus Sense and Sensibility grounds the individual’s duty to obey the code of propriety in the wisdom it ascribes to the code, as well as in the notion of the social contract.  The code of propriety prescribes roles that are healthful to play because they combat the destructive powers of feeling.  Embodying the historical, collective wisdom of mankind, the code of propriety works better than any practicable substitute.

I think it would be fair to say that Elinor does not break a single rule of propriety in the entire course of Sense and Sensibility, but the social behaviour of Elizabeth Bennet is not characterized by such invariable correctness.  Unlike Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice limits the intelligent individual’s obligation to obey that conventional code of propriety, acknowledging that such an individual may be justifiably reluctant to swallow the entire code, as Elinor tries so heroically to do.

When Pride and Prejudice opens, Elizabeth advocates a degree of individual discretion on minor questions of decorum.  In an incident that is central to the novel’s handling of the propriety theme, Elizabeth decides to walk three miles across muddy fields to visit Netherfield, where her sister Jane has fallen ill.  If Elizabeth wants to console Jane, she must walk to Netherfield, for she “is no horsewoman and the carriage [is] not to be had.”  In taking this walk, Elizabeth does break a small rule of propriety.  Young ladies were not supposed to take cross country tramps alone – both because they might be endangered by vagabonds and because their appearance upon arrival could be more than a bit dishevelled.  Thus the rule of propriety Elizabeth breaks is founded in considerations of convenience and fashion – not in morality.  Such a rule, Elizabeth rightly thinks, may be broken if one has a good reason to break it.

Austen allows a surprising number of Pride and Prejudice’s characters to express their reactions to Elizabeth’s walk.  “You will not be fit to be seen when you get there,” cries Mrs. Bennet, revealing once again that she regards her daughters as merchandise on display.  “It seems to me to show … a most country-town indifference to decorum,” says Miss Bingley, a social climber who values herself on the urbanized elegance of her behaviour, but who is not always kind to others.  Only the good-natured Bingley can see that Elizabeth’s walk “shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing.”

We judge these characters by their ability to understand the issues Elizabeth’s violation of propriety raises – and in the process Elizabeth is established as a woman with a sound standard of decorum.  But the discrimination Elizabeth displays in her decision to walk to Netherfield fails her shortly afterwards.  George Wickham makes improper communications about the Darcy family to Elizabeth on their very first meeting.  Here a rule of propriety that is grounded in morality is at issue: Wickham owes much to Darcy’s father and should therefore refrain from damaging Darcy’s own reputation.  But Elizabeth is already committed to the view that Darcy is an unprincipled man: she has an interest in believing Wickham’s story and believing his story means believing that he is a man of good manners and good morals.  So Elizabeth convinces herself that if Wickham has violated rules of propriety in his confidences to her, those rules must be unimportant.

Committed to her belief that Wickham’s manners are good, Elizabeth continues to justify him, as his behaviour grows more and more obviously improper.  When a local girl, Miss King, suddenly inherits a fortune, Wickham as suddenly begins to pay his addresses to her.  Mrs. Gardiner points out the “indelicacy” of Wickham’s behaviour: rules of propriety with an undeniable basis in morality prohibit this sort of fortune hunting.  But Elizabeth tells her aunt that “a man in distressed circumstances has not time for all those elegant decorums which other people may observe.”  Elizabeth’s need to believe in Wickham has begun to distort her view of propriety.  She classes a rule of propriety that is founded in morality with rules that are merely matters of fashion and convenience.  Later Elizabeth regrets the liberality concerning decorum into which her affection for Wickham led her.  When Lydia remarks that of course Wickham never cared about the “nasty” Miss King, Elizabeth is “shocked to think that … the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had formely harboured and fancied liberal.”

In the end, then, Pride and Prejudice negotiates an uneasy compromise between a sense that some individual discretion is desirable in matters of propriety – and a sense that allowing such discretion is a risky business.  The novel posits a fairly close connection between the code of propriety and the sort of social conduct Christian morals would dictate, yet the connection is not perfect.  An increasingly materialistic society, obsessed with fashion and status, is represented by such characters as Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  This society distorts its own code, altering it in indefensible ways.  So the problem of discrimination remains a problem.

The way the issue of propriety is handled in Emma is determined by Emma’s own struggles with the concept.  Initially, Emma sees herself as an exemplar of correct social conduct, but this comforting belief turns out to be erroneous – like so many of the self-congratulatory notions with which she begins.  In her own eyes, the Emma of the novel’s opening sections is the mistress of ceremonies – not merely at Hartfield, but all over Highbury.  She handles social forms with great assurance and style.  Whether passing round the muffin or dealing with her difficult brother-in-law, John Knightley, Emma is “never indifferent to the credit of doing everything well and attentively.”  So she obeys the code of propriety with scrupulous care.  But Emma’s politeness is often radically at variance with her feelings.  Many of her acquaintances annoy her as thoroughly as John Knightley does.  Again and again we see Emma congratulating herself upon “appearing very polite, while feeling very cross” with the recipients of her attentions.

Unlike Elinor Dashwood, whose grace under social pressure results from her belief that she had a duty to others, Emma’s propriety is motivated by conceit.  She wants “credit” for behaving “well and attentively.”  So right from the start, we can see a potentially serious problem with Emma’s manners: her conduct is not motivated either by benevolence or by a sense of duty, but only by a desire for social credit.  It seems clear that at some point her hostility may get the upper hand, or that her egotism will take another direction, causing her to reject her role as the ever-proper lady.

Elegance is one of a group of terms describing manners that are linked with fashion rather than with duty.  Those who are obsessed with elegance emphasize the forms of propriety, but tend to ignore the moral considerations that give them authority.  And Emma is indeed obsessed with rating the elegance of others, reflecting that Jane Fairfax is “very elegant, remarkably elegant,” but that Harriet Smith needs “a little more elegance.”  And as for Mrs. Elton, well, “neither feature, nor air, nor voice, nor manner were elegant.”

Here again, some problems are evident from the start.  The most significant of these is the omission of Mr. Knightley from Emma’s list of elegant people – never once does she use this favourite term to describe him.  Though she knows that Knightley is a perfect gentleman, his unpretentious, even bluff manners make Emma uncomfortable.  “If any young man were to set about copying him, he would not be sufferable,” she observes.  Emma does not find the benevolence of Knightley’s manners to be worthy of admiration or remark – but the reader can see that his propriety rests on a very different foundation from hers.

At Box Hill Emma learns that hostile feelings and elegant conduct are unstable companions.  Emma is not enjoying this ill-assorted party and flirts with Frank Churchill in the hope of cheering herself up.  Soon the two are caught up in an exchange of witticisms that has reminded many readers of the dialogue in restoration comedy.  Frank proposes a game; the stage is set; and, as the narrator remarks, “Emma could not resist” delivering her famous snub to Miss Bates.  Emma knows she should resist snubbing Miss Bates, for by doing so she ruins her record of politeness, but her desire to shine as a wit temporarily masters her desire to appear well-bred.  So Emma learns that malice can break out in unguarded moments, no matter how rigidly one tries to follow the rules of civility.  The benevolent desire to add to the comfort of others is the only trustworthy foundation for proper conduct.  Knightley’s manners have always expressed his benevolent feelings – and now Emma begins to imitate them.

Emma, then, affirms the very proposition that Sense and Sensibility rejected: proper social conduct is grounded in feeling, rather than in a commitment to the forms as forms.  If the feelings are good, the forms may now be disregarded; and indeed these conflicts do sometimes occur.  The code of propriety dictates that a gentleman should never lie.  But Knightley disregards this rule when he denies giving Miss Bates his last barrel of apples, because he doesn’t want her to feel guilty about his sacrifice.

Austen’s attempt to explain the individual’s obligation to obey the code of propriety has taken her in a circle.  Unable to find a permanently satisfying way to justify the code, she ends up by denying that there is any obligation to obey it.  Mr. Knightley succeeds in doing what Marianne and Elizabeth tried unsuccessfully to do: he breaks, or at least bends, the rules when feelings or judgement tell him to do so.  Because Knightley is mature and intelligent, he sees that his warm feelings for others can usually be expressed within the accepted code.  But there’s no question that it is Knightley’s feelings – and not the code itself – that define correct social behaviour.  As he tells Emma, it’s not enough to “have very good manners,” if one lacks “delicacy toward the feelings of other people.”  In the end, Austen’s failure to ground the entire Regency code of propriety in moral considerations has undermined the code’s authority.


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