We are very excited to welcome Lona Manning, an Austenesque author who is not only a great friend to us personally, but has also been kind enough to guest on the blog twice before! Lona’s bio, publications, and relevant links are at the end of this post. Below are the direct links to Lona’s previous Austen Authors’ guest blogs.
“The True English Style” by Lona Manning
‘How d’ye do, George?’ and ‘John, how are you?’ succeeded in the true English style, burying under a calmness that seemed all but indifference, the real attachment which would have led either of them, if requisite, to do every thing for the good of the other. [Emma]
Elizabeth’s mind was now relieved from a very heavy weight; and, after half an hour’s quiet reflection in her own room, she was able to join the others with tolerable composure. [Pride & Prejudice]
What do you do when you’re an Austen character who is upset, confused, worried, or even deliriously happy? Do you log onto Twitter and share your feelings with the world? Do you complain on YouTube? No! What you do is retreat to your room or go for a walk until you have regained your composure.
We see example after example in Austen’s novels where her characters struggle to remain calm. Lady Catherine’s unexpected visit to Longbourn throws Elizabeth into a “discomposure of spirits” which “could not be easily overcome.” When Sir Thomas Bertram surprises Mrs. Norris by announcing he is going to hold a ball at Mansfield Park, “her surprise and vexation required some minutes’ silence to be settled into composure.” When Lady Russell suggests that Anne Elliot might become the next Lady Elliot, “Anne was obliged to turn away, to rise, to walk to a distant table, and, leaning there in pretended employment, try to subdue the feelings this picture excited.”
And If one’s emotions are not under control, the “appearance of composure” will have to do. No Austen fan will need an explanation of the incident described here: “Darcy’s “complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips till he believed himself to have attained it.”
In the examples given above, it is implicit that strong emotions ought to be under control, especially before interacting with anyone else. Anne Elliot is obliged to turn away. She appears to feel strong emotions are actually dangerous, as though they could damage her nervous system. After the bliss of being reunited with Captain Wentworth: “[a]n interval of meditation, serious and grateful, was the best corrective of everything dangerous in such high-wrought felicity; and she went to her room…”
The value, propriety and even healthfulness of keeping a stiff-upper-lip are the central theme of Sense & Sensibility, where emotional Marianne is compared with her rational sister Elinor. Marianne complains that Elinor’s “self-command is invariable. When is she dejected or melancholy? When does she try to avoid society, or appear restless and dissatisfied in it?”
Elinor knows “how to govern” her “strong feelings,” even when she realizes Edward Ferrars is not married to Lucy Steele after all. She “almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy.”
Austen’s characters are often described in terms of their manners—Mr. Weston has “pleasant manners,” Mr. Bingley has “easy, unaffected manners” and Sir Thomas finds “nothing very striking in Mr. Rushworth’s manners.” Here, the word “manners” is used as we might use the word “demeanour” or even “personality.”
In Mansfield Park, however, Edmund Bertram quite deliberately uses “manners” to describe something more important than mere civility. He says clergymen have: “the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.” He adds, “The manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps, the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is [the clergymen’s] duty to teach and recommend.”
The difference between good breeding and good conduct is central to Mansfield Park. Austen breaks the fourth wall to warn the reader directly that self-knowledge and “self-command,” along with a “just consideration of others,” is an “essential part” of a young person’s education. The Bertram girls are polite and accomplished, but they lack good principles, and tragedy follows.
Because Austen is always nuanced, we can find exceptions to the “stiff upper lip” rule: Anne Elliot prizes “the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing.” She responds to the easy, open-hearted manners of the Musgroves and Captain Harville but she is mortified by the “heartless elegance” of her father and sister when they enter the room, because the “comfort, the freedom, the gaiety” of the gathering subsides into “cold composure, determined silence, or insipid talk.” Etiquette and decorum can wound people. While Wentworth and Anne are estranged, his “cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than anything.”
Although Emma Woodhouse loves “everything that is decided and open,” her creator clearly believes that some degree of restraint, moderation and self-control is essential. When Marianne neglects “every exertion of duty and friendship,” her emotional self-indulgence almost leads to her death. Good manners are no trifling matter in Austen.
A deeper dive on this topic: I was surprised to learn that the rise of politeness in English society in the 18th century is a subject of study and debate! Click the image to the right to access Austen scholar John Mullan (and others) discussing politeness on a BBC radio podcast.
LONA MANNING is the author of the Mansfield Trilogy, a variation on Mansfield Park. Her upcoming publication is titled Shelley and the Unknown Lady and will be released on Kindle on October 5. The novella is a revised and expanded excerpt from her Mansfield Trilogy. Shelley and the Unknown Lady is a carefully researched imagining of a mystery in the life of the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.