The 10 Dos and Don'ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England
The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England

The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England

D.G. Hewitt - May 13, 2018

“A woman’s reputation is as brittle as it is beautiful,” notes Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a classic of Regency-era England. Indeed, being a woman in these times was far from easy. Of course, ladies of the upper and upper-middle classes didn’t have to worry about ending up in the poorhouse or struggling to feed their children. However, even wealth and social standing were no guarantees that a lady would enjoy a fine reputation. Instead, a lady’s reputation was based largely upon how she behaved herself, both in public as well as in the privacy of her own home.

As anyone who has ever read a Jane Austen novel (or watched a TV or movie adaptation of one) knows, there were strict rules to follow when it came to matters of etiquette and decorum. For their part, gentlemen were expected to behave in a chivalrous but aloof, even cold, manner. However, it was the ladies who had the most rules to follow. Indeed, there were rules for almost everything, from walking down the street to eating and dancing, and failure to stay within the lines of decency could stain a lady’s character for good. Since a Regency-era lady’s reputation could determine her future – including her chances of a good marriage – most were careful to keep up-to-date with the latest thoughts of proper etiquette. And, thankfully for the historian, some of the many etiquette guides published between 1800 and 1825 still exist today, allowing us a glimpse into this fascinating period.

So, here are ten of the rules a lady in Regency England needed to follow if she wanted to maintain a good reputation among her peers:

The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England
Being a lady in the Regency period was a complex business, with many rules to follow. Daily Telegraph.

DO stand straight and walk tall

In the many etiquette manuals of the time, whole sections were often devoted to how a lady should move – or even how they should stay still. Indeed, there was nothing you could do that wouldn’t be judged by the rest of polite society. And, while some rules were very complex, and indeed sometimes contradictory, when it came to sitting and walking, it was quite straightforward: keep it elegant, refined and, above all, keep it ‘ladylike’.

Above all, the Regency era was obsessed with correct posture. This meant keeping your back straight at all times. While sitting up straight and walking tall was expected of gentlemen too, this was especially important for women. As the manuals of the time noted, a well-bred young lady should move with ‘grace and ease’, appearing the epitome of elegance even when walking from one room to the next or heading to the market in the morning. In order to achieve this ideal, many young ladies used a backboard. These were single pieces of wood, to run up the back, with leather straps to keep them in place. Obviously, with a plank of wood strapped to your back, you were guaranteed to sit up straight at all times. Comfortable or healthy? Definitely not. Ladylike? Most definitely, at least according to the standards of the times.

Ironically, the idea of ‘naturalness’ was highly promoted during the latter years of the Regency era in particular. Moving away from the rigid bodices and corsets of the past, the fashions of the time promoted free-flowing gowns. Again, however, often backboards were hidden underneath such feminine fashions. Or, more commonly, bad habits such as slouching or even natural ‘deformities’ like a curved spine, were ‘corrected’ during childhood and early adolescence so that a lady looked as she should when she came out in society and was ready to court.

The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England
Saying the wrong thing, especially in front of a gentleman, was a serious breach of etiquette. The Independent.

DON’T talk like a man

A well-bred woman in the Regency era needed to tread a fine line between being polite, but not being too familiar or, heaven forbid, overly-friendly or flirtatious. Failing to stay within the boundaries of acceptable social intercourse could have serious consequences and call into question a lady’s manners or even her character.

According to historians of the time, a lady was to behave with ‘courteous dignity’ at all times. She was expected to treat both acquaintances and strangers alike with equal grace and good manners and, if engaged in conversation, she could talk on a wide range of topics – though, of course, explicitly expressing an opinion was largely frowned upon. Feminine humor was acceptable, but outbursts of laughter or outward displays of emotion were most certainly not. Above all, any hint of vulgarity was strictly forbidden. Only men could make rude jokes or laugh loudly, and even they could only do so when in the company of other men or, at most, of women of ill-repute.

The rules for social interactions and conversation in the street were equally as strident as they were for behind closed doors. For instance, a lady should never be seen standing and talking on the street. If she met a friend or acquittance and wished to converse, then they were expected to walk and talk. One other major no-no of the Regency era was to ‘cut’ someone. Indeed, even to be accused of ‘cutting’ could prove to be a major strain on your character. But this didn’t mean stabbing someone! Instead, cutting in this context meant simply failing to acknowledge the presence of someone you had previously been introduced to socially. A gentleman was certainly not allowed to cut someone. Ladies did, however, have a bit more leeway. Only a woman could ignore someone else, but only if they had strong justification for doing so. As you can imagine, just walking down a busy street could be a social etiquette minefield!

The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England
Fainting couches for ladies were commonplace in Regency homes. Jane Austen World.

DON’T be afraid to faint

These days, fainting with shock due to a crude or vulgar comment would be regarded as an overreaction and evidence of being far too sensitive. But in the Regency era, it was, the historians tell us, actually quite a common occurrence. Moreover, fainting was considered an appropriate, even understandable, reaction for a lady to have when confronted with foul language or even bad manners. Indeed, such events could – and very often were – seen as a case of the vapours’, requiring gentlemen to help a lady onto a fainting couch and then pass a small jar of vapours under her nose to revive her.

Such shows of weakness were not to be frowned upon, and even the most mature of ladies would feel no shame in ‘coming over all faint’. Similarly, showing ‘poor nerves’ was seen as a normal reaction to stress at that time, while today we would regard anyone displaying such behavior as overreacting and even acting in a child-like manner. Consider Mrs. Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example. The matriarch of the family is shown to regularly be in need of a lie-down and ‘the vapors’, often fainting at the slightest hint of stress or bad news.

In reality, however, the women of the Regency era weren’t quite so over-sensitive and thin-skinned. Instead, they would often have a good reason for feeling faint. Backboards and tight-fitting corsets made breathing difficult and could, understandably, also cause light-headedness. And even if the ladies of Regency England were overly-sensitive, according to some academic studies, this was only to be expected. Women like Mrs. Bennett would have grown up stifled by rules and unable to assert their independence. Is it any wonder that they act in a childlike manner and have ‘attacks of the nerves’ so regularly that such behavior came to be expected of the ladies of the time?

The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England
Being alone with a gentleman could seriously damage a lady’s reputation. The Times Educational Supplement.

DON’T be alone in the company of a gentleman

When it comes to mingling with the other sex, the rules for ladies in the Regency era was simple: Don’t! Put simply, if a lady was unmarried and under the age of 30, she was never to be seen in the company of a man without a chaperone present. And, of course, it goes without saying that a lady should never, ever call at a gentleman’s house unless she needs to speak to him about a professional or business matter – and even then, a chaperone must be present.

What’s more, a lady would not only be frowned upon – and become the subject of much gossip – if she strolled through town in the company of a gentleman to who she was neither related nor married to, she would also be frowned upon for stepping out alone. Indeed, a lady of good repute was expected to always step out in the company of another lady or, failing this, with a male relative or, at worst, a servant. There were only two occasions where this unwritten rule was relaxed: firstly, when walking to church on a Sunday morning and, more generally, when taking an early morning constitutional stroll in the local park or around the block.

Historians of the Regency era note, however, that, as the years passed, this rule became a bit more relaxed. Of course, there would always be gossip and rumors if a man and woman were spotted in each other’s company without a chaperone present. However, towards the end of the period, it became increasingly more acceptable for ladies to go out alone, even into town. Evidence of this can be found in the novels of Jane Austen, where the female protagonists – depicted as progressive, ground-breaking women for their time – routinely go out without having a male watch over them.

The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England
In the Regency period, a lady should only speak to a man she had already been formally introduced to. Pinterest.

DO wait to be introduced to someone

Introductions were a complex business in the Regency era and breaking from the accepted norms would be a massive breach of etiquette. And, as might be expected, introductions between members of the opposite sex or indeed between two people of different social standing, would be especially complex. Fortunately for the lady, the fact that societal rules dictated that men take the lead in making a formal introduction minimized the chances of a faux-pas and so end up being the talk of the town.

Quite simply, it was not the done thing to simply go up to a stranger and start talking to them – no matter how dashing a gentleman might be. Instead, a lady needed to wait until she was formally introduced to a person before they could start to interact socially. Usually, introductions were made by the ‘man of the house’. At other times, elderly – and respected – matrons, mothers, local parsons or their wives, might introduce people. Some individuals or even whole families prided themselves on their abilities to serve as the go-between and set people up, allowing them to interact with one another without causing a scandal.

As a rule, an introduction could not be made without the express permission of the people involved. Moreover, if one person enjoyed a higher social rank than the other, then he or she needed to give their consent to having a lower-ranking stranger introduced to them. A person of a higher rank could simply decline an invitation to an introduction, no questions asked! To shun such an opportunity was not regarded as rudeness but rather accepted as the ‘done thing’. In comparison, a lower-ranked individual, and in particular a lady, introducing themselves to a gentleman without permission or a go-between (think of the scandal the uncouth Mr. Collins causes when he introduced himself to his superior Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice).

Even once a lady had been introduced to another female or to a gentleman, strict societal rules still applied. At no point must a lady refer to a gentleman by his first name. Instead, she must call him by his family name or, where applicable, by his title. Additionally, just like in period dramas and historical movies, upon meeting, the lady was expected to bow at the shoulders slightly, while a gentleman was expected to greet a lady with a modest, not exaggerated, bow from the waist.

The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England
Ladies were expected to follow strict rules while in mourning. Jane Austen World.

DO observe the strict rules about mourning

When it came to the act of mourning, the Regency era was a bit more relaxed than the Victorian era that followed it. That said, however, there was a strict code of conduct in place, especially among higher society. And, of course, there were certainly written and unwritten rules a lady was expected to follow if she were to lose a close family member or a husband. Once again, failure to juggle societal expectations with coping with personal grief again could lead to a lady’s reputation being ruined.

In the immediate aftermath of a death in the family, a lady was, of course, expected to wear black. This was to be worn for 12 months if a husband had died, for six months following the death of a parent or parent-in-law, and for just three months after the death of a sister, brother, aunt or uncle. Hems were supposed to be broader than normal, and no fancy jewelry was to be worn during the mourning period. Furthermore, shiny fabrics, however fashionable they might have been at the time, were deemed unacceptable for a lady. What’s more, ladies in mourning were expected to shun all society events, even if they had been expressly invited. To turn down an invitation during this period was not considered rude – indeed, to accept one would have been scandalous!

After a certain amount of time, a lady could transition to ‘half mourning’. Again, there were strict rules in place here. Only grey or perhaps lilac clothes were acceptable, along with modest jewelry. A lady might begin to ease back into society and could even attend a dance. However, actually dancing before the designated period of mourning was over was deemed poor form and likely to stain a lady’s reputation for good.

The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England
Far from being fun and frivolous affairs, dances were complex and deadly serious. Artuk.org.

DON’T dance with the same man more than twice

In the Regency era, public houses (or pubs) and clubs were off-limits to women, or at least to well-bred ladies. As such, a dance represented the best opportunity to catch up with acquaintances, make new friends and potentially even meet a future husband or wife. However, dances were no social free-for-all. Instead, they were highly regulated affairs, with chaperones and, in many instances, a ‘Master of Ceremonies’ overseeing proceedings and ensuring that the rules of propriety and decorum were maintained – especially by the ladies present!

At a dance, a lady could simply not ask an unknown gentleman to waltz with her, no matter how handsome he looked. Rather, the pair needed to be formally introduced before they could take to the dancefloor. Fortunately, Masters of Ceremonies performed this useful function. Indeed, if a lady arrived at a ball where she had not been introduced to any of the men previously, she would automatically seek out the MC and he would ensure that she had partners to dance with over the course of the evening. And, while there was a rule that two ladies could not dance together, this was often overlooked. After all, with many gentlemen away fighting it the Napoleonic Wars, there was not always a 50/50 gender split at dances, as Jane Austen herself noted on several occasions.

Once the dancing has started, there were even more rules to follow. In Etiquette of the Ballroom, an 1815 bestseller by Thomas Wilson, ladies are advised that clapping or any outward displays of emotion or enthusiasm are strictly prohibited. Similarly, stopping a dance before the music has stopped or even leaving the ballroom before all the dances have ended, was regarded as a sign of ill manners. And, perhaps most important of all, a lady was judged on the number of times she danced with a man. One dance was to be expected. Two dances in one night would suggest that the gentleman wished to get to know the lady better. And three dances with the same chap on the same night? That would ensure the lady got a bad reputation for being over-familiar and would surely see her put on the black list for future balls.

The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England
At dinner, a well-bred lady would never eat too much or ask for wine. YouTube.

DO remember your manners at a dinner party

Just like dances, dinner parties were complex social events with their own specific set of rules. Breach the etiquette and you not only risked embarrassing yourself in front of your peers, but you might also find yourself with a reputation for being uncouth, with invitations suddenly drying up. Luckily, as with most things in the Regency era, it was relatively simple for a lady to do what was expected of her. Above all, the key was to keep quiet, let men take the lead and not to get ideas above your station!

If you were the hostess, then you would sit at the head of the table, with the (male) guest of honour to your right. The rest of the seating plan was up to the host or the hostess, though it was generally the thing to ensure men didn’t sit next to their wives. Additionally, when possible, men and women should be evenly distributed around the table. And, of course, it goes without saying that both a lady and a gentleman should dress for dinner. To arrive in day clothes would be regarded as a sign of utmost disrespect.

Dinner parties during the Regency era were as long as they were complex. Anything from between five to 25 courses were served, though the evening always started with a bowl of soup. According to the etiquette guides of the time, a lady must never refuse soup. If she wasn’t hungry or simply didn’t like the dish, it was considered far politer to simply toy with her food than to leave it completely untouched. If she was hungry, then soup should always be sipped from the side of a spoon, never from the tip. And, of course, the soup should be consumed silently. Slurping was regarded as the height of bad manners for a lady!

As the evening progressed, servants would bring new dishes, with cut meats being the main course. A gentleman was permitted to serve himself and those around him. However, he would never fill a lady’s plate too much. Neither should a lady ask for too much. After all, a big appetite was seen as being unladylike. Once her plate was full, a lady was expected to eat a little bit of everything at once. For instance, an ideal forkful would consist of a morsel of meat, a sliver of potato and a single pea. This could be washed down with wine; there was no rule against women drinking alcohol. However, a lady would never ask for wine, she would wait to be offered it. And even then, she should limit her intake lest she is judged for drinking like a man.

After dinner, of course, the ladies were expected to retire to a special ‘withdrawing room’, leaving the chaps free to enjoy talk and conversation. Even in the company of other ladies, a hostess would never take obvious pride in her dinner party. Instead, she should remain silent, allowing her guests to compliment the quality of the food and company. Attempting to break with this convention was a serious social faux-pas, and indeed would remain so for many decades after the Regency era had come to an end.

The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England
Even when courting, ladies were expected to avoid contact with gentlemen. Victoria and Albert Museum.

DO keep your hands to yourself!

As you might expect of such a tightly-wound society, touching was largely to be avoided. Or, if not avoided at all, then there were strict rules as to what was acceptable and what wasn’t. And, of course, these unwritten societal rules were particularly relevant for ladies. Above all, failing to act properly could harm your reputation and, more importantly, could even seriously damage your chances of gaining entry into ‘high society’ and enjoying the many social – and economic – benefits this entailed. So, what were the rules on touching other people?

For a well-bred lady, even shaking the hands of a gentleman could be seen as being overly familiar. Indeed, handshakes were largely confined to gentlemen, and even then, a man would only shake the hands of a peer of similar social rank, never with a superior or – heaven forbid! – a servant. To get around this, ladies were permitted to gently squeeze the hand of a man she had already been introduced to, though the etiquette handbooks of the time warned against excessive displays of affection.

Between women, the rules were a bit more relaxed. Sisters were permitted to kiss one another on the cheek. A lady might also kiss a female acquaintance or friend briefly on the cheek. Again, however, such open displays of familiarity and affection were to be confined to women of the same social rank. At the same time, a lady may permit a man to put her shawl around her shoulders or help her on and off a horse. She might even offer him her hand to kiss. But lingering touches or overly-passionate hand kisses would most definitely become the subject of gossip.

The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England
Married ladies of the Regency period were allowed to take lovers, so long as they kept it quiet. Pinterest.

DO keep quiet about any extra-marital affairs

The Regency Era wasn’t as stuffy as some accounts might portray it as being. The big cities of England, and in particular London, were growing and modernizing quickly. And this, of course, meant that there were many vices for a gentleman to enjoy, including drinking, gambling and meeting with women of ‘ill repute’. A lady was not only expected to steer well clear of such decadent activities but was, moreover, fully expected to pretend they didn’t even exist. As strange as it might sound, women of the time were to feign ignorance about all ‘male activities’, however much this might hurt her, or simply inconvenience her.

For instance, ladies were, as a rule, to avoid walking or driving their carriages down certain streets in London. St James’s Street, home to several gentleman’s clubs, was strictly off-limits. Similarly, Piccadilly was seen as potentially corrupting for delicate ladies, so the ‘fairer sex’ was advised to stay away. Any woman seen walking down either thoroughfare without a male chaperone accompanying her should expect to be the subject of much malicious gossip, with her character called into question.

But it wasn’t all bad. For their part, husbands were expected to ensure that his extra-curricular activities remained completely separate from his marriage. To bring scandal upon a lady was the height of ungentlemanly behavior in Regency England. Furthermore, for their part, a lady could take a gentleman lover, so long as she had first given birth to a child – and thus, provided her husband with an heir (and, ideally, with two children, or ‘an heir and a spare’). It goes without saying, however, that any affairs should be conducted completely discreetly, so a lady should choose her extra-marital lovers extremely carefully indeed.

 

Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“A Day in the Life of a Regency Lady”. The BBC, May 2013.

“Jane Austen’s fiction: an accurate portrayal of life in Georgian England?”. BBC History Magazine, May 2017.

“Regency Dinner Parties and Etiquette”. The Jane Austen Centre, June 2017.

“Ballroom Etiquette”. RegencyDances.org, 2018.

“The middle classes: etiquette and upward mobility”. Kathryn Hughes, The British Library, May 2014.

Chicago Tribune – How Accurate Is ‘Bridgerton’s’ Tale of Sex and Scandal in Regency England?

Austenised – Rules and Etiquette of Regency Society

Kim Rendfeld – The High Stakes of Etiquette for Young Ladies in the Regency

British Library – Courtship, Love and Marriage in Jane Austen’s Novels

Austen Variations – Rules of a Regency Romance

Randombits of Fascination – Social Networking in the Regency Era

Walter Nelson – The Etiquette of the Ballroom

Regency History – Regency Introductions: A Regency History Guide

Jane Austen Program – Five Things About Mourning During the Regency Era

Jane Austen’s World – Regency Manners: Seating at Table

Regency History – Regency Dining Etiquette: Regency History Guide

History Collection – 18 Indecent Behaviors of the Regency Era

History Collection – The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period

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