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

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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