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“Much, much beyond impropriety”: Austen’s response to the contemporaneous decorum of courtship and engagement.

“Much, much beyond impropriety”: Austen’s response to the contemporaneous decorum of courtship and engagement.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Stephanie Dollard. Originally submitted for EN3006 Critical Skills Seminar at University College Cork, with lecturer Dr. Carolyn Duggan in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Stephanie Dollard. Originally submitted for EN3006 Critical Skills Seminar at University College Cork, with lecturer Dr. Carolyn Duggan in the category of English Language & Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
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“Much, much beyond impropriety”
*:
Austen’s response to the
contemporaneous decorum of courtship and engagement.
“Marriage will never be held sacred till women, by being brought up with men, are
prepared to be their companions rather than their
mistresses” (
Wollstonecraft 250). Suchrevolutionary thinking contrasts starkly with the decorum of courtship and engagement asexpressed in conduct-book literature, a dominant literary force in the period. Indeed, one canargue that Austen shows herself to be much more influenced by the traditional latter than the
radical former. However, this essay will examine a selection of Austen’s works in the hope of 
proving that, though her treatment of this decorum is ostensibly loyal, it is not whollyunproblematic.Conduct-book literature, much of it written by men, with varying degrees of vehemence, served to educate marriageable young women on how best to behave in order toensure a suitable marriage partner. It could be sub-divided into the religious and the secular,which, though differing in ideas, shared the aforementioned common aim. Though, as I have
 previously remarked, Austen’s works are
undoubtedly affected by this literature, that is not tosay that she agreed with all opinions expressed therein. Alison G. Sulloway notes that aReverend James Fordyce
was “one of the earliest male conduct
-book writers to earn the
contempt of [...] the moderate Austen” with his theory that spinsters were to blame for their single condition, “since they must have refused to leave the thinking and the acting to men”
(23). That said, Austen is said to have shown great respect for another religious conduct-book 
writer, Reverend Thomas Gisborne, who expressed the not dissimilar idea of “women’s
divinely ordained subjection
to men”
(Sulloway 9), which reflects perhaps the key idea of this form of literature: the role of men as tutors, with women as their willing students. This
 
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theme is clearly evident in Austen’s
 Northanger Abbey
heroine, Catherine Morland, whosefanciful nature and rather unhealthy dependence on romantic literature makes her the perfects
tudent for suitor Henry Tilney; as Sulloway writes: “Catherine Morland satisfied readerswho thought that ignorance is charming in a woman”.
Nonetheless, though, according to
critic Patricia Beer, Tilney is the most gentle of Austen’s heroes (74), this practise of male
suitors educating their lovers is not always a pleasant one:
Tilney’s rejection of Catherine’s
flight of fancy, in which she convinces herself of General Tilne
y’s part in the death of his
wife, is scathing, albeit with good reason, and leaves Catherine in ashamed tears (182). FannyPrice of 
 Mansfield Par
, on the other hand, refuses to be restricted by this particular elementof decorum:
rather than bow to Edmund’s arguments merely because of his supposedly
superior gender, she instead holds firm in her determination not to partake in the productionof 
 Lover’s Vows
. Indeed, she is deeply disappointed by what she views a
s Edmund’s“unsteadiness” (162),
and, as the performance of the play violates several other decorum,which I will investigate later in the course of the essay, it is most definitely the woman, inthis instance, who triumphs, if not quite intellectually, then certainly morally, over the man.
Yet this is not unsurprising: Sulloway theorises that Fanny and Catherine are “ironic versionsof the marriageable feminine model” (26); they cannot be expected to adhere to every ideal
put forth in the somewhat restrictive conduct-book literature. On another, albeit moresuperficial level, both heroines must change in order to be noticed, to be deemed ideal in theeyes of this literature. It is beauty, not the desirable ignorance, which first attracts possiblesuitors, and both characters
“have to become swans before anyone will look at them” (Beer 
46-47). However, it is not only women who fail to meet the conditions of courtship decorumat the time.
 Emma
’s Mr. Knightley, in his almost proud proclamation that “Emma knows Inever flatter her” (9), violates the strict rules of decorum which demand that a suitor paycompliments to his lover. Indeed, Austen explains that “Mr Knightley [...] was one of the few
 
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people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of 
them”
(9). With this in mind, Knightley can be described almost as the antithesis of whatconduct-book literature deemed a respectable suitor to be. Moreover, the exchanges between
Knightley and Emma, when discussing the latter’s friendship with Harriet, for example,
travel far beyond the limited decorum of conversation, as laid out quite satirically by
 Northanger Abbey
’s
Henry Tilney (13); neither character seems willing to pay homage todecorum in place of real conversation. Perhaps it is this openness between the pair whichprompted Sulloway to describe
 Emma
as
“a battle of the conduct
-
 books” (132).
Another staple of the decorum of courtship at the time was the need for courtingcouples to be supervised by a chaperone, lest their conduct at any time be deemed improper.This particular element of decorum is rampant throughout Austen, for example in
 Emma
,with
Miss Bates’ story of her beloved Jane playing chaperone to the courting Miss Campbell
and Mr Dixon (120). Austen also provides readers with several instances in which the
absence of a chaperone is seen as scandalous. Catherine’s unwilling journey with Joh
nThorpe in the carriage is deemed inappropriate by Mr Allen (92), and Emma is shocked to thecore by Mr Elton sitting with her in the otherwise unoccupied carriage and taking theopportunity to profess his love for her, informing him that such behaviour i
s “the mostextraordinary conduct!” (100).
Bound tightly with this aspect of decorum are the conventionswhich surrounded dances. In the eyes of conduct-
 book writers, dancing’s “primary function
was to introduce people of marriageable age, so that they could discover whether theirdancing steps and other permissible modes of defining themselves were to fit each other in
reasonable comfort” (Sulloway 144).
Even the radical Wollstonecraft seems to embrace thisparticular aspect of decorum: in her novel
 Mary
, once the eponymous character becomes an
heiress “her mother began to think her of consequence, and
 
[...] she was taught to dance”
 (14). As dances were an opportunity for young people of a marriageable age to be together

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