Victorian Morality and Conduct: Jane Austen´s Representation

©2013 Textbook 51 Pages


In 1753, the earl of Chesterfield writes to his son that in his whole life, he was never able to meet a woman possessing reason or consideration, or behaving consequently for twenty-four hours. In his view, sensible men do only dally with women as they in truth do only possess two passions: love and vanity.This study examines Jane Austen´s representation of morality and conduct in her two novels ‘Mansfield Park’ (1814) and ‘Persuasion’ (1818) by the use of the conduct books read and used by the people of the Victorian time.



1. Introduction

2. Morality and Faith

3. Morality and Conduct

4. Morality and Public

5 Morality and Love

6. Morality and Family

7. Conclusion

8. Austen´s Morality and Conduct in School?


1. Introduction

To be friendly is one of the first of social duties; to enjoy the pleasures of friendship is one of the first objects of society.

(Beeton, 1877/2012: 47)

In his whole life, the earl of Chesterfield writes to his son in 1753 (Stanhope, 1753/2009: 107), he was never able to meet a woman possessing reason or consideration, or behaving consequently for twenty-four hours. In his view, sensible men do only dally with women, as they in truth do only possess two passions: love and vanity. (ibid.) Women are only grown-up children knowing how to chat in an entertaining, sometimes even funny way, but do not possess any reason nor sober consideration.

This thesis examines Jane Austen´s representation of morality and conduct in her two novels Mansfield Park (1814) and Persuasion (1818), as these two novels reflect the notion of the named aspects during the English Regency Period and Victorian time. Morality is a term describing the inner, partly learned notions. Conduct describes the shown behaviour of a person, determinable by their actions. Thus, this thesis examines the human inner and outer values during the English Regency and the Victorian period.

The heroines of said novels, Fanny Price and Anne Elliot, are Austen´s two heroines not appearing strong and autonomous from the beginning on, but developing to become so. This is the reason for these two Austen novels being chosen. By their use, the behaviour and expectations towards other people during this period are shown. A view upon the notion of women´s nature in those times is given from time to time to complete the picture. This is necessary to examine if the notion of a woman´s conduct is aimed to be understood. It was England where the middle-class was in highest rank of all European countries, due to the disempowerment of the absolutism (Brosch, 1984: 15). Furthermore, old structures fell apart through industrialisation. Nevertheless, men and women possessed conducts, standards and moralities to accept and to live after, these being examined in this thesis.

Various conduct-books of that time are used to prove the novels to be exemplary for the conduct and morality during the Regency period, one of them being Sermons to Young Women by James Fordyce, the book Mr. Collins uses to read to and bore the Bennett sisters in Austen´s Pride and Prejudice (published 1813) . Fordyce (1809/2009: 1) wrote his sermons out of “unfeigned regard for the female sex; from a fervent zeal for the best interests of society, of which he believes their dispositions and deportment will ever have a mighty influence”. Another conduct book used is An Enquiry to the Duties of the Female Sex by Thomas Gisborne (1801), a book given to Jane Austen by her (often rather conservative) sister Cassandra. A Father´s Legacy to His Daughter by Dr. Gregory (1774/2012) was so well known in Austen´s time that other authors of various conduct-books assumed the knowledge of this book for their writings. There is a good case to believe that this book was a part of Austen´s father´s bibliography. The Habits Of Good Society: A Handbook for Ladies And Gentlemen, written by an anonymous author (1872/2012), provides a different, because broader view on the topic:

[...]which makes me happy to talk sometimes to the ploughman coming from the field, to the policeman hanging about in his beat, even to the thief I have caught in my pocket. Could I have a professional pickpocket in my grasp and not seize the rare opportunity of discovering what view a thief takes of life, of right and wrong, honor, even manners and the habits of good society? You may be sure he has something to tell me on all these points, and for a while I might profit from even his society; though, as equality is necessary, I should for the time have to let myself down to his level, which is scarcely desirable. (Anonymous 1872/2012: 21).

This man´s rather liberal way in dealing with morality and conduct provides the view of another group of people of that time and finds use out of these reasons.

Eleganz und Autonomie by Renate Brosch (1984) shows Austen´s heroines and their actions in and opinions on life. It is written in German, which is the reason for it only being quoted indirectly. The different situations where morality and conduct may differ in the said novels are divided into love, family, faith, conduct and the public life to achieve lucidity in this thesis.

Austen´s heroines are seen today as very independent (Brosch, 1984: 8), Anne Elliott from Persuasion represents one of these heroines while Fanny Price shows the reader the complete opposite and then develops. It is interesting to examine their different views on the said topics. The eyes through which morality is seen in the novel differ from the protagonists to the author. It will, at all times, be clear whose state of mind is reproduced.

The term “morality” is used as the definitions the Oxford Dictionary (1994/2006) provides: the term describes “ethics, rights and wrongs, ethicality; virtue, goodness, good behaviour, righteousness, rectitude, uprightness;[...]morals, principles, honesty, integrity, propriety, honour, justice, decency.” Many of these terms will be found in the course of this thesis.

To build a connection between the topic of this thesis and its author´s future profession as a teacher, the last part of this thesis is used to examine the difference the media reflects concerning conduct and morality of today´s time. Probable misunderstandings or situations in the novel pupils in school may not be able to capture are revealed and explained by using a modern magazine and the views it provides on the world for young people. Solutions to teach these differences in the English class would exceed the space of this thesis but may be picked up and continued in a dissertation.

2. Morality and Faith

It has been universally acknowledged, that the intellectual powers of women are not restricted to the arts of the housekeeper and the sempstress. Genius, taste, and learning itself, have appeared in the number of female endowments and acquisitions. […] The Power who called the human race into being has, with infinite wisdom, regarded, in the structure of the corporeal frame, the tasks which the different sexes were respectively destined to fulfil.

(Gisborne, 1801/2012: 19)

Faith and Christian behaviour was an important guide to live after during the Regency Period. In Mansfield Park, Edmund Betram is the character best known for trying to act after Christian principles and also aiming to become a clergyman in his future. He does not preach the Christian principles at all times, but offers his morality in every situation when he thinks it can be of use. In Persuasion, there is not a clergyman among the protagonists. Nevertheless, there are many situations where the Christian education dominates in the characters, for example when Anne Elliot recommends the works of the best moralists to Captain Benwick for reading in order to “fortify the mind by the highest precepts and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances” (Austen, 1818/2007: 100).

The author of the above quoted Handbook Of The Good Society values religion as not being as important in education as in conduct, although he describes morality deriving from Christian education. He states that when it comes to the moral character of a person, the only case the best society is antagonistic to Christianity is when a man or a woman falls out of honour, as they do in Mansfield Park.

But, in extenuation, it must be remembered that there is no court in which are judged those who sin against it. Society itself is the court in which are judged those many offences which the law cannot reach, and this inclemency of the world, this exile for life which it pronounces, must be regarded as the only deterrent against certain sins. (Anonymous, 1872/2012: 13)

Often, he adds, these judgements by society are passed without any foundation, and are able to ruin a person´s life. In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram´s life is ruined by her elopement and the meaning this reflects on her social status. However, this can be seen as her own responsibility through her free decision to elope with a man though being married to another (out of free will, as she had chosen Mr. Rushworth to be her husband earlier).

The conduct book that was sent to and read by Austen herself, An Enquiry Into The Duties Of The Female Sex by Thomas Gisborne (1901/2912: 7) describes its mission as follows:

To such persons [...][who] have imbided opinions concerning female duties, and the standard of female excellence, at variance with those which Christianity inculcates, let me be permitted to recommend, antecedently to every study and to every pursuit, a deliberate and candid examination of the evidence of a religion, which promotes human hapiness by the holiness and wisdom of the principles and rules of conduct which it furnishes for this life[...].

Accordingly, Gisborne has to be understood as a Christian writer when quoted in the context of this thesis. His notions will be the ones given to him by his God, the entity he believes in. He wrote this conduct book and the rules it provides (ibid.: 8) “from Christian views and dispositions; from a profound reverence and grateful love for our Supreme Benefactor, and an earnest desire to obey and please him in every action of our lives.” Men and women, in Gisborne´s notion, possess differences in their nature: “To me it appears, that He has adopted, and that He has adopted with the most conspicuous wisdom, a corresponding plan of discrimination between the mental powers and dispositions of the two sexes.” (ibid.: 20). Austen might have doubted that, but with what she certainly would disagree is what follows (ibid.: 21):

The science of legislation, of jurisprudence, of political economy; the conduct of government in all its functions, the abstruse researches of erudition; the inexhaustible depths of philosophy; the acquirements subordinate to navigation; the knowledge indispensable in the wide field of commercial enterprise; the arts of defence, and of attack, by land and sea[...]; these and other studies, pursuits, and occupations, assigned chiefly or entirely to men, demand the efforts of a mind endued with powers of close and comprehensive reasoning, and of intense and continued application, in a degree in which they are not requisite for the discharge of the customary offices of female duty.

By writing this, he excludes the female sex from the possibility of possessing any skill in the above described fields. Furthermore, he describes this “fact” as god-given and god-willed.

Another Christian writer, James Fordyce (1809/2009: 4), encapsulates it when saying “In fine, none but the most contracted, or the most prejudiced, will deny that women may avail themselves of every decent attraction that can lead to a state for which they are manifestly formed”, by which he means the way God as a creator has formed them. Out of this form, they are endangered to break when not being raised and educated in a proper Christian way. Whether Maria Bertram has enjoyed this Christian education is the question to be raised. Her upper class family home should have provided it for her, and, in her father´s opinion, has done so. He finds himself caught off-guard with the elopement. What Maria Bertram was able to develop in her life was a character aware of what she desires for her own life. Austen does not mind wit and character in her heroines, although her Christian basic attitude made her expect the superficiality and lack of principle to derive from the end of the domestic privacy (Brosch, 1984: 95). Her heroines, by which Fanny and Anne are meant, not Maria Bertram, match the expectation that is shown towards them to act in an honest way. They show an expected lack of refinement, an artlessness, not using pretence in their acting. But his openness does not reveal an expected mental vacuum and helplessness, but shows intelligent, judicious women, aiming for their goals and solving crises with their minds (ibid.: 120). The novel Mansfield Park also includes, in a Christian way, “condemned” characters such as Mrs Norris. She is described as being snobbish, evil to Fanny, selfish in the every day life and fawning towards the father, Sir Bertram, these adjectives all being terms not used in the conduct books when the wished-for character is praised. About the female character, but meaning rather the superficial and coquettish behaviour of Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, Thomas Gisborne [1801/2912) writes when describing “incidents of good or evil; of the latter description are the effects which the influence of the female character produces”. In his conduct book he writes of his notion of the three particular effects, each of them being of extreme and never-ceasing concern to the welfare of mankind, which the female conduct has to represent (ibid.: 12): First, he expects a woman to be “daily and hourly to the comfort of husbands, of parents, of brothers and sisters, and of other relations, connections, and friends, in the intercourse of domestic life”. Secondly, every female has the duty to form and improve manners, dispositions, and conduct. The third point concerns the modelling of the human mind in the “early stages of its growth”, and to fix the principles under maternal tuition until having raised to an accomplished young woman. He then closes this topic (ibid.: 15) by saying that it is the most important duty for every woman to show felicity in following her conduct and caring for her family. In his opinion, the “Creator” has “stamped upon the female mind” (ibid.) certain characteristic impressions, which discriminate the talents and dispositions of women from those of men.

But not only the women in Austen´s novels, also the men do not behave appropriately at every time. A character not meeting the expectations of a gentleman of that time is Tom Bertram, the brother of Maria Bertram, behaving careless and extravagant. More on these characters and their actions and behaviour is found in the following chapters of this thesis, this being situated here because Tom Bertram should have gained the same superior education as his sister Maria Bertram.

A more subtle misbehaviour through lacking Christian principles in her education is shown by Mary Crawford. The lack of the moral and Christian principles in her upbringing generates a profit-seeking thinking, aiming for an improvement of her situation through marriage. Her practising of the art of seduction creates a dangerous coquetry, which also misleads Maria Bertram to her stumbling (Brosch, 1984: 31). Not the orientation on a good match is condemned by Austen, but the consequence of the exclusive occupation with the said, followed by coquetry and unscrupulousness. If the inner Christian principles of morality are internalised, these problems do not occur. The human being is at peace with the world and with oneself. If this is not the case, the person is forced to simulate contentment and finds no possibility to be content and happy. This is mostly the case with Julia Bertram, Maria´s sister, having to bear the flirtations of her engaged sister with Henry Crawford, the gentleman her own eye fell upon (Austen, 1814/1966: 91):

Poor Julia, the only one out of the nine not tolerably satisfied with their lot, was now in a state of pennance, and as different from the Julia of the barouche-box as could well be imagined. The politeness which she had been brought up to practice as a duty, made it impossible for her to escape; while the want of that higher species of self-command, that just consideration of others, that knowledge of her own heart, that principle of right which had not formed any essential part of her education, made her miserable under it.

She is not able to act against it.

There is not only the un-Christian character that is condemned by the above authors. The anonymous author of The Handbook of Good Society (1872/2012: 53) condemns furthermore the active spreading and the following circulation of rumours and the random spreading of untruths in the neighbourhood, possibly causing bad reputation for people or places:

Oh, if the calumniator, male or female, could be hanged as high as Haman; if the ninth commandment, like the eighth, could be punished with death, many a hopeful career were not blighted at its outset, many an innocent woman were not driven from her home and thrust into the very jaws of sin, and the world would be happier, and far more Christian.

This rumouring is what takes place in Persuasion when Mrs. Smith “gains” her information on the public happenings and persons such as Mr. Elliot through her nurse, Mrs. Rooke. Her notion on this sort of news (Austen, 1818/2007: 204) is a different one: “It does not come to me in quite so direct a line as that; it takes a bend or two, but nothing of consequence. The stream is as good as at first; the little rubbish it collects in the turnings is easily moved away.” Anne does not share her notion on this, she agrees with the above quoted conduct book (ibid.) when answering: “My dear Mrs. Smith, your authority is deficient. This will not do.” Here, Anne´s Christian morals are shown. She does not want to judge a person by what is told about him or her, and furthermore does not want her friends to spread rumours so easily.

James Fordyce (1809/2009: 5), the priest, speaks of the bigger concern for women than for men when it comes to morality and conduct:

A concern for character is, from their constitution, education and circumstances, particularly strong in women; in all but those who, having lost their native honours, have with them lost their sense of shame; an infamy to which they would have hardly descended, had they not first sunk in their own estimation.

By this he already speaks of the topic of vulgarity of those people not possessing certain values or misbehaving in public, which are going to be topics of the following chapters of this thesis. In the following chapter of this book, Fordyce writes about girls such as Fanny from Mansfield Park. Fanny is a shy girl, not valuing herself that good compared to her superior cousins. He advises to remind themselves of their own value, and to encourage a certain esteem for themselves (ibid.). Thus, he says, the affection can be insured and the importance be preserved to which every woman was born. She, as well as Anne Elliot in Persuasion, is the character in which the Christian principles are included, which will be elaborated on later. The worst violation Anonymous (1872/2012: 13) can think of is to be told:

The chaplain, in a frayed and dirty shirt, with holes in his boots and ill-combed hair, was sneaking up to the grandees and doing his best to gain their attentions by smiles and flattery. He had heard somewhere that no introductions were needed in Continental salons, and you can imagine our surprise when we saw him slide sideways up to the red-stockinged nuncio, tap him familiarly on the shoulder, and with a full grin exclaim, “Well my Lord, how did you leave the Pope?”

3. Morality and Conduct

Bad society, then, may be divided into three classes: 1. That in which both morals and manners are bad; 2. That in which the manners are bad, be the morals what they will; 3. That in which the manners appear to be good, but the morals are detestable. The first is low, the second vulgar, and the third dangerous society. (Anonymous, 1872/ 2012: 23)

A woman in the Regency period was expected to be the way Fanny, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is described to the reader (Austen, 1814/1966: 213): a small, shy and not very robust woman, and “almost as fearful of notice as other women are of neglect” .

“It is this peculiar propriety of female manners of which I intend to give you my sentiments, without touching on those general rules of conduct, by which men and women are equally bound” is what Dr. Gregory (1774/ 2012) writes in his conduct book.

This special femininity is supposed to consist of modesty, virginity, shyness and demure restraint (Brosch, 1984: 27). At the same time, the big mental weakness of a woman is ascribed to the superiority of her feelings, but this mental inferiority was seen as an advantage. Here, Austen´s revolutionary view and her modern heroines are emerged.

“..it is not very wonderful that with all their promising talents and early information, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility. In every thing but disposition they were admirably taught” is how Austen (1814/1966: 42) describes the Bertram sisters. What she states at this point is that the art of sitting elegantly and the endless teaching of drawing is not valued by her, but she would prefer the young girls to be educated in their personality. Characters matching the notion Austen had of sensible education and character are Fanny and Susan Price in Mansfield Park as well as Anne Elliot in Persuasion. In these novels, the characters belonging to the lower classes are the ones showing the valued behaviour and characteristics: Mrs. Smith in Persuasion and Fanny and her sister Susan Price in Mansfield Park. Mrs. Smith describes her aide and nurse, Mrs. Rooke (who also belongs to a lower class), as a “shrewd, sensible woman. Hers is a line for seeing human nature; and she has a fund of good sense and observation, which, as a companion, make her infinitely superior to thousands of those, who, having only received ´the best education in the world`, know nothing worth attending to.” (Austen, 1818/2007: 152) As one of these persons, also Mrs. Smith is described by Anne Elliott. Her father, Sir Walter Elliot shows his contempt (ibid.: 155) when speaking of Mrs. Smith as “low company” possessing “paltry rooms with foul air” and “disgusting associations” without even knowing her personally; his opinion derives from the knowledge of her social status.

Samuel Orchard Beeton (1877/2012: 76) provides a long list of the appearance women of his time were supposed to show, but he also states that not every woman could possess “a delicate skin” and stresses (ibid.: 8) that “true is that, with a good heart and a good mind, no woman can be ugly; at least they soon cease to be so considered, even if nature has been unkind to them in feature, figure, and complexion.” Austen´s heroines are seldom described in their outward appearance. The important features they possess are their inner values. The keywords for expected female behaviour (Brosch, 1984: 105) were “spirits, complexion, listlessness, irritability, langour, nervousness, blushing and weeping.” No difference is being made between bodily and mental indisposition. When in Persuasion Louisa Musgrove jumps down some stairs (ignoring the objections of Captain Wentworth of the jar being too great for her) she slips and falls. Everyone is horrified, Louisa herself loses her senses and consequently also her sister Henrietta faints. Captain Wentworth falls into deep self-reproaches. The cure for a woman being mentally or bodily unwell is always calmness (Louisa having to stay in bed without the excitement of her family´s visit), healthy diet, a change of air (travelling to Bath or, in Persuasion, travelling to Lyme Regis) and movement such as walks in the nature. Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, combines two arts in her the other Bertram daughters do not possess: the art of language and literature, as the author of The Habits of Good Society (Anonymous, 1872/ 2012: 50) describes them. She is well able to express her thoughts neatly and suitably on topics such as novels, study books or famous persons or instances. She speaks in a language seen as sober and very sophisticated, which is necessary for being esteemed as a well educated woman (ibid.). If esteemed characteristics such as humour and repartee (which were thought to be to some extent natural gifts) were not innate, they could, in Beeton´s (1877/2012: 17) opinion, be improved by artificial training . There were, of course, also women who enjoyed the helplessness, undemandingness and lack of knowledge they were expected to show (Brosch, 1984: 109) and used it for coquetry. This was a dangerous game for a woman, as she had to be very careful. If a woman was exposed use as using this, she was said to be frivolous. Thus, she was forced to reveal outward naivete. The said shyness is also found in The Habits of Good Society (Anonymous 1872/2012: 27):

As for shyness, which is par excellence the great obstacle to ease in English society, I, for my part, think it infinitely preferable to forwardness. It calls forth our kindest and best feelings, utterly disarms the least considerate of us, and somewhat endears us to the sufferer.

Elegance is the term that Renate Brosch uses for values searched for within women of those times such as Fanny and Anne, the heroines of the two examined novels: they combine superficial subtleties of cultivated manner in connection with real sensitivity for human values (Brosch, 1984: 9). Austen herself (ibid.: 9) differentiates between elegance of manner, meaning the polished surface, and elegance of mind, meaning a moral attitude. The title of her book, translated Elegance and Autonomy, relates to two aspects of the female picture of personal character: the intertwined obligations toward the individual self and the community they live in. If Brosch (ibid.) had to choose two terms for describing the perfect Regency woman, “delicacy” and “sensibility” would be chosen.

The nowadays often with “weak” associated terms such as emotionality, sensitivity, compassion and helplessness were the positive character traits of Austen´s time. Anne Elliot is, even though she really does not wish for any company, accompanied home by her brother-in-law Charles Musgrove after everybody found her looking unwell. They do not let her go home on her own but she needs company, although she refuses this. Refusing is another aspect of being polite: Anne´s refusing is seen as her only being polite, and is thus ignored. Speaking one´s mind was hardly found in those times.

James Fordyce (1809/2009: 5) describes the perfect woman as such: “Virtuous women are the sweeteners, the charm of human life.[...] This is not flattery, it is just praise; and that every one of you may deserve such commendation, is my earnest prayer”, he addresses his female readers.

Whenever women are described and praised by their outward appearance, a remark about the fine skin or something synonymous is found. Beeton (1877/2012: 76) describes the pleasing skin to be as follows: “The texture and colour of the skin, and the appearance of the nails, show how much care and culture the possessor has bestowed upon them, and, consequently, may be regarded as evidence of his or her taste.” Thus, conclusions were drawn from the outer appearance to the inner attitude and character. He furthermore provides guidance in how to dress properly and which adornment to use (ibid.), but James Fordyce (1809/2009: 4) represents another, a Christian opinion, which is nearer to the point of relinquishing any adornments at all. In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford would not support this view, as she is wearing these adornments constantly and even tries to convince Fanny of accepting a necklace given to Fanny by Mary´s brother Henry Crawford, for her first ball in public. This may also be an intention of Austen: to show Mary Crawford as valuing her own principles more than the Christian and traditional principles. Also, the Misses Musgrove in Persuasion show a modern image of conduct and manners (Austen, 1818/2007: 39):

Henrietta and Louisa, young ladies of nineteen and twenty, who had brought from a school at Exeter all the usual stock of accomplishments, and were now, like thousands of other young ladies, living to be fashionable, happy and merry. Their dress had every advantage, their faces were rather pretty, their spirits extremely good, their manners unembarrassed and pleasant; they were of consequence at home, and favourites abroad.

For Austen´s female characters (and women of her time) it was important to control their emotions. By reflecting on the emotions and thoughts, rather than living them, it could be assured that no unexpected outbursts took place and, thereby, no other persons were caused to feel uncomfortable in the presence of oneself. This is the reason why Anne Elliot in Persuasion finds it so difficult to be forced in one room with her earlier love, Captain Wentworth. She has every difficulty in staying calm and not showing her excitement. She is expected to behave normally, not leave the room, ignore him or behave politely, talk about random topics and keep up the harmony. She suffers because of the fact that “they had no conversation together, no intercourse but what the commonest civility required. Once so much to each other! Now nothing!” (Austen, 1818/2007: 61). Interesting is that this so-called no conversation actually is a conversation. But the topics being talked of have very little meaning for Anne, so she values this as being no conversation; “now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.” (ibid.: 62) Here it is important to mention that also Captain Wentworth does not feel comfortable in this situation. He deals with it by saying that he had expected the Misses Musgrove in that room, and has to go to the window to “recollect himself, and feel how he ought to behave” (ibid.: 78).

The reader most probably knows that Anne and Captain Wentworth find their happy ending together, but these fears of her and her despair while not being able to show it represent the importance of dealing with emotions for females at that time.

Anne Elliot later defends the circumstance of the women´s emotionalism as a result of a woman´s inactivity in the men´s world: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands” (ibid.: 234). When it comes to women complaining about their own status in life, Thomas Gisborne (1801/2012: 11) writes:

Young women endowed with good understandings, but desirous of justifying the mental indolence which they have permitted themselves to indulge; or disappointed at not perceiving a way open by which they, like their brothers, may distinguish themselves and rise to eminence, are occasionally heard to declare their opinion, that the sphere in which women are designed to move is so humble and so limited, as neither to require nor to reward assiduity, and under this impression, either do not discern, or will not be persuaded to consider, the real and deeply interesting effects which the conduct of their sex will always have on the happiness of society.

This means that young women, such as Anne Elliott used to be, are not supposed to complain about their lives but see the positive basic task they own: to please the society.

Throughout the novel, Anne Elliot is not a young woman. She is 29, and has, according to her father, lost all her beauty. She gains it back when spending time at Lyme with its healthy air, and in the eyes of Captain Wentworth again becomes as pretty as she used to be. But when he sees her for the first time after this long period of division, after she had refused him, he talks about her as having “altered beyond his knowledge” (Austen, 1818/2007: 59) which mortifies Anne. She is concerned about his feelings and attitude towards her.

A woman of this period also had to be very concerned about her reputation, as to this was the determining factor whether she would make a good match or not. Marriage was the only possibility for a woman to safeguard her existence, which consequently is tried by many of Austen´s heroines, for example the Misses Musgrove in Persuasion or the Bertram sisters in Mansfield Park.

. For Austen, not the modern and after the principles of an elegant education (and skilled in the beautiful arts) educated women were the accomplished women. She preferred her heroes and heroines not to be focused on the outward, but on the inward competences.

A man of that time aimed to be regarded as a gentleman. This term is understood in various ways. The superficial Sir Elliot shows his understanding of a gentleman in the following passage: ”You misled me by the term gentleman. I thought you were speaking of some man of property; Mr. Wentworth was nobody, I remember; quite unconnected; nothing to do with the Stafford family. One wonders how the names of many of our nobility becomes so common” (Austen, 1818/2007: 22). Other understandings of the word gentleman are, according to the anonymous author of The Habits of Good Society, the ability to adapt to other countries´ conventions and proceeding with this always to keep up the harmony and respect for other people in every situation. For a gentleman, in Samuel Orchart Beeton´s opinion (1877/2012: 15), “a ready and graceful elocution” is indispensable:

Possessed by professional men, its value can scarcely be overrated; and no young man, whatever his aims in life may be, should esteem it unworthy of attention, since privates as well as public life afford constant occasion for its exercise. To read intelligibly, audibly, and agreeably, to speak with taste and elegance, to address an audience, each require careful and persevering practice, critical discrimination, and disciplined taste.

This behaviour is shown by Henry Crawford when reading out loud one of the theatricals in the presence of the Bertrams and Fanny and impressing them, even Fanny, by succeeding very well in it. Later, Beeton (1877/2012: 49) lists the following traits necessary for a gentleman to unite: “To be firm, steadfast, reliable, always to be depended upon, never vacillating, uncertain, and contradictory – these are truly respectable and excellent traits”; “Generosity is one of the noblest and most indispensable characteristics of a gentleman.” Here, one thinks at once about Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, combining all these characteristics in him. In his dealing with Louisa Musgrove, he shows his knowledge of “cautiousness [...] [which] moderates the actions and expressions of love, friendship, pugnacity, vanity, pride, and even conscience. It is a perpetual check and guard upon the behaviour” (ibid.: 51). Captain Wentworth, moreover, makes big impression on everyone becoming acquainted with him. When the Misses Musgrove meet him for the first time, they are “staying five minutes behind their father and mother, to endeavour to express how perfectly delighted they were with him, how much handsomer, how infinitely more agreeable they thought him than any individual among their male acquaintance” (Austen, 1818/2007: 52). Also, Charles Hayter shows many character traits of a gentleman. He always cares about his wife, Mary, although she often behaves selfish and inappropriately. He is the one caring for their children, although Mary remarks that a father could do nothing when it comes to caring about sick children. He extends the role that is thought for him as a father and cares about his children when Mary feels inconvenient for this role, which happens repeatedly. Louisa Musgrove finds herself convinced after the visit at Captain Harville´s house in Lyme that those men who are part of the navy must be the best gentlemen alive (ibid.: 98): “their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness.” She is convinced that sailors possess more worth and warmth than any other men in England, and only deserve to be respected and loved (ibid.).

Furthermore, the opinion about gentleman-like behaviour can change with ageing, as Mr. Elliot describes (ibid.: 141):

The notions of a young man of one and twenty […] as to what is necessary in manners to make him quite the thing, are more absurd, I believe, than those of any other set of beings in the world. The folly of the means they often employ is only to be equalled by the folly of what they have in view.

The opposite behaviour, for men and women, has a convincing name: vulgarity. The author of The Habits of Good Society (1872/2012: 30) describes vulgarity as being “a pretension of some kind”, mostly combined with wealth and the behaviour deriving from it. He also provides a cure for vulgarity (ibid.: 31):

So completely indeed is modesty the true spirit of good breeding, that any kind of display in poor or rich, high or low, savors of vulgarity; and the man who makes too much of his peculiar excellencies, who attempts to engross conversation with the one topic he is strong in […] is a vulgar man, be he king, kaiser or cobbler.

Furthermore, being ashamed of the own poverty is vulgarity for this author. He describes a person he knows as being ashamed of his “nutshell of cottage” (ibid.: 32) and thus calling it a “country seat” (ibid.).: “The commonest form of it, found unfortunately in all classes, is the pretension to a higher position than we occupy.” He states that not the fact that someone is poorer than the other is what counts, but the way that person deals with it in society and public. This is aptly describes Mrs. Smith in Persuasion. She is a widow whose husband left her in debts and sickness and thus finds herself in a bad (financial) situation. She does not stress this instance when being visited by Anne Elliot, but rather jokes about it. This makes her an agreeable person to spend time with, and Anne (Austen, 1818/2007: 151) values Mrs. Smith´s “good sense and agreeable manners which she had almost ventured to depend on, and a disposition to converse to be cheerful beyond her expectation. Neither the dissipations of the past […] nor the restrictions of the present, neither her sickness nor sorrow seemed to have closed her heart or ruined her spirits” . She fits the picture that Samuel Orchart Beeton (1877/2012: 52) draws of poverty: that “poverty[...] requires great excellence of character to bear with dignity. A poor man is exposed to a thousand temptations to shabby and even criminal actions which the rich can never know”.

The author of The Habits of Good Society (1872/2012: 24) defines undue familiarity as the first of lowness. Had he known about the quick familiarity, with which Mr. Elliot is accepted in the family again and with which he addresses to his cousins Elizabeth and Anne, he would not have appreciated it, although the author rather speaks of women showing the said undue familiarity. In his view, Mrs. Clay should not find herself a part of the inhabitants at the Elliot´s flat in London. “Familiarity arises either from an excess or a deficiency of respect. The latter is never pardonable” (ibid.: 25). Another sin to this author is a wink: “There are few actions so atrociously familiar as a wink. I would rather kiss a lady outright than wink or leer at her, for that silent movement seems to imply a secret understanding which may be interpreted in any way you like.” (ibid.: 26).

In Austen´s two novels persons showing themselves off as being vulgar are Sir Elliot and his daughter Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion when being seated in Bath through his catastrophic economic management and taking part in social life there, and John Yates in Mansfield Park, being an aristocratic and proud of his theatricals he has played beforehand with a handful of important persons at another estate. “Nothing therefore will more irretrievably stamp you as vulgar in really good society, than the repeated introduction of the names of nobility […] in reference to yourself.” (ibid.: 33). Obviously, the characters of Mansfield Park do not mind his behaviour, possibly because of feeling flattered by the thought of having an aristocratic person in their house. Also, when speaking about vulgarity, the social rank and status were very important concerning the people talking about someone.

Captain Benwick in Persuasion is described to Lady Russel as a dull person, whom she will find very disagreeable: “He has walked with me, sometimes, from one end of the sands to the other, without saying a word. He is not at all a well-bred young man.” (Austen, 1818/2007). Anne soon contradicts her sister by assuring Lady Russel that she will like be pleased with his mind so much as to see no deficiency in his manner. Anne shows understanding for Captain Benwick´s situation which Mary, her sister, is not able to see.

Throughout Mansfield Park, Fanny is treated inferior to her cousins Maria and Julia. The distance in status is felt already in the first meeting at Mansfield Park. The Bertrams are described as follows (Austen 1814/1966: 49-50):



Type of Edition
ISBN (Softcover)
File size
493 KB
Publication date
2014 (February)
victorian moral victorian education Jane Austen and her novels Conduct Books How to behave


Svenja Strohmeier was born in Gehrden, Germany, in 1988. In 2008, she started to study English and History at the University of Hildesheim in order to become a teacher. There, she taught about morality and conduct at the English Institute of Literature and Language, in 2013. In August 2013, she will continue her education as a teacher in a Hanoverian school at the Realschule for English and History.

Title: Victorian Morality and Conduct: Jane Austen´s Representation