Sunday, 7 April 2013

Of Proper Gentlemen and Ladies - guest post by Maria Grace

Of Proper Gentlemen and Ladies

Etiquette is an integral part of every culture. Although the details differ among regions and historical periods, the concept of correct and incorrect ways to behave remains constant. Rules of polite behavior are essential elements of communication within a society, a social code that enables individuals to understand motives and subtle messages that are otherwise too cumbersome to display through words alone.

In general these rules reflect the values of a society. Following these rules demonstrates respect for the common morality and for other people. Obedience to the guidelines of good manners also reflects on the character of the individual and suggests one is well bred and refined.

These social rules are adopted and adapted over time.  Some may be written into elaborate manuals, though many are unwritten, caught rather than taught among the population at large. In periods of great social transition, like the Regency, published manuals are especially abundant.

The established etiquette in the Regency era emphasized class and rank and the proper relations between the genders. Although the rules might appear awkward and restrictive, especially for women, they did act as a safeguard against misunderstanding and embarrassment for all parties. 

Well-bred women were thought to have a "natural" sense of delicacy. Taste and poise should come naturally to a lady, and it was an indictment against their breeding to be worried about looking correct. Chaperones were one means of assisting young women in maintaining their delicacy and reputation.

Young women were protected zealously in company. Young, unmarried women were never alone in the company of a gentleman, save family and close family friends. A chaperone was also required for a young single woman to attend any social occasion. Under no circumstances could a lady call upon a gentleman alone unless consulting him on a professional or business matter.

Except for a walk to church or a park in the early morning, a lady could not walk alone. She should always be accompanied by another lady, an appropriate man, or a servant. Similarly, a proper lady did not ride abroad by herself.  Whether horseback or in a carriage, she should bring an appropriate companion to protect her reputation.

It was unacceptable to speak to anyone of good breeding without a formal introduction by a third party.  The higher ranking individual (or the woman in the case of two equally ranking individuals) indicates whether he or she wishes to permit the introduction of an inferior. In the case he or she desired an introduction a third party would be asked to make one.  At a public ball, the Master of Ceremonies would conduct this service to enable gentleman and ladies to dance. However, if the higher ranking person did not desire an introduction, one could not be forced upon them.

 In some circumstances, the higher ranking person could introduce him or herself to the lower one. When introduced,  the person of lower rank bowed or curtsied. Gentlemen and ladies of equal rank bowed and curtsied when formally introduced to each other and again when parting.

Touching and tipping one's hat, using the hand farthest away from the lady to raise it, was a standard salutation. Not returning it would be very rude. After being introduced, individuals always acknowledged each other in public, at minimum with a tip or touch to the hat or a slight bow of the shoulders. 

If a gentleman met a lady with whom he had a friendship and who signified that she wished to talk, good manners dictated he should turn and walk with her as they conversed. It was not appropriate to make a lady stand talking in the street.

Failure to acknowledge an acquaintance was a breach in conduct and considered a cut. Manuals warned that a lady should never ‘cut’ someone unless ‘absolutely necessary’ and only ladies were truly justified in delivering a ‘cut’.   


The heart of polite sociability was conversation. The whole purpose of conversation was to please other people and to be deemed pleasing. In general, conversation was tightly controlled by rules of etiquette as well. The list of unacceptable topics far outnumbered the acceptable ones.

A polite individual did not ask direct personal questions of someone they had just met. To question or even compliment anyone else on the details of their dress might also be regarded as impertinent. Personal remarks, however flattering, were not considered good manners. Etiquette manuals counseled such comments should be exchanged only with close family and intimate friends.

Similarly, scandal and gossip should be omitted from public conversation. Any references to pregnancy, childbirth, or other natural bodily functions were considered coarse and carefully sidestepped. A man could sometimes discuss his hunters or driving horses in the presence of ladies though it was generally discouraged.  Greater latitudes of conversation were allowed when the genders were segregated, particularly for the men.

For the Gentleman

While enjoying the company of ladies, a gentleman was under an obligation to please the women, extending to a lady of equal rank that respect usually due to a social superior.

If walking with a lady and a flight of stairs was encountered.  Ascending the stairs, he should precede the lady (running, according to one authority); in descending, he followed. 

In a carriage, a gentleman took the seat rear facing. If he for some reason, he found himself alone in a carriage with a lady, he could not sit next to her unless he was her husband, brother, father, or son. A proper gentleman always exited a carriage first so that he may hand the lady down, always taking appropriate care not to step on her dress.

If a gentleman attended a public exhibition or concert in the company of a lady, he would go in first in order to find her a seat, making sure to remove his hat. If in military uniform, a gentleman never wore a sword in the presence of ladies, nor did he smoke in their presence, though the use of snuff was acceptable.  


Not surprisingly, good manners required all forms of touching between members of the opposite sex were to be kept to a minimum. Putting a lady's shawl about her shoulders, or assisting her to mount a horse, enter a carriage  and for a gentleman to take a lady's arm through his to support her while out walking were considered acceptable of courtesy.

Shaking hands, though, was not. In the Regency era, shaking hands was considered a mark of unusual affability or intimacy. Only gentlemen of about the same social class, who knew each other well, shook hands. Moreover, the intimacy of shaking hands was a mark of condescension, if offered by one of a higher rank. 

Shaking hands with a person of the opposite sex was less frequent and less proper. A touch, a pressure of the hands, was the only external signs a woman could give of harboring a particular regard for certain gentleman and was not to be thrown away lightly. According to some contemporary conduct guides, a woman should avoid even touching the hand of a man who is not a family member.

Between sisters or ladies of equal age or rank a kiss on the cheek was acceptable. A gentleman might kiss a lady's hand, but kissing it 'passionately' was a gesture of excessive intimacy.


A Lady of Distinction   -   Regency Etiquette, the Mirror of Graces (1811). R.L. Shep Publications (1997)
Black, Maggie & Le Faye, Deirdre   -   The Jane Austen Cookbook. Chicago Review Press (1995)
Byrne, Paula   -   Contrib. to Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge University Press (2005)
Day, Malcom   -   Voices from the World of Jane Austen. David & Charles (2006)
Downing, Sarah Jane   -   Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen. Shire Publications (2010)
Jones, Hazel   -   Jane Austen & Marriage . Continuum Books (2009)
Lane, Maggie   -   Jane Austen's World. Carlton Books (2005)
Lane, Maggie   -   Jane Austen and Food. Hambledon (1995)
Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L.   -   The Regency Companion. Garland Publishing (1989)
Le Faye, Deirdre   -   Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams (2002)
Ray, Joan Klingel   -   Jane Austen for Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Inc. (2006)
Ross, Josephine   -   Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners. Bloomsbury USA (2006)
Selwyn, David   -   Jane Austen & Leisure. The Hambledon Press (1999)
Trusler, John   -   The Honours of the Table or Rules for Behavior During Meals. Literary-Press (1791)
Vickery, Amanda   -   The Gentleman's Daughter. Yale University Press (1998)

Author Maria Grace
 Author bio
 Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six cats, seven Regency-era fiction projects and notes for eight more writing projects in progress. To round out the list, she cooks for nine in order to accommodate the growing boys and usually makes ten meals at a time so she only cooks twice a month.

She can be contacted at:

Visit her website Random Bits of Fascination (
On Twitter @WriteMariaGrace
English Historical Fiction Authors (
Austen Authors (


  1. Fabulous post. Lots of great information.

  2. Thanks Collette! I had a great time researching it!

  3. only ladies were truly justified in delivering a ‘cut’. Do you mean that gentlemen were not allowed to "cut" someone?

    If in military uniform, a gentleman never wore a sword in the presence of ladies, What about the scene in PP1995 in which Kitty and Lydia are playing with the officers' swords?

    Wow, there were so many restrictions on their social interaction. How did a woman indicate to a man that she liked him with such limits on their conversation?

    Thank you for this very interesting article!


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