Sunday, February 06, 2005
With All Due Respect
Now, as a single guy who's in search of a suitable spouse, I must admit that I do enjoy the "boy meets/courts/marries girl" aspect of Austen's stories, but that's far from the only attraction her work holds for me. In fact, as I get better acquainted with Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and the rest, the more I appreciate Austen's insightful, ironic observations of the people and manners of her time: late 18th and early 19th Century England. In her works, I get a picture of a society with many flaws but at the same time many virtues that people of the early 21st Century may do well to emulate.
I'm a US citizen, having been both born and raised in the USA. Since I was born in the early 1960s, I've seen our society evolve in various ways. One of the most noticable changes I've seen is the move towards informality. When I was a young boy I was taught to address grown-ups as "Mr. Smith" or "Mrs. Jones", and I was expected to "dress up" for special occasions, such as the periodic family trip to visit the relatives. What a change I've seen since then! Now, it seems that everyone is on a first-name basis, and everyone dresses in casual attire (jeans and T-shirt, etc.) almost all the time. I've even had young children address me by my first name.
How different the world of Miss Austen must have been! Compared to today, manners were much more formal. The ways in which you addressed a person or which you dressed for a particular occasion were drastically different depending on whether you were at home with your family, shopping in the marketplace, directing your servants, or visiting your social superior. First names were reserved for your immediate family or very intimate friends. In Austen's novels, the first time a gentleman called his intended spouse by her first name is when he proposed marriage to her. Up to then, she was Miss Bennet (if she was the eldest daughter) or Miss Elizabeth Bennet (if a younger daughter). People of distinction were addressed by title, such as Sir or Lady Bertram. As for dress and overall behavior, how you presented yourself in company was very different than how you behaved when you were alone with family or very intimate friends. If you were a gentleman's daughter such as Miss Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, you'd want to wear one of your best dresses if you were invited to dine with Lady Catherine de Bourgh at Rosings, taking care to not dress so fine as to outshine her ladyship.
Although I've obviously not lived in Miss Austen's world, I can well imagine that keeping track of all of the dos and don'ts of her society was hard work. I, for one, have no desire to return to those days, and I see many advantages to the social leveling we've seen since then. In particular, I think we've made much positive progress insofar as respect towards women and various ethnic groups since Miss Austen's day (although the recent movement towards political correctness has, I fear, often taken things too far). However, I think there is much good that we can glean from the manners and customs of that long-ago day.
I am of the opinion that 21st Century American society would benefit immensely from a revival of respect. Whereas in our informal society it seems that what's most important to us is our own personal comfort, we would do better to treat others with proper respect, as though they are better than ourselves. By using respectful terms of address, wearing suitable attire, paying attention to personal grooming, etc., we communicate respect for those around us, so long as we do these things out of a sincere attitude of respect. (Feigned respect is no respect at all; it would be far better to be sincerely informal!) Moreover, through good manners we grant "space" to those with whom we are not intimate, a practice which in my experience helps rather than hinders the process of getting acquainted with a person. In such a scheme, there would be ample time to be casual or "laid back", but that time would be reserved for the occasions when we are with those with whom we are truly intimate.
Although I am of the opinion that a movement towards greater formality and improved manners in our society would be of great overall benefit, I ought to emphasize the many advantages such a scheme would have for the process of courtship. Today, a guy meets a girl, asks her out for a date, and from then on they're pretty much on their own, but with courtship, the guy starts out by asking the girl's father for permission to court her, and remains accountable to him throughout the process. Far from hindering the process of getting acquainted, such a method I think provides beneficial safeguards that make it easier for the man and woman to resist the temptation towards premature intimacy. Intimacy would, of course, come in due time: on the day that they are married. I could write much more about this important subject, but that will have to wait for some other time.
So, if you haven't taken the time to check out the works of Jane Austen, I encourage you to do so. My recommendation: start with the A&E DVD of Pride and Prejudice, then read the novel. After that, try out her other novels and the corresponding video adaptations. (I especially recommend Mansfield Park, a novel in which virtue is richly rewarded in the end. Avoid the 1999 movie which is spiced up with several 20th Century idiosyncracies, and track down the fine 1980s BBC miniseries instead.) As you immerse yourself in her works, take some time to think about how you might apply her insights into your day-to-day life. If your experience is like mine, you may learn some very interesting lessons.