Sunday, January 02, 2011

Pride & Prejudice, Volume I, chapter 2

Mr Bennet's morning call

Don't get me wrong. Mostly I love Mr Bennet, because Lizzie is his favorite child and she's one of my favorite characters ever in the history of characters, so it's hard not to love her father for finding her so superior to everyone else in his immediate family, but Mr Bennet's "teasing" of his wife is actually a little mean-spirited, in a passhole-aggresshole sort of way. So even though overall I like him, I have to point out that his conduct is not exactly praiseworthy here, even if it is funny.

And in this instance Mr Bennet at least did the right thing by paying a call on Mr Bingley. It is morally right for two reasons: (1) general social protocols expected/required it and (2) he does have five daughters to try to marry off, and his wife did ask him to pay the call. He was definitely acting under the first rationale; whether he was operating under the second as well isn't quite as clear - as we will come to see, his parenting decisions aren't always that great.

Back to visiting protocols of the time: It was considered appropriate (bordering on mandatory) for established members of a neighborhood to pay a quick morning call on new residents. Women could call on other women (as long as they were the wives or daughters of gentlemen and not, say, courtesans), and men could call on men or women. Women could not, however, pay a social call on men to whom they had not been introduced, and even if they had been introduced, there were strict guidelines regarding propriety that had to be observed. She should not, for instance, go alone - a point you'll want to remember come, say, Chapter Seven.

A morning call actually took place between the hours of eleven and three (roughly speaking). As Margaret Sullivan notes in The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World, any earlier than eleven might catch the person still at breakfast, and any later than three might be taken as an indication that you're fishing for a dinner invitation.

In Austen's time, the term "morning" was then understood to mean "anytime before dinner". An initial morning call would occur as follows:

The visitor (here, Mr Bennet), would arrive at the home of the person to be visited (Mr Bingley). He would enquire whether the person he was calling on was "at home", a term that means "accepting visitors". He would then hand his calling card to the butler. If Mr Bingley were not "at home" (a term which might not be literal - they might be there, but not want to accept callers), Mr Bennet would then leave. If Mr Bingley were home (which proved to be the case, although it happened off the page), Mr Bennet would be admitted and introductions made. An initial visit like this would last about 15 minutes, half an hour max, during which Mr Bennet would have removed his hat. (As a side note, a woman paying such a call would not generally remove her bonnet, since bonnet removal was for lengthier visits - The More You Know*.) Conversation would be general in nature (the weather, the roads, where Mr Bingley has come from, where Mr Bennet lives and with whom), and refreshments might be served or not.

The first call having been paid, Mr Bingley is now in Mr Bennet's debt. Should he wish to pursue further acquaintance, he would return the call promptly (within a few days time), with a short morning call of his own. Should he wish to "cut" Mr Bennet, he would not pay a return call, thereby indicating a desire to avoid further acquaintance. We'll see what Mr Bingley does in the next chapter. (Hint: He comes to call, of course!)

Meet the Bennet sisters

Lizzie: Mr Bennet's favorite, she's the second oldest of the five daughters. We'll leave it at that for now.

Jane: Who's the fairest of us all? Why, it's Jane. (The casting director got that right for the 2005 movie version, but the one for the BBC production missed the boat - not that the actress playing Jane isn't lovely, but she's not (in my opinion) prettier than Elizabeth and she should be.) Jane is exceedingly sweet-natured.

Kitty: She's the fourth-born child, and pisses Mrs Bennet off by coughing when Mrs Bennet is already in a state about Mr Bingley.

Mary: The bookish, missish middle child, about whom Austen says this - an extremely funny but cutting line: "Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how." OUCH!

Lydia: The youngest, and Mrs Bennet's favorite. She is 15 at the start of the book, a fact you want to keep in mind. She should not technically be "out" in society at such an age, but Mrs Bennet is not a stickler for these sorts of things. Also, she's a flibbertigibbet, a word that doesn't get nearly enough play.

Back to Chapter One


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