Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Jane Austen and Civility: A Distant Reading

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Jane Austen and Civility: A Distant Reading

Article excerpt

There is no history without dates. To be convinced of this it is sufficient to consider how a pupil succeeds in learning history: he reduces it to an emaciated body, the skeleton of which is formed by dates.

--Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind

IN A CHARACTERISTICALLY ANIMATED LETTER to her sister Cassandra of 24 December 1798, after sharing the news that their brother Frank may soon be promoted to the rank of Commander in the Royal Navy, Jane Austen asserts, "But I will not torment myself with Conjectures & suppositions; Facts shall satisfy me." The word "fact" appears frequently in Austen's prose--often as part of a transitional phrase or an aside, but sometimes at very crucial points in her narratives, such as in Persuasion, when Mrs. Smith offers to acquaint Anne Elliot with her cousin's "'real character'": "'Facts shall speak,'" she promises (199). Given my subject's attachment to facts, I begin by stating one of my own: manners matter to Jane Austen--to both the writer herself and our understanding of her work. This truth is by now so "universally acknowledged" that it is possible not only to read myriad scholarly examinations of Austen's interest in proper behavior but also to purchase manuals such as Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners. In what follows, I build on this familiar fact: first, with a few less well-known facts about both manners and Austen's work; and second, with some related "conjectures and suppositions" that I hope will enlighten rather than torment. In the first section, I consider Austen's fiction by way of a broad historical context and an approach Franco Moretti calls "distant reading," where distance, he claims, "is not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge (1). While I initially offer more information than interpretation, I turn, in the second section, to Austen's first and last published novels in order to look more closely at what this distance allows us to see.


Although we now tend to group social behavior marked by observation of and consideration for other people under the homogenizing designation "manners," there are, in fact, important distinctions to be made between the various codes referring to proper conduct: courtesy, civility, etiquette, and so on. For example, while "courtesy" and "civility" now signify roughly the same things, they emerged and became dominant behavioral terms in English at different times, and they reflect distinct historical publics (courtly-aristocratic and nascent-bourgeois, respectively). Manners, then, are the set of practices that are given shape by--and give shape to--historically specific phases of communal life. One of the problems with recent books that perpetuate the view of Austen as moral tutor, a sort of Miss Manners for the ages, is that they understand manners as monolithic--as near-universal and timeless behavioral ideals or, worse still, a set of rules to be followed. It is crucial, however, to distinguish between different sorts of behavior, to resist lumping the generic "manners" together with more linguistically and historically precise designations, not least because Austen herself distinguishes. Indeed, if we examine the various behavioral terms Austen employs to denote good behavior, another significant fact emerges: "civility" is her word of choice (see Figure 1). (1) This fact may not seem particularly surprising or illuminating. As we know from the preeminent sociologist of manners, Norbert Elias, "civility" was the preferred term for designating polite behavior in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Further, "civility" does not merit inclusion in R. W. Chapman's appendix on "Miss Austen's English," as it is neither "actually obsolete" nor used by Austen "in senses now definitely obsolete" (SS 388). Nevertheless, the more we know about the history of civility, the more interesting Austen's choice becomes.

In the first place, what civility means to us--politeness--is quite different from what it has meant. …

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