Aspects of Civility in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Seminar Paper, 2004

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Negative aspects of civility
2.1 Sneering civility – Miss Bingley
2.2 Shallow civility – Sir William
2.3 False civility – Wickham
2.4 Condescending civility – Lady Catherine

3. Mr Collins – the formal aspect of civility
3.1 Collins’s first letter
3.2 Negative politeness strategies
3.3 Mr Collins’s reception in society
3.4 The importance of formality

4. External and internal factors of politeness
4.1 Mr Collins – dominated by external politeness factors
4.2 Pemberley & Rosings as symbols
4.3 Mr Collins – an epitome of impoliteness
4.4 Masked face-threatening-acts
4.5 Collins’s collected offences during his proposal
4.6 Two different proposals

5.Civility: a decisive factor in the main characters’ relationship
5.1 Civility as the basis of Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s conduct
5.2 Phase 1: Misunderstanding
5.3 Phase 2: The proposal – a “breakdown of civility”
5.4 Phase 3: Reconstitution via civility

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Decisive parts of both plot and meaning of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are conveyed by means of conversations. “In them the word becomes an authentic deed”, as H. Babb puts it.[1] In linguistic terms, conversation is discourse – and discourse is necessarily social discourse.[2] Taking into consideration that Jane Austen’s age “was an age of society’s predominance, when man was viewed primarily as a social creature”[3], and that “’ways of putting things’, or simply language usage, are part of the very stuff that social relationships are made of”[4], it is not hard to realize how much importance lies in the way the characters in Pride and Prejudice express themselves. Therefore, when he focuses on the various linguistic aspects of civility in Pride and Prejudice, the reader can throw light on the novel from a different angle.

Civility is derived from the Latin word ‘civilis’, meaning ‘of or pertaining to citizens’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “behaviour proper to the intercourse of civilized people; ordinary courtesy or politeness, as opposed to rudeness of behaviour; decent respect, consideration”.[5] J. Harris notices that Jane Austen “explores [Richardson’s] important word civil[6], without giving her finding consequence enough to go into much detail. However, when the word root civil itself occurs “over seventy times in the novel”[7], seventy-eight times to be precise (while occurring only forty times in Sense and Sensibility, for example), and words closely related to civility appear in over one-hundred-and-fifty instances in the course of the novel[8], it becomes clear that the aspects of civility deserve a closer look. Because the social scheme has changed significantly since the time Jane Austen wrote her novels, the vocabulary related to civility has undergone some significant changes as well. The gaps in meaning between politeness, civility and gentleness have been diminished or have ceased to exist altogether in some speakers’ vocabulary[9]. The aim of this paper is therefore to pinpoint the different notions of civility and words related with civility as they are employed by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. In the course, most attention will be paid to Mr Collins, a character who miraculously manages to be an epitome of both politeness and rudeness.

2. Negative aspects of civility

After having walked three miles through the mud from Longbourn to Netherfield, Elizabeth is received “very politely” by Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst – although at least Miss Bingley cannot stand Elizabeth; “and in their brother’s manners there was something better than politeness.”[10] (p.28) The narrator’s comments let the reader know that politeness is not necessarily something good in itself – neither is civility: when Mr Bingley visits the Bennets after his return from London, he is “received by Mrs. Bennet with a degree of civility, which made her two daughters ashamed.” (p.257)

2.1 Sneering civility – Miss Bingley

Quite a number of negative notions of civility and politeness can be perceived in Pride and Prejudice. These notions find their most significant representative in Miss Bingley, who meets Mrs Bennet, whom she despises, with “cold civility” (p.35), and who is even able to encompass “sneering” and “civility”, when she attempts to insult Elizabeth in public by inquiring after the whereabouts of the militia, thereby alluding to Wickham’s and Lydia’s elopement (p.206). Tension is created in all the conversations between Miss Bingley and Elizabeth, because the form of the civilities that are passed back and forth between them stands in clear contrast with what the two actually want to convey. This falseness leads Elizabeth to eventually find Miss Bingley so untrustworthy that she does not even take her warning about Wickham’s character into consideration, although Miss Bingley claims to be making the recommendation “as a friend.” (p.76 f.)

Decorum matters to Miss Bingley and her like. She expects Darcy to look down on anything that is not usually done, especially not by women, and tries to get at Elizabeth by letting Darcy know how greatly Elizabeth lacks civility: when Elizabeth arrives at Netherfield with “dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise” (p.28) after her walk, it shows “an abominable sort of conceited independence”, and, what is more, “a most country-town indifference to decorum” to Miss Bingley (p.30); when she mocks him about how inappropriate Elizabeth’s family in general would be to marry into, she suggests “check that little something, bordering on conceit and impertinence, which your lady possesses” (p.43); and when she must already be aware that Darcy is fond of Elizabeth, she makes one last desperate attempt at ridiculing Elizabeth, exclaiming “How very ill Eliza Bennet looks this morning (…) She is grown so brown and coarse.” (p.207)

Miss Bingley does not realize that her condemnations are actually a proof of her own incivility, and that this incivility and the kind of attention she pays to Darcy have the opposite effect of what is intended by her.[11] When she lauds him in every possible way for his fast and even hand-writing, when she makes him include messages to his sister in his letter, and when she gives him credit for there being nothing about him that could be laughed at, in other words for being faultless, she repels Darcy rather than attracting him (p.39). These advances and compliments are too straight-forward for him. They lack wit, or, as Darcy expresses it himself: “Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.” (p.33)

2.2 Shallow civility – Sir William

Sir William, as a character, emphasizes another negative aspect of civility. He has moved to Meryton in order to “occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world.” (p.16) He is shallow civility itself to such an extent that his “good breeding carried him through it all,” when he is verbally attacked by the Bennet family upon spreading the news of the engagement between his daughter and Mr Collins. “He listened to all their impertinence with the most forbearing courtesy,” and the narrator ironically concludes that “nothing less than the complaisance of a courtier could have borne without anger such treatment.” (p.101 f.) Elizabeth has to suffer from how little there is behind the civilities of the “empty-headed” (p.120) Sir William, when she realizes during their journey together to Hunsford that “his civilities were worn out, like his information,” (p.120) the ever-renewed story about his having been knighted. Mrs Bennet (p.36), however, draws a picture of him that illustrates how acceptable his mindless civility is in society in general – or at least to its less intelligent members. She calls him “agreeable”, “genteel” and “easy”, and she is in raptures about him because “He has always something to say to everybody.- That is my idea of good breeding.”

2.3 False civility – Wickham

Wickham makes use of his perfectly civil manners to completely draw in Elizabeth. Although he had been deceiving her all the time “she parted from him convinced that, whether married or single, he must always be her model of the amiable and pleasing.” (p.119) While civility is not always merely a facade behind which lurk deceit and betrayal, Elizabeth knows herself that civility and truth do not always go hand in hand. She cannot quite agree with Collins on the wonders of Lady Catherine. To Collins, Lady Catherine “is all affability and condescension,” (p.124) whereas Elizabeth had “felt all the impertinence of [Lady Catherine’s] questions,” (p.129) but since the leave-taking ceremony requires her politeness, “Elizabeth tried to unite civility and truth in a few short sentences.” (p.167) In addition, Elizabeth utters what the reader can discern as obvious lies about her opinion of the marriage between Mr Collins and her friend Charlotte, when she makes “a variety of remarks on the happiness that might be expected from the match, the excellent character of Mr. Collins, and the convenient distance of Hunsford from London.” (p.102)

2.4 Condescending civility – Lady Catherine

Lady Catherine represents another negative aspect of civility: she is condescending in the sense in which the word is understood today. Johnson’s Dictionary, published in 1755, still defined condescensive as “courteous; willing to treat with inferiors on equal terms; not haughty; not arrogant.” Affable, which is derived from the Latin word ‘adfari’ – ‘to speak to’ and literally means ‘able to be spoken to’, was defined as “Easy of manners, accostable”.[12] The semantic change which condescending has gone through accentuates how little there is behind Lady Catherine’s much praised affability.

3. Mr Collins – the formal aspect of civility

Jane Austen critic Myra Stokes informs her readers that “we tend to have such a caricatured notion of the ‘drawing-room-world’ of this period that it is perhaps worth emphasizing that formality was distinctly out of fashion.” (Stokes 99) This was certainly true for Jane Austen. Towards the end of the novel, she lets the implied author seem to be fed up with describing the same formalities over and over again. Mr Bingley’s formalities towards Mrs Bennet are rendered as follows: “He should be particularly happy at any time, etc. etc.” (p.264, bold added). And, of course, Jane Austen created Mr Collins, the incarnation of formality, in order to ridicule it. J.B. Priestley, however, is inclined to say that “Although she certainly enjoyed him, I doubt if she enjoyed him as we enjoy him now; he was too close to her.”[13] He is alluding to Austen, a parson’s daughter, having been too close to the clerical system, which the toady Mr Collins is a part of. Stokes goes on to describe formal manners as “Manners that oppress by a rigid observation of forms.” (Stokes 98) Austen also did not want to encourage behaviour that was bare of any form, like Lydia’s, who is “always unguarded and often uncivil,” (p.101) but she certainly could not have approved of behaviour like Collins’s, who “represents the opposite evil. He seems to be nothing but his social mask or persona.” (Paris 106) The narrator specifically terms Collins’s civility “formal civility”, having Elizabeth notice upon her arrival in Hunsford “that her cousin's manners were not altered by his marriage; his formal civility was just what it had been.” (p.122) A little later, when his guests have already been welcomed by Collins, “he welcomed them a second time with ostentatious formality to his humble abode.” (p.122) Collins “cannot perform even a casual gesture without that ceremonious studiedness typical of him: ‘I am not now to learn,’ replied Mr. Collins with a formal wave of the hand, ‘that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour.’” (Stokes 98)


[1] Babb, Howard S. “Dialogue With Feeling: A Note on Pride and Prejudice.” The Kenyon Review 20.1 (1958): 203-216. p.203

[2] Yule, George. Pragmatics. Oxford: OUP, 1996. p.59 Hereafter abbreviated Yule.

[3] Morris, Ivor. Mr. Collins Considered. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987. p. 68

[4] Brown, Penelope, and Stephen Levinson. “Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena.” Questions and Politeness. Ed. Esther N. Goody. Cambridge: CUP, 1978. 56-289. p. 60

Hereafter abbreviated Brown and Levinson.

[5] Etymological source and definition: The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

[6] Harris, Jocelyn. Jane Austen’s Art of Memory. Cambridge: CUP, 1989. p.127

[7] Paris, Bernard J. Character and Conflict in Jane Austen’s Novels. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978. p.106. Hereafter abbreviated Paris.

[8] all numbers were extracted with help of the search function of Digitale Bibliothek Band 59: English and American Literature. The word roots whose occurrences were added are gentle (19 occurrences), complaisant (6), (well-)bred (12, polite (26), cordial (10), decorum (4), etiquette (2), officious (4), formal (12), impertinent (14), insolent (6), impudent (4), rude (5), deference (6), and apology (21).

[9] compare: Stokes, Myra. The Language of Jane Austen: A Study of Some Aspects of Her Vocabulary. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1991. p.96. Hereafter abbreviated Stokes.

[10] all text quotations according to: Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin, 1994.

[11] compare: Mooneyham, Laura G. Romance, Language and Education in Jane Austen’s Novels. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1988. p.54 Hereafter abbreviated Mooneyham

[12] both quoted after Stokes p.108 f.

[13] Priestley, J.B. The English Comic Characters. London: The Bodley Head, 1963. p.142

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Aspects of Civility in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
University of Tubingen
Proseminar II: Jane Austen
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Professor's comment: Yes, this is a lovely paper: exceptionally well written, thoughtful, sensitive to the text's issues - and what is at stake in them, circumspect in its analysis of different characters' functions and depictions.
Aspects, Civility, Jane, Austen, Pride, Prejudice, Proseminar, Jane, Austen, Politeness, Collins
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Michael Helten (Author), 2004, Aspects of Civility in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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