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Spoof of Manners in Jane Austen

I find the spoof exceptionally funny but also–and here’s the twist–entirely wrong-headed from the first. Its target: The stuffiness of manners. Its strategy: Anachronism. Its implicit aim: To show that manners are the kinds of straitjacketed conventions that those of us living after the 60s can naturally get beyond. I don’t think so.

In her illuminating essay on Jane Austen, “Manners, Morals, and Practical Wisdom,” the philosopher Karen Stohr argues that

[t]he standard contemporary view of manners is that they are a facade, a matter of mere surface appearances. According to this view, manners can tell us little, if anything, about a person’s underlying character, which is what really matters. At best, good manners are a pleasing garnish; at worse, they can deceive us into believing that a person’s character is better than it is, as in the case of George Wickham, whose agreeable manners conceal malevolent aims. I shall argue here that while good manners are indeed pleasing, they have a moral significance that goes considerably beyond that. Good manners are central to moral life because they serve as the vehicle through which moral commitments are expressed and moral ends are accomplished. Thus, good manners in this sense are tied directly to an agent’s grasp of moral concepts. (189-90).

Take one example: Opening the door for someone while saying, “After you.” In one sense, this convention couldn’t be anymore arbitrary, and indeed it is.  In another, deeper sense, though, it is a full manifestation of, indeed a presumption of, respect for another. That is to say, it is one of the everyday ways that our moral concepts get realized.

Do you agree with Stohr? Where do you stand?

9 thoughts on “Spoof of Manners in Jane Austen

  1. I like them for the reason you describe – that they’re “one of the everyday ways that our moral concepts get realized.”

    At the same time, they can be used insincerely – to show ‘breeding’ rather than to benefit, or to put at ease, some other individual.

    A queen is only a queen if her manners are inextricable from her personality.

    1. That’s right. One problem with manners is that they can be “used insincerely” (Wickham). They can also be used to deceive (Churchill in Austen’s Emma), to express superiority, to exclude. Manners can be weapons.

      Two things we need, therefore: 1) good breeding and 2) the cultivation of judgment (knowing when X is sincere or not, when Y is deceiving me or not, etc.).

  2. Not sure if this is pertinent to the discussion at hand, but, today, as I was grumpily trudging across Central Park, I was approached by a man who asked, “Do you need a map?” While passing him I shook my head, and he said, “What’s your name? Where are you from?” Still walking, my back, at this point, “facing” him, I said, “I’m nobody from nowhere,” after which he immediately responded: “I love you.” I didn’t say anything, but, oddly, I was (while still unsure, skeptical, really, about his sincerity, his motivations) moved by his words, and didn’t feel grumpy anymore, well, not as grumpy as I was feeling before.

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