What did Jane Austen mean when she said that a gentleman had good breeding? For example, in Pride and Prejudice Jane Bennet tells her sister Elizabeth that in Mr. Bingley she never saw “so much ease, with such perfect good breeding.”1 In Persuasion Sir Walter Elliot was flattered to have himself described to Admiral Croft as a “model of good breeding.”2 Good breeding is also mentioned in Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, although the term does not appear in Emma.
‘Good Breeding’ Used by Other Authors
Other authors of Jane Austen’s day also used the term. “Good breeding” appears in Fanny Burney’s Cecilia (but not in her novel Evelina). Samuel Richardson used “good breeding” in three of his novels: Clarissa, Pamela, and The History of Sir Charles Grandison. Richardson was Austen’s favorite novelist; Sir Charles Grandison, her favorite novel.3 In fact, her nephew claimed that Austen was familiar with every incident in Sir Charles Grandison and looked on every character as a friend.4 This fact may explain why ‘good breeding’ is mentioned in nearly all of her novels.
The Opposite of Good Breeding
John Locke, the British philosopher and physician mentioned in my previous blog post “I Am Illiterate by Regency Standards,” offered his opinion on the opposite of good breeding. He believed ill-breeding was marked by two types of behavior:5
- Sheepish bashfulness—that is, being uncomfortable and showing a “clownish shamefacedness” before strangers, particularly those of Rank and Quality.
- Misbecoming negligence and disrespect—that is, giving the appearance of showing too little respect for others and lacking a “civility of the mind,” by which Locke meant goodwill and regard for all people.
By these definitions, ill-breeding was likely as common then as it is now. Locke believed it could be avoided by observing one rule: “Not to think meanly of our selves, and not to think meanly of others.”6 Pretty good advice, actually.
Actions of A Man of Good Breeding
In short, a young man of good breeding took care not to offend others. He was decent and graceful in his looks, voice, words, gestures and general demeanor. He was pleasing in company. He showed no excess of ceremony; did not flatter or dissimulate; was not mean. In conversation he displayed respect, esteem and goodwill to everyone.5
One anonymous author advised his nephew to adopt integrity, sincerity and truth in all his actions. “All the other Arts will fail,” he wrote, “but Truth and Integrity will carry a Man through, and bear him out to the last.”7 In other words, a man of good breeding “has solid virtues in him.”8 A prescription for success even in today’s frenetic, celebrity-based world.
1Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin Books, 1813/1996, p. 16 (Chapter 4).
2Austen, Jane. Persuasion. London: Penguin Books, 1818/1985, p. 60 (Chapter 5).
3Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, p. 35.
4Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. London: Viking, 1997, p. 69.
5Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education (London, 1693), pp. 166-170 (PDF pp. 181-185).
6Ibid., pp. 168-170 (PDF pp. 183-185).
7Anon. The Young Gentleman’s New-Year’s-Gift: or, Advice to a Nephew (London, 1729), p. 131 (PDF p. 138).
8Anon. The Gentleman’s Library: Containing Rules for Conduct in All Parts of Life (London, 1744), p. 79 (PDF p. 96).