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Jane Austen’s Principles of Good Conversation

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Jane Austen as painted by her sister, Cassandra

Jane Austen as painted by her sister, Cassandra

In the novels of Jane Austen, being able to carry on a pleasant conversation is a mark of a virtuous character. (Although not a sufficient one—the villainous Misters Willoughby and Wickham are enchanting conversationalists.) But most of the best conversations in her novels—and in our own, twenty-first century lives—assume the same six principles, all of which stem from intelligence and thoughtfulness. By following these principles we not only make conversations more enjoyable, we can also become better, wiser people.


Principle One: Propriety

Mrs. Bennett is the paragon of impropriety. In Pride and Prejudice, she loudly speaks to her friend, Lady Lucas, about her daughter’s impending marriage long before she is even engaged.

“[Elizabeth was] deeply vexed to find that her mother was talking to that one person (Lady Lucas) freely, openly, and of nothing else but her expectation that Jane would soon be married.”

Even today, it is completely inappropriate to gossip in public, especially when the subject of our gossip is present to hear us. Instead of loudly sharing what shouldn’t be public, Mrs. Bennett ought to act with propriety—adherence to the rules of common etiquette, particularly about what it is and isn’t appropriate to say in polite company.


Principle Two: Civility

In Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bingley acts uncivilly toward Elizabeth Bennett out of jealousy. She intentionally tries to embarrass Elizabeth for her sisters’ behavior toward the soldiers quartered near their home:

“Pray, Miss Eliza, are not the—shire militia removed from Meryton? They must be a great loss to your family.”

Miss Bingley treats Elizabeth badly because she does not like her. On her best behavior, a woman should show civility—basic courtesy—to everyone to whom she speaks.


Principle Three: Agreeableness

In Sense and Sensibility, Lady Middleton values her children over all else. Lucy Steele wins Lady Middleton’s esteem by noticing what Lady Middleton enjoys and speaks about it.

“And what a charming little family they have! I never saw such fine children in my life. I declare I quite dote upon them already, and indeed I am always distractedly fond of children.”

Lucy is agreeable—pleasant and eager to please.Of course, Lucy’s agreeableness is selfish and insincere. She makes a pleasant conversation partner for Lady Middleton, but she doesn’t demonstrate any real virtue. The best kind of agreeableness comes from amiability—real affection for the people around us simply because they are people.


Principle Four: Solicitude

In Emma, Mr. Woodhouse is a cautious, nervous man. Emma carefully watches him so she can address his concerns before they can cause him concern. He wonders how he will visit his friend’s new home, especially where the horses will stay if he takes his carriage:

“They are to be put into Mr. Weston’s stable, papa. You know we have settled all that already. We talked it all over with Mr. Weston last night. And as for James [our manservant], you may be very sure he will always like going to [Mr. Weston’s home], because of his daughter’s being housemaid there. I only doubt whether he will ever take us anywhere else. That, was your doing, papa. You got Hannah that good place. Nobody thought of Hannah till you mentioned her—James is very obliged to you.”

For all her faults, Emma treats her difficult father with perfect solicitude—she thoughtfully anticipates and meets his needs.


Principle Five: Discretion

In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor chooses not to reveal Lucy Steele’s secret. Even though Lucy intended to be cruel by sharing the secret, and even though Elinor has every reason to be jealous in return, she keeps Lucy’s confidence.

“My promise to Lucy obliged me to be secret. I owed it to her, therefore, to avoid giving any hint of the truth.”

When Elinor chooses not to share the private information of herself and others, she is acting with discretion.


Principle Six: Liveliness

In Sense and Sensibility, the silly Miss Steele bores the Dashwoods with her constant talk about beaux because she has nothing else to say:

“Everybody laughs at me so about the Doctor, and I cannot think why. My cousins say they are sure I have made a conquest; but for my part I declare I never think about him form one hour’s end to another. ‘Lord! here comes your beau, Nancy,’ my cousin said t’other day, when she saw him crossing the street to the house. ‘My beau, indeed!’ said I, ‘I cannot think who you mean. The Doctor is no beau of mine.’”

Liveliness isn’t about saying something with enthusiasm. (In fact, Austen’s characters are often acting badly when they speak with warmth, or strong emotion.) Instead a lively conversation is a conversation marked by intelligence. Austen’s heroines dread insipid conversations with acquaintances like Miss Steele.


What do you think makes for a great conversation?

3 responses »

  1. I think many people break rule #1 on Facebook by posting things that are private on public places. Did you see this article today in the Wall Street Journal? Discretion is always the key. Loved this. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/06/17/the-five-rudest-things-you-can-do-online/?mod=e2fb

    Reply
  2. Oh, having something interesting to talk about, which requires that you be well-read, and of course the attentiveness to whether or not your conversational partners are interested, and to cleverly segue to a new topic should you think them bored. So, I would add ‘interest’ and ‘intuitiveness’ to your well thought-out list!

    Can you believe that I just had a Jane Austen conversation with a friend after Mass yesterday; my daughter mentioned that she’s reading P&P this summer, and she thought THAT insipid! Oh my. Well, apparently she got that idea from some poorly made movies, and never read the books herself. I tried to correct her, but Janeite that I am, I was positively *scandalized*! 😉

    Reply
  3. This is great! I was just reflecting on how need to grow in this area. So helpful…thanks, hope you are enjoying your summer. Judy

    Reply

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