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Meditating much upon forks: manners and manner in Austen's novels.

DISCUSSIONS ABOUT MANNERS always seem to start with forks. When I raise the subject of manners with my students, one of them will quickly make a remark about shrimp forks and where or not to find them, or about butter knives or salad forks or mustard spoons. Their jokes and their laughter--the defensive and nervous and mocking kinds--suggest that manners have come just to mean for us the experience of the formal dinner table at which most of us rarely sit. My students are not alone in this. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price's sister Susan, anxious that "all her best manners" will be found inadequate to the ways of Mansfield, obsesses about the table: "Visions of good and ill breeding, of old vulgarisms and new gentilities were before her; and she was meditating much upon silver forks, napkins, and finger glasses" (446). (1) In the world beyond Austen's novels, shrimp forks have featured in conversations I have had with friends about manners; historians of manners have discoursed brilliantly on the fork's association with still more frightening utensils, and literary and cultural critics of manners have considered at length the practice of eating one's peas with one's knife. (2) (It is not to be done.)

The apparent inevitability of this association will serve as an organizing principle for the ideas about manners examined in this essay. For in turning to the shrimp fork as a way of broaching how they think and feel about manners, my students make clear some of what we know and what we don't--where we are right and where we are not--about manners and what they do, at the table and away from it, in life, in Jane Austen, and in those places (such as the JASNA AGM) where Jane Austen and life are coextensive. Much of what our culture knows about manners it has learned by way of Jane Austen, and her name has come to stand for manners in our cultural lexicon. In thinking about manners in Austen's novels, then, we are also necessarily thinking about what we know and expect of manners in the world.

One way that my students are wrong in reaching for the shrimp fork lies in what it seems to suggest about the idea of rightness and wrongness itself. The image of the scary formal table as an invitation to error offers too simple an account of manners in construing them as indexing with sharp clarity a rightness and wrongness of behavior. The shrimp fork vision of manners imagines them as concrete absolutes, firm and yet only dimly visible, as if handed down from a god or a sky or an ideal realm removed from the particularities of human character and the materialities of human bodies.

The particularity and embodiment of Austen's Mrs. Jennings usefully undercuts this rigid notion of a rightness and wrongness in manners. We know what she looks like, don't we? What shape her body takes and which parts of it are likely to bump into the fragile and valuable objects that must surround her are things we know both from our reading of Sense and Sensibility and from our experience of ours and others' bodies in the world. If she is "good-humoured," "merry," and "elderly," as Austen tells us she is, Mrs. Jennings must also be "fat," her body and her laughter alike ill-mannered in their expansive ways (34). The vulgarity of her manners is apparent; she jokes and teases; she pokes and prods and winks; she vexes and annoys, insensitive to the sensitivities of one sensitive young lady or another. She tries to winkle from a child the name and status of her sister's suitor and from a guardian the scandalous and difficult business that draws him to town to visit a natural daughter or a ward. The vision of manners that would ascribe to them a rightness or a wrongness would have to locate Mrs. Jennings's manners under the sign of the wrong.

Her absolute sweetness and generosity, however, must incline us otherwise and help us to understand her more complexly. "'I have brought a glass of it for your sister,'" she says to Elinor Dashwood of "'the finest old Constantia wine ... that ever was tasted'" (197-98). With gifts of "sweetmeats and olives, and a good fire," along with "'dried cherries'" and "all the news of the day" (193-94), she would soothe the inconsolable Marianne. Her generosity with food and drink, with the fruits of city shopping, and with the warmth of goods and goodness in abundance, are all testimony to the openness of her manners, an openness as present in her vulgarity as in her benevolence. Nothing about her is not honest, and her manners are less "bad" than they are telling of the way that roughness and honesty can work together and at once and of the way that the profusions of vulgarity may also indicate a kind of bounty. In telling, that is, Mrs. Jennings's manners reveal that for Austen, manners are a language to be read and a language in which to write; and, in her novels, manners are a way of coming to know something about a person or a circumstance or about the workings of the world, rather than a rubric for evaluating these things. What Austen is teaching us as readers of her novels of manners is not so much how to be or to behave but how to see, read, comprehend, and know the social world.

Not an end in itself, the social knowing that derives from comprehending manners has an aim--self-protection--and a means to achieving that aim--vigilance. The learned reader of Austen's manners might be, like Elinor Dashwood herself, guarded and wary as well as smart, surprisingly strategic, and capable of wielding a weapon in a polite fight with an agile Lucy Steele or even with a most beloved sister. In teaching us to read manners, Austen offers a walking stick and a cudgel, useful, both of them, in negotiating one's way as a self among others.

"'I understand you,'" says Elinor to Marianne. Shocked at the apparent cold blood with which Elinor explains the news of Edward Ferrars's lengthy secret engagement to Lucy Steele, Marianne has expressed her estimation of what she believes to be the failures of Elinor's feelings in terms that pretend she has merely misunderstood Elinor: "'If such is your way of thinking,' said Marianne, 'if the loss of what is most valued is so easily to be made up by something else, your resolution, your self-command, are, perhaps, a little less to be wondered at.--They are brought more within my comprehension'" (263). Elinor's "understanding" (her "'I understand you'") is her answer; the frankness with which she declares her understanding counters the rhetorical pretense with which Marianne barely feigns comprehension. Framing her horror at Elinor's resignation as a restraining conditional ("If you think this, then I see that about you"), Marianne has a response too strong even for her and too strong for simple declaration; her if-then construction keeps just barely at bay the self-satisfied contempt with which she regards Elinor in this moment. But Elinor refuses to respect the way Marianne uses the distancing politeness of the if-then construction to keep their conversation within bounds. Elsewhere and often in Austen, being understood may be felt as a gift, an acceptance, a coming home, even when what one is understood to be is proud or prejudiced. But here, Elinor's statement--"'I understand you.--You do not suppose that I have ever felt much'"--reads Marianne's manners for what they would conceal and serves Elinor as an aggression that defends her. In saying "'I understand you,'" Elinor understands not only what Marianne thinks but also Marianne's implication in the whole system of manners. Raising a curtain on this system with the announcement of her understanding, Elinor shows it to be a private and public theatrical in which everyone is hard at work to govern with the polite forms of manners the angry urges that manners would contain. In the system of manners, everyone is busy "understanding" all the time the strategies, negotiations, and exchanges that underwrite manners, while busily pretending not to notice them at all. In the world of manners (under the governing regime of manners, one might say), the reader of manners is armed by the knowledge that social literacy affords.

My students fear that they are not well armed. Like utensils, manners are instruments for bringing things about. In giggling at and half-fearing the tiny implements that decorate the dinner table, my students know that failures in a system of manners can have serious and shattering consequences. We still know this, and our cultural productions, at their best, still remind us we must keep the consequentiality of manners in our minds. In an episode of the late and lamented HBO television series The Wire, for example, urban kids taken to a fancy restaurant--an outing they have been excited about--are utterly beaten down by the place, by the occasion, and by the ways and habits of the table, which cannot help reminding them of all that the specific politics of poverty, race, and class working together determine that they cannot know and of the consequences for their lives of that not knowing. What my students know well and what they are saying, in citing shrimp forks, is that the social world governed by manners produces anxiety among its subjects and perhaps sometimes a kind of terror, even when the content of manners is not the materially terrible but the matter of ordinary dailiness. For my students, the crisis of the dinner table is the point at which the treacheries of money, class, and the social and cultural assets associated with them become visible and become things at which one might point and laugh precisely because they are revealed there, too, as things that make one vulnerable to such pointing and such laughter; with the help of Austen's novels of manners, the classroom is a place where such treacheries might be identified and addressed.

My students, that is, know something significant about social relations when they know what they don't know about the dinner table, their anxieties serving as markers of their recognition that manners may function as a problem of knowledge and that the system of manners is sometimes awfully particular, not to say arbitrary, in its demands: the salad fork is to be placed to the left of the dinner fork, and the dessert fork is to sit, horizontally, above the plate.

Particular in her demands, too, is Emma Woodhouse when we think of her as friend to Harriet Smith. The scene in which Harriet tries so very hard to please Emma in determining how she might respond to Mr. Martin's proposal, funny as it is, is also a festival of anxiety. Harriet's adjustments and readjustments of her answers, as she approaches nearer and farther from what Emma wants her to say (what Emma wants her to want), reflect her experience of Emma as an exacting task-mistress. For Harriet, Emma is a repository of knowledge about what makes a desire appropriate, what makes a match suitable, what warrants a "no, thank you." Here is a snippet of their conversation:

"Well," said the still waiting Harriet;--"well--and--and what shall I do?"

"What shall you do! In what respect? Do you mean with regard to this letter?"


"But what are you in doubt of?. You must answer it of course--and speedily."

Emma is letting Harriet hang.

"Yes. But what shall I say? Dear Miss Woodhouse, do advise me."

"Oh, no, no! the letter had much better be all your own. You will express yourself very properly, I am sure. There is no danger of your not being intelligible, which is the first thing. Your meaning must be unequivocal; no doubts or demurs: and such expressions of gratitude and concern for the pain you are inflicting as propriety requires, will present themselves unbidden to your mind, I am persuaded. You need not be prompted to write with the appearance of sorrow for his disappointment."

"You think I ought to refuse him then," said Harriet, looking down. (51-52)

Harriet's painful pleas go on, and she disintegrates a little, along with her syntax, under her anxiety. Asked if she means to say yes to him, Harriet replies,

"No, I do not; that is, I do not mean--What shall I do? What would you advise me to do? Pray, dear Miss Woodhouse, tell me what I ought to do?"

And, later, in response to Emma's demand that Harriet reassure her that she has not been demanding, Harriet says,

"Oh! no, I am sure you are a great deal too kind to--but if you would just advise me what I had best do--No, no, I do not mean that--As you say, one's mind ought to be quite made up--One should not be hesitating--It is a very serious thing.--It will be safer to say 'No,' perhaps. Do you think I had better say 'No?'" (52-53)

Until, finally, "'I have now quite determined, and really almost made up my mind.... Do you think I am right?'" (53). In what is funny about all this--and quite a bit is funny--we might lose sight, unless we proceed carefully, of all the anxiety and the not knowing that envelop Harriet, and we might lose sight of the consequences for her of her not knowing how to be and to behave as a marriageable young woman in the betwixt-and-between social position she holds as "the natural daughter of somebody" (22), who is nevertheless Miss Woodhouse's friend. At stake for Harriet are living and eating and having a roof and a household full of responsibilities: all good and necessary things. Emma is for Harriet both means and obstacle to all of this. And she is fun. For Harriet, Emma is a little bit of sunshine admitted to the drab parlor of the parlor-boarder, and she threatens the withdrawal of the sunshine if Harriet proves not to know how a woman so betwixt and between ought best to read, to evaluate, and to answer a proposal and if Harriet proves not to know how to please she who would be pleased. Emma is a figure for manners here as Harriet understands them--full of concrete absolutes--and a figure for the power of class in manners, as well as for all that Harriet does not know about how to be and how to behave; in the same way, Harriet figures the terrorized subject in manners, all wanting and desire, all fawning and currying favor, remaking herself until she is beside herself with anxiety and with not knowing what it is anymore that she wants.

My students are right, then, about the way social class operates in manners, about the way power inheres in social class, and about the power of class to inflect our anxiety about manners, in life and in Austen, as characters like Miss Bates and Mr. Collins, along with Harriet, make clear. Anxious all, nervous all, babbling all, scurrying all, in movement and in language, to please us all (Emma, Lady Catherine, the little world of Highbury and its inmates, the cranky readers who would skip forward to find a heroine or a hero).

But where my students are not quite right is in their location of manners, by means of the shrimp fork, only among the upper crust and on the high occasion. Refusing that limitation, manners occupy time and space pervasively and might be better understood in this way: as the daily practices and practical morals that inform our living in the social world, in whatever class position. As practical morals, none in Austen may be more clear than Mr. Knightley's; his gift of apples, his calling in to run an errand, his sending of a carriage, his rescue of a girl who has been left not dancing, all are values (generosity, kindness, condescension) wrapped up tightly and concisely in a gesture. But a man-servant's values are apparent, too (do we remember that his name is Thomas?), in his tipping of a hat or in his wishing joy to the young lady, newly married to a Ferrars, whom he has always found both "'very affable and free-spoken'" (SS 354).

It may be, though, in her attachment to manners as practices both constant and characteristic that Austen most thoroughly departs from the view of manners as occasioned by the special event. The word "manners" in Austen is most frequently preceded by a possessive, sometimes in conjunction with an adjective. Manners may be elegant or gentlemanlike; they may be pleasing or repulsive, unassuming or proud; engaging, interesting, or winning; they may be open or affectionate; happy, civil, or calm; easy and unaffected or formal, imposing, and high. But they are nearly always "his" or "hers," things owned by a named linguistic entity that is written by Austen as an embodied human being. Austen's interest, that is, is less in manners as ideals that we might approximate in hit or miss form than as daily practices that have become ways of doing and being, and as ways so habitual and recognizable as to have become characteristic. Austen, that is, I would suggest, is interested in manners understandable as manner: a way of behaving that is both customary and (in being distinct) distinguishing, a style. One may work to cultivate a manner, in Austen as in the world, but one cannot escape the having of one, she seems to suggest. As ways of being and doing repeat, accumulate, even proliferate, manners become manner. Mary Crawford, riding horses, will always sit them well, and her doing so will become an aspect of Mary Crawford; Fanny Price will always be thought to ride them for her health. Isabella Thorpe cannot speak unless it is flirtatiously, and John Thorpe cannot be without being boorishly. Mr. Woodhouse, customarily offering the custard in order to withhold it, will always be (at least with his neighbors) withholding; and Emma, despite her faults, will be distinguished as a person who helps a guest to the best of the fish and the chicken.

Manners in this sense may have a fate in the world. A manner may fail. (Poor Mary Bennet!) And a manner may overtake and overwhelm: the secret, knowing-it-all observations of Miss Bates, embedded in her monologues, are lost in the telling. A manner may make a claim, as Emma's does or Lady Catherine's; different as these women are, their manners take up space. Manners in Austen often charm; engaging, pleasing, interesting, captivating, winning--her manners are active and know their effect on others. Characteristic manners in Austen work hard in social relations, facilitating exchanges, forming attachments, easing negotiations, and, when they are "winning," making gains.

Still, having nudged so hard in these last pages against the account of manners that is organized around questions of their rightness and wrongness in order to emphasize their ability to tell, their ability to offer protection and to serve aggression, and their tendency to create character in becoming characteristic, I want to return to the way that, despite all this, Austen exploits our sense--we are reluctant to give it up--that there is a rightness and wrongness to some manners. And she may want especially to exploit our belief in a wrongness. I return to this moralizing binarism by pointing toward a particular pleasure that reading Austen's novels affords: the pleasure to be taken in outrage. I experience it, for example, in Sense and Sensibility when Mr. John Dashwood pays a call. He visits his sisters, with their hostess Mrs. Jennings, upon learning that Mr. Edward Ferrars had long been engaged, in secret, to Miss Lucy Steele. Austen writes, of the visit, that their brother "came with a most serious aspect to talk over the dreadful affair, and bring them news of his wife." John Dashwood begins his conversation with his sisters in this way:

"You have heard, I suppose," said he with great solemnity, as soon as he was seated, "of the very shocking discovery that took place under our roof yesterday."

They all looked their assent; it seemed too awful a moment for speech.

"Your sister," he continued, "has suffered dreadfully. Mrs. Ferrars too--in short it has been a scene of such complicated distress--but I will hope that the storm may be weathered without our being any of us quite overcome. Poor Fanny! she was in hysterics all yesterday. But I would not alarm you too much. Donavan says there is nothing materially to be apprehended; her constitution is a good one, and her resolution equal to any thing. She has borne it all, with the fortitude of an angel! She says she never shall think well of any body again; and one cannot wonder at it, after being so deceived!--meeting with such ingratitude, where so much kindness had been shown, so much confidence had been placed! It was quite out of the benevolence of her heart, that she had asked these young women to her house; merely because she thought they deserved some attention, were harmless, well-behaved girls, and would be pleasant companions; for otherwise we both wished very much to have invited you and Marianne to be with us, while your kind friend there was attending her daughter. And now to be so rewarded! 'I wish, with all my heart,' says poor Fanny, in her affectionate way, 'that we had asked your sisters instead of them.'"

Here he stopped to be thanked; which being done, he went on. (265-66)

"Here he stopped to be thanked." Multiple outrages propel this passage: John Dashwood's worry about the egregious Fanny is ludicrous, given the circumstances. The insult in his repeating to anybody Fanny's statement that she never will think well of "any body" again is staggering, not least because of the apparent innocence with which he offers it. The thought that an unappreciated anybody might, then, nevertheless be alarmed about Fanny's hysterics beggars my belief, though not, apparently, John Dashwood's own. His lying that he and his wife might have wanted Elinor and Marianne to visit and his proffering as a compliment Fanny's "'wish'" that she had invited his sisters instead of the Steeles are astonishing and awful.

But, in all honesty, I quote all this for the sake of the passage's fabulous building up to the place where it stops short: "Here he stopped to be thanked." Words cannot do justice to my outrage about the demand he makes here, in its dependence on his sisters' literacy in and adherence to a system of manners that, reliant for its stability on reciprocation, insists that thanks be given in response to their being expected. That his sisters cannot be allowed to rest in the peace of simply not rising to his bait but that they must be made to assent to his delusion by participating in it, that they must protect him from the knowledge of his bad behavior, that they must answer his demanding confidence in their good manners with their gratitude, appalls and enrages me. And in some awful way, I revel in my rage.

I am not alone in this, I suspect. It may not be Mr. John Dashwood who provokes this response in other readers, and I, too, on another day and in thrall to a different sensitivity, might be egged on by Lydia or Mr. Collins or Aunt Norris (always by Aunt Norris) to the pleasure to be had in outrage. For one of the great pleasures to be had in reading Jane Austen--alongside the subtleties and insights and balances and ironies and sweetness--is in the seeking and finding and knowing and excoriating of the badness in bad manners. And I cannot help thinking that some of that furious joy lies in the way that such moments in the novels offer a false comfort, a promise of a rightness and wrongness to manners that would seem to (but cannot) organize and ease the difficulties of negotiating our daily lives among others in the social world. Keeping straight where all the forks go does not exactly make a life easier, and the maintenance of a self made proper under a system of manners, too, demands that effort be made and pains taken. But there is not much to doubt in this passage from Sense and Sensibility about what Austen would have us think about Mr. John Dashwood, and some part of our pleasure must be in the comeuppance wrought by Austen's written ill regard. We are still in love, in this culture, with comeuppance around manners, as if it compensated for the work we put into being "good"; reality television depends as much as Austen ever did on producing comeuppance, if it does so with less art. The stress and anxiety of knowing what one needs to know to live under manners make us vengeful (as well as envious) toward those who live without such knowing. And when my students use the shrimp fork as an implement that fosters their understanding, they acknowledge that they fear becoming an object on which the minions of manners might practice the vengeance in anger, outrage, contempt, condescension, and disgust.

"Here he stopped to be thanked; which being done, he went on." Though not one of her lengthy, scannable, nearly-hummable, periodic, and controlled sentences, this one is Austenian still in its restraint, its understatement; it's the quiet Austen, whispery almost in the h's audible in "here" and "he" and "he" and even "which" and "thanked" and (almost) w(h)ent. It's characteristic. It's her manner when she knows she's got you; no need for flash or sass or for too much in the way of Johnsonian syntactic mastery. (I wonder if that "which being done," though, might not be taking a tiny stylistic bow.) In exploiting our desire for a right and wrong in manners, Austen is poking and prodding, eliciting responses, nudging us until, Harriets all, we have quite determined and really almost made up our minds to think as she would have us think. Given that Austen has so often so complex an account of manners, I wonder what she wants here, when she makes us mad at John Dashwood, in invoking the simpler understanding of manners that just finds some of them awfully bad. She may want what I have been suggesting we all still do: the promise of a comfort, however illusory, in the idea that manners might be simply good or simply bad. But she knows something else here too: that a social fixative is made not just in the bonding that comes from liking together (one of JASNA's undertakings as a community) but in the bonding wrought by opprobrium, a bonding given structure and support by the simplicity of the binary that construes manners as right or wrong. My students experience that fixative, bonding together in their sense that those who own shrimp forks are stupid; replacing the manners of the formal table with those of their customarily less formal arrangements, they demonstrate that particular manners are fungible but that the fact and the structure of manners remain robust.

In writing in Mansfield Park about Fanny Price's experiences at mealtimes during her sojourn in Portsmouth, Austen shows that even the least attractive of tables makes plain the habits with which it is routinely set and the daily practices of those who reject its unsavory offerings. "She was so little equal to Rebecca's puddings, and Rebecca's hashes, brought to table as they all were, with such accompaniments of half-cleaned plates, and not half-cleaned knives and forks, that she was very often constrained to defer her heartiest meal, till she could send her brothers in the evening for biscuits and buns" (413). Austen's representation of Fanny's response to the family table shows the repast to be unappetizing and Fanny to be restricting her nourishment. Dirty plates would serve the Prices their meals there, while with dirty utensils (and not the silver forks over which her sister will obsess at Mansfield Park) Fanny would have to apportion her food and bring it to her mouth. The puddings and hashes that feed Fanny and her family are tainted by being the products of the lazy servant girl, by being--without fail, every time, insistently--"Rebecca's." Yet, though what it describes is unappetizing, Austen's description itself has some appeal. The sentence that outlines Fanny's "privations" is stylish and energetic in its repetitions and in the changes it rings; the echoing possessives, the alliterative alternatives ("biscuits and buns"), and the precision that registers that while plates are "half-cleaned," knives and forks are not so, all together silver the dirty fork to make a free indirect victory for Fanny, albeit a minor one. The queasy refusals that are characteristic of Fanny blend with the controlled excesses of the Austenian (those two "Rebecca's," the just-missed parallel of mere half cleanings) to produce a style that orders, organizes, and elevates the mess of the table where bad manners go to dine. In turning to the shrimp forks, my students know, as Austen does in writing for Fanny, the pleasure to be had in manner. Like alliterative "soup spoons" and goofy napkin rings, shrimp forks--amusing in their rarity, in their specificity, and in their sound (try saying "shrimp" aloud)--are triumphant examples, bringing wit to a discussion of manners, as if to use one as a defense against the other. Anticipating my students and teaching them, Austen sets manner against manners, in search of the advantage to be taken by means of a winning style.


(1.) The silver forks upon which Susan meditates are not my students' shrimp forks. There are no shrimp forks in Austen's novels. My students' shrimp forks are the products of their own precise imaginations.

(2.) Elias devotes attention to the history and acceptance of the fork. Its use, which "we take entirely for granted ... had first to be slowly and laboriously acquired and developed by society as a whole. This applies to such a small and seemingly insignificant thing as a fork no less than to forms of behavior that appear to us larger and more important" (69). For Puckett, eating peas with one's knife is an "exemplary social mistake" that bears "a strange and compelling symbolic weight, a significance that, once considered, gives us a better sense of what is at stake when bad form happens" (27).


Austen, Jane. The Works of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-39.

Elias, Norbert. The History of Manners: The Civilizing Process. Vol. 1. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Puckett, Kent. Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Mary Ann O'Farrell, Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University, has written about Jane Austen in her book Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century English Novel and the Blush and in numerous essays about Jane Austen's novels and about Austen's continuing life in contemporary popular culture and political discourse.
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Title Annotation:AGM 2012: New York City; Jane Austen
Author:O'Farrell, Mary Ann
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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