“‘I wasn’t being rude, just facetiously condescending’: An Analysis of Rudeness in Pride and Prejudice and Hay Fever” Academic Essay by Samantha Bowen

“I wasn’t being rude, just facetiously condescending”1Djareli. “I wasn’t being rude, just facetiously condescending.” Someecards, Someecards Inc., n.d., someecards.com/usercards/viewcard/MjAxMy0yMjBkOWJmOWQ1YWU1YmFl?tagSlug=news. Accessed 1 December, 2016.: An Analysis of Rudeness in Pride and Prejudice and Hay Fever

Academic Essay by Samantha Bowen

In The Virtues of Our Vices, Emrys Westacott considers an act in today’s society ‘rude’ so long as it satisfies two conditions: if it “violates a social convention; and if the violation were deliberate, indicating a lack of concern for another person’s feelings” (18). Within Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, rudeness is not as overtly defined; nevertheless, it serves as an overarching social mechanism. As Edd Winfield Parks argues in his article, “The Art of Rudeness, incivility is crucial to Austen’s novel as it “reveals character, advances the action, and is integral to the story” (381).  Its manifestation in others allows for the characters to superficially assess one another in the stifling world of dance halls and social calls, in which – as Elizabeth learns – true character often escapes detection. In Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, Sorel Bliss loosely equates bad manners to “never [attempting] to look after people when they come” (118). To her and the rest of the family, who live in the milieu of the 1920s, rudeness is openly acknowledged and uninhibited. Their inherently different manners reflect the changes society has undergone since the Regency era. As time passed, propriety ceased to dictate social situations, and instead began to facilitate them. Bad manners have also adapted to reflect changing conventions and societies. That being the case, rudeness is a fluid concept dependent on context and time period. This paper will argue that such fluidity is demonstrated throughout Pride and Prejudice and Hay Fever, where the differences in the composition of society and individual interpretations of rudeness affect how characters in either text identify, criticize, and defend indecorous behaviour.

In Pride and Prejudice, the characters’ judgments of one another are based on this underlying assumption observed by Jane Nardin: if one’s manners are good, then their character must be inherently good (47). Since the reader is aligned with Elizabeth’s perspective, her criteria in turn become the reader’s criteria. Much to her detriment, she heavily relies on Nardin’s assertion throughout the novel. The similarities between Nardin and Austen’s attitudes become evident when Austen introduces Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy, and Mr. Wickham. Mr. Bingley has a “pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners” (Austen 12) and is beloved by all. While at first admired for his wealth and looks, Mr. Darcy is quickly found to have a “most forbidding, disagreeable countenance” (Austen 12) stemming from his inability to “’[converse] easily with those [he has] never seen before’” (171). His reticence is assumed to be rudeness; as a result, he “continually [offends]” (Austen 18) those who don’t know him intimately. In contrast, Mr. Wickham shines through his cordiality, openness, and good manners, which instantly recommend him to those he meets (Austen 200). His success in ingratiating himself into Meryton society is facilitated by the superficiality of the townspeople, who, like Mrs. Bennet, believe the ideal gentleman is “a man of fashion… so genteel and so easy” (Austen 43). Elizabeth is also easily misled, and ultimately is “pleased with the preference of [Mr. Wickham], and offended by the neglect of [Mr. Darcy]” (Austen 202). Her prejudice, based solely on rudeness or lack thereof, establishes the conflict that comprises the novel. As a result, Elizabeth prevents herself from accurately differentiating between, as Edd Winfield Parks puts it, “defects in character” (384) and “defects in training” (384).

As the novel progresses, it is revealed that Mr. Darcy’s ungentlemanly manners do not reflect his character. After their reconciliation, he explains to Elizabeth the origins of the rudeness that did him a disservice all his life; he was given “good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit” (Austen 349). His statement proves Parks’ observation that his bad manners were merely a result of a “[defect] in training” (384). This defect is evident in the prideful manner in which Mr. Darcy proposed to Elizabeth. After admitting he failed to suppress his affection, Mr. Darcy takes pains to disparagingly criticize Elizabeth’s rude family, lack of fortune, and poor connections (Austen 185). In doing so, he believes he is merely stating facts that are “natural and just” (Austen 188). In truth, he is being incredibly offensive. Referring to Westacott’s definition, Mr. Darcy has fulfilled both requirements; he’s violated a timeless rule of etiquette by failing to “pass over the defects of others” (Hartley 32), and humiliated Elizabeth without any initial consideration to her feelings. While Ivor Morris argues that “his action [was]… an infallible means of demonstrating to her that his affection is real” (61-62), the sheer rudeness with which his sentiments were conveyed, and the superiority evident in his assumption of her acceptance make his actions indefensible and entirely deserving of Elizabeth’s criticism.

By pointing out that he failed to “[behave] in a gentleman-like manner” (Austen 188), Elizabeth sets Mr. Darcy down a course in which he eventually becomes “properly humbled” (349). Her actions violate both of Westacott’s conditions because not only is she apathetic to Mr. Darcy’s feelings, but in the process fails to heed one of the basic rules espoused by Maud C. Cooke’s etiquette manual: to “never retort a sharp or angry word” (Cooke 49). However, though rude by definition, Elizabeth’s behaviour is both just and apt. In criticizing Mr. Darcy, she has told him the truth, which no one else has dared to from ages “eight to eight and twenty” (349). Even so, Elizabeth’s blunt condemnation of Mr. Darcy’s “arrogance… conceit, and [his] selfish disdain of the feelings of others” (Austen 188) initially has considerable support as his role in separating Jane and Mr. Bingley, and in denying Mr. Wickham his living all appear to highlight his incivility. Her actions also seem entirely defensible; Austen subtly sways the reader to support Elizabeth’s forthrightness by having them observe events solely through her limited perspective. As noted by Parks, “[Austen] shows a preference for open frankness to social polish” (384) which explains the authoress’ choice in point of view. Since the reader watches these events unfold through Elizabeth’s eyes they, like her, are entirely aware of rudeness and entirely unaware of context. However, even the awareness of context cannot defend a character who lacks all sense.

Penelope Joan Fritzer argues that it is the good spirit and instinctive good sense in which civility is undertaken that prevents vulgarity, noting that superficially following the rules is often insufficient (54). As she further explains, Mr. Collins “bows and scrapes, and he follows most courtesy book rules, but he does it with no sense of what is appropriate” (Fritzer 70). His overwhelming lack of sense, coupled with his “very good opinion of himself” (Austen 69), create a rude man who is altogether a “mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility” (69). As a result, his flagrant violations of social conventions are as numerous as they are humorous. However, even comedy cannot overshadow the sheer incivility of which Mr. Collins is capable. After Elizabeth refuses his proposal, he in turn refuses to believe her and calls her protestations “merely words” (Austen 106). This dismissal not only reveals the sexism of Austen’s era, but also the depth of his disregard for her feelings. In an attempt to force Elizabeth to accept his offer, he lists reasons why she should: not only is she poor, but she lacks connections. These deterrents, in his eyes, overshadow her accomplishments, personality, and beauty (Austen 106). Mr. Collins’ “self-conceit” (Austen 69) prevents him from accepting blows to his pride, and prompts him to insult her in the hopes that, by depreciating her worth, she will see reason and accept him.

Mr. Collins’ proposal is similar to Mr. Darcy’s: both are executed poorly, and both are swiftly rejected. However, the society of their time and the context of Mr. Darcy’s insults justify his lapse in propriety during his proposal. He is “superior in consequence” (Austen 95) to Mr. Collins and has a lot more to lose by marrying Elizabeth. Furthermore, Mr. Darcy has a significantly stronger sense of propriety than Mr. Collins, and most of Elizabeth’s family: he does not indirectly humiliate anyone, nor is he flagrantly rude. He even goes so far in his letter to Elizabeth as to absolve her from his scathing remarks on her family’s incivility, telling her that she has “[avoided] any share of the like censure” (Austen 193). In doing so, he takes pains to avoid hurting her feelings. Mr. Collins, on the other hand, is just as impolite as the majority of the Bennet family – like them, he has “no innate sense of good manners” (Fritzer 70). His rudeness is unjustifiable; his offensive remarks towards Elizabeth are clearly spoken without regard for her feelings. The extent of his insensitivity is evident when Elizabeth visits Rosings Park after he and Charlotte Lucas have married. Mr. Collins clearly desires to remind Elizabeth of what she chose to reject, in order to make her understand “what she had lost in refusing him” (Austen 154). In one instance, he alludes to Elizabeth’s meager social status by drawing attention to her plain attire: he promises her that Lady Catherine will hardly mind, as she prefers to maintain a clear societal advantage over others (Austen 158). In the Regency era, rudeness had incredible social power, which could just as easily absolve as it could condemn. However, in the 1920s, the ramifications of rudeness are far less severe.

As seen in Hay Fever, representations of rudeness retain the same qualities inherent in comedies of manners, but within a different frame of reference. The Blisses navigate a fine line between eccentricity and rudeness. As a result, their interpretations of incivility are ill-founded. Simon Bliss’s view that “[they] are very slapdash” (Coward 118) suggests the presence of trifling idiosyncrasies and a charm in their unconventionality. However, what he considers ‘slapdash’ is really rudeness. Sorel is aware of this, observing that “[they’re] so awfully bad-mannered” (Coward 118). Despite her realization and her vow “to try to improve” (Coward 118), Sorel does nothing to rectify her behaviour, while no one else in the family bothers at all. This apathy towards their behaviour supports Rose Snider’s argument that the entire family is “undemocratic and [restricts] themselves to a world of their own” (108). In their world, rudeness is run-of-the-mill as it is expected, encouraged, and enjoyed by the family. In contrast, the Bennets do not have this same luxury of liberty due to their meager funds. As a result, the future of the Bennet daughters depends solely on their accomplishments and their sense of decorum. As Abrutyn and Carter explain, there is a “mobility via manners” (356) that Jane and Elizabeth rely on as through manners they have the chance to interact with, and marry, people above their station.

In stark contrast, the siblings Sorel and Simon have been raised according to the art-centric interests of their parents, and not in “ordinary conventions and manners” (Coward 140). Since they are wealthy like Mr. Darcy, such a lapse in their education isn’t an issue: they have no obligation to society, while society is often obligated to defer to them. However, rudeness does not damage their reputation as it does Mr. Darcy’s. As Emily Post notes in Etiquette, “the hostess of great wealth… will shine, at least to the readers of the press, more brilliantly than her less affluent sister” (par. 2). In the 1920s, fame, money, and charisma often outweighed incivility. As the efficiency of the press increased, many things changed. One’s reputation now had the chance to reach farther than ever before, and character was determined based on what was read in the paper. As a result, the indecorous behaviour the Blisses are capable of is masked by their social status. Rudeness was hardly news-worthy, but the retirement of Judith Bliss – a celebrity known for her wealth, and charisma – was. Myra Arundel expresses such a sentiment when she initially claims that the Blisses are simply a “divinely mad family” (Coward 132), thereby glossing over their faults.

Hay Fever evokes, as Donald Anderson observes, “an evolving dynamic of intimacy in [the] reconfigured post-war world” (45) of the 1920s. The Bliss family is a product of that transformation: they thrive on discord and disconnection, while simultaneously managing to maintain a strong kinship with one another. However, to the guests, and to the audience, the family appears to do nothing but insult one another. As David explains to Myra, he has a “love [of seeing] things as they are first, and then [pretending] they’re what they’re not” (Coward 160). The rest of the family shares the same love, and they bond over the shared understanding that none of them ever say what they mean. They are all fluent in the language of pretense and can adeptly pinpoint the true feelings behind the rude remarks that obscure them. As David again notes to Myra, his “flippancy [is] only a mask, hiding [his] real emotions” (Coward 162), and the rest of the family is much the same way. When Sorel criticizes her mother’s inappropriate behaviour in “encouraging silly, callow young men” (Coward 121), Judith retorts by expressing her “hope [that Sorel would] grow up a good daughter to [her], not a critical aunt” (121). The affection in either rude statement is not readily apparent. Instead, both establish Judith’s vanity and insecurity about her age and appearance. Nevertheless, such criticisms are the mark of fondness. Since neither of them take overt offense, and they continually trade insults with David and Simon, it is evident that none of them identify rudeness as rudeness. Rather, it has come to signify an evasive forthrightness.

While the Blisses themselves might not recognize their actions as rude, their guests do. When each Bliss begins to make advances towards each other’s guests, they not only demonstrate their collective skill in pretense, but also fulfill both tenets of Westacott’s prescription of rudeness: they trifle with each guest in a way that shows no concern for their feelings, and as a result, disregard the basic conventions involved in being a good host. As stated in Post’s Etiquette, she notes that it is “unforgivable [for the host] to be rude to anyone under your own roof… quarrels and hospitality must never be mingled” (par. 93). Their lack of success on this front is evident in Myra’s decisive remark that “[she] will never stay [with the Blisses] again” (170). Interpretations of rudeness are crucial to this scene of Hay Fever. While to the family the whole situation was incredibly humorous, to the guests their actions are criticized as the mark of “posing, self-centered egotists” (Coward 164). The Bliss family succeeded not only in alienating their guests, but managed to prompt them to commit justifiably rude acts.

The majority of the indefensible acts of rudeness in Hay Fever were performed by the Blisses. Aside from being unwarranted, these acts accomplish nothing besides providing critical context for two defensible acts of rudeness: when Myra – in the style of Elizabeth Bennet – confronts the entire family after they attempt to romantically attach themselves to their guests, and when the guests break with convention and leave without a proper send-off. After being used as a means of increasing theatrics in the household, deliberately misled, and verbally abused over the course of the weekend, it was only rational for them to wish to leave as soon as possible, with as little interaction with the Blisses as possible. On that score, it was also completely justified for Myra to criticize the family, calling them “the most infuriating set of hypocrites [she’s] ever seen” (Coward 164). She also makes a point of calling them out on the excessive “theatrical effects” (164) they regularly employ. Not only are her views accurate, but they also illuminate the key areas where their rudeness arises: their theatricality, and their love of pretense.

In Pride and Prejudice and Hay Fever, the distinct contrast between rudeness and decorum help in facilitating “comedic confrontations [that show] important differences between characters and distinct evaluations of them” (Fergus 107). While good manners have come to exist primarily in unarticulated expectations and unconscious performances, bad manners have remained unmistakably discernible. Though it appears trivial, as Westacott argues, indecorous behaviour is crucial in revealing one’s true disposition and moral principles (Westacott 2-3). With that said, the fluidity inherent in the context of indecorous behaviour indicates a timelessness in its identification, criticism, and defensibility that has allowed it to endure for centuries. Moreover, its resilience in literature is a result of its allure. Rudeness not only has the possibility to humiliate, but to entertain and engage in equal measure.


Works Cited

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Anderson, Donald. “A Hasty Kind of Genius: Noël Coward’s Hay Fever.” Modern Drama, vol. 54, no. 1, 2011, pp. 45-61.

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Snider, Rose. Satire in the Comedies of Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, and Coward. Folcroft Press, 1969.

Westacott, Emrys. The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits. Princeton University Press, 2012.

1 Djareli. “I wasn’t being rude, just facetiously condescending.” Someecards, Someecards Inc., n.d., someecards.com/usercards/viewcard/MjAxMy0yMjBkOWJmOWQ1YWU1YmFl?tagSlug=news. Accessed 1 December, 2016.