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What We Can Learn About Courtesy From ‘Emma’

What We Can Learn About Courtesy From ‘Emma’

One of the corporal works of mercy is to visit the sick and the imprisoned. These visits—acts of charity– give hope and cheer to those suffering illness or confinement. They relieve the tediousness of time and a monotonous existence devoid of some happy event or refreshing change to anticipate.

Visits, however, do not have to be consigned to hospitals or prison cells. Normal social life welcomes the occasion of visits from friends and relatives, and a civilized life cultivates time to invite visits or make social calls.

An Old Custom

The custom of visiting on Sundays and holidays, once a natural part of a human life, has waned in the last fifty years. Visitors feel the obligation to call in advance and ask permission lest they impose or inconvenience their hosts. Hosts who receive visitors sense the need to have ample provisions, a clean and beautified home, and the proper rest and leisure to enjoy the occasion.

While these are of course the proper sentiments of thoughtful visitors and their hosts, they govern more formal occasions based on invitations and R.S.V.P’s. Life, however, also has an informal, spontaneous, and serendipitous element that needs expression and occasions like unannounced visits. Life must always be open to these surprises or unexpected gifts.

In Jane Austen’s Emma one of the most special occasions of joy occurs when acquaintances make these spontaneous, unexpected visits. These visitors show gracious civility by arranging their time and business to delight friends with one of those friendly whims that cheers the heart and fills the home with mirth. Mrs. Bates and Miss Bates, a widow and an unmarried daughter, live a simple life in modest circumstances without many sources of happiness, but their greatest pleasure comes from the serendipitous visits of their neighbors that divert them from their uneventful existence.

Some of their younger acquaintances, however, like the elegant Emma and the gallant Frank Churchill, avoid these visits or curtail them abruptly because of Miss Bates’ garrulous chatter that flows without stop and that constantly changes the topic of conversation. Churchill was intending a brief visit, but Miss Bates’ unabated stream of talk and information made it impossible to leave: “. . . but there was no getting away, no pause.” Instead of a ten-minute visit Churchill discovers “I had been actually sitting with them very nearly three quarters of an hour. The good lady had not given me the possibility of escape before.” While Churchill’s token visit exasperates him, it fills Miss Bates’ time with the attention of a welcomed guest.

Keeping the Chivalry

However, the truly chivalrous, courteous, and considerate neighbors like Mr. Knightley always find occasion to visit and to spend a good portion of time without suddenly excusing themselves on the pretext of business. In his daily rounds he finds opportunities of paying his respects to Mr. Woodhouse during the evenings and makes regular visits to the Bates’ home without feelings of impatience and irritability in listening to small talk about weather, food, and family news.

Because Knightley reprimanded Emma for negligence in paying cordial visits to the women who always find time to play cards with her father (“not contributing what she ought to the stock of their scanty comforts”), she found an opportunity to correct this defect while doing business in town. Reluctant as she is to be in company with “tiresome women” who belong to the social class of the “the second rate and third rate of Highbury,” Emma pays a visit out of social protocol and for the sake of appearance. Just when Miss Bates is about to read a long letter from her niece Jane Fairfax—a boring letter of no interest to Emma– she terminates the visit with a brusque announcement: “I am afraid we must running away . . . . My father will be expecting us.”

This failure to pay visits as matters of charitable love or simple courtesy deprives many people, especially the elderly, of one of life’s exquisite pleasures.

Short Visits = Poor Taste

Austen presents various types of visitors in the novel. Besides those who avoid visits because they fear unpleasant company lacking éclat or who leave suddenly after a brief period because of dull conversation, Emma depicts characters who consider visits inconvenient, impractical, and a waste of time. John Knightley, Mr. Knightley’s brother and Emma’s brother-in-law, resents having to pay periodic visits to his wife’s family: “He anticipated nothing in the visit that could be at all worth the purchase, and the whole of their drive to the Vicarage was spent by him in expressing his discontent.” He complains of spending long hours in company “with nothing to say or hear that was not said and heard yesterday.”

Frank Churchill too lacks the savoir-faire of the courteous visitor. He delays his visit to his recently remarried father and step-mother, disappointing both parents by setting the date, cancelling the visit, and writing long letters of apology filled with flimsy excuses—a recurring pattern of procrastination. Both characters do not like visits and have have no interest in pleasing others, only consulting their own comfort and expedience. No visits equal bad manners. Short visits equal poor taste.

Another type of visitor makes social calls but only for the sake of decorum and propriety, not to bring pleasure to others, to add to the cheer of the occasion, or to express a sense of gratitude. Emma at first decides that she will not accept the invitation to the Coles’ dinner party, but “She felt that she should like to have had the power of refusal.” After reconsideration, she changes her mind because “there was so much real attention in the manner of it” with special accommodations for her father’s comfort. Emma accepts the formal invitation as a mark of distinction but would not deign to make any informal visits.

Frank Churchill likewise follows propriety when he finally visits his father and attends all the formal social events, but he visits to flaunt his gentleman’s manners and ingratiate himself with all whom he wishes to impress like Emma. With words of praise, admiration, compliments, and gratitude Churchill “knew how to make himself agreeable” when it served his self-interest and reputation.

As Austen reveals, the informal visits matter more than the formal acceptances to parties. They reveal a kind heart, a desire to please, and the intention to place the happiness of others before one’s own convenience and pleasure. The informal visits offer the gifts of friendship, time, and thoughtfulness that make relationships personal and human. They exemplify what Austen calls “an act of unostentatious kindness”—the opposite of Churchill’s arts of pleasing that amount to no more than “a parade of insincere professions.”

A visit is always an act of kindness, charity, and mercy that is cherished by those who appreciate the art of enjoying people.

Header Image © MiraMax Films

About Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian

The son of Armenian immigrants, Dr. Kalpakgian has taught at Simpson College, Christendom College and Wyoming Catholic College. He has authored several books and written for many Catholic publications. Meet Dr. Kalpakgian | See his Books
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