“It is not enough that your actions are good. You must take care that they appear so.” In Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones, the wise Squire Allworthy offers this advice to the young who are often negligent of the importance of manners, public appearances, and first impressions.
Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, originally entitled “First Impressions,” offers much wisdom on this aspect of social life that cultivates or frustrates human relationships. Her novel shows that the one judging and the one being judged both have obligations in situations where first impressions are formed.
In the opening chapters of the novel Mr. Darcy attends a ball at Netherfield but refuses to converse, to socialize, or to dance even though many of the young ladies have no partners for several of the dances. He even comments in a voice loud enough to be heard by Elizabeth Bennet to whom he is referring, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me, and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” He creates bad first impressions, provoking such thoughts among the ladies as “He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped he would never come there again.”
Foolishly and carelessly Darcy ignores the importance of first impressions and puts himself in a bad light because, as his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam comments, “It is because he will not give himself the trouble.” Because manners reflect morals, Darcy’s bad manners create the impression of an insensitive, tactless, unrefined person—a false image that belies his true character as a man of honor and integrity.
Darcy errs because he assumes that first impressions do not matter and that moral character and social manners have nothing in common. Because his closest friends and family recognize his magnanimity, Darcy does not feel any obligation to demonstrate a gentleman’s civility in unfamiliar company. He overlooks the common wisdom that teaches that a person must not only be good but also appear to be good because people judge on the basis of first impressions, the only criterion they have.
However, the one judging on the basis of first impressions also has a duty, the acknowledgement that first impressions are not final judgments. First impressions are often misleading and do not tell the whole story. While Darcy needs to make a more conscientious effort to be agreeable and civil, those judging Darcy need to give him a second chance and not make rash judgments on the basis of one occasion.
While Elizabeth was naturally offended by Darcy’s inconsiderate comment that she was “not handsome enough” to interest him in dancing, she changed her mind when she accidentally met Darcy at Pemberley Woods when she received a “second” first impression. Visiting Darcy’s home and estate on a tour with her aunt and uncle at a time when Darcy is normally living in London, Elizabeth is surprised at Darcy’s unexpected return. On this occasion Darcy acts like an amiable gentleman with the most gracious, inviting manners: “And his behavior, so strikingly altered,—what could it mean? That he should even speak to her was amazing—but to speak with such civility, to enquire after her family! Never in her life had she seen his manners so little dignified, never had he spoken with such gentleness as on this unexpected meeting.”
A proud man who would not deign to dance learns to act with the manners of a gentleman because he learned from the blunder of his bad first impressions. A woman he ignored and avoided later “attracted him more than he liked” and “bewitched” him with her beautiful eyes. However, no woman is attracted to a man who lacks civility. Bad manners never lead to romance. A prejudiced woman who formed an immediate, final judgment on the basis of one encounter changes her mind. Every person deserves a second chance, and a person who errs and apologizes deserves forgiveness. Rash judgment—like poor manners—always defeats romance. The man who offended her at the ball impresses her as a magnanimous man at Pemberley.
All human relationships and all romances begin with first impressions at social occasions like dances and visits. For friendships and romances to occur everyone must observe the propriety of good manners so that first impressions allow true perceptions and communicate clear knowledge. On the one hand, the person being judged must not only be moral in private but also appear civil in public so that courteous manners reflect good morals. On the other hand, the person judging must never equate first impressions with absolute certainty but also take into account second or third impressions to discover the real truth that requires more than one piece of evidence.
Civilization depends on men and women conducting themselves as gentlemen and ladies on all occasions and toward all people, whether or not they like the company. There is no excuse for the pride of Darcy or the prejudice of Elizabeth when men and women meet for the social events of life.
St. Francis de Sales, the saint of savoir-faire, vowed early in his life always to speak to everyone at all social functions that he attended. The mark of a gentleman, Cardinal Newman observed in The Idea of a University, is “never to give offense” by word, silence, or conduct. And St. Paul in his discourse on love said that love is always patient and that “love is never rude.”
To pretend that one can possess good morals without good manners or that one can be all-knowing on the basis of first impressions is like boasting that one can love God without loving one’s neighbor—an outright contradiction as the letter of St. John states.