Jane Austen's 'propriety'

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Moon Palace, Aug 9, 2007.

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  1. Moon Palace

    Moon Palace Senior Member

    Lyon
    French
    Hello again...
    Jane again...
    So, throughout the book the word 'propriety' is used again and again, and I would like to confirm the idea that it has two different meanings, so extaordinarily befitting for this novel:
    The Bennets are despised by Darcy because of their want of propriety = meaning he scorns them because they are intent on finding suitable husbands for their daughters, with 'proprieties' and possibly titles.

    Mrs Bennet is the archetype of what Darcy flees, for she has no sense of propriety = she is so ill-mannered that she puts Darcy off being interested in Elizabeth.

    Are these two examples correct?
    Thanks for your help.

    PS To Mods' attention: I have mistakenly posted this thread in the French English forum, so that I have reproduced it here. Sorry about that. :eek:
     
  2. bibliolept

    bibliolept Senior Member

    Northern California
    AE, Español
    First of all, I would caution you regarding the phrase "want of," as many English speakers would think it means "lack of."

    Here are some definitions of propriety, from M-W. Which do you think applies to each case?
     
  3. Moon Palace

    Moon Palace Senior Member

    Lyon
    French
    First of all, thanks for that fast reply.
    Now, I would go for 4a undoubtedly for the second example.
    What troubles me is indeed that the first sentence which I copied out from a critic could well be ambiguous: it could both mean 'want of' as lack of, in which case we are back to the lack of manners (Mrs Bennet is unable to show she has anything but emotions at hand), whereas it could also mean they are desperate to find husbands-to-be for their daughters, in which case 'want of' would be nearer to 'need for'.
    So, the question I have trouble with is really: can 'propriety' mean 'ownership'? Or could it mean this in Austen's days?
     
  4. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    But "want of" does mean "lack of".
     
  5. ireney

    ireney Modistra

    U.S.A.
    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    Well, first of all it's not the Bennets plural who want to marry their daughter in such a way :) Mr. Bennet is most certainly not out hunting rich husbands for his daughters. However he does display what Mr. Darcy considers lack of proper manners (4a). And "want of" definitely means "lack of" so we are indeed back to lack of manners.
     
  6. Moon Palace

    Moon Palace Senior Member

    Lyon
    French
    I think I know the confusion I made, yet as it could well have been both, this is why I ended up wondering whether there could be any ambiguity in the word.
    I believe I got confused with 'property' which in French is 'propriété', very near to propriety indeed as you can see.
    And as both could have fitted the first sentence, I thought - and I still do - that if the meaning of 'property' could ever have been devolved onto 'propriety', it would have made Austen's comment even more ironic.
    So, is this all the product of my brain ramsacking or is there any chance this double meaning could have existed?
     
  7. bibliolept

    bibliolept Senior Member

    Northern California
    AE, Español
    I doubt this ambiguity existed in Austen's time.
     
  8. Moon Palace

    Moon Palace Senior Member

    Lyon
    French
    Yes, you are right, ireney, but I have unwittingly applied the rule of majority since 6 of them are in this fight, whereas Mr Bennet watches their agitation from his library. ;) But 6 to one does not make it a whole at all. :D

    And sorry again for wasting everybody's time with a question that I probably shouldn't have asked if I had pondered over it a bit longer. :eek:
     
  9. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
    No. Of course, if I say that someone wants propriety, I may well mean that the person lacks the manners that I associate with the property-owning classes; or alternatively that the person is failing to show the (subservient) manners that are appropriate to their lowly station in life.
     
  10. JamesM

    JamesM modo no mas :)

    I agree. "Propriety" has only the one major sense of being appropriate according to social conventions.

    I've never heard "propriety" applied to property, although we do call the owner of a business the "proprietor", probably borrowed from French.
     
  11. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    Property and propriety do not mean the same thing in English, either in Austen's day or our own, and there would have been no ambiguity about it for Miss Austen herself. Indeed, she would have been surprised to think that one might conclude that the possession of property automatically conferred propriety. Mr. Darcy's aunt Lady Catherine, for example, has considerably more property than Jane or Elizabeth Bennett, but considerably less propriety than either.
     
  12. jann

    jann co-mod'

    English - USA
    Yes, I think so. :) The "suitable" husband will be in possession of a large property (not "proprieties") and a large income. Jane and Elizabeth could not be interested by anyone who did not behave with propriety, but their mother and younger sisters are less discerning. :D
     
  13. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    At the time of P&P, propriety had both of these definitions:
    It is clear from the examples quoted that both are used in P&P. Context will determine which is intended (I hope).
     
  14. Moon Palace

    Moon Palace Senior Member

    Lyon
    French
    Thank you Panjandrum, so you confirm that my Norman influence could make sense here?
    Because it did transpire in some chapters that the two meanings were used alternately, but I could not manage to find this wide definition. Hence my question...
     
  15. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    How interesting, panj.

    I hadn't realised "propriety" also meant "property" in JA's day; I'd have plumped straight for the "what is proper" meaning.

    I love WRF: you learn something new every day!

    Loob
     
  16. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
  17. ireney

    ireney Modistra

    U.S.A.
    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    Well, let's put it this way: In Mr. Darcy's letter it becomes clear that it's the lack of manners that he is interested in primarily and of social status secondarily. I cannot recall the scene you refer to (with Mr Bennet in his library) but when it comes to money grabbing Bennets it's mainly Mrs Bennet who is really interested in money (see Lydia's (?) marriage). However, minus the two eldest Miss Bennets and plus Mr Bennet, Mr Darcy believes that the Bennets' manners leave a lot to be desired.
    End of confused and confusing post.
     
  18. JamesM

    JamesM modo no mas :)

    Well done! I was wondering how this could be researched. I didn't remember any instance of "propriety" meaning "property", but my memory has been faulty in the past and it has been a while since I read this book.
     
  19. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I agree with teddy. Although it is clear from The Dictionary that propriety, meaning property, was current at the time, none of the examples I could find in P&P were using this meaning.
     
  20. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    I really want it to be a "double entendre", but I don't think Austen is known for this device. Or does my memory deceive me?
     
  21. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    Panj, while I shall gladly recant my statement that the word "propriety" did not mean property in Austen's day, I would think it likely that it was by then a term of art for lawyers, and not something found in general conversation.
     
  22. geve

    geve Senior Member

    France, Paris
    France, French
    From what I recall, she makes it obvious when there is one, eg. "What a difference a vowel makes! - If his rents were but equal to his rants!" (Mansfield Park)

    It's great to be a non-native, you can see puns when there aren't any... (I might have had the same idea about "propriety" when reading Jane Austen :eek:)
     
  23. Moon Palace

    Moon Palace Senior Member

    Lyon
    French
    What an extraordinary memory, Geve!!! :thumbsup:
    I wish you could lend it to me for a while... Thanks for adding that one to the ones I am listing.
    And I wholly agree with you, being non-native helps reading thoroughly and paying attention to words in a way we don't when reading French. At least we have a tiny edge on that... :D
     
  24. Moon Palace

    Moon Palace Senior Member

    Lyon
    French
    I have found the passage where although I am aware the word 'propriety' here does not mean 'ownership', its location in the sentence seems to me not to be due to mere chance, and not to be deprived of double entendre:

    Chp XII Vol II, p.130 Norton (Darcy's letter explaining his behaviour after Elizabeth's refusal)
    "The situation of your mother's family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father."
    This is the sentence that prompted me to believe there could be more than one meaning to 'propriety', and it was later alluded to by a critic, inviting readers to analyse the meaning of this word throughout the book. Yet it is only my first reading, so if I encounter another quotation liable to double entendre, I will let you know.
    (do you think here Jane Austen did not mean to use this word as an articulation between the two arguments put forward by Darcy?)
     
  25. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    THanks, Moon Palace, that's interesting.

    Dear geve, your "rant/rent" example is not double entendre because they are two completely different words.
     
  26. ireney

    ireney Modistra

    U.S.A.
    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    Well I read this passage a bit differently: Her situation (a brother in commerce and another a mere lawyer) is objectionable. Not because of monetary reasons but because of social status awarded to these occupations. However, although this is objectionable to one so high and mighty as Mr. Darcy he would maybe overlook it if it wasn't for the total lack of manners. I myself cannot see any double entendre (note that Mr. Bennet is included in the category of lack of propriety and so are the younger Miss Bennets who weren't interested in money really and could not be supposed to own land or anything) but then it may be just my interpretation of the passage.
     
  27. jann

    jann co-mod'

    English - USA
    hello Moon Palace! :)

    I can't see any double entendre intended here either, not the least because the choice of words doesn't fit: one doesn't "frequently betray" lack of property. Also, the accusation is levied primarily against the female members of the family, who would not have been in possession of the family estate anyway, at least not while Mr. Bennett was alive.
     
  28. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Hi, Moon Palace

    No, "propriety" has only one possible meaning in this extract.

    You're not, by any chance, being misled by the phrase "want of"?

    As has been mentioned earlier in this thread, "want of" means "lack of", not "desire for".

    Loob

    PS: better to say double meaning rather than double entendre. When we say double entendre, we usually imply that the second meaning is rude or sexy;)
     
  29. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    It's evident that other native speakers disagree, but I use double entendre outside the context of sauciness (as well as in!).
     
  30. Moon Palace

    Moon Palace Senior Member

    Lyon
    French
    OK, white flag here everybody :p
    May I without quoting my last post - which would lead me to Lady Catherine's egocentrism - ask you to have a look at it again: I did say I am well aware it only means 'lack of manners' here. Yet I think Jane Austen's organization of the sentence seems to me to be utterly clever since this word is exactly in the middle of the sentence, and if by any chance she had willed it this way with a view to confusing the reader or to hinting at property - which the Bennets were equally in want of owing to the entail - then, it would be extremely shrewd on her part. And I am tempted to believe Jane Austen was a malicious writer.

    So, yes, I know, propriety here has only the meaning of 'manners'.
    But P & P is a social novel, and ownership and propriety are the core societal motifs of the book; it would be so wonderfully interesting - since the OED does point out to the double understanding that was possible in those days - to make them like two sides of one medal.

    Thanks anyway for helping me see through the nuts and bolts of this author and century. It has been very helpful, even if I am a stubborn forero... :eek:
     
  31. JamesM

    JamesM modo no mas :)

    I'd have to say I disagree with this. I agree that it is an intense study of social dynamics. I don't think it's about ownership or property, though. It's about social standing and the ways one acquires it, abuses it and loses it. There are people with great holdings that have little standing, although they are treated diplomatically in deference to their holdings. The acquisition of property is not the acquisition of propriety in the book, in my opinion. In fact, I think she makes a point of showing every possible combination of ownership and propriety in her cast of characters to make it clear that they are not related.
     
  32. ireney

    ireney Modistra

    U.S.A.
    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    Being stubborn myself (everyone says so and I'm not about to argue with everybody. In this case :D) I'd say that the reason it has such a central place in the sentence is that Mr. Darcy, at this point, is more interested that he should be in how things and people look and less in how things and people are and has to learn a valuable lesson. Plus, the lack of manners is one Lizzy feels acutely too and since we are to see Mr. Darcy in a more charitable light (or at the very least Lizzy should) his giving such importance to something she cannot very well argue against is helping his cause.

    But I stray into other matters not directly related to the meaning of the word in question.
     
  33. Moon Palace

    Moon Palace Senior Member

    Lyon
    French
    May I develop then, hoping that my clumsy wording will give way to a better understanding of my point:
    When I say propriety and property are core motifs, I mean that the social comedy revolved around the activities of people who - for a large part of them - are worried about getting a social standing they don't have or at least preserving the one they have had up to now (the Bennets, more especially Mrs B), and people who have money and social standing but who - in different ways depending on whether you consider Mr Darcy or Lady Catherine or the Bingley sisters - are in need of a teaching of good manners. May I suppose this is what you are saying here too?
    Now when I say it would be wonderfully interesting if we could make them two sides of one medal, it is a symbolic (and this is where I may have been clumsy) way of saying the book itself, the story could be the medal, intermingling the different needs of society in those days. The needs of society (and I don't think it has changed much for that matter) and the ways of being 'saved' were all linked with either people's behaviour or money. Trying to see 'propriety' as a word bearing the two meanings and the contradiction is an opportunity I would have liked to seize upon, for the sake of adding more irony maybe to JA's novel. I may have gone much beyond her intention, still I think as critics tend to warn us about, that we ought to study her book as if we were readers from her century. So, if the word had this double understanding in her days, I would stick with the idea that she was not that innocent when alluding the lack of manners and of property (the emphasis on the entail and on the material situation of all potential husbands in the book is compelling evidence that the financial situation of characters is the gist of social life).
    When Mr Bennet, who is supposedly not after money or not hunting husbands for his daughters, rejoices at the news that he won't have to pay Darcy back for the elopement of Lydia, no doubt even he and his ironic detachment from all social standards yield to the power of money, as if to say that the bottom line is inevitably linked to assets.


    I am not so sure she aims at showing they are not related. I would rather say that she aims at showing one should not trust appearances, and that social status or money are no evidence of good manners. And vice versa. The link she wants to establish is that of prejudice that is often a barrier to the understanding of the true personality of people. (and this definitely is contemporary too)

    Waow... I am sorry for writing such a long post, but trying to make my point here is excellent training for the upcoming year, and I hope I have not bored to death potential readers. :eek:
     
  34. JamesM

    JamesM modo no mas :)

    I think you are imposing an interpretation that is not justified by the text itself. :)
     
  35. Moon Palace

    Moon Palace Senior Member

    Lyon
    French
    Thanks for warning me, I will pay more attention when reading it again, and will try to check out other critics' analysis before I draw further conclusions then. :)
    (but this was a question I submitted, and even though I tried to argue my case maybe too much, originally it started as intuition)
     
  36. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I think we have gone some considerable distance past the clarification of the meaning of propriety in the sentence, in the 1800s, and in Pride and Prejudice, into a literary analysis that is beyond the scope of this linguistic forum.

    Hence, this thread is closed.

    It's been fun :)
     
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