Introverts and Extroverts in the Regency Era
Updated: May 5
By Elizabeth Rasche, author of A Learned Romance
“We are to have a tiny party here tonight; I hate tiny parties–they force one into constant exertion." Letter from Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra, from Bath in 1801
Jane Austen has been called the ultimate anti-social queen who nevertheless was the literary world's paramount observer of society and human nature. She may have been an introvert herself, and centred her books on introverted characters who also preferred smaller society.
For a loose definition, introverts are very reactive to stimuli, even as infants, which means they find quiet conversation and few new faces plenty stimulating, and social events such as large or loud parties overwhelming. Extroverts are less reactive to stimuli, meaning quiet conversation and seeing the same few faces may be less engaging for them, while a big party may be refreshing.
Most human beings are ambiverts. In other words, introversion and extroversion are a spectrum, and as you’d expect, most of us fall somewhere close to the middle. Society can nudge us a little bit in one direction or another, but some cultures are structured to benefit either introversion and extroversion. While entrepreneurial, colony-based cultures such as America and Australia in the 1800s were advantageous to extroverts, more densely populated cultures like Japan were more comfortable for, and favourable to, introverts. What about Regency England, specifically the gentry? How did Regency society shape ladies and gentlemen?
Though all very small children were supposed to be ‘seen and not heard’, as upper-class children grew older, expectations diverged. Girls were to remain at home, trained by a governess to engage in quiet, homey pursuits and meeting few new people; others were sent to seminaries, or what we now call 'finishing schools', to polish their social and artistic skills and performance arts. Boys were usually sent off to boarding school for their education and--thrown together with their equally bewildered and newly acquainted peers--expected to divvy out their own social order through romping, pranks, and noisy squabbles in the schoolyard. Being able to hold one’s own in a group of strangers and make friends was considered essential to a boy’s school life. And while schoolmasters might applaud the solitary boys who studied rather than socialising, most individuals admitted public education for boys was more about social networking than collecting information. Most gentlemen probably forgot most of the Latin, Greek, and geometry they learned in public school, but the networks of friendships and the social skills of ‘how things are done’ proved much more useful. In that sense, education for boys was a social education, one that favoured extroversion.
One might expect that girls and young women, generally blessed or doomed with a small social circle focused on family life, would be encouraged to be introverted. Although this is true, there was a significant exception: young ladies who had come out must be more extroverted than young ladies who had not yet come out. The social signal of extroversion was vital for signalling which young ladies were prepared to wed. The allies and rivals a young lady forged at school or in society could raise or doom her marital prospects.
Jane Austen touches on this in Mansfield Park, where Fanny Price is an introvert who bucks this expectation. Because Fanny is quiet, seeks little social stimulation, and is often bidden by others the way a servant or child would be, her neighbours question her position in society. Mary Crawford remarks upon Fanny, ‘She dined at the Parsonage, with the rest of you, which seemed like being out; and yet she says so little, that I can hardly suppose she is.’ She goes on to describe girls who are not out as demure, quiet, and dressed modestly.
Tom Bertram then recounts a social failure he experienced when two sisters refused to tailor their personalities to expectation. As he tells Mary: ‘The close bonnet and demure air you describe…tell one what is expected; but I got into a dreadful scrape last year from the want of them. [When I met the Sneyds and their daughters] I made my bow in form; and as Mrs. Sneyd was surrounded by men, attached myself to one of her daughters, walked by her side all the way home, and made myself as agreeable as I could; the young lady perfectly easy in her manners, and as ready to talk as to listen. I had not a suspicion that I could be doing anything wrong. They looked just the same: both well-dressed, with veils and parasols like other girls; but I afterwards found that I had been giving all my attention to the youngest, who was not out, and had most excessively offended the eldest. Miss Augusta ought not to have been noticed for the next six months; and Miss Sneyd, I believe, has never forgiven me.’
Tom Bertram’s mistake was pitied, but the company mostly excuses him for using personality to judge to which sister it was appropriate to speak. Mary Crawford blames the mother, who should have kept the ‘not out’ sister with the governess, while the others seem to blame the sisters. Woe to the young lady who is too extroverted before she comes out, and likewise to the young lady who is too introverted after doing so! They would have dealt with a heavy social reckoning in a culture that used social cues to determine marriageability.
A gentleman, once out of school, could probably indulge in more introversion than before, though the company he kept might begin to count him proud or disagreeable, expecting more socialising from him. A woman living in a large city could probably indulge in more extroversion. But in general, there was social pressure for men to be a little on the extroverted side and women to be a little on the introverted side.
And as we all know, until she learned a little more about him, Elizabeth Bennet thought Mr Darcy a little too reserved and thus, too proud, and he was both perturbed and bewitched by her liveliness. The manner in which they draw out and balance one another's tendencies towards introversion or extroversion makes for a wonderful story.
Kagan and Snidman, 2004.
Beaton, Caroline. “The Majority of People Are Not Introverts Or Extroverts,” retrieved from psychologytoday.com and posted 2017