Rules of Engagement: Honor and Shame in Sense and Sensibility

“Austen’s first rule of courtship is one I have frequently repeated to my sons: Men are responsible not only for behaving honorably toward women but also for the woman’s response; if a man does not intend to enter a serious relationship, he has no business giving a woman special attention or encouraging her to attach herself to him.” –Peter J. Leithart, Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen.

Religious Principles (Morals) and Moral Behavior (Manners)

In Sense and Sensibility, why was Edward Ferrars so determined to stick to his engagement to Lucy Steele, and why was Willoughby considered to have treated Marianne so badly, because he did not ask her to marry him? Edward followed “good principles”; he was honorable. Willoughby was not.

Their behavior was called “manners.” In Austen’s Church of England, manners were considered to be based on morals, or inner principles, and those morals were based on religion. In Mansfield Park, for example, Edmund Bertram says the clergy are important because they influence “religion and morals, and the manners that result from their influence” (chapter 9).

So what was considered good moral behavior, good manners, in courtship and engagements?

The Lady

A lady being courted was expected to act with reserve, like Elinor Dashwood does, as well as Jane Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. She was not to openly encourage the man or in any way chase after him. For Jane Bennett, this unfortunately leads to her suitor Mr. Bingley, and his friend Mr. Darcy, concluding that she does not care for Bingley; she carried the recommendations a little too far!

Acting Engaged

On the other hand, Marianne Dashwood and Willoughby, in Sense and Sensibility, act as if they are engaged. They pay attention only to each other and ignore everyone else, even going off alone together. He calls her by her first name and offers her the expensive gift of a horse, which convinces her older sister that they are engaged. Marianne gives Willoughby a lock of her hair, which causes her younger sister to “be sure they will be married very soon” (chapter 12). When Marianne arrives in London, she writes several notes to Willoughby. All of these were the behaviors expected only of engaged couples, and so, everyone, even Marianne’s sisters, assume they are engaged. However, Willoughby has never asked Marianne to marry him, and he soon marries a rich woman.

Sense_and_Sensibility_Illustration_Chap_12 Hugh Thomson He cut off a long lock of her hair
Willoughby Takes a Lock of Marianne’s Hair; A Sign of Engagement
Playing with a Woman’s Affections: A Lack of Integrity

The 1812 Selection of Letters on Life and Manners points out that Willoughby, particularly, is reprehensible in this. The author says the man who plays with a woman’s affections and does not offer her marriage is not a man of integrity. “And to say that he is not bound in honour, because he has subjected himself to no specific promise, is the highest aggravation of his guilt.” Acting this way in business would ruin his reputation. (S. Gener, quoted in Maria Grace’s Courtship and Marriage in Jane Austen’s World). So Willoughby’s acting as if they were engaged without asking for marriage only makes his guilt worse. As the final chapter spells out, he did not behave with honor.

Willoughby’s Letter Breaks Marianne’s Heart; A Dishonorable Man
Honorably Keeping an Engagement

Edward Ferrars, on the other hand, is a man of “good principles and good sense” (chapter 49), as well as a man of religion, preparing to be a clergyman. While he is young and idle, he imagines himself in love with Lucy Steele, and asks her to marry him. They keep the engagement secret, because they know his family would oppose the marriage, and that part, actually, is not so honourable. It can, and does, mislead others. Elinor, in particular, falls in love with Edward, not knowing that he is already engaged. This points out the danger of secret engagements, which we see more thoroughly in Emma later on.

Lucy proves to Elinor that she is engaged by showing her a letter from Edward, and pointing out that he wears a ring with a lock of her hair; both are clear signs of engagement. When the engagement comes to light, Edward, as a man of honour, sticks to it, even though his mother is going to disinherit him, and even though he loves Elinor now rather than Lucy. He regrets his engagement, but still believes Lucy to love him, and so he feels bound to keep his promise to her. However, when Lucy elopes with his brother Robert, Edward is “honourably released” (chapter 49).

Lucy Shows Elinor Edward’s Picture; A Sign of Engagement
A Matter of Money

There was another reason for keeping an engagement: it was a financial agreement! If one person broke the engagement, the other could sue for “breach of promise,” and might receive a financial settlement. However, they could only sue if the promise was made after the age of consent (21). It could even be done if they were not technically engaged; Marianne could have sued Willoughby because he gave so many indications of engagement, even without asking her to marry him. Edward’s engagement to Lucy would have been harder to prove, however, as it was secret.

Most breach of promise cases were filed by women, but occasionally a man who was engaged to a wealthy woman might sue her for breaking off the engagement.

A financial settlement might even be voluntarily given. Hannah More, the very popular Evangelical writer of Austen’s day, was engaged to a rich man for six years. Her fiancé kept postponing the wedding, until she refused to continue the engagement. He offered her a financial settlement because he had kept her dangling and ruined her prospects of marrying someone else. On the advice of her friends, she accepted. He paid her 200 pounds a year from then on!

For more about rules of courtship and engagement, I highly recommend Maria Grace’s book, Courtship and Marriage in Jane Austen’s World.

In today’s world, what would it be like if both men and women were careful not to set up false expectations from each other? If saying “I love you” was immediately followed by “Will you marry me?”, and a commitment to be married was kept faithfully?


Courtship and Marriage in Jane Austen’s World, by Maria Grace (

Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, by Karen Swallow Prior

Jane Austen and the Clergy, by Irene Collins

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen, by Peter J. Leithart

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

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