In Pride and Prejudice Lady Catherine made quite the to-do about all the Bennet sisters being out at once. What did it mean to come out and why, if it was such a good thing, should it be limited to only one sister at a time?
Coming Out in Society
When a girl was deemed ready by her family–sufficiently accomplished in all the skills she needed to be a social asset to her husband–she would make her come out. Although sometime between sixteen and eighteen was common. The exact timing might vary depending on the status of other siblings, especially sisters. There was no hard and fast rule that a family have only one daughter ‘out’ at a time. For practical considerations, though, it was a common practice.
Being ‘out’ demanded financial resources and the assistance of friends and connections to extend invitations and make introductions. New, fashionable dresses were necessary to make the proper impressions. Subscriptions to balls and tickets to social events had to be purchased. A family with several daughters might easily be spread too thin if more than one girl were out at once. Had the Bennets managed their daughters’ coming out properly, the drain on the family resources would have been enormous. But, with neither parent extending themselves particularly on behalf of their daughters, the Bennet family managed it tolerably well.
The Problem of Younger Sisters
Having several daughters out at once also offered the embarrassing possibility that a younger daughter might be married before the elder. This would put the younger sister in a socially superior position to her elders. Married women were always above the unmarried. Needless to say, this could be extremely awkward. Lydia Wickham drove this point home when she insisted Jane go lower because she(Lydia) was now a married woman. Gotta love little sisters, right?
Consequently, younger sisters often waited until the elder was at least engaged, if not married, before coming out. This also gave family and friends a chance to recover from the experience and finances had time to improve before starting all over again.
Sometimes, though, when an elder daughter had several seasons out without an engagement, the girl would be considered ‘on the shelf.’ Parents would then allow a her younger sister to try her luck on the marriage market. At twenty eight, Pride and Prejudice‘s Charlotte Lucas would likely have been considered ‘on the shelf’ in the next social season or so.
How to ‘come out’
There was no single established way for a young woman to make her come out. Girls in the highest levels of society might come out during the London season. She could anticipate a ball in her honor and an official presentation at court to the sovereign. Court presentation required a sponsor and a very specific (and expensive) presentation gown and accessories. A whirlwind of society events would follow, all in the hopes of attracting the notice of the right sort of gentleman. This would include girls like Georgiana Darcy and Anne de Bourgh (had her health allowed of course.)
Girls in lower social strata came out with somewhat less pomp and circumstance (and expense). Her parents might plan a ball or party in her honor. In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s uncle held a ball in her honor marking her coming out.
A major event was not necessary, though. A mother might simply allow a girl to pinup her hair and accompany her on her morning calls and social events to indicate she was out. It seems like this would have been the way Lydia Bennet would have come out. Jane, and maybe even Elizabeth, might have had parties in their honor. By the time they got down to the younger girls, what was easy might have just won out.
At these events, parents, friends and acquaintances would essentially show her off to potential suitors. It is quite possible Aunt Philips may have had exactly this in mind when she invited the officers and her nieces to dinner the nige Elizabeth became first acquainted with Mr. Wickham.
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