I’m a big fan of manners. Please. Thank you. You’re welcome. How do you do? Sir. Ma’am. Manners tell a person that you think they are important and worthy of your respect.
Of course, Jane Austen lived in an era and culture rife with manners. She uses manners to tell us about a person’s character. Darcy has very formal manners. He is one of the few characters that bows frequently. But his manners are also haughty and aloof, telling that his character is reserved and communicating his elevated status and stature.
He assesses the manners of the person with whom he is speaking, and uses them as a guide to make his judgements. For example, he tells Lizzy that he was correct in disdaining her family, for their “total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself [Mrs. Bennet], by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father.” Here, he uses their lack of manners to affirm their lower status and lesser connections.
Darcy also uses manners to keep people at a distance. He uses manners as an excuse to not move out of his comfort zone. He doesn’t easily meet people and thinks most people are beneath him. (Of course, most people are indeed beneath him!)
I think manners are good, as long as they convey respect (rather than disdain) and strengthen relationships (rather than creating distance). And I think that Darcy’s journey in Pride and Prejudice conveys Jane Austen’s similar sentiments.
[Next we will look at Mr. Collins’ manners]