The First Principles of Polite Behaviour is an illustrated chapbook for children, dating from around 1825. It begins with a few paragraphs about the importance of politeness in society. The rest of the book consists of stories about young children who behave politely or impolitely, and the author praises and condemns each child accordingly. The book offers guidance on such topics as helping the aged, appropriate behaviour at the dinner table and the importance of greeting adults with respect.
The first chapter of this chapbook states that ‘The habit of a polished address ought to be formed in early youth’. This reflects the 18th century belief that the behaviour an individual learned as a child would influence their behaviour as an adult. As a result, many conduct books of the 18th and early 19th centuries emphasised a parent’s duty to instil morals and etiquette in their children at an early age. The belief that an individual’s character was formed in early childhood was also important to the Romantic poets, expressed by Wordsworth as ‘The Child is father of the Man’.
Parental instruction in Jane Austen
Parents in Jane Austen’s novels are frequently absent or inadequate. Sometimes, this is the reason for characters’ mistakes. In Persuasion Anne Elliot does not marry Captain Wentworth when she is young because she takes the advice of Lady Russell, who has become her closest friend since her mother died; Lydia Bennet’s disgrace in Pride and Prejudice is attributable in part to her parents’ failure to teach her self-discipline.
One of the stories in this chapbook is about how ‘vulgar’ it is to yawn in company, because ‘it is informing others that we are tired of their society’. In Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bingley yawns twice and Lady Lucas once. Both women are rich and of high status, but their yawning suggests that they are not particularly polite. In both cases, yawning signals these women’s inability to take an interest in anything outside themselves. When Lydia Bennet leaves the ball at Netherfield, Austen describes her as ‘too much fatigued to utter more than the occasional exclamation of “Lord, how tired I am!" accompanied by a violent yawn’.