A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

“To Offer Him Any Attention”

There’s a scene near the end of Pride and Prejudice where Mrs. Bennet has a social opportunity to say characteristically foolish things to Mr. Darcy. Alert readers are apprehensive! But the narrator reassures us:

“Mrs. Bennet luckily stood in such awe of her intended son-in-law that she ventured not to speak to him, unless it was in her power to offer him any attention, or mark her deference for his opinion.”

I thought this was an odd use of “attention,” which ought to mean “the act of attending or heeding; the act of bending the mind upon any thing.” This definition is from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, nearly contemporary with Austen (P&P was published 1813; Johnson’s dictionary was published in its first edition 1755, fourth edition 1773). But it wouldn’t make much sense to say that Mrs. Bennet didn’t speak to Mr. Darcy except to heed him or bend her mind upon him.

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, offers another meaning (3a): “The action of attending to the comfort and pleasure of others; ceremonious politeness, courtesy.” This makes good sense of our passage. It suggests that she offered him tea, refreshments, and so on, according to his needs for comfort. We might say she attended on him as an attendant, and in this sense offered “attention.” Come to think of it, there’s probably an etymological history there: how attending on someone as a server is similar to devoting your mental focus to someone or something. Both kinds of attending are kinds of service. “Wait upon the Lord.”

Since the prompt for this little study was the appropriately hyper-popular Jane Austen, we can use a handy online concordance to survey the various ways she uses the word. Here’s a screencap of the many occurrences near the end of Pride and Prejudice:


About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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