Nowadays we don’t think an introduction is a big deal. We introduce ourselves whenever we feel the need to, or carry on whole conversations without even finding out the name of the other person. But during the Regency, introductions were essential. The right introductions were the key to success in society, and the wrong ones spelled certain doom.
So much depended on who you knew in the Regency period that people took their introductions very seriously. There were all sorts of rules about how to be introduced, and by whom, that it’s a little mind-boggling for us modern people. For instance, a person of higher rank was never introduced to a person of lower rank—it was the other way around. That way the higher-ranking person had the privilege of declining the introduction if they felt it to be inappropriate. Likewise, a man never introduced himself to a woman, but was introduced through a suitable mediator—a mutual acquaintance or hostess, or in the case of an assembly room, the patroness or master of ceremonies. And even then, the man was introduced to the lady, who could refuse to acknowledge him if she did not wish the relationship.
In Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Bingley moved into the neighborhood, Mrs. Bennet lamented that if Mr. Bennet did not visit Mr. Bingley—which implied that he would then introduce him to his family—she would be forced to rely upon her neighbor for an introduction for her girls, but “‘I do not believe Mrs. Long will do any such thing. She has two nieces of her own. She is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her.'” Thus, an introduction could be used as a sort of bargaining chip, or as a weapon to keep others from a certain social circle.
When you recognize the rigid rules surrounding introductions, it becomes easier to understand how Mr. Darcy could wander around the assembly room the entire evening without having someone try to introduce him. Mr. Bingley, as his friend and thus his social equal, was the only person suitable to introduce him, and Mr. Darcy declined his invitation to be introduced. So no one dared to approach him, and he was free to “(walk) here and (walk) there, fancying himself so very great!”
Perhaps one important nuance to this whole introduction thing is the safety it gave to women. They were almost always in control of whom they allowed into their social circle, and therefore could avoid friendships or acquaintanceships with gentlemen whom they believed to be unsavory. About the only time a woman would be introduced to a man was was when he was significantly older than she was, and somewhat close in relationship—say, the father of a friend—so the privilege would be given to the elder. But in that case, he was not likely to be in any way dangerous to her, and she need not worry about accepting the relationship.
Of course, this can all break down, and did, certainly, causing problems and mishaps and discomfort to countless parties. But good or bad, it makes for a great plot device in historical novels—and we can read and enjoy because we don’t have to deal with all those rules, or their consequences, anymore!
see Rachel Knowles’ excellent article on introductions here