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I am struggling with a use of the word "received" that I have never seen before, in conjunction with a social status in 19th century America. Specifically, in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, Chapter VI, Cathleen gossips to Scarlett that Rhett Butler is attending the barbecue because he is "Not received." I am writing a piece that spans this period and would like to know the scope and meaning of that cultural idiom.

Scene summary

  • Scarlett O'Hara has been playing the field of beaus at the party and spots Rhett who looks out of place. She's drawn to his "bad boy" vibe and seeks out gossip on him from Cathleen. Cathleen tells Scarlett that he is "not received," which excites Scarlett and she prompts Cathleen for an explanation.
  • Cathleen explains Rhett's terrible reputation, that he took a girl out on a date, brought her home late with no chaperone, and the next day refused to marry her. The girl's brother called him out (for a shotgun wedding), Rhett claimed nothing happened but was challenged just the same. Rhett won the duel and killed the brother, and had to leave town "and now nobody receives him."
  • The result was that the girl did not get pregnant but was "ruined just the same." I don't know if that ties in to the condition.

I would like to know what the idiom means, and if it would be understood to an 1860's British society as well because my story spans those two cultures. (If there was a different equivalent in England that would be helpful)

3 Answers 3

39

He's not accepted in society.

In particular, if he tried to call on a lady, or a gentleman, he would be told the other person was "not at home," even if he had seen other visitors received just before, or just after, his attempt. Calls being the basic unit of society in those days, dinners and balls being larger and more fancy, if you won't be received, you are not in society.

It was, in fact, a practice to receive such visitors weekly, and a matter of great importance:

If your circle of visiting acquaintance is very large, while at the same time your time is fully occupied, or your home duties make it inconvenient to dress every morning to receive visitors, it is a good plan to set aside one morning in the week for a reception day.. . . .

Your friends will, unless there is some especial reason for a call in the interval, pay their visit upon the day named.

Let nothing, but the most imperative duty, call you out upon your reception day. Your callers are, in a measure, invited guests, and it will be an insulting mark of rudeness to be out when they call. Neither can you be excused, except in case of sickness.

Having appointed the day when you will be at home to see your friends, you must, for that day, prepare to give your time wholly to them. The usual hours for morning receptions are from twelve to three, and you should be dressed, and ready for callers, at least half an hour before that time.

The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness by Florence Hartley, Boston 1860

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    I upvoted this answer because it is accurate and useful. To make it even better, you might include in the text of your answer the title and publication date of the book of etiquette that you link to and quote in the second part of your post; doing so is a simple and potentially valuable way to preserve the identity of the source in case something happens to the hyperlink to make it nonfunctional.
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 12 at 4:22
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    Florence Hartley seems to have been American, but I'm sure the practice, and probably the terminology, were similar in Britain. Aug 12 at 9:14
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    Thank you, this and the referrence as a whole will prove very valuable! One thing about this particular scenario that confused me was the fact that Rhett had championed the challenge in a duel, which I had always assumed restored you honor. That was the purpose of a duel, I believed. Being called out, winning, and still lose your “society” seemed malapropos. Or are honor and society different?
    – Vogon Poet
    Aug 12 at 13:04
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    This is not really relevant to the question, but I can't help noticing that the author of the quoted text characterises the hours 'from twelve to three' (presumably noon to 3 PM, i.e. the early afternoon) as 'the usual hours for morning receptions' which seems to be at odds with the standard dictionary definitions of morning. It would be interesting to explore, in another question, if and when such use of morning was standard.
    – jsw29
    Aug 12 at 17:00
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    @VogonPoet a duel is not a trial. You demand a duel (roughly) when the other person's behavior is so odious that their continued existence is an insult to you. Often, the callout alone was enough to make both parties reach some accommodation, but it's a very strong "or else". That doesn't say anything about third parties though (note e.g. hw many duels Andrew Jackson fought about his wife). Perhaps no-one else felt that Rhett was odious enough to their affairs, but they likewise had no desire to allow him to be part of their affairs. So they screened his calls.
    – fectin
    Aug 12 at 18:46
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An early meaning of "received" was "accepted or approved" (this still lives on in the phrase "received pronunciation", which refers to the high-class British accent). So when Rhett is described as "not received", it means that proper society didn't approve of him.

9

I think it means he won't be asked over, and if he comes, the door won't be answered.

Merriam-Webster receive
verb
3a : to permit to enter : admit
b : welcome, greet

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    Typically the door will be answered by a servant: "Her ladyship is not at home". Aug 13 at 1:08

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