Conduct Books in Nineteenth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Conduct Books in Nineteenth-Century Literature


Conduct Books in Nineteenth-Century Literature

The following entry presents criticism discussing nineteenth-century handbooks that prescribe proper social conduct as well as moral and educational guidelines.

The conduct book is a means by which an individual may learn and then demonstrate socially-prescribed appropriate behaviors. It is very similar to the etiquette book, so much so that some critics use the terms interchangeably. Nevertheless, conduct books tend to focus on the improvement of character through development of honesty, fidelity, modesty, and other virtues, and on demonstrating character in one's dress, manners, intellectual development, and household training, while etiquette books tend to focus on proper behavior in specific and often superficial social situations, such as attending balls and making social calls. The household manual is also a type of behavioral literature, providing practical information on such subjects as child rearing, cooking, cleaning, and gardening, and typically offering advice designed to foster the creation of a home that exemplifies proper character.

Although usually directed toward women, conduct books have also been written for men and children. Behavioral literature, while dating back to the Middle Ages, became popular in the mid-sixteenth century, with the increase in literacy and growth of the print trade. Courtesy books, a form of conduct book written from Renaissance times through the mid eighteenth century, were written primarily for men as guides to appropriate manners in public affairs and at court. Early conduct books were written mostly by men, and provided instruction in how to behave at court and in social situations, how to marry wisely, how to manage a household, and how to be a good wife and mother. By the late seventeenth century, a new form of conduct literature—periodicals directed toward women—was developed in Great Britain. The content of these publications was very similar to that of conduct books, focusing on the promotion of women's “improvement” and “virtue.” However, as was not the case with social conduct books, women played an active role in the periodicals' production.

In 1774, Philip Dormer Stanhope, Lord Chesterfield, published Letters Written by the Late Right Honourable Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, to his Son, Philip Stanhope, Esq., considered a precursor to the etiquette book. Very popular and influential in Britain and later, in the early nineteenth century, in America, it focused on worldly and superficial graces. Moralists ravaged Lord Chesterfield's Letters as amoral. In reaction to this and other “corrupting” influences of the late eighteenth century, Evangelicals such as Hannah More energetically began writing conduct books to maintain the conservative ideal of manners and morals. Conduct books, whether written by Evangelicals or others, continued to uphold the manners-as-morals ideology and continued to be written into the latter half of the nineteenth century, but beginning in the 1830s, they were slowly replaced in Britain by the etiquette book. Conduct books achieved greatest popularity in Britain from the 1770s through the 1830s, and in America, both conduct books and etiquette books became very popular beginning in the late 1820s. The proliferation of conduct books in America was, as in Britain, partly due to fears that society was drifting away from traditional Christian values. Scholars note that pioneer American women particularly valued the guidance of household manuals and other behavioral literature because they were largely removed from family ties and needed information. In both Britain and America, conduct and etiquette books were primarily written by and for members of the middle class.

Scholarly criticism of this literature tends to focus on its ideologies of gender and class. Conduct books espoused the value of woman's education and development, but strictly within the confines of her proper role; the goal was that her improvement would make her a better wife, mother, and homemaker. While a few examples of feminist behavioral literature exist—such as Frances Cobbe's The Duties of Women (1881), which advises women to cultivate such traditionally “masculine” virtues as courage and self-reliance as well as traditional “feminine” virtues, and Harriet Martineau's Household Education (1849), which suggests that girls and boys do not have different educational needs—conduct books by and large did not espouse progressive ideas. However, they did emphasize the woman's role, extolling the importance of home as a secure and tranquil oasis in a harsh world, and played a part in the development of the “cult of domesticity” that flourished in the Victorian era. Conduct books, in keeping with their focus on moral virtue, were unconcerned with class status. But society did have class-based expectations for behavior, made more complex and stringent in the early nineteenth century as members of the burgeoning nouveau riche increasingly circulated among the ranks of the upper class. The development of the etiquette book in the 1830s provided a means for codifying class-based proper behavior. Etiquette books provided readers with a guide for increasing their social status, and also played a part in solidifying notions of class differences. Etiquette increasingly became a method for excluding ambitious undesirables. In these ways, behavioral literature provides modern-day readers with a glimpse into how society has defined itself and its values over time.

Representative Works

Catharine Beecher
A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School (handbook) 1841

Frances Power Cobbe
The Duties of Women: A Course of Lectures (lectures) 1881

Mrs. John (Eliza Ware) Farrar
The Youth's Letter Writer (handbook) 1834
The Young Lady's Friend: A Manual of Practical Advice and Instruction to Young Females on their Entering upon the Duties of Life after Quitting School (handbook) 1836

Anna Jameson
Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical (criticism) 1832; also published as Shakespeare's Heroines: Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical

Mary Augusta Jordan
Correct Writing and Speaking (handbook) 1904

Catharine Macaulay
Letters on Education, with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects (nonfiction) 1790

Harriet Martineau
Household Education (nonfiction) 1849

Hannah More
Essays on Various Subjects, Principally Designed for Young Ladies (essays) 1777
Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education. With a view of the principles and conduct prevalent among women of rank and fortune. 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1799
Coelebs in Search of a Wife. Comprehending observations on domestic habits and manners, religion and morals. 2 vols. (novel) 1808

Catharine Maria Sedgwick
Means and Ends; or, Self-Training (handbook) 1839

Lydia Howard Sigourney
Letters to Young Ladies (handbook) 1833, revised editions, 1835 and 1837
Letters to My Pupils: With Narrative and Biographical Sketches (handbook) 1851

Philip Dormer Stanhope, Lord Chesterfield
Letters Written by the Late Right Honourable Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, to his Son, Philip Stanhope, Esq.; Late Envoy Extraordinary at the Court of Dresden: Together with Several Other Pieces on Various Subjects. Published by Mrs. Eugenia Stanhope, from the Originals Now in Her Possession. 2 vols. (handbook) 1774; also published as Letters to His Son, by the Earl of Chesterfield: On the Fine Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, 1926

William Wilberforce
*A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity (nonfiction) 1797

Jennie Willing
The Potential Woman: A Book for Young Ladies (nonfiction) c. 1881

Mary Wollstonecraft
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (nonfiction) 1792

*This work is commonly referred to as Practical Christianity.

Criticism: Women's Education

Jane Roland Martin (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Martin, Jane Roland. “Beecher's Homemakers.” In Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman, pp. 103-38. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Martin maintains that Catharine Beecher's theories of women's education and domestic management in Treatise on Domestic Economy strongly emphasize the importance and challenges of nineteenth-century women's domestic role, progressively placing it on the same level as men's public role.]

In A Treatise on Domestic Economy, published in the United States just fifty years after A Vindication was published in England, Catharine Beecher extols the...

(The entire section is 9389 words.)

Maria LaMonaca (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: LaMonaca, Maria. “‘She Could Make a Cake as Well as Books …’: Catharine Sedgwick, Anna Jameson, and the Construction of the Domestic Intellectual.” Women's Writing 2, no. 3 (1995): 235-49.

[In the following essay, LaMonaca studies Catharine Sedgwick's Means and Ends and Anna Jameson's Characteristics of Women, suggesting that both are progressive conduct books stressing the value of women's intellect and the importance of women's self-improvement through intellectual development, though neither challenges women's traditional roles in society.]

… I resolved to form Dora's mind.


(The entire section is 7190 words.)

Patricia Demers (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Demers, Patricia. “‘That Which before Us Lies in Daily Life’: Social Discourse.” In The World of Hannah More, pp. 76-98. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Demers studies the essays of Hannah More, finding that they stress the importance of education, living a moral and practical life, refraining from frivolity, and fulfilling the feminine role.]

To attempt to compress more than three decades of More's essay writing in a single chapter may seem both trivializing and impossible. The authorial voice does become more resonant, moving from the neophyte's offer of “a few remarks on such circumstances as seemed to...

(The entire section is 6763 words.)

Jane Donawerth (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Donawerth, Jane. “Nineteenth-Century United States Conduct Book Rhetoric by Women.” Rhetoric Review 21, no. 1 (2002): 5-21.

[In the following essay, Donawerth studies women's conduct books that focus on writing and speaking, finding that while works by Lydia Sigourney and Eliza Farrar emphasize the importance of learning conversation skills and letter writing for the purpose of appropriately influencing one's children, Jennie Willing's The Potential Woman includes discussion of preaching and social reform.]

In 1904 Mary August Jordan, a professor of rhetoric at Smith College, published Correct Writing and Speaking with a national company, A....

(The entire section is 7569 words.)

Criticism: Feminist Revisions

Linda H. Peterson (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Peterson, Linda H. “Harriet Martineau's Household Education: Revising the Feminine Tradition.” Bucknell Review 34, no. 2 (1990): 183-94.

[In the following essay, Peterson suggests that Martineau's Household Education is an important radical work for its dismissal of differences in the educational needs of girls and boys, and for its suggestion that male-dominated public schools are unnecessary and that education is best done at home, giving girls increased opportunity to be instructed and women increased opportunity to instruct.]

Beginning in 1846, Harriet Martineau published two series of articles in a short-lived magazine called The...

(The entire section is 4538 words.)

Susan Hamilton (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Hamilton, Susan. “‘A Crisis in Woman's History’: Frances Power Cobbe's Duties of Women and the Practice of Everyday Feminism.” Women's History Review 11, no. 4 (2002): 577-93.

[In the following essay, Hamilton suggests that Cobbe's Duties of Women instructs women to practice feminism appropriately in everyday life, and to display courage and self-reliance while remaining dutifully conscientious, unselfish, temperate, and chaste.]

In 1881, thirteen years before the New Woman made her official appearance, and over twenty years before the advent of militant feminist tactics, Frances Power Cobbe looked at the women's movement around her, and...

(The entire section is 7117 words.)

Criticism: American Behavioral Literature: Cultivating National Identity

Arthur M. Schlesinger (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: Schlesinger, Arthur M. “Republican Etiquette.” In Learning How to Behave: A Historical Study of American Etiquette Books, pp. 15-26. New York: Macmillan Company, 1946.

[In the following essay, Schlesinger surveys American behavioral literature, maintaining that behavioral literature became very popular in America after the late 1820s because the rising classes wanted reference sources for joining polite society. Schlesinger notes that this literature either instructed manners as a set of defined rules, in the manner of Lord Chesterfield, or it more traditionally and conservatively suggested that one's manners demonstrate one's character.]

A social code,...

(The entire section is 4157 words.)

Kathryn Kish Sklar (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Sklar, Kathryn Kish. “The Building of a Glorious Temple, 1843.” In Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity, pp. 151-67. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Sklar examines Beecher's Treatise on Domestic Economy, a comprehensive handbook in which she discusses house-building, setting a table, cleaning, gardening, cooking, health and first aid, and childcare, and asserts that women are restricted to the domestic sphere because this promotes the stability of society.]

Insofar as Catharine Beecher's career can be said to have had a widespread and immediate impact on her society, that effect was achieved...

(The entire section is 9142 words.)

Karen Halttunen (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Halttunen, Karen. “Sentimental Culture and the Problem of Etiquette.” In Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870, pp. 92-123. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Halttunen suggests that in the early nineteenth century, the ideology of manners had changed in America—largely due to the publication and influence of English Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son—from demonstrations of gracious consideration of others, to a rather self-centered cultivation of an appearance of good breeding. Halttunen stresses that the central difficulty of etiquette is that its stringent rules of behavior...

(The entire section is 9129 words.)

Criticism: English Behavioral Literature: Defining A Middle Class

Patricia Branca (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Branca, Patricia. “Do's and Don'ts for the Mistress of the House.” In Silent Sisterhood: Middle-Class Women in the Victorian Home, pp. 22-37. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Branca discusses English Victorian conduct books, suggesting that they were critical in tone; they implied that women were impractical and under-skilled due to their overly “ornamental” education and they denigrated the social aspirations of middle-class women.]

As mistress of the house, the middle-class woman gained a new position in society. Her personal influence grew greatly, as overnight she became an important decision-maker in...

(The entire section is 6651 words.)

Elizabeth Langland (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Langland, Elizabeth. “Material Angels: Wings of Clay.” In Nobody's Angels: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture, pp. 24-61. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Langland maintains that English Victorian etiquette primarily provided a means for displaying wealth and social status, for delineating social class, and for preventing the social advancement of undesirables.]

Victorian etiquette manuals, management guides, and charitable treatises cannot be taken as straightforward accounts of middle-class life: these nonliterary materials did not simply reflect a “real” historical subject but helped...

(The entire section is 8557 words.)

Further Reading


Attar, Dena. Introduction to A Bibliography of Household Books Published in Britain, 1800-1914, pp. 11-59. London: Prospect Books, 1987.

Full-length bibliography. Introduction surveys the major types of household manuals and instruction books published during the nineteenth century; outlines major subject areas and common themes.


Armstrong, Nancy. “The Rise of the Domestic Woman.” In The Ideology of Conduct: Essays on Literature and the History of Sexuality, edited by Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, pp. 96-141. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Discusses the history...

(The entire section is 902 words.)