The Novel of Manners Essay - Critical Essays

The Novel of Manners


The Novel of Manners

Although the novel of manners has always defied easy definition, literary historians seem to have arrived at a consensus on at least three elements: it originated in England, Jane Austen was the quintessential producer of the form, and its subject is the set of social conventions of a particular class in a particular time and place. The growth of the novel of manners appears to have been centered in the nineteenth century, although some critics place its emergence earlier, in the works of Henry Fielding (1707-1754) or Samuel Richardson (1689-1761); others insist it survives well into the twentieth century in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) and Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951). If critics agree on England as the country of origin, there is considerable disagreement on whether the form exists at all in America. And the class whose social relations are scrutinized in the novel of manners could be the aristocracy, but it is more likely the gentry, the emerging middle class, or even the lower class.

Changes in English society in the nineteenth century that eroded the boundaries between these various groups provided the background for the emergence of the novel of manners. Industrialization, urbanization, and revolutions in transportation and communication were accompanied by profound changes in the social hierarchy. As the aristocracy lost power to industrial and business interests, the standard markers for determining an individual's position in society were becoming increasingly unreliable. In some sense, the novel of manners emerged to clear up this uncertainty by offering detailed renderings of how the various groups behaved in everyday situations, and by both describing and prescribing codes of conduct. Many works contrasted the customs of the various groups, examining not only class and economic differences, but also the differences between city and countryside, between an earlier agrarian culture and a contemporary industrial order, and between England and America.

This apparent necessity to compare the conventions of two or more groups led some early critics to insist that the novel of manners was not suited to American literature. They proclaimed the United States a homogeneous, classless society where no distinctions between citizens existed. Some asserted that the manners of all groups were identical; others insisted that American manners were nonexistent, claiming that Americans were too preoccupied with taming the wilderness and settling the land to develop any standard rules of conduct. More recent literary historians have disagreed with this assessment, insisting that concern with American manners and mores can be traced at least as far back as James Fenimore Cooper's time (1789-1851).

The novel of manners is dominated by women—as authors, as subjects, and often as intended audience—and for this reason has occasionally been dismissed as trivial. William Forsyth (1871), for example, tempers his praise of Jane Austen's novels by criticizing the constant "husband-hunting" by Austen's female characters. But although the focus of the novel of manners—domestic life, matrimony, and social behavior—tends to be narrow, the "manners" being studied very often have far wider implications beyond the pouring of tea and the search for the proper mate. Adherence to good manners in these texts is not only a reliable indicator of one's social standing, but is intended to serve as an indicator of good morals as well.

The novel of manners often deals with gender issues as well, as the accepted standards for both manners and morals differ markedly between men and women. Regardless of the social class under study, there are frequently two distinct sets of codes in operation, and as many feminist critics point out, the ideals prescribed for women were often a source of anxiety for nineteenth-century women writers—an anxiety that plays itself out in the novels. In many woman-authored texts, the interaction of individual characters with the social conventions of their cultures is not a happy one, and the conventions themselves are as likely to be satirized as celebrated.

Representative Works

Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility 1811

Pride and Prejudice 1813

Emma 1816

Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre 1847

Shirley 1849

Villette 1853

Edward Bulwer-Lytton

The Caxtons 1848-49

James Fenimore Cooper

Satanstoe 1845

The Chainbearer 1845

The Redskins 1846

Charles Dickens

Great Expectations 1860-61

Benjamin Disraeli

Sybil, or the Two Nations 1845

Maria Edgeworth

Castle Rackrent 1800

Belinda 1801

Leonora 1806

George Eliot

Adam Bede 1859

The Mill on the Floss 1860

Felix Holt 1866

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby 1925

Tender Is the Night 1934

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

Mary Barton 1848

North and South 1855

Wives and Daughters 1866

William Dean Howells

The Rise of Silas Lapham 1885

Henry James

The American 1877

Daisy Miller 1878

Portrait of a Lady 1881

Sinclair Lewis

Main Street 1920

Catharine M. Sedgwick

Clarence 1830

Married or Single? 1857

William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair 1847-48

Anthony Trollope

He Knew He Was Right 1869

Phineas Finn 1869

Lady Anna 1874

Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth 1905

The Age of Innocence 1920

Charlotte Mary Yonge

The Heir of Redclyffe 1853

Social And Political Order

Richard Faber

SOURCE: "Ordered Estates," in Proper Stations: Class in Victorian Fiction, Faber & Faber, 1971, pp. 16-22.

[In the essay that follows, Faber discusses how the works of such novelists as George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Anthony Trollope reflected the changes in nineteenth-century English society brought about by industrialization and urbanization.]

Looking back from the middle years of the century novelists could recall a pastoral England, where the country still bulked larger than the towns and where every village was an island. In each distinct community the squire and/or the parson represented the gentry. Below them were the well-to-do farmers and the rural professional men—doctors, lawyers and, more humbly, schoolmasters. Below them, again, the rural artisans and tradesmen (carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, saddlers, weavers, shopkeepers) and, finally, the labourers who often lived and ate in the farms where they worked. Where there was a big house the servants would form a community of their own, observing its own hierarchy. The village innkeeper might be (as in Adam Bede) a former butler of the squire's. The Parish Clerk helped the Rector to maintain the dignity of the Church, which radiated more or less benevolently, but without excessive heat.

George Eliot brings out most pungently the contrast in village and country town life between the turn of the century and her own time. Her recollections have a gently idyllic glow and convey a touch of nostalgia for patriarchal stability. Perhaps this stability was partly illusory and belonged to a child's world rather than to the actual world of late eighteenth-century England. There was never a time, even in the eighteenth century, when social relations stood still. In so far as they had found a balance it was one that, in the country, lasted substantially until George Eliot's death and even later. She says, writing of 1799 in Adam Bede: '. . . in those days the keenest of bucolic minds felt a whispering awe at the sight of the gentry . . .' But this awe was not very much less potent in the middle of the nineteenth century. There were parts of England where it was still to be reckoned with in the twentieth century-There had certainly been some decline in feudal spirit between the Napoleonic Wars and the mid-Victorian era, but not to a revolutionary extent; the structure of rural society remained basically the same throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The real contrast between the countryside of, say 1800 and 1850 lay in material, rather than social, conditions: the greater intensity of cultivation, the greater absorption of the countryside for urban and industrial use, and above all the greater ease of communication. It was the railways, rather than any social revolution, that changed the rural life that George Eliot had glimpsed in her childhood: the theme of the Railway Revolution is a frequent and stirring leit-motiv in Victorian fiction. Ease of communication disturbed parochial self-sufficiency and diffused fashions and ideas. Clergymen began to torture themselves and their parishioners with points of doctrine. In refined provincial circles there was a serious striving after culture. Hospitality became more elegant and conversation more virtuous; the well-to-do ate and drank rather less heavily than they had before.

These changes in manners did not affect the social balance of the nation as a whole, so much as did the growth of the towns and of industrial activity. During the period covered in this book England changed from a predominantly rural country to a predominantly urban one. In 1851 the Census showed half the population—which then stood at 18 million—as urban. After this date the population continued to expand rapidly and the large towns became more and more important.

Mrs. Gaskell's North and South brings out more sharply than any other novel the contrast between the life of the traditional England and that of the new manufacturing towns. Aristocratic influence was overwhelming in the former, even after the Reform Bill of 1832. In the latter it seldom counted for much, in practical terms, and sometimes for nothing. Wealth and power, rather than gentility, were the standards of the new manufacturing society—as they have been in most parts of the United States and still tend to be in the industrial North today. The working classes may have feared or respected their masters; but they did not owe them a traditional reverence. The masters sometimes treated their men humanely and sometimes not; but their understanding of economic laws (Hard Times gives a powerful, if exaggerated, picture of their attitude) tended to put paternalism at a discount.

Disraeli's Sybil, published in 1845, set out to startle by announcing the co-existence of two nations in early Victorian England:

Two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.

Disraeli was referring to the Rich and the Poor—and indeed the difference between an aristocrat and an industrial worker of the time was entirely what he claimed. But there were many sorts of rich and many sorts of poor. Perhaps a truer contrast would have been between the new industrial nation (of all classes) and the older nation which still surrounded it and from which it had sprung.

Much of the wealth and more of the enterprise of the country was concentrated in the industrial towns; but they did not set the social tone. Although the inhabitants of these towns were quick to forget their rural origins, some of the traditional sense of rank was bound to linger. In Hard Times Dickens pictures Mrs. Sparsit—a decayed, though majestic, gentlewoman—as malevolently keeping house in an industrial town for the self-made Mr. Bounderby, who deeply appreciates her lady-like qualities. Mr. Gradgrind, the rigid economist, is in league with Mr. Bounderby. We are told that 'the Gradgrind school . . . liked fine gentlemen; they pretended that they did not, but they did. They became exhausted in imitation of them; and they yaw-yawed in their speech like them . . .' Dickens suggests a kind of unholy alliance between manufacturers and aristocrats, in which each tried to make use of the other. The former had wealth and power, in their own sphere, but could not help being impressed by the latter.

Mr. Thornton, the manufacturer in Mrs. Gaskell's North and South, has a sturdy independence. He sets little store by the values of 'the South', respects hard work and material success, and boasts that the manufacturing working-man 'may raise himself into the power and position of a master by his own exertions and behaviour'. But he is ready to describe the impoverished Hale family to his mother as 'a gentleman and ladies'. Manufacturers were not necessarily above having their sons educated at aristocratic public schools, even when, like Mr. Millbank in Disraeli's Coningsby, they were of a 'democratic bent' and disapproved of them. Their sons or grandsons might use their money, like the returning 'nabobs' of the eighteenth century, to acquire landed property and, with it, social respectability of the older type. Thus Lord Minchampstead, in Kingsley's Yeast, was a mill-owner and coal-owner before he became a landed proprietor 'as the summit of his own and his compeers' ambition'; his dissenting, self-made, father had said to him: 'I have made a gentleman of you, you must make a nobleman of yourself.'

If the new manufacturing class was wealthy, the landowners had not yet been hit by the bad harvests and cheap American corn of the seventies and they kept their heads above water in the middle of the nineteenth century. Agriculture was seldom a very paying investment;1 but owners of non-agricultural land shared in the general prosperity. As to power, the manufacturers certainly enjoyed it in their own towns and businesses, and their needs and attitudes strongly affected national policies. But the government of the countryside, and of the nation as a whole, remained in the hands of the aristocracy and gentry. Rank had perhaps governed society more absolutely in the eighteenth century and had adopted a haughtier style. Thackeray at least was under that impression, when he wrote in The Virginians of the middle eighteenth century that 'in those times, when the distinction of ranks yet obtained, to be high and distant with his inferiors, brought no unpopularity to a gentleman'. Lord St. George, in Trollope's Vicar of Bullhampton, had moved with the times and would disturb his father by reminding him that 'in these days'—presumably the late sixties—'marquises were not very different from other people, except in this, that they perhaps might have more money.' But, if the manifestations of rank had become more discreet, its superiority was still very widely accepted. Although the intellectual and artistic life of the country was less firmly under aristocratic patronage than it had been in the eighteenth century, landed families still dominated Parliament and London society, as well as their own counties or parishes, and they still set fashions in dress and behaviour. Cobden wrote to a friend in 1858:

During my experience the higher classes never stood so high in relative social and political rank compared with the other classes as at present. The middle classes have been content with the very crumbs from their table . . .

Thus, in spite of the emergence of new forces and classes, and in spite of the increasing diversity of English life, the old social system continued and flourished. It even reacted to change by developing a greater self-consciousness and rigidity. All readers of mid-Victorian fiction must be impressed by the sense which it conveys of a society both intricate and stable. Even Dickens, who found so much in society to dislike, gives an impression of solidity and permanence in the social order. There was certainly a time, in 'the hungry forties', when novelists became aware of dangerous divisions in society and when the distress, or resentment, of the poor seemed to threaten revolution. This was the time of the 'social protest' novel: Disraeli's Sybil (1845), Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848), Kingsley's Alton Locke (1850) and Yeast (1851). But the resentment was gradually alleviated by governmental concessions, by the removal of abuses and by greater economic security; Chartism petered out; there was no revolution. By the time of the late fifties and sixties (the period of Trollope's best novels) the essential stability of society seems to be taken for granted in current fiction. There are still abuses to correct; there is still scope for a gradual evolution; but there is no danger of any rapid or drastic overhaul. In Phineas Redux Trollope notes that the differences between the two English parliamentary parties are really very small: 'Who desires among us to put down the Queen, or to repudiate the National Debt, or to destroy religious worship, or even to disturb the ranks of society?'

It was in the sixties that Sir Hugo Mallinger, of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, 'carried out his plan of spending part of the autumn at Diplow' and spread

some cheerfulness in the neighbourhood among all ranks and persons concerned, from the stately homes of Brackenshaw and Quetsham to the respectable shop-parlours in Wancester. For Sir Hugo was a man who liked to show himself and be affable, a Liberal of good lineage, who confided entirely in Reform as not likely to make any serious difference in English habits of feeling, one of which undoubtedly is the liking to behold society well fenced and adorned with hereditary rank. Hence he made Diplow a most agreeable house, extending his invitations to old Wancester solicitors and young village curates, but also taking some care in the combination of his guests, and not feeding all the common poultry together, so that they should think their meal no particular compliment.

It is a combination of complexity and stability, of vigour and strict form, that seems to confer on mid-Victorian society its classic quality—the sense that what preceded (however attractive in its simplicity) was a preparation and that what followed (however refreshing in its informality) must be a dissolution.

How much the form was created by the novelists themselves: how much they helped to establish and perpetuate the social distinctions that they portrayed: it is impossible to say. At least the socially conservative Trollope seems likely to have had some influence of this kind. Yet, though his novels may have confirmed his middle-class and upper-class readers in their social attitudes, he was himself obliged to describe a world that was familiar and agreeable to them. In his Autobiography he complains about the reception of his novel Lady Anna:

In it a young girl, who is really a lady of high rank and great wealth, though in her youth she enjoyed none of the privileges of wealth or rank, marries a tailor who had been good to her, and whom she had loved when she was poor and neglected. A fine young noble lover is provided for her, and all the charms of sweet living with nice people are thrown in her way, in order that she may be made to give up the tailor. And the charms are very powerful with her. But the feeling that she is bound by her troth to the man who had always been true to her overcomes everything—and she marries the tailor. It was my wish of course to justify her in doing so, and to carry my readers along with me in my sympathy with her. But everybody found fault with me for marrying her to the tailor.

It would be unfair not to continue the quotation. Trollope goes on to say: 'What would they have said if I had allowed her to jilt the tailor and marry the good-looking young lord?' The most satisfactory solution would presumably have been for the tailor to die, or to perform a heroic act of self-renunciation, leaving the girl free to marry her noble lover with a clear conscience. But, in Lady Anna, Trollope was too much of a realist for that. As it was, he recognized, with truth, that Victorian sentiment called for as much nourishment as Victorian snobbery. Coronets were important; but so, in a different, and no doubt more basic, way were kind hearts. So much was this so, that the Victorian might even need to be reassured that, pace Dickens, 'Hearts just as brave and fair may beat in Belgrave Square as in the lowly air of Seven Dials'3 or, as Thackeray puts it in Philip: 'Because people are rich, they are not of necessity ogres. Because they are gentlemen and ladies of good degree, are in easy circumstances, and have a generous education, it does not follow that they are heartless and will turn their back on a friend.'

[It] has to be remembered that, for most Victorians, inequality on earth was to be completed or compensated by a different kind of inequality after death. Rank conferred its temporary distinction; but equality in the sight of God would ensure that, in the long run, virtue met with its reward. The intelligent Lady Harriet, in Mrs. GaskelPs Wives and Daughters, is very conscious of her position and apt to be a bit disdainful of some of her inferiors. But she tells Molly Gibson: 'I don't set myself up in solid things as any better than my neighbours.' . . .


1 Cf. English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century by F. M. L. Thompson.

2 Cf. Robert Blake's Disraeli (p. 273): 'As late as 1870 four hundred peers were reckoned to own over one-sixth of the whole surface of the country. It is not surprising that Cabinet and Parliament, lower as well as upper House, were overwhelmingly aristocratic in composition.'

3 W. S. Gilbert: Iolanthe (1882).

T. B. Tomlinson

SOURCE: "Love and Politics in the English Novel, 1840s-1860s," in The English Middle-Class Novel, Barnes & Noble Books, 1976, pp. 69-82.

[In the essay below, Tomlinson examines works by Benjamin Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskcell, and George Eliot and finds in them a mix of the personal and the political that is less than successful; the love stories are overly sentimental and the politics are oversimplified.]

The title of this chapter is in a sense fraudulent: 'Small politics and less love' would be nearer the mark for Disraeli, Mrs. Gaskell, and the George Eliot of Felix Holt. Each of the novels I want to consider here is minor, and each of them seems to me badly flawed. Compared with the best of English literature, these are not about either love or politics in any full sense of those words. They must, therefore, be very untrustworthy evidence of what love and politics might really have meant either in the period generally or, if it comes to that, in the lives of these authors.

Nevertheless, and with the possible exception of Trollope, these are the nineteenth-century novelists in English who most specifically engage with political issues. I don't myself count Trollope as a political novelist, because even the Finn/Palliser series, close though it is to the parliamentary scene, seems to me more interested in the general moral dilemma that Palliser's career, for instance, figures: for Plantagenet Palliser, to act in the world is essential and honourable; but honour cannot survive dirtying one's hands in the business of the world. Phineas Finn comes to feel much the same in the end, and I don't think it would have made very much difference to these men, or to Trollope (despite his consuming interest in the House of Commons), if the 'business of the world' had been trade and commerce instead of rigged elections and party managers. But in other novels of the period politics, political economy and trade unions loom large. There are in fact too many political novels to discuss here—nominally a list might include, for instance, Kay-Shuttleworth's dreadful effusion, Scarsdale—but a fair selection from among the better ones of the period would be: Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (which appeared in Household Words 1854-5); Disraeli's Sybil (1845); and George Eliot's Felix Holt (1866).

The question that interests me most about these is how and why did they fail? I do not believe it is simply that politics is intractable material for literature (it certainly wasn't for the Shakespeare of Henry IV, for instance). Nor do the kinds of weaknesses here seem simply weaknesses of and in the individual novelists concerned. There is a more general malaise than that operating, I think, and though it escapes final or complete diagnosis, one might approach an understanding of it by considering the persistent disjunction in these novels between politics on the one hand, and the rather unconvincing love-stories very much on the other. There is at least one other consideration that should be weighed in with this, though I don't want to do more than mention it in passing here: each of these novelists must have been cut off by the conditions of nineteenth-century middle-class life, education and aspirations from the popular movements they wrote about. If Disraeli's education, for instance, took place largely by reading in his father's library, he nevertheless had a library to read in beyond the dreams of the self-educated minority of the working class he and others describe in their fiction. The novelists' approach had to be to some degree academic, and this can only have increased their difficulties in the already difficult enough business of trying to write fiction that might make essentially personal emotions and affairs impinge on public ones.

On the other hand, I don't think that the novelists' lack of direct contact with working-class life and politics, debilitating though this must have been, was the only, or even the main, factor operating against them. Looking first at Mrs. Gaskell's two novels (though they are in fact a few years later in time than Disraeli's), and thinking still in largely political and sociological terms: one thing about these that deserves notice first of all is that they seem to have stirred up more political or quasi-political controversy than they warranted. Most reviewers accepted the sentimental love-affairs for the most part uncritically, but took offence at Mrs. Gaskell's interest in artisans and the working class. For instance, she was accused in The Edinburgh Review of April 1849, in an unsigned article in fact by W. R. Greg, of 'a sincere, though sometimes too exclusive and indiscriminating, sympathy with artisans'. Others joined in the complaint, but in fact there is no substance in it: her novels are full of doctrines of co-operation and self-help of precisely the kind advocated by the Edinburgh itself in its review of Mary Barton, and tend merely to protest against abuses, never against the wage-system itself or the existence of the employer class.

Indeed, I am inclined to think it might have helped her novels had Mrs. Gaskell been a shade less conventional, a shade more outrageous in her political and sociological thinking. There are interesting and convincing sections in both novels on trade unions, working-class conditions and so on, but even these seem—at least given the hindsight of a hundred years and more—rather settled, rather unquestioning of basic nineteenth-century assumptions about self-help, and about cooperation between artisans (who must, however, keep their place) and employers (who also rarely speculate beyond the local conditions and events they know). Had Mrs. Gaskell's political thinking been freer, I suspect that it would have been easier for her to make it relevant to the other, more personal and domestic, concerns in her novels.

Mary Barton for instance, though written during the 'hungry forties', and gloomier in tone than North and South, is if anything...

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Domestic Order

William Forsyth

SOURCE: "Goldsmith: Jane Austen," in The Novels and Novelists of the Eighteenth Century, An Illustration of the Manners and Morals of the Age, D. Appleton & Company, 1871, pp. 322-30.

[In the following excerpt, Forsyth praises Jane Austen's portrayals of English domestic life, though he protests, nonetheless, the excessive attention her characters devote to matters of matrimony.]

Strictly speaking, [the] charming writer [Jane Austen] belongs to the present century, for her first publication took place in 1811. But three of her novels were written several years before, and two of them had been offered in vain to the...

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Depictions Of Gender

Patricia Beer

SOURCE: "Chapter III," in Reader, I Married Him: A Study of the Women Characters of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, Barnes & Noble Books, 1974, pp. 84-93.

[In the following excerpt, Beer compares Jane Austen's female characters with those of Charlotte Brontë, revealing the changing nature of women's relationship to work and to marriage in the first half of the nineteenth century.]

Between the publication of Jane Austen's Persuasion and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre great social changes occurred. They had begun in Jane Austen's time, of course, and she had apparently not taken...

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The American Novel Of Manners

James W. Tuttleton

SOURCE: "The Sociological Matrix of the Novel of Manners," in The Novel of Manners in America, The University of North Carolina Press, 1972, pp. 7-19.

[In the excerpt below, Tuttleton recounts and refutes claims that the novel of manners is not a viable form in American literature.]

The charge that the novel is dead, so often heard in the literary criticism of the 1950s, is today a dead issue.

There is one type of novel, though, which is generally held to be deader than usual—especially in this country. And when, in our recent criticism, writers have reflected on the death of the American novel, they have...

(The entire section is 10678 words.)

Further Reading

Baker, Ernest A. "Some Women Novelists." In The History of the English Novel, Volume 10: Yesterday, pp. 199-243. London: H. F. & G. Witherby, 1939.

Argues that the female novelists of the nineteenth century may appropriately be studied as a group because of their common, "distinctively feminine," sensibility, although the critic concedes it would be "absurd" to do the same with the era's male authors.

Bushneil, Nelson S. "Susan Ferrier's Marriage as Novel of Manners." In Studies in Scottish Literature V (July 1967-April 1968): 216-28.

Discusses how Ferrier's 1818 novel of...

(The entire section is 1179 words.)