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.
Sense and Sensibility 1811
Pride and Prejudice 1813
Jane Eyre 1847
The Caxtons 1848-49
James Fenimore Cooper
The Chainbearer 1845
The Redskins 1846
Great Expectations 1860-61
Sybil, or the Two Nations 1845
Castle Rackrent 1800
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
The American 1877
Daisy Miller 1878
Portrait of a Lady 1881
Main Street 1920
Catharine M. Sedgwick
Married or Single? 1857
William Makepeace Thackeray
Vanity Fair 1847-48
He Knew He Was Right 1869
Phineas Finn 1869
Lady Anna 1874
The House of Mirth 1905
The Age of Innocence 1920
Charlotte Mary Yonge
The Heir of Redclyffe 1853
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
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...
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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...
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