Social Conduct Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Social Conduct Literature


Social Conduct Literature

Found in varying forms throughout Europe since the Middle Ages, social conduct literature aimed to mold the moral and domestic, as well as the social lives of its readers. In Great Britain, such books were published as early as 1475, but came into their own by the 1570s with the growth of literacy and the print trade. Although most social conduct literature was aimed at young women of marriagable age, such books were also written for men, children, and the aristocracy.

The writers of social conduct books addressed issues that concerned their times, hoping to guide their audiences to what they considered virtuous and happy lives. Most social conduct books were written by men, on topics such as: how to act and dress at court, how to behave in social situations, how to run a household, how to marry a good husband, and how to be a good wife and mother.

By the late seventeenth century, a variation on formal social conduct books emerged in Great Britain: periodicals targeted primarily at a female audience. Like social conduct books and manuals, these publications endeavored to shape and guide female behavior, still promoting their “improvement” and “virtue.” As was not the case with social conduct books, however, women played a more active role in these publications.

Social conduct books and magazines have continued to be published in the twentieth century. Modern day equivalents can be found in women's magazines and books such as The Rules, a 1990s guide to dating for women. By looking at the history of social conduct books, readers can see how society has defined itself and its values over time.

Representative Works

The Babees Book, (or a ‘lytyl Reporte’ of how Young People should behave) (nonfiction) 1868

Mary Astell
A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest (nonfiction) 1697

Richard Brathwaite
The English gentlewoman, drawne out to the full body: Expressing, what habilliments doe best attire her, what ornaments doe best adorne her, what complements doe best accomplish her (nonfiction) 1631

Giovanni Michele Bruto
The necessarie, fit, and convenient education of a young gentlewoman. Written both in French and Italian, and translated into English by W. P. And now printed with the three languages togither in one volume, for the better instructions of such as are desirous to studie those tongues (nonfiction) 1598

Mrs. Chapone
Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (nonfiction) 1774

Robert Cleaver
A codly form of household government: for the ordering of private families (nonfiction) 1598

Abraham Darcie
The honour of ladies: or, a true description of their noble perfections (nonfiction) 1622

Christopher Goodwyn
The maydens dreme (nonfiction) 1542

Dr. Gregory
A Father's Legacy to His Daughters (nonfiction) 1774

Francis Mere
Gods arithmeticke (nonfiction) 1597

Lady Pennington
A Mother's Advice to Her Daughters (nonfiction) 1774

Hugh Rhodes
Hugh Rhodes's Boke of Nurture (nonfiction) 1577

Barnabe Rich
The honestie of this age (nonfiction) 1614

John Russell
John Russell's Boke of Nurture (nonfiction) 1868

F. Seager
The Schoole of Vertue by F. Seager (nonfiction) 1557

Mary Wollstonecraft
Thoughts on the education of daughters (nonfiction) 1787

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Anonymous (essay date 1774)

SOURCE: Preface to A Father's Legacy to His Daughters, by Dr. Gregory; Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, by Mrs. Chapone; and A Mother's Advice to Her Daughters, by Lady Pennington, Derby and Jackson, 1774, pp. v-x.

[In the following foreword to an anthology of social conduct books, the author argues that a “liberal” education for women would result in improvements to society.]

Till this great truth be understood:—
          That all the pious duties which we owe
Our parents, friends, our country, and our God,
          The seed of every virtue here below
From discipline alone and early culture grow.

Dr Knox emphatically declares, “That...

(The entire section is 678 words.)

Suzanne W. Hull (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “The Practical Guidebooks,” in Chaste, Silent & Obedient: English Books for Women, 1475-1640, Huntington Library, 1982, pp. 41-70.

[In the essay below, Hull surveys the types and content of social conduct books published in England, primarily in the sixteenth century.]

More than half (eighty-five) of all the books for women were practical, how-to-do-it guides—though the advice was frequently general and philosophical. They gave counsel or instructions on how to educate young girls, how to live as a wife, as a widow, or as a nun, how to give birth to babies (although few gave any practical guidance on raising children), how to behave to servants, how...

(The entire section is 10517 words.)

Marjorie Morgan (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Courtesy, Conduct and Etiquette: An Overview,” in Manners, Morals and Class in England, 1774-1858, pp. 8-31. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

[In the essay that follows, Morgan defines different types of English social conduct books—including those for men, women, and children—in the late eighteenth century.]

Considering the importance that English people themselves attached to manners, it is surprising that the literature written to promote proper behaviour has remained, until recently, largely unstudied by serious scholars. Only the courtesy book managed to escape this traditional neglect. John Mason's Gentlefolk in the Making (1935)...

(The entire section is 11815 words.)

Criticism: Prescriptive Ideology In Other Literary Forms

Kathleen M. Ashley (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Medieval Courtesy Literature and Dramatic Mirrors of Female Conduct,” in The Ideology of Conduct: Essays on Literature and the History of Sexuality, edited by Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, pp. 25-38. New York: Methuen, 1987.

[In the following essay, Ashley explores how social conduct books for non-aristocrats influenced French and English drama in the late Middle Ages.]

As many historians have pointed out, the late Middle Ages was an era obsessed with codified and externalized behaviors. For aristocrats, such codes promised to maintain social identities at a time of blurring boundaries between upper and “middle” classes. However, the wealthy...

(The entire section is 5072 words.)

Rüdiger Schnell (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “The Discourse on Marriage in the Middle Ages,” in Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies, Vol. 73, No. 3, July 1998, pp. 771-86.

[In the essay below, Schnell explores how marriage sermons shaped standards of conduct for men and women.]

Even when they address the same issues, different situations do not elicit the same kind of language use. Just as theological summas are not like sermons, and commentaries on the Books of Sentences are not like summas for confessors, medieval texts about marriage vary greatly according to the situations for which they were written. The function of each text and the purpose of its speaker or writer affect the...

(The entire section is 8960 words.)

Criticism: The Role Of The Press

Kathryn Shevelow (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “‘Fair-sexing it’: An Introduction to Periodical Literature and the Eighteenth-Century Construction of Femininity,” in Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical, pp. 1-21. London: Routledge, 1989.

[In the essay below, Shevelow explores how the rise of the periodical aimed at women in early eighteenth-century Great Britain helped define them, by promoting an idealized, middle-class woman. Shevelow also relates this periodical culture to the rise of the novel.]

I'll not meddle with the Spectator—let him fair-sex it to the world's end.

(Jonathan Swift, Journal...

(The entire section is 10260 words.)

Ros Ballaster, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer, and Sandra Hebron (essay date 1991)

Ros Ballaster, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer, and Sandra Hebron (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Eighteenth-Century Women's Magazines,” in Women's Worlds: Ideology, Femininity and the Woman's Magazine, pp. 43-74. London: Macmillan, 1991.

[In the following essay, the authors discuss the nature of women-oriented periodicals in the eighteenth century.]

In 1745, a correspondent to The Female Spectator wrote seeking advice from its editorial board on the respective merits of three suitors for her hand. Bellamonte opens her letter with the declaration:

Dear Female Sage, I have a vast opinion of your Wit; and...

(The entire section is 12276 words.)

Criticism: The Impact Of Conduct Literature

Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “The Literature of Conduct, the Conduct of Literature, and the Politics of Desire: An Introduction,” in The Ideology of Conduct: Essays on Literature and the History of Sexuality, pp. 1-24. New York: Methuen & Company, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Armstrong and Tennenhouse outline the link between the cultural definition of desire and the impact of social conduct books in Europe, especially on the changing definition of gender.]

For, the clearer our conceptions in art and science become, the more they will assimilate themselves to the conceptions of duty in conduct, will become practically stringent like rules of conduct, and will...

(The entire section is 9574 words.)

Ann Rosalind Jones (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Nets and Bridles: Early Modern Conduct Books and Sixteenth Century Women's Lyrics,” in The Ideology of Conduct: Essays on Literature and the History of Sexuality, edited by Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, pp. 39-72. New York: Methuen & Company, 1987.

[In the essay below, Jones explores how sixteenth-century social conduct books defined socially acceptable behavior, primarily for women and their fathers and husbands. She also shows how the focus of conduct books and the image of women shifted over time.]

Recent analysis of early modern treatises on the nature of women suggests that debates over gender were articulated with basic issues of...

(The entire section is 12571 words.)

Vivien Jones (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Conduct,” in Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity, pp. 14-17. London: Routledge, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Jones explores the moral aspects of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century social conduct manuals, many of which focus on women and marriage.]

The concern of all eighteenth-century ‘conduct’ manuals for women is how women might create themselves as objects of male desire, but in terms which will contain that desire within the publicly sanctioned form of marriage. They form a significant sub-genre among the hundreds of books and periodicals (the most famous of which is Addison and Steele's Spectator) which offered...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

Criticism: Conduct Literature And The Perception Of Women

SOURCE: “The Proper Lady,” in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, pp. 15-30. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

[In the excerpt below, Poovey describes how female identity was constructed in eighteenth-century England. She also shows how conduct books reinforced this identity and the definition of women's role in society. The editors have included only those footnotes that pertain to the excerpted portion of the text.]

The definition of female nature that emerged by the end of the eighteenth century both reinforced and formalized the complex social role that actual women played during this period. But because bourgeois society simultaneously depended...

(The entire section is 8125 words.)

Criticism: Women Writing For Women

SOURCE: “Introduction,” in Thoughts on the education of daughters, by Mary Wollstonecraft, 1787. Reprint: Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1994, n.p.

[In this introduction, Wordsworth compares Mary Wollstonecraft's Thoughts on the education of daughters, a social conduct manual, with John Locke's Some thoughts concerning education (1693).]

The Nursery—Moral Discipline—Exterior Accomplishments—Artificial Manners—Dress—The Fine Arts—Reading—Boarding-Schools—The Temper—Unfortunate Situation of Females, Fashionably Educated, And Left Without A Fortune—Love—Matrimony—Desultory Thoughts—The Benefits Which Arise From...

(The entire section is 1725 words.)

Further Reading


Smith, Hilda L. and Susan Cardinale, compilers. Women and the Literature of the Seventeenth Century: An Annotated Bibliography based on Wing's Short-title Catalogue. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990, 332 p.

Lists books written for and by women, primarily in Britain.


Barrell, Joan and Brian Braithwait. The Business of Women's Magazines. London: Kogan Page, Ltd., 1988, 219 p.

Outlines the history of women's magazines from the early nineteenth century to the present. Also describes how such magazines functioned.

Braithwaite, Brian. Women's...

(The entire section is 236 words.)