Conduct Books in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.