The Novel of Manners Introduction - Essay


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.