Social Conduct Literature

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Anonymous (essay date 1774)

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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 much of the profligacy of female manners has proceeded from a levity occasioned by the want of a proper education.” It certainly must be admitted that many of the evils of life might be ameliorated, if not avoided, provided the education of women were varied according to their ultimate views and station in society; such education, however, in all cases, to be distinguished by sound sense, a liberal yet a warm spirit of piety, and a philosophy applied to its best purposes—the culture of the heart and the affections.

As, next to religious influence, a habit of study better prepares us for all the occurrences of life, it should be strongly impressed upon the youthful mind, that as we add to our stores of knowledge, so we increase (in proportion) our amount of happiness; and farther it should be stated, that when we obtain a stock of this happiness, all the scenes of life become scenes of joy, and all the productions of nature are rendered objects of delight.

Unfortunately books of a pernicious tendency are circulated to an alarming extent; and those monstrous compositions termed Romances and Novels, form the very worst species of reading. They represent the passions unnaturally; are filled with every thing which is false relative to precept, sentiment, honour, and modesty; and the prolixity and poverty of their style are quite insupportable. Many theatrical compositions have precisely the same tendency. They are inflated with fancied sentiments, the offspring of an overwrought imagination; and there is no more reality to be discovered in them than there is to be found in dreams. Females, however, are too frequently placed under this baneful influence, and thus are prematurely made acquainted with multiplied acts of baseness, deception, and hypocrisy. “We think no ill, where no ill seems;” but, alas! a warm heart and a weak judgment often betray the unsuspecting female into serious error; and then (as Dryden observes)

“The thin remains of chastity appear.”

It is apparent, therefore, that considerable vigilance is necessary in the selection of books intended for female readers; and, when possible, the attempt should be made to combine in that selection all the advantages derivable from a good library. For it should not be overlooked, that youth require to be conducted to intellectual perfection; and (to the extent of their capacities) we must infuse into their minds a taste for virtue and religion, before we can hope to realize all the advantages anticipated from the important work of education. …

If we wish to assist in the advancement of civilization, and be anxious to exalt the character of the female, it becomes our duty to confer on her a truly liberal education; then will she be distinguished by a superior modesty, elegance, and worth; a cheerfulness will be diffused over her conversation that will tend to promote the harmless pleasures of the young, and help to sooth the cares and infirmities of the old.

Let all the...

(This entire section contains 678 words.)

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studies of a female, therefore, be useful as well as elegant. Teach her that if she reflect as well as read, her judgment will become so acute, that no disguise of flowing diction, or ornamented style, can be sufficiently powerful ever to mislead her.

                     … “He that feels
No love for woman has no pulse for them,
For friendship or affection! He is foe
To all the finer feelings of the soul;
And to sweet nature's holiest, tenderest ties
A heartless renegade!”

Suzanne W. Hull (essay date 1982)

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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 to write letters, garden, cook, dress, use English correctly, speak French, create fine needlework, or how to concoct the homemade medications of the day. One even summarized the English laws that related to women. It is this group of books that reveals, or has the potential to reveal, most about the daily life of females and indeed about their entire families.

The practical guides also offer opportunities to compare instructions to women in the late fifteenth century with instructions in the post-Elizabethan period. Time provides fewer changes than might be expected. For example, it is easier to find similarities than differences between the instructions in La Tour-Landry's Book of the Knight of the Tower, printed in English in 1484, and the guidance offered in Du-Boscq's Compleat Woman in 1639. La Tour-Landry was perhaps more down-to-earth in his practical “ensamples” of solving marital problems, and he was more concerned about chastity, silence, and obedience than the more liberal and later French guide. Both emphasized qualities of character such as loyalty, virtue, devotion, and constancy, and both used historical characters to press home their points. DuBoscq's examples appear to be derived more from the classics; La Tour-Landry's from both biblical and secular sources.

Another of the early guides, Castiglione's renowned Courtyer, was written for the highest circles of society. The ideal woman as she was revealed by the dialogues in The Courtyer (first printed in English in 1561) was somewhat different from the pattern of either La Tour-Landry or DuBoscq. Castiglione emphasized the need for grace, wit, learning, understanding, and “the vertues of the minde, as wisdome, justice, noblenesse of courage, temperance, strength of the minde, continency, sobermoode, etc.” (p. 374). The Courtyer has generally a more enlightened approach to the so-called virtues of chastity, silence, and obedience. The dialogue contains much discussion of chastity, but concludes that women are naturally more chaste than men because women tend to prize their good names, and “a greate bridle to women, is the zeale of true vertue” (p. 252). Rather than holding up silence as a virtue, Castiglione emphasizes the need for sophisticated conversational talents in women who should “have a sweetenesse in language and a good uttrance to entertein all kinde of men with communication woorth the hearing …” (p. 374) but should not be a gossip or overly familiar. Obedience is not an issue. Castiglione is writing for a more urbane, sophisticated class of people, and he is concerned with many subtleties of male-female encounters. Castiglione, La Tour-Landry, and DuBoscq were not English; each approached the conduct and position of women through continental eyes. The Puritan English writers who gave guidance and instructions to women from both pulpit and press in the late Tudor and early Stuart period had different emphases.

Richard Brathwaite's The English Gentlewoman (1631) is probably more representative of the genteel English middle-class. Here the ideal, modest woman is a wife and mother involved in the “Breeding or Education of Youth.” The “Courtier” instead of being an ideal is rejected by Brathwaite's English gentlewoman. Religion and class were dominant influences on behavior, and the respectable middle-class English woman was depicted as a modest lover of home and hearth. Castiglione and La Tour-Landry are more direct in their discussions, less inclined to the metaphor and lofty purity expressed by Brathwaite. But the similarities between the guides by La Tour-Landry and Brathwaite were still many. Honor and virtue were vital to both though what was honorable and what was virtuous might differ somewhat. Perhaps more important was the underlying implication that a woman must act within the prescriptions for her class.

In the recipe books some of the cooking and serving directions remained surprisingly alike over the years, too. The curious terms for dismembering or dressing fowl and meat—such as Lyft that swanne, Unlace that cony, Dysplaye that crane, Dysfygure that pecocke, Untache that curlewe were listed in similar form in Dame Juliana Berners' Book of Hawking and Hunting (1486) and in The Boke of Kervynge (1508). They reappeared frequently and were still referred to as late as 1631 in John Murrell's Two Bookes of Cookerie and Carving. Many recipes remained similar over the years, including that perennial favorite on how to kill lice. That it continued to be printed may give a clue as to how useful (or useless) the instructions proved to be.

From the beginning to the end of the period under study (1475-1640) all the practical guides except one appear to be written by men. The books concerned themselves with female activities, and the assumption would be that women would know most about their own vocations. Yet only one woman admitted in print to writing a female guide. Women authors were certainly scarce before 1640, but there were a few books for women with female authors in each of the other three categories (recreational, devotional, and controversy literature) used here. In what is most exclusively a woman's area of interest, her home and family, only the countess of Lincoln's practical appeal to women to nurse their own babies is clearly by a woman. Even this publication, The Countess of Lincoln's Nursery (1622), is a very short essay which appeared only once. Twenty of the practical titles are anonymous works, so it is possible that women had more of a share in creating this peculiarly female literature than is obvious. Judging by known authors, however, men continued to monopolize the writing of instructional guides for women throughout this period. The books themselves ranged from the simplest jingles such as The Nurcerie of Names, an alphabetical rhyme eulogizing eighteen female names, to the rather lengthy English Gentlewoman “drawn out to the full body.”

One conclusion of this study is that a mini-explosion of female literature took place in the last quarter of the sixteenth century beginning with a new emphasis on fiction for women in the 1570s. But even in the first hundred years of English printing (1475-1575), those books directed to women were largely practical guides. In fact, with the notable exception of the decade of the 1570s, practical books consistently dominated the field of female literature. In that decade the ratio of practical books to the total number of books published for women plunged. This was an interesting decade in literature, perhaps the beginning of the age of fiction. Even the books addressed to women were of a different kind. Six of the thirteen books directed to women in that ten-year period were fiction. Only four were practical guides. Quickly, however, a preponderance of practical books appeared again. Between 1581 and 1590, twenty women's books were published. Nine were practical, seven were recreational. From that time on, practical titles continued to account for half of all the books published for women.

Practical books also generated multiple editions. The 85 how-to-do-it books for women appeared in approximately 290 editions, accounting for well over half of the almost 500 editions addressed to women in the 1475-1640 period.

Since marriage was usually the only acceptable vocation open to middle-class women, particularly after the abolition of the abbeys in 1539–40 and the consequent closing of the nunnery schools, many of the how-to-do-it books were oriented to household questions or to matters of accomplishment or behavior deemed suitable to the married woman. Occasionally women were involved in their husband's businesses, like the printers whose shops were continued by their widows; but even this kind of occupation was usually an adjunct to marriage, not an independent business venture started by a woman. A few rare exceptions may be found in the Tudor period,1 but judging by the literature written for women, they were encouraged, indeed expected, to stay in the home and to occupy themselves with housewifely tasks. Even schoolteaching was almost entirely a male occupation.

Marriage was not always as limiting as it might seem. Rural household communities were largely self-supporting, and a woman was expected to know how to raise some of the food as well as how to prepare and preserve it. Housewifery frequently involved the supervision of a sizable staff and the role of mentor and doctor to a small community. Women delivered the babies, and they prepared “cures” for everything from scratches to the plague. Many of the homemade remedies now sound more painful than the ills they were meant to cure; certainly they were tedious and time-consuming to concoct. In seventeenth-century England housewifery probably reached a peak as a respectable and honored profession, and women were proud of the products of their stillrooms, poultry yards, dovecotes, dairies, fishponds, kitchens, and orchards. They expected to bear as many children as it was their lot to conceive, and hoped, indeed prayed, to be able to raise at least some of them to maturity. It was a full but clearly delineated role.

Upper-class families undoubtedly had handwritten household books recording favorite recipes, cures, and domestic hints that were passed from generation to generation. For example, the British Library has two fifteenth-century manuscript cookbooks for royal and noble feasts (reproduced in Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books, edited by Thomas Austin in an 1888 publication by the Early English Text Society). The manuscripts belonged to, among others, the household of Queen Elizabeth and later to the earl of Oxford. Although the recipes are written in English, these cookbooks showed a decided French influence in the names of foods. They are similar to some of the earliest printed cookbooks. Women in the inquiring and expanding middle class, without the benefits of family manuscripts, turned to the relatively new printed books for guidance in their practical duties.


Twenty-two of the eighty-five practical, how-to-do-it books in the Basic List are cookbooks or, more correctly, recipe books. Directions in these early household guides are presented narratively, in a casual style quite different from the usual care and precision of twentieth-century recipes. Early recipe books were often tiny pocket editions attempting to cover the whole gamut of household problems. One example, John Partridge's The Widowes Treasure (1582), advertised in some later titles that it was

plentifully furnished with sundry precious and approoved secretes in phisicke, and chirurgery for the health and pleasure of mankinde. Hereunto are adjoyned, sundrie pretie practises and conclusions of cookerie: with many profitable and holesome medicines, for sundrie diseases in cattell. …

It also provided recipes “to keep peares,” “to kill lyce,” “against drunkenness,” “to keep vension from rotting,” and “to make linnen cloth or yearne white” in addition to the basics of bovine problems. Other recipe books provided hints on the preparation of cosmetics, dyes, “waters,” and dairy products along with food recipes.

A sampling of some of the recipes in these early guides tells much about the foods that were eaten, the diseases that were prevalent, and the household chores that needed to be faced. For example, birds of many kinds were fair game in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Epulario, or, the Italian Banquet (1598) has some basic instructions on how “to dress Capon, Peacocke, Feisant, and other foule,” which give some indication of the number and variety of fowl in the English diet.

Shoveler [a waterfowl], puet [peewee], ducke, crane, wild goose, heron and stroke, are all good and would be stuffed with garlike, onions, or such like things. Peacocke, feisant, partrish, wild henne, quailes, thrush, blacke bird, and all other good birds are to be rosted. Pigeons are good both rosted and sodden [boiled], yet best rosted. King-doves and wild pigeons are good rosted, but better boiled with pepper, sage, parsley, and margerum. Capon is good both boiled and rosted, and likewise the henne.

(sig. Bv)

Flowers were also common in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century recipes. In his Treasurie of Commodious Conceits, and Hidden Secrets and May Be Called the Huswives Closet, of Healthfull Provision (1584 edition), Partridge offered a number of recipes for conserving flowers and occasionally followed the recipes with explanations or justifications such as, “The vertue of the conserve of roses” which claimed

Conserve of roses comforteth the stomach the hart and all the bowels it mollifieth and softneth the bowels, and is good against blacke choller and melancholy. Conserve of white roses doth lose the belly more than the red.

(sig. B4)

Partridge branched out in the same book with suggestions on how “to know whether a woman shall ever conceive or not”:

Take of the ruine of a haire, and havyng, frayed and consumed [evaporated] it in hote water, give it the woman to drink in the morning at hir breakfast, then let hir stand in a hoate bathe, and if there come a griefe or paine in hir belly, she may conceive: if not, she shal never conceive.

(sig. C7v, 1584)

Another recipe, “To make a barren woman beare children,” was perhaps a bit more practical, at least in its final suggestion:

Take of these little sea fishes, called in Latin Polipi, or Polipodes, and roast them upon the embers without oile, and lette the woman eat of them, and it shall profit and helpe very much, having in the meane time the company of a man.

(sig. C7v, 1584)

One “Medicine for a Burne” might work today, but the ingredients are a bit hard to come by: “Take oyle of roses and womans milke, and put it into the open place, and it will heale it” (A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen, 1611, p. 180). The same book called for quite a different treatment “to heale any, if they bee scalded with hote liquor: Take Alehose and Avens [herb with clove-like flavor] sheeps suet & dung and goose dung … and make playsters therof” (p. 73).

Almonds, judging by the number of recipes calling for them, were used as commonly as salt or sugar today. Two pounds were required in one recipe for “Pottage of Elder Flowers” (Epulario, 1598); a recipe for the popular “Marchpane” [marzipan] in Delightes for Ladies (1609) called for another two pounds. Almonds were used also (to mention just a few) in fish sauce (Epulario, sig. F1v), with eggs (Epulario, sig. L1v), in “Fritters of Figges” (Epulario, sig. L4v), and “to make a Mortis” [presumably a mortress, a soup or pottage].

Take almondes and blanche them, and beate them in a mortar, and boyle a chickin, and take all the flesh of him and beate it, and streine them together, with milke and water, and so put them into a pot, and put in sugar and stirre them still, and when it hath boyled a good while, take it of, and set it a cooling in a payle of water, and streine it againe with rose water into a dish.

(The Good Huswifes Jewell, 1587, sig. A8)

The preservation of foodstuffs was a real concern without modern freezing or even canning facilities. “To keepe cheries al the yeare to have them at Christmas” suggests one solution (if a feather bed is available, of course):

Take of your fairest cheries you can get, but be sure that they be not bruised, and take them, and rubb them with a linnen cloth, and put them into a barrell of hay, and lay them in ranks, first lying hay in the bottom, and then cheries, and then hay againe, and then stop them up close that no ayre may come neare them, and lay them under a fetherbed where one lyeth continually, for the warmer they are the better, yet neere no fire, and thus doing, you may have cheries at any time of the yeare.

(A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen, 1611, p. 65)

The preservation of a white complexion was another concern, at least to some women. Again one suggestion “To annoint the face and to make it white” leaves a bit to be desired by today's standards.

Take fresh bacon grease and the whites of egges, and stamp them together, and a little powder of bayes, and annoint your face therewith, and it will make it white.

(A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen, 1611, p. 188)

Many of the herbs, vegetables, and spices in the early recipes are well known today, but their uses were sometimes quite different. A “cullesse [strong broth] of Capon, Feisant, Partridge, Kid, or Wild Pigeon” for example, used a combination of spices with fowl that is hardly common today:

Take of these birds and make them very cleane, and if you would seeth [boil] a capon til it consume and make two dishes thereof, take a pipkin that holdeth foure pints of water, and breaking all the capones bones, put it therein and set it on the fire, and withall seeth a piece of leane bacon with thirtie or forty grains of brused pepper, a little sinamon grosse beaten, a few cloves, three, five or sixe sage leaves broken in three pieces and some bayleaves, let it boile in a pipkin, until it consume to the quantity of two or three dishes of broth, and lesse if you will have it good, but put no salt into it, and if it bee for a sicke man, you must put no bacon to, onely a little spice, and this is good both for the sicke and whole.

(Epulario, sig. D4v)

The ingredients for stuffing fowl in a recipe in The Good Huswifes Jewell called for a seemingly incongruous combination of hard boiled eggs, currants, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, parsley, butter, and vergice. Some of the vocabulary in the recipes is obsolete today. A coffin, for example, might hold a body, but the body was often that of a bird or birds. The word, when used in cookbooks, referred to a pie crust. One rather dramatic recipe in Epulario called for live birds (but not necessarily four-and-twenty) in a coffin which, when opened, would permit the birds to fly out among the guests.

The differences between sixteenth- and twentieth-century recipes are considerable, but one concern remains constant. As in women's guides today, one author offered a recipe “For to Make One Slender,” which probably had as much worth as many of the pills offered for the same purpose today:

Take fennell, and seeth it in water, a very good quantitie, and wring out the juyce therof when it is sod [boiled], and drinke it first and laste, and it shall swage either him or her.

(The Good Huswifes Jewell, sig. G5)

A few men seemed to dominate the cookbook field in the period from about 1570 to 1640. Thomas Dawson and John Partridge were most popular in the earlier period; Hugh Platt, Gervase Markham, and John Murrell were prominent after the turn of the century. More than sixty editions of cookbooks by these five male writers are recorded in the new Short-Title Catalogue. The title of Dawson's guide, The Good Huswifes Jewell (1596), continued, “whereunto is adjoyned … certain approved points of husbandry, very necessarie for all husbandmen to know.” This was quite a switch from Tusser's Good Pointes a generation earlier when the housewifery hints were added on to what was essentially a husbandmen's book. In Dawson's book the few pages (less than five leaves on oxen, horses, sheep, hogs) of “approved points of husbandry” are sandwiched between recipes for “rosemarie water” and “bisket bread” and “an excellent drinke for the Tissicke [asthma or shortness of breath] well approved.”

Platt compiled several popular works involving practical descriptions of his semiscientific discoveries. One of his books, Delightes for Ladies (1600?) was addressed to women and was one of the early practical guides to include beauty hints or cosmetic recipes among the household suggestions. Ladies were given information in Delightes on how “to adorne their persons, tables, closets, and distillatories: with beauties, banquets, perfumes & waters,” all in a tiny volume, printed attractively within decorative borders.

Beauty aids were roundly condemned by some. A Treatise Against Paintng [sic] and Tincturing of Men and Women (1616) is one such tirade decrying “paintings laied one upon another, in such sort: that a man might easily cut off a curd or cheese cake from either of their cheekes.” (sig. B3v)

Murrell's first cookbook, A New Booke of Cookerie (1615), “set forth the newest and most commendable fashion for dressing and sowcing eyther flesh, fish, or fowle. Together with making of all sorts of jellyes, and other made dishes for service. …” Two years later he offered the practical Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen

whereby they may learne and practise the whole art of making pastes, preserves, marmalades, conserves, tart stuffes, gellies, breads, sucket candies, cordiall waters, conceits in sugarworkes of severall kindes. As also to dry lemonds, oranges, or other fruits.

In 1621 he added a second part called A Delightfull Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen … “whereto is added a booke of cookery,” and in the 1630s he combined some of his earlier cooking recipes and Wynkyn de Worde's old carving book (1508) to create Murrels Two Books of Cookerie and Carving. A Delightfull Daily Exercise was addressed to “all ladies and gentlewomen and others whatsoever,” and included an announcement on one of the supplementary pages that the bookseller also sold molds in which the recipes might be made. The Daily Exercise included a rule “to make a fine sugar cake”:

Bake a pound of finewheat flower in a pipkin close covered, put thereto halfe a pound of fine sugar, foure yolkes and one white of egs, pepper and nutmegs, straine them with clouted creame, and with a little new ale yeast, make it in past, as it were for Manchet, bake it in a quicke oven with a breath fire in the ovens mouth, but beware of burning them.

(sig. E2v)

The concluding admonition, at least, makes sense today.

Markham, a prolific professional author, wrote extensively about country affairs and was a master at scrambling contents and changing titles. His English Huswife, originally published as the second part of Countrey Contentments (1615), reappeared frequently before the end of the century. The first separate issue was published in 1631 shortly after Markham had produced The English Husbandman for men. It was a general how-to-do-it guide for women, not just a recipe book.

A few men tried to explain why they were writing for what was largely a woman's world. Markham in The English Huswife addressed the problem thus:

Thou mayst say (gentle reader) what hath this man to doe with hus-wifery, he is now out of his element; … to expresse more in one book then can be found exprest in two women. I shall desire thee therfore to understand, that this is … an approved manuscript … belonging sometime to an honorable personage of this kingdome, who was a singular amongst those of her ranke for many of the qualities here set forth. This onely he hath done … placing every thing of the same kinde together. …

It would be interesting to know the true origin of Markham's material, which included among many other choice items: “What is to be carbonadoed [scored and grilled]. Ordering of banquets. To die wooll into a cindre colour. An oyle to helpe hearing. Pottage without any hearbes. The houres of milking. Brewing bottle ale. For fatnesse and short breath.”

The conventions of food service sometimes are described with more detail than the recipes themselves. A Booke of Cookry by the anonymous A. W. (tempting to identify as A Woman)2 explains that “You must roste a capon with his head off, his wings and legges on whole” (1587 edition, sig. D6), “roste a plover with his head of, and his legges turned upward upon his back” (sig. D6v), “roste a phesant. As a capon and when you serve him in: sticke one of his feathers uppon his brest” (sig. D6), “roste a crane. With his leggs turned up behinde him, his winges cut of at the joynt next the body and then winde the necke about the broche and put the bil into his brest” (sig. D6v).


No one would dispute the fact that needlework was considered an important female skill in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, and a number of books on the subject were published (see entries for [1530?],1591, 1596, 1624, 1631, at the end of this chapter) though few copies survive. As rare as any is A Neawe Treatys … Concernynge … Nedle Worcke (1530?) including “Spanisshe Stitche and Weavynge in the Frame … for Craftmen but also for Gentlewemen.” It was published originally in Antwerp, and the only copy known today is at the Rijksprentenkabinet.

Federico di Vinciolo's New and Singular Patternes and Workes of Linnen was a book (or rather two books, as the second edition had somewhat different patterns from the first) of lace designs, published first in London in 1591. “A booke of curious and strange inventions” called The First Part of Needleworkes was “newly printed in more exquisite sort for the profit and delight of the gentlewomen of England” in 1596. Gentlewomen may have owned it, but it was hardly necessary to know how to read to use it or A Schole-house for the Needle (1624). The former had sixteen pages of intricate needlework designs and only one page of text implying that even the humblest needlework expert might find entrée into noble circles.

For many maidens but of base degree
By their fine knowledge in the curious thing
With noble ladies oft companions be
Sometimes they teach the daughter of a king
Thus by their knowledge, fame and good report
They are esteemed among the noble sort.

The Schole-house had thirty-four pages of designs and no writing beyond the title page. A reading audience was expected in The Needles Excellency (1631), judging by the seven pages of sonnets, but a speaking audience was decried. On the subject of needles, women were told

And for my countries quiet, I should like
That women kinde should use no other pike
It will increase their peace, enlarge their store,
To use their tongues lesse, and their needles more,
The needles sharpenesse, profit yields, and pleasure,
But sharpenesse of the tongue, bites out of measure.


Married women were chattels in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. They and all their personal possessions were legally under the control of their husbands. Yet society continued to teach each girl that her ultimate goal on earth was to be suitably married. It must have been extremely difficult to combat these social mores particularly for middle-class women. The rules for the aristocratic women were a bit more flexible. But even Queen Elizabeth recognized the social, political, and the other subtle restraints she would face if married. She was clever enough to evade marriage throughout her reign, perhaps at least in part, for these very reasons.

Throughout the sixteenth century as middle-class readers were growing in numbers and curiosity, a special kind of literature was published that seems at first glance to have been written for a female audience, but probably was meant more for men. These were the books for householders and the matrimonial guides. Many were printed in the early sixteenth century. Perhaps because marriage was a condition dominated according to law, religion, and tradition, by the husband, most early marriage guides were directed (if they sought a specific sex) to men. Few marriage guides addressed women readers directly in either titles or dedications. This may be partly because many of the marriage guides appeared in the first half of the sixteenth century when few books of any kind were dedicated to women, and partly that men were without question the legal and spiritual leaders in the marriage partnership, and were expected to teach and interpret for the women.

In a period when the burgeoning middle class was seeking guidance in everything from horse breeding to praying, it was only reasonable that there was a need for directions on how to live as marriage partners or as heads of households. The proliferation of books on household philosophy, practical how-to-live treatises, touched on the whole question of Christian marriage. Since marriages were often arranged by parents or guardians, the middle-class family wanted to know, in black and white, just what role each member of the family was to play. Later in the sixteenth century marriage sermons became more common. Some are similar to the earlier philosophical treatises and guides to proper matrimonial behavior; others were addressed to both men and women as the two (though unequal) partners in marriage.

Well-known writers and philosophers, including Erasmus, Thomas Becon, Sir Thomas Elyot, and Vives, tackled the marriage question, particularly in the earlier period. Some of the early examples of household and matrimonial guides were translations of classical or continental works. Xenophons Treatise of Householde was translated by Gentian Hervet, printed in 1532, and then bound, rather practically, in a 1537 edition with The Boke of Husbandry and The Boke of Serveyinge in a volume that is now held by the Huntington Library. Xenophon (430-355 B.C.) explained the teacher-student relationship between husband and wife this way:

And a wife like wise, if her housebande teache her well, if she do not folowe it, she is paraventure to blame. But if he do not teache her, if she be rude, unwomanly, and wytles, is not he to be blamed. Yes, by my faith. …

(sig. C 1v)

Heinrich Bullinger's The Christen State of Matrimonye (1541) was translated into English by Miles Coverdale about the same time. It claimed to be “mooste necessary and profitable for all them that entend to live quietly and Godlye in the Christen state of holy wedlock.” The work was a practical approach to wedded bliss with suggestions on how to handle servants, clothing, and children, combined with general matrimonial philosophy. The combination was popular and the book appeared in at least nine editions before 1575. The last pages were instructions on how to raise daughters. Parents were cautioned

to avoyd all unhonest loves and occasyons of the same, as unhonest daunsynge, wanton communicacion, company wythe rybaldes and fylthy speakers, teache them to averte theyr syght and sences from all such inconveniences, let them avoyd ydlenes, be occupied ether doing some profitable thyng for your family, or elles readynge some godly boke, let them not reade bokes of fables, of fond and lyght love, but call upon God to have pure hartes and chaste, that they might cleve only to theyr spouse.

(sig. M7v, M8)

The preface of another version of Bullinger's work, The Golden Boke of Christen Matrimonye (1542), which claimed to be a translation by Thomas Becon but in fact appears to be a duplicate of The Christen State of Matrimonye, reappears in Becon's Worckes (1560-64). Other paragraphs on the position of women and how to bring up and control female children can be found in the section called “The New Catechisme” in Becon's Worckes.

A few of the other titles which dealt seriously with the matter of matrimony were The Office and Duetie of an Husband by Vives, translated [1555]; A Werke for Housholders ([1530?]); Edmund Tilney's A Brief and Pleasant Discourse of Duties in Mariage, Called the Flower of Friendshippe (1568); A Looking Glasse for Maried Folkes (1610) by [Robert Snawsel]; William Whately's A Bride-Bush, or a Wedding Sermon (1617); Of Domesticall Duties (1622) by William Gouge; A Good Husband and a Good Wife (1625) by Thomas Taylor; and A Discourse of Marriage and Wiving (1615) by Alexander Niccholes. This last title continued, “And of the Greatest Mystery Therein Contained: How to Choose a Good Wife from a Bad … Pertinent to Both Sexes.” The mystery may remain to this day. At least one book, Patrick Hannay's A Happy Husband or, Directions for a Maide to Choose Her Mate (1619), faced the problem from the woman's point of view and The Court of Good Counsell (1607) “set downe the true rules, how a man should choose a good wife from a bad, and a woman a good husband from a bad.”

Tilney took advantage of the popularity of Erasmus and Vives by including them as participants in his dialogue on marriage. Tilney's Flower of Friendshippe is a small book, hardly three by five inches, and owes much to an earlier Spanish work by Pedro de Lujan.3 It is divided into two main sections, the first on the duties of the man and the second on “The office, or duetie, of the married woman, for the preservation, and continuance, of thys Flower of Friendshyp” (sig. D2-E7v). The discussion, led by a lady, covers many of the practical problems to be faced by a married woman. One of the problems was the oft-told tale of how to handle a husband when he stayed many nights with another woman. The answer was to make his furnishings and surroundings with the other woman most comfortable and to shame the man (who would know who made him more comfortable) into returning to his virtuous wife (sig. E5, E5v). Marginal notes suggested that “the married woman must be skilful in huswyfery,” and “the woman must avoyd suspicious companies,” “the woman must not be ydell,” “the good name of a woman is verie delicate,” “the woman must be obedient to hir husband,” and “women are great wasters in apparell.” In a section called, “The man both by reason, and law, hath the soveraigntie over his wyfe,” Tilney repeats the usual descriptions of the male-female roles:

For in deede both divine, & humaine lawes, in our religion giveth the man absolute authoritie, over the woman in all places. And, … reason doth confirme the same, the man being as he is, most apt for the soveraignetie being in government, not onely skill, and experience to be required, but also capacity to comprehende, wisdome to understand, strength to execute, solicitude to prosecute, pacience to suffer, meanes to sustaine, and above all a great courage to accomplishe, all which are commonly in a man, but in a woman verye rare.

(sig. E1)


For this maryed woman … must of duetie be unto hir husband in all things obedient, and therefore if he, sometimes moved, do chaunce to chide hir, she must forbeare … and to conclude, as the woman ought not to commaund the man, but to be alwaies obedient: so ought he not to suffer himselfe to be commaunded of his wife.

(sig. E1v, E2)

Tilney also raises the question of possible equality in the marriage partnership. He closes the door firmly, however, by saying that barbarian men and women might try to act as equals but certainly not Christians. To Tilney's credit, it must be noted that he does have one woman participant in the dialogue who speaks up for women's rights or raises questions about the conventional role for women.

One matrimonial guide, Francis Meres's Gods Arithmeticke (1597), gets its title from the suggestion that “two are better then one.” It ends with specific directions to the wife:

Therefore love your husbandes heere, and if they reward it not, it shall be rewarded in Heven, bee obedient to them heere, and yee shall bee made equall with them in Heavent: bee humble and lowly heere, and yee shall bee exalted in Heaven, be clothed with modesty here, and yee shall be clothed with honour in Heaven, bee patient heere, and yee shall be crowned with glorie in Heaven, and as heere for your bettring you did turne one into two, so there for your further bettring you shall turne two into one, and have unitie and societie with Crist for ever.

(sig. Dv)

Occasionally a writer would face the fact that some marriages were quite hellish for both parties, or at least somewhat less than heavenly. Alexander Niccholes devoted a section in his Discourse, of Marriage and Wiving (1615) to the manner of seeking “unity and concord.” A Looking Glasse for Maried Folkes (1610) suggests ways for a husband and wife to return to peaceful coexistence. William Whately went farthest with this problem, proposing that in irremediable cases dissolution of the marriage might be the best answer.

Many of these early marriage manuals were religious or philosophical responses to questions raised during the Reformation when marriage shifted from a second-class status (under the Catholics) to a highly desirable condition (under the Protestants). As such the manuals were rarely women's fare. Some of them, however, might be considered the ancestors of some purely practical guides for housewives which appeared a generation or two later. It was not uncommon to find chapters, in both marriage guides and housewives' guides, on the duties of children and servants as well as the duties and relationships of husbands and wives.

One curious book appeared in 1549 illustrating the heavy emphasis placed on class or vocation or position. This was Robert Crowley's small guidebook with the overgrown title:

The voyce of the laste trumpet blowen bi the seventh angel (as is mentioned in the eleventh of the apocalips) callynge al the estates of menne to the right path of their vocation, wherin are contyned xii lessons to twelve several estates of menne, whyche if they learne and folowe, al shal be well and nothynge amise.

The estates or classes of men were the beggars, servants, yeomen, lewd priests, scholars, learned men, physicians, lawyers, merchants, gentlemen, magistrates, and women (in that order). For each group of people Crowley wrote a chapter of advice, admonishing individuals to behave in a manner suitable to the estate or vocation within which they found themselves and thereby, by implication, to maintain a desirable and orderly world. The book was not addressed to women, but the last chapter (like some sections in the matrimonial or household guides) was about women. It is quoted here in part because it gives, in a relatively short rhyme, a flavor of the guidelines common for women in this period.

The Womans Lesson
          Who so thou be of woman kinde
That lokest for salvation
Se ye have ever in thy mynde
To walke in thy vocacion
.....          Avoyde idle and wanton talke
Avoyde nyce lokes and daliaunce
And when thou doest in the stretes walk
Se thou shewe no light contenannce
          Let thyne apparayle be honeste
Be not decked paste thy degre
Neither let thou thyne hede be dreste
Otherwise then besemeth the
          Let thine heare beare the same colour
That nature gave it to endure
Laye it not out as doeth an whore
That would mens fantacies allure
          Paynt not thy face in any wise
But make thy maners for to shyne
And thou shalt please all such mens eies
As do to godlines enclyne.
          Be thou modeste, sober and wise
And learne the poyntes of houswyfry
And men shal have the in such price
That thou shalt not nede a dowry
          Studye to please the lorde above
Walkynge in thy callyng upright
And god wil some good mans hert move
To set on the his whole delyte.
          Now when thou arte become a wife
And hast an housbande to thy minde
Se thou provoke him not to stryfe
Lest haply he do prove unkynde
          Acknowledge that he is thyne heade
And hath of the, the governaunce
And that thou must of him be led
Accordyng to goddes ordinaunce
          Do all thy busynes quietly
And delyte not idle to stand
But do thy selfe ever apply
To have some honest worcke in hand
.....          But if thou be of such degree
That it is not for the semely
Emonge thy maydens for to be
Yet do thy selfe styll occupye
.....          And if thyne housbande do outrage
In any thinge what so it be
Admonish him of his laste age
Wyth wordes mylde as becometh the.
          And if he do refuse to heare
Thy gentle admonition
Yet se if thou can cause him feare
Goddes terrible punission
.....          For though the fyrste woman did fall
And was the chiefe occasion
That synne hath pearsed through us all
Yet shalt thou have sallvatton
.....          Nowe, if thyne housband be godly
And have knowledge better then thou
Then learne of him all thy dutie
And to his doctryne se thou bowe
.....          But thou that arte Sarais daughter
And lokeste for salvation
Se thou learne thy doctrine at hir
And walke in thy vocacion
          She was alwaye obedient
To hir housband, and calde hym lorde
As the boke of goddes testament
Doeth in most open wyse recorde.
          Folow hir, and thou shalt be sure
To have as she had in the ende
The lyfe that shal ever endure
Unto the whych, the lorde the sende


Women who found themselves widowed and with property often had more responsibility and power than at any other time in their lives. The moment a woman remarried, her personal property came under the jurisdiction of her husband. No wonder that many books gave advice on the subject of widowhood and remarriage, starting with La Tour-Landry's advice to his daughters in The Book of the Knight of the Tower (1484). Andrew Kingsmill in A Godly Advise … Touching Mariage (1574) and Thomas Pritchard in The School of Honest and Vertuous Lyfe (1579) gave straightforward directions and many warnings to the widow. Other books on the education of women spent whole sections on the problem, and prayer books provided appropriate supplications. Frequently the widow is cautioned to seek guidance from friends and relatives when choosing a marriage partner and not to allow her heart or personal wishes to rule in such a serious matter.

Widowhood and the problems or pleasures of widows appear in almost every literary form, though few are addressed to a female audience. Robert Copland reflects some of the cynicism that his age felt for restrictions placed on widows. His Seven Sorowes that Women Have When Theyr Husbandes be Deade (1565?) winks at the so-called problems of a widow; it is a bawdy satire on widowhood, and it does solicit women readers.


How women are to be educated has been the subject of printed debate for centuries. The earliest book on the Basic List, The Book of the Knight of the Tower, is a book on women's education or how to raise daughters, if it is to be taken at face value. Vives' Instruction of a Christen Woman, a large and influential book on the education of women, first appeared in English about 1529. Joannes Ludovicus Vives, a Spaniard, was Queen Catherine of Aragon's adviser in the education of her daughter, Princess, later Queen, Mary. His Instruction of a Christen Woman was written and printed first in Latin in 1523; the English translation was by Richard Hyrde. Hyrde had, himself, written a short twelve-page treatise on women's education that became the introduction to Margaret More Roper's translation of Erasmus' Devout Treatise upon the Pater-Noster when it was printed in 1526, and thus became the earliest known printed discourse on female education originating in the English language. Vives and Hyrde represented an enlightened period in that they believed in education for women and in instruction in languages for at least some women. Hyrde's work does not qualify as a book, but in his introduction to Vives' work, addressed to Queen Catherine, Hyrde says:

I wished in my mynde that eyther in every countre women were lerned in the latin tonge, or the boke out of latin translated in to every tonge: and moche I marvelled, as I often do, of the unreasonable oversyght of men, which never ceace to complayne of womens conditions. And yet havyng the education and order of them in theyr owne handis, nat only do litell diligence to teache them and bryng them up better, but also purposely with drawe them fro lernyng, by whiche they might have occasyons to ware better by them selfe. But sith this faute is to far gone and over largely spredde, to be shortly remedied. I thought at the least wyse for my parte hit wolde do well to translate this boke in to our englishe tonge, for the commodite and profite of our owne countre.

(sig. A2v, A3)

Vives' longer work was a guide to all phases of female living including discussions of problems from babyhood to widowhood. Vives, like most men (but not Thomas Salter) who wrote on the subject of female education in the sixteenth century, believed in the value of reading for women. He devoted a whole chapter to the subject under the title, “What bokes to be redde, and what not.” Recommended books “to be redde” by women included some classical, religious, and inspirational works; those he felt should be banned were mostly romances.

In the relatively progressive period of the early sixteenth century, several other statements on education—for men and occasionally for women—were written by prominent scholars such as Erasmus, Vives, Sir Thomas More, Richard Mulcaster, Sir John Cheke, John Comenius, Sir Thomas Elyot, and Roger Ascham. Most of them were liberal in their approach to women's education and potential capacity to learn. Thomas Salter, writing later in the century, was not. His Mirrhor of Modestie (1579) starts out:

In seeying right honourable Mothers, and vertuous Matrones the great abuse that by the default of good brynging up, many of our Englishe Maidens doe daiely runne into, to the greate reproche of their Parentes, hartes greef of their kinsfolke, infamie of their persones, and (whiche is moste to be lamented) losse of their soules, I thought it no lesse then my bounden duetie to take in hande this little worke, Intituled the Mirrhor of Modestie, to the ende that by looking in the same, bothe suche Mothers and Matrones, as have charge of children and youth under them, maie knowe the onely ready meanes, by the helpe of Gods grace so to instructe them, as no doubte greate amendmente will insue, and also all Maidens and yonge Children them selves, see the directe and straight pathe to perpetuall felicitie …

and continues:

Many unwise fathers, who beying more daintye, and effeminate in followyng their pleasures, then wise and diligent in seekyng the profite of their Daughters, doe give them, so sone, as they have any understandyng in readyng, or spellyng, to cone [to gape at] and learne up hart bookes, ballades, songes, sonettes, and Ditties of daliance excityng their memories thereby … therefore I would wish our good Matrone to eschew suche use, as apestilent infection.

(sig. B2v)

His do's and don'ts include:

Cause her Maidens to reade, the examples and lives of godly and vertuous Ladies … out of the holy Scripture, and other histories both auncient and of late dayes whiche, bookes will not onely delight them, but as a spurre it will pricke and incite their hartes, to follow vertue, and have vice in horror and disdaine.

(sig. B3)

Our Maiden [shall] bee forbidded, to reade anye suche bookes or ballades [mentioned in the second quote] as maie make her mynde (beeyng of it self verie delicate) more feble and effemynate

(sig. B3)

I wishe our Maiden, wholie to refrain from the use of musicke.

(sig. C6)

I would not have her … to be a babbler or greate talker.

(sig. D2)

Bee alwaies modestly arraied.

(sig. D3)

Be humble, modestly grave, but not too fearful.

(sig. D3v)

He also warns against gossips who feign religion, particularly those “when the aucthoritie of greate personages supporte them” (sig. B3), and says kitchen servants and harlots are to be avoided “as infectious diseases” (sig. B4).

As for female learning and philosophizing, Salter said:

Some parentes bee of opinion that it is necessarie for Maidens, to bee skilfull in Philosophie Morall and Naturall, thinkyng it an honour unto them to be thought well learned, I for my part am the contrarie because that by the same, they are made to understande the evelles immynente too humaine life … whiche knowledge is not requisite to be in young women.

(sig. B6)

It is only fair to point out that Salter's book appeared in only one edition, but it and Bruto's Necessarie, Fit, and Convenient Education of a Yong Gentlewoman (1598), which appears to be another version of much the same advice, may have been harbingers of more restrictive recommendations for female education which developed with the Puritans. Reading ability for women, tolerated by Salter and Bruto, was, however, encouraged by other writers even after the end of the enlightened period of the early sixteenth century. The English translation of Jacques DuBoscq's The Compleat Woman (1639) went so far as to say, “It is even necessary for all women” (sig. G2), but DuBoscq was also the one who reminded his audience that what he was writing was “for women and not philosophers” (sig. Cv). By the early seventeenth century the frivolity of the court and the strong inroads of puritanical thought (strange bedfellows that they were) combined to dampen the earlier approach, and there was little encouragement for serious female studies.

Guides to female education could usually be considered how-to-live books for women, but how-to-live or conduct books addressed to women, included a number of titles besides those specializing in women's education. Of these, a few discussed one particular subject such as The Passoinate [passionate] Morrice (1593), which was concerned with honesty and marriage; Tell-trothes [truths] New-Yeares Gift (1593), a treatise on jealousy; Jacques DuBoscq's The Secretary of Ladies (1638), a collection of sample letters; Philomusus' Academy of Complements (1639), a conversation manual; and Pierre Erondelle's The French Garden (1605), an instructional guide to the French language. The Secretary of Ladies purports to be a collection of letters and answers, all composed in an interesting and learned manner by “moderne ladies and gentlewomen.” It has the added advantage, more than three centuries later, of giving considerable insight into the everyday life and activities of a lady. The letters were, of course, by a French author or writers, not English ladies.

Other guides were addressed to a particular group of women such as the nuns for whom The Rule of Seynt Benet (1517) was translated and John Ryckes's The Ymage of Love (1525) was written. Some touched on many phases of women's lives. Included in this group were Richard Brathwaite's The English Gentlewoman (1631), Barnabe Rich's The Excellency of Good Women (1613) and My Ladies Looking Glasse (1616), and DuBoscq's The Compleat Woman (1639).


The practice of midwifery, still the prerogative of women in this period, must have been learned by experience and word-of-mouth, with the knowledge of the profession handed down from generation to generation without much benefit of written records. Nevertheless, two midwifery books were published. Fifteen editions then came from these two. They were Eucharius Roesslin's Byrth of Mankynde (1540), a translation from the Latin, and James Guillemeau's Child-birth or, the Happy Deliverie of Women (1612), another translation. Primitive illustrations of the fetus in the womb were an interesting and fairly accurate addition to Child-birth, but some of the comments were less dependable, such as the section on smallpox and measles in children:

The cause of both of them, are the reliques of the impurer part of the bloud, wherewith the child was nourished in his mothers wombe; which now is separated and thrust to the skin, through the help and strength of nature.

(p. 99)

Ailments peculiar to women were also covered in John Sadler's Sicke Womans Private Looking-glasse (1636) “wherein methodically are handled all uterine affects, or diseases arising from ye wombe; enabling women to informe the physician about ye cause of their griefe.” By that time, obviously, male physicians were moving into the practice of obstetrics, which had been largely a female concern in earlier times.


The legal rights of women were limited, but they could inherit property, and their rights relating to property, inheritance, and a variety of other problems were summarized in an interesting book, The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights: or, the Lawes Provision for Woemen (1632). A lengthy resume, the book is made up of narrative sections on such subjects as “How a woman that hath beene in ward, shall come by her land,” “Difference betweene partners and jointenants,” “With what persons Women may not marry,” “Of Wooing,” “Of Dower,” “What Dower is,” “The Baron may beate his Wife,” “That which the Husband hath is his owne,” and “Appeal of rape.” On the matter of wife-beating, the writer was sympathetic to the female thus attacked; but he said, “If a man beat an out-law, a traitor, a Pagan, his villein, or his wife it is dispunishable, because by the Law Common these persons can have no action: God send Gentle-women better sport, or better companie” (p. 128). The rape law was more protective. The book states that “if any virgin, widdow, or single woman be ravished, shee her selfe may sue an Appeale of rape, prosecute the felon to death, and the Kings pardon (as it seemeth) cannot helpe him” (p. 390). But a married woman's rights in this matter, as in almost all others, were dependent upon the support of her husband:

If a Feme covert be ravished, shee cannot have an Appeale without her husband, as appeares 8. Hen. 4. fol. 21. But if a Feme covert be ravished, and consent to the ravisher, the husband alone may have an Appeale, and this by the Statute 6. Rich. 2. cap. 6.

(p. 390)

The husband's control over real property is discussed under the heading, “That which the Wife hath is the Husbands”:

For thus it is, If before Marriage the Woman were possessed of Horses, Meate, Sheepe, Coyne, Wool, Money, Plate and Jewels, all manner of moveable substance is presently by conjunction the husbands, to sell, keepe or bequeath if he die: And though he bequeath them not, yet are they the Husbands Executors and not the wives which brought them to her Husband.

(p. 130)

Reference is made throughout the book to specific laws, and some legal interpretations are also cited. In the conclusion the writer says, “But they to whom my travels are chiefly addressed are women” (p. 304), and he goes on to say he thinks they should be grateful for his work. The book was not popular enough, however, to go into a second edition.

The first three dictionaries of the English language were printed in the early part of the seventeenth century, and each of the three was directed in part to women readers. Even before the dictionaries appeared, Edmund Coote's Englishe Scholemaster (1596) addressed both men and women teachers in the hope that they would learn the English language sufficiently well to use it or teach it adequately. Coote's book included a list of hard words, a precursor of the English dictionaries which followed.

Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall (1604) claimed that it was “gathered for the benefit and helpe of ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons.” Little attention has been given to the fact that these earliest English dictionaries, preceding Johnson's by about a century and a half, were actually published with women's needs in mind. Even the introduction to the 1966 reprint of Cawdrey's work only points out that the “work was intended for an audience other than schoolboys but nevertheless relatively untutored.”4

Women's work was one of the subjects of later editions of Thomas Tusser's popular country household guide known in the first version to include housewives in the title as A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie. Lately Maried unto a Hundreth Good Poyntes of Huswifry (1562). Some of his rhymes are forebears of familiar proverbs:

Take weapon away, of what force is a man,
Take huswife from husband, and what is he than.
As lovers desireth, together to dwell,
So husbandry loveth, good huswifry well.
Though husbandry seemeth, to bring in the gains,
Yet huswifry labours, seeme equall in pains.
Some respit to husbands, the wether may send,
But huswifes affaires, have never an end.

(sig. S2)

This approach to shared duties in the household pictures women as equal helpmates, but work took its toll with women according to Tusser's “Description of womans age by VI times XIIII yeares prentiship, with a lesson to the same.”

Two first vii yeares, for a rod they do whine,
Two next, as a perle, in the world they do shine,
Two next, trim beautie beginneth to swerve,
Two next, for matrons, or drudgeis they serve,
Two next doth crave, a staffe for a stay:
Two next, a beere to fetch them away.

(sig. Y1)

The women's literature that developed in the seventeenth century was directed to adults. Books for young girls (or boys) did not enter the booksellers' market in sizable numbers until a much later date, but hornbooks—those lettered forerunners of the slate—and ABC books were published long before 1640. One, The Virgin's A. B. C. (1630) “or, an alphabet of vertuous admonitions for a chaste, modest and well-governed maid,” was a series of four-line stanzas, each starting with a successive letter of the alphabet. Although not a book, it was an early “alphabet song” for the female sex. A printed version of the ballad is noted in the Supplemental List.

Certain areas of the garden were considered within the housewife's province, and a lady undoubtedly liked to have an herbal or other garden instruction book on her library shelf. John Gerard's The Herball “or general historie of plantes” was the best known, and its publication in 1597 made Gerard's name famous in the seventeenth century. Among the books that Lady Margaret Hoby said she was reading was an herbal.5 Gerard's best seller, plentifully illustrated with woodcuts, was also used by ladies for needlework designs. The book was not, however, addressed particularly to women.

A generation later William Lawson wrote The Country Housewifes Garden (1617) “for herbes of common use” and directed it specifically to a female audience. It has five pages of designs for garden plots and a short annotated alphabetical listing of herbs that in current usage would be called both vegetables and herbs. Combined with an illustrated section on bees and beehives, it makes a most practical guide, but it can hardly be called an herbal.

The Historie of France (1595) is listed here as a practical book. It claims to be a history of the second half of the sixteenth century, dedicated to “the illustrious ladies of her sacred majesties most honourable privie chamber.” It is the only book of its kind on the Basic List and one of only a handful of women's books printed in the folio format.

Another one-of-a-kind book is listed with the practical guidebooks. It is the last book in the chronological list of practical books, Wenceslaus Hollar's Ornatus Muliebris Anglicanus or the Severall Habits of English Women (1640), perhaps the first printed fashion book. Twenty-six costumes for various classes of women are illustrated; there is no text.

Practical guidebooks for women, including cookbooks, guides for housewives, medical treatises, garden guides, how-to-live books of many subjects, needlework patterns, female educational guides, and even one history and one fashion book tell indirectly a great deal about women's lives in Tudor and Stuart England. The lice, the spoiled meat, the stale water, the sick babies and drunken relatives, as well as the usual routine of cooking, distilling, and sewing, were relieved occasionally by a washday or a birth, and made more bearable by a belief in an afterlife. Many of the foods mentioned in the recipes are unknown today. Unfortunately the guidebooks themselves are extremely rare; most were worn out through use or discarded long ago.


Chronological List

1484 La Tour-Landry, Geoffrey de. [The book of the knight of the tower]

1500 [Book of cookery]

1517 Benedictus, Saint. The rule of Seynt Benet.

1520 The dyetary of ghostly helthe.

1529 Vives, Joannes Ludovicus. The instruction of a Christen woman.

[ca. 1530?] A neawe treatys … concernynge … nedle worcke.

1532 Xenophon. [Economicus.] Treatise of householde.

1540 Elyot, Sir Thomas. The defence of good women.

1540 [Maidens crosse-rewe]

1540 Roesslin, Eucharius. The byrth of mankynde.

1541 Bullinger, Heinrich. The Christen state of matrimony.

1542 Goodwyn, Christopher. The maydens dreme.

1545 A propre new booke of cokery.

[1548?] Oecolampadius, Joannes. A sarmon to young men and maydens.

1549 Crowley, Robert. The voyce of the laste trumpet.

1561 Castiglione, Baldassare. The courtyer.

1562 Tusser, Thomas. A hundreth good pointes of husbandrie.

1568 Tilney, Edmund. The flower of friendshippe.

1573 Partridge, John. The treasurie of commodious conceites.

1574 Kingmill, Andrew. A godly advise.

1579 [Pritchard, Thomas]. The shoole of honest and vertuous lyfe.

1579 Salter, Thomas. The mirrhor of modestie.

1581 Warren, William. The nurcerie of names.

1581 A watchword for wilfull women.

1582 Partridge, John. The widowes treasure.

1584 [Greenham, Richard]. A godlie exhortation.

1584 W., A. A booke of cookry.

1585 Dawson, Thomas. The second part of the good huswifes jewell.

1587 Dawson, Thomas. The good huswifes jewell.

1588 The good hous-wives treasurie.

1588 Tasso, Torquato. The householders philosophie … [and] a dairie booke for all good huswives.

1591 Vinciolo, Federico di. New and singular patternes & workes of linnen.

1593 A. The passoinate [passionate] morrice.

1593 Tell-trothes [truths] new-yeares gift.

1594 [Book of cookery]

1595 The historie of France.

1596 Ciotti, Giovanni Battista. The first part of needleworkes.

1596 Coote, Edmund. The Englishe scholemaster.

1597 Meres, Francis. Gods arithmeticke.

1598 Bruto, Giovanni Michele. The necessarie, fit, and convenient education of a yong gentlewoman.

1598 Cleaver, Robert. A codly [sic] form of householde governement.

1598 Epulario.

1599 Buttes, Henry. Dyets dry dinner.

1600 Platt, Hugh. Delightes for ladies.

1604 Cawdrey, Robert. A table alphabeticall.

1605 Erondelle, Pierre. The French garden.

1607 The court of good counsell.

1607 Wilkinson, Robert. The merchant royall.

1608 B., Ste. Counsell to the husband: to the wife instruction.

1608 A closet for ladies and gentlewomen.

1610 [Snawsel, Robert] A looking glasse for maried folkes.

1612 Guillemeau, James. Child-birth or, the happy deliverie of women.

1613 Rich, Barnabe. The excellency of good women.

1614 Rich, Barnabe. The honestie of this age.

1615 Markham, Gervase. Countrey contentments … [and] the English huswife.

1615 Murrell, John. A new booke of cookerie.

1615 Niccholes, Alexander. A discourse of marriage and wiving.

1616 Bullokar, John. An English expositor.

1616 Rich, Barnabe. My ladies looking glasse.

1617 Lawson, William. The countrie housewifes garden.

1617 Murrell, John. A daily exercise for ladies and gentlewomen.

1617 Whately, William. A bride-bush, or a wedding sermon.

1618 La Primaudaye, Peter de. The French academie.

1619 Hannay, Patrick. A happy husband … [and] the good wife.

1620 A booke of cookerie.

1621 Murrell, John. Delightfull daily exercise for ladies and gentlewomen.

1622 Clinton, Elizabeth, Countess. The Countess of Lincoln's nursery.

1622 Gouge, William. Of domesticall duties.

1623 Cockeram, Henry. The English dictionarie.

1624 A schole-house for the needle.

1625 Taylor, Thomas. A good husband and a good wife.

1631 Brathwaite, Richard. The English gentlewoman.

1631 Markham, Gervase. The English house-wife.

1631 Murrell, John. Murrels two bookes of cookerie and carving.

1631 Taylor, John. The needles excellency.

1632 Benedictus, Saint. The rule of Saint Benedict.

1632 E., T. The lawes resolutions of womens rights.

1632 Mary, … Monastery at Brussels. Statutes.

1633 Bernard, Saint. A rule of good life.

1636 Sadler, John. The sicke womans private looking-glasse.

1638 DuBoscq, Jacques. The secretary of ladies.

1639 DuBoscq, Jacques. The compleat woman.

1639 The ladies cabinet opened.

1639 Philomusus. The academy of complements.

1640 Hollar, Wenceslaus. The severall habits of English women.


  1. See Pearl Hogrefe, Tudor Women: Commoners and Queens (Ames, Iowa: State University Press, 1975).

  2. Martin S. Day in History of English Literature to 1660 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1963), p. 162 suggests A. W. might stand for Anonymous Writer.

  3. Ernest J. Moncada, “The Spanish Source of Edmund Tilney's ‘Flower of Friendshippe,’” Modern Language Review 65 (April 1970): 241-47.

  4. Robert Cawdrey, A Table Alphabeticall, ed. Robert A. Peters (Gainesville, Florida: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1966), p. xiii.

  5. Lady Margaret Hoby, Diary, ed. Dorothy M. Meads (London: Routledge, 1930), p. 72.

Marjorie Morgan (essay date 1994)

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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) provides a comprehensive account of English courtesy works during their extended heyday from Thomas Elyot's The Governour (1531) to Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son (1774). His study, although thorough, makes no attempt to place the courtesy literature discussed in a larger social context.1

More recently, scholars have explored behavioural literature with an eye toward revealing its significance for the larger society it was designed to soften and refine. With respect to courtesy books in particular, Frank Whigham's Ambition and Privilege discusses their role in fashioning an ideology for Elizabethan court society. Michael Curtin's study Propriety and Position: A Study of Victorian Manners focuses on Victorian society as it was revealed and reflected in etiquette books published between 1830 and 1914. In an earlier article, Curtin analysed the social and cultural implications of the courtesy book's decline in the 1770s and the rise of the more frivolous, fashionable etiquette book in the 1830s,2 Ironically, these works leave a conspicuous gap in the treatment of behavioural literature spanning the years 1774 to 1830—a period when instilling proper conduct emerged as an urgent concern for many upper—and middle-class English people.

Two important exceptions are studies by Joyce Hemlow and Nancy Armstrong.3 Hemlow discussed courtesy books published for women between 1760 and 1820 in relation to the rise of their fictional counterpart—the courtesy novel. She recognised that these courtesy books for women differed from the traditional ones for men in that they were infused with greater religious and moral fervour. But she did not explore the implications of this change or recognise that such works were written for men as well.

Armstrong focused on eighteenth-century behavioural literature for women which she termed ‘conduct books’. Her aim was to use these books to analyse the ‘new domestic woman’ who, in her opinion, was the core of emerging middle-class values and life. Both studies are important for drawing attention to behavioural literature written for women—traditionally even more neglected than that composed for men. But by ignoring behavioural books addressed to men, they fail to fill adequately the gap in our understanding of manners literature published in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

This chapter helps to bridge the gap by offering an overview of all three types of behavioural literature—courtesy, conduct and etiquette. It makes clear their salient characteristics and explores some current explanations for their emergence and decline. Such an overview will enable us then to pursue the more important aim of determining what these books tell us about the response to and nature of changes transforming English society during the early industrial period.


In her diary Fanny Burney recounted a conversation indicating that her first novel, Evelina, was initially both pleasing and perplexing to readers. According to Burney, the rather crusty but always entertaining Dr Samuel Johnson suggested that the novel's as-yet-unknown author had depicted life and manners better than did Henry Fielding himself. Upon hearing this evaluation, blue-stocking wit Mrs Elizabeth Montagu was somewhat surprised. She declared:

That I did not expect, for I have been informed it is the work of a young lady, and therefore, though I expected a very pretty book, I supposed it to be a work of mere imagination … but life and manners I never dreamt of finding.4

Such a response, though at odds with more modern assumptions, would have been perfectly natural for anyone living before the French or Industrial Revolutions. From the Renaissance until the late eighteenth century, manners were thought to be crucially important for surviving at court, conducting governmental and diplomatic affairs, and living in society or the ‘world’—activities enjoyed or endured primarily by men. During the eighteenth century gentlemen were equipped with a formal liberal education designed to render them well-mannered, sociable leaders adept at conversing for pleasure, pleasing companions and guiding public affairs. Emphasis was placed on cultivating the whole man, whose liberal education and gentlemanly nature would be palpable in his overall demeanour. The literary expression of gentlemanly qualities from the Renaissance until the 1770s was the courtesy book—a literary form written primarily by and for men.5

The courtesy book was an umbrella-like form of literature composed of four sometimes distinct, sometimes overlapping types of manners works. Parental advice books were informal, practical works written by an elder for a usually specific younger gentleman. As one Lord Chesterfield apologist noted, ‘Generation after generation have men … devoted their leisure or their decline to summing up, for the benefit of those dear to them, the lessons which life had taught them.’6 The sons of Sir Walter Raleigh, Lord Burghley, Francis Osborne and the fourth Earl of Chesterfield were intended recipients of the most popular of such summations. In contrast to advice books, polite conduct books were based more on traditional authorities than on authors' personal experiences. Typical examples, including Henry Peacham's The Compleat Gentleman (1622) and Richard Brathwait's The English Gentleman (1630), were more systematic and encyclopaedic than parental advice books. A third form of courtesy literature focused specifically on the arts of worldly success at court or in government, the classic example being Baldesar Castiglione's The Courtier (1561). These policy books were the most secular and practical of courtesy books, being designed to dispense the behavioural tools for social and political success. Finally, courtesy literature included books on civility which were guides to deportment, personal carriage, dress, conversation and table manners. They differed from later etiquette books because their rules were derived from universal principles of good taste as opposed to the habits and fashions of a particular social set. Representative of these books were F. Nivelon's The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour (1737) and Adam Petrie's Rules of Good Deportment or of Good Breeding (1720).

More significant than their differences were the characteristics which these four types of courtesy literature shared. Written by tutors, clergymen, schoolmasters or gentlemen, courtesy books outlined a comprehensive or ‘compleat’ picture of an ideal social type—the aristocratic gentleman. Just how comprehensive is revealed by the books' salmagundi-like contents. Issues of ceremony particular to a country mixed gracefully with the more universally revered ones of civility, religious principle and moral virtue. With their prescriptions for ethical and social behaviour, courtesy books attempted to render gentlemen fit for their preordained role as social leaders. Thus they were not practical digests of maxims or rules for the upwardly mobile, but rather more theoretical, encyclopaedic works for a coterie of the elite whose place in the world was fixed and taken for granted.7

One of the most significant characteristics common to courtesy books was their underlying assumption that manners and morals were inseparable and indistinguishable. Such an assumption was axiomatic among the English elite until the late eighteenth century. As one recent historian has argued, ‘In Addison's day, then, manners and morals were co-ordinate, allied, almost synonymous terms.’8 The eighteenth-century Society for the Reformation of Manners waged war on sin, prostitution, drinking, non-observance of the Lord's Day and other activities affecting society's moral fibre—not on such violations of ceremony as ringing the bell during dinner or donning one's hat in the drawing-room. Although courtesy books discussed matters of ceremony particular to time and place, the emphasis was more on behaviours firmly grounded in religious and moral virtues and in universal principles of good taste. Courtesy writers thus reflected not only the prevailing view that manners and morals were inextricably linked, but the pre-industrial penchant for universalism as well.9

According to Curtin, Chesterfield's Letters was ‘the last important representative’ example of courtesy literature.10 The work can more meaningfully be viewed as both the last of the courtesy books and the harbinger of nineteenth-century etiquette books.11 For these letters of advice reflected the same severing of manners and morals characteristic of early etiquette books which often quoted Chesterfield. Concerning the Letters one historian maintained, ‘Despite statements which assert the moral basis of manners … Chesterfield seldom seems fired by the connection.’12 It is unfair, however, to accuse Chesterfield of completely ignoring or being indifferent to the moral virtues. He simply took them for granted and chose instead to focus in his Letters on the more worldly, elegant and superficial graces. As he told his son when speaking of the importance of merit:

By merit, I mean the moral virtues, knowledge, and manners; as to the moral virtues, I say nothing to you; they speak for themselves, nor can I suspect that they want any recommendation with you.13

But despite his occasional references to moral virtue, Chesterfield attracted an onslaught of criticism from moralists for what they regarded as grovelling, worthless and amoral letters.

Moralists failed to understand that a growing distinction between and shift in the nature of manners and morals were coming to characterise society as a whole in the late eighteenth century. If a divorce between manners and morals was only foreshadowed by Chesterfield's advice, it was more clearly and undeniably revealed by Reverend John Trusler's books on manners. In 1775 he wrote a work entitled Principles of Politeness and, in 1805, a companion piece called A System of Etiquette which he specifically referred to as ‘not being a moral treatise’.14 This distinction was recognised by the early nineteenth century. Commenting on a reference to manners in one of William Cowper's verses, the author of Brief Remarks on English Manners admitted that his own view of manners, like Cowper's, signified moral conduct. In his Brief Remarks, however, he stated:

When I venture to criticise certain national peculiarities in our manners, I view the term in its more limited sense, and complain of defects in our system of politeness, or exterior manners.15

The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the definition of manners as ‘a person's habitual behaviour or conduct, esp. in reference to its moral aspect’ became obsolete in 1794. It was superseded by a view of manners as, ‘The modes of life, customary rules of behaviour, conditions of society, prevailing in a people.’ But such changes do not occur in society as neatly and abruptly as they do in dictionaries. As the manners literature published between 1774 and 1858 reveals, the former notion of manners continued to be energetically espoused after 1794 by Evangelically inspired, middle-class conduct books. It was replaced gradually in the 1830s and 1840s by the latter, more amoral concept of manners, as indicated by the emergence and popularity of etiquette books.


If one considers the linking of manners and morals as well as the comprehensive, universal nature of courtesy books as their most significant characteristics, then the literary form did not die or become at all effete with the appearance of Chesterfield's Letters. Writers inspired by religious fervour unleashed a flood of behavioural literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries designed to render the coupling of manners and morals more tenacious than ever before. But this is not to suggest that the conception of manners was the same in courtesy works and religiously inspired advice and conduct books. As Curtin pointed out, manners as presented in conduct books were not valued for their own sake or considered on ‘more or less the same plane as high moral principle’ as they were in courtesy books.16 Nor were they viewed as the readily apparent indicator of one's liberal-mindedness and gentlemanly breeding. They were, instead, regarded and valued as the outward manifestation of religious and moral principles. This distinction was nowhere better clarified than in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park when priest-to-be Edmund Bertram attempted to convince the more worldly, ‘Society’-minded Miss Mary Crawford that priests were desirable and effective influences on behaviour. He argued:

With regard to their influencing public manners, Miss Crawford must not misunderstand me, or suppose I mean to call them the arbiters of good breeding, the regulators of refinement and courtesy, the masters of the ceremonies of life. The manners I speak of, might rather be called conduct. … The result of good principles.17

A modern-day historian of popular English novels from the period 1770 to 1800 asserted:

Conduct, the definition and application of the general moral laws that should govern behavior of man in society, was the prevailing intellectual interest of the age, and naturally enough this interest was reflected in the novel.18

It was reflected in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century advice and conduct books as well, suggesting that courtesy gave way initially to a rising tide of interest in conduct—not etiquette.19

The edition dates of conduct books listed in the British Library and National Union Catalogues show that these works achieved their greatest popularity between the 1770s and 1830s. Two of the most popular conduct books—Thomas Gisborne's An Enquiry into the Duties of Men and Hester Chapone's Letters on the Improvement of the Mind—appeared in multiple editions spanning the time periods 1794 to 1811 and 1773 to 1851 respectively. In the latter case, only eight of the seventy-one publications mentioned were dated after 1830. Although Chapone's Letters preceded Chesterfield's, such a chronological pattern was atypical. Most initial editions of conduct books appeared after 1774. Chesterfield's advice was a spur to palpably moral publications like conduct books. The Letters quickly became popular reading and moralists felt compelled to denounce and counteract the advice. In their view, it was pernicious because it was subversive of Christian morality and conducive to hypocritical, self-interested behaviour. Concerning Chesterfield's volumes, Mrs. Elizabeth Carter—Greek scholar and daughter of a curate/preacher at Canterbury—admonished Mrs E. Montagu:

You cannot have a fairer opportunity of conveying instruction to the world, than by exposing the execrable and wretched doctrines of this vile anti-moral composition to the infamy and contempt which it so highly deserves.20

A more general and potent stimulus to conduct books was the intensification during the latter half of the eighteenth century of vital religion or Evangelicalism.21 Born, in part, of a disillusionment with the established Church's anaemic attitude to religion and morality, Evangelicalism reflected an unprecedented energetic attempt to invigorate the religious life of the nation. Its adherents strove to make Christianity the guiding principle of human behaviour. Thus they were obsessed with conduct—their own and others'. The earnestness with which they indulged in self-examination was equal to that which they expended in trying to influence others via such means as conduct books. Underlying all the behavioural advice contained in these works was the principle that religion—not fashion, custom or taste—was the basis of manners and morals. Writers emphasised that the divine law as revealed in the Bible was the foundation of polite and proper behaviour. Therefore, the true lady or gentleman according to conduct books was, first and foremost, a Christian.

Considering the majority of conduct book writers, it is not surprising that the works were infused with religious concerns. Both male and female writers tended to be actively involved in Church- or chapel-related activities, whether fervent Evangelicals or not. For example, James Fordyce, D.D., Thomas Gisborne and William Roberts wrote immensely popular behavioural works. All three men were well acquainted with the most eminent Evangelicals of their day, including William Wilberforce whom they considered a close friend. Fordyce and Gisborne were both clergymen by profession (Presbyterian and Anglican respectively), and Roberts, though a barrister, edited the British Review—a periodical supporting Tory politics and Evangelical religion.

These authors' female counterparts typically were instrumental themselves or aided their clergymen husbands in organising religious campaigns. The influential coterie of Evangelicals known as the Clapham Sect looked to Hannah More as one of its leaders—a woman who, in addition to churning out conduct books, spearheaded the Sunday school movement and moulded the minds of the working class with her barrage of morally charged Cheap Repository Tracts. A later writer, Sarah Ellis, married the chief foreign secretary of the London Missionary Society and shared his profound interest in missionary work.

In addition to religiosity, these writers had middle-class status in common and they directed their advice primarily to middle-class readers.22 (Exceptions included those works directed at members of the higher ranks in the hope that their reformed behaviour would set an example for all of society.) Whereas courtesy books normally were written for established aristocratic gentlemen, conduct books tended to be composed for middle-class adults and, even more often, for their inexperienced children or those in a position to mould youth to a decent, congenial behaviour, that is schoolmasters, governesses, parents or guardians. Although a preponderant number of middle-class conduct books addressed female audiences, the works by no means focused exclusively on women as Hemlow implied.23 Such titles as Letters to Young Men (1801), The Female Mentor (1793), A Father's Bequest to His Son (1811) and Female Excellence or Hints to Daughters (1840) suggest that these works aimed to influence both sexes. According to conduct book writers, the needs and feelings of a specific daughter, son, brother or niece rather than the demands of a lucrative market prompted these behavioural works.

Although these writers professed to ignore the market, the historian must consider it when discussing the books' audience. Even when authors specifically addressed middle-class men and women, they frequently maintained that their advice was applicable to all ranks. But regardless of such claims, there were few below the status of middle class who could have afforded conduct books in this period. In the late eighteenth century, London journeymen's weekly wages varied from 15 to 20s and were considerably lower in the country and provincial towns. By the 1830s skilled workers in London earned average weekly wages of 30s. Conduct book prices during roughly the same period ranged anywhere from 1s 6d to 14s. A first edition copy of Chapone's Letters in 1773 cost 6s. Gisborne's An Enquiry into the Duties of Men and Dr John Gregory's Father's Legacy to His Daughters cost 14s and 3s respectively in 1810. By 1841, Tilt's series of miniature classics offered the Letters for 1s 6d. Any one of these works would have constituted a sizeable portion of a worker's weekly wages.24

Titles are not always reliable in determining conduct books' audiences. For example, William Cobbett's title Advice to Young Men, and Incidentally to Young Women, in the Middle and Higher Ranks of Life suggests a wider audience than the book itself actually addresses. Cobbett's work is divided into sections of advice to youth, to a bachelor, to a lover, to a husband, to a father and to a citizen, indicating that very little material is directed at women. Furthermore, Cobbett assumed that the reader had a profession or a trade and stated clearly at the outset, ‘I suppose you in the middle rank of life.’ Toward the end of the book Cobbett noted once again, ‘I am, however, addressing myself, in this work, to persons in the middle rank of life.’25

Conduct books were as comprehensive and encyclopaedic in nature as the earlier courtesy books, that is, all aspects and stages of life fell within their scope including education, religion, marriage, friendship, widowhood and social behaviours. Advice on such practical matters as dressing, visiting or inviting guests to a meal mingled with more solemn discussions on religion, morality and qualities of character such as benevolence, vanity, modesty, virtue and integrity. However, the attention and emphasis in middle-class conduct books on these latter issues far outweighed that placed on fine points of appearance, external manners and social custom. As Hemlow said of these works:

They attempted to establish first principles first, then a code of behavior based on these principles, that is a system of morals, and only as a last consideration manners insomuch as they were the visible result or expression of such morality.26

This subordination of manners to morals was directly related to the increasing tendency in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for middle-class men and women to fancy themselves the much-needed custodians of morality and virtue. Middle-class behavioural literature exuded a sense of urgency about instilling moral virtue and religious principle not evident in courtesy works. Prescriptions for proper conduct attempted to render young, inexperienced men and women capable of both handling the demands of and remaining immune to the dangers of life. Conduct books viewed society, and particularly cosmopolitan, urban society as a perilous environment where people would become spotted and impure—not as a centre for display and sociability where they would be made more refined. Thus writers of conduct books strove to cultivate individuals encrusted with the moral armour necessary to shield them from worldly persuasions and cared less about fashioning people fit to participate comfortably and perform gracefully in society or the ‘World’.

Books on conduct did not deny that well-bred, worldly ladies and gentlemen might be acceptable guides for social behaviour. The books admonished, however, that the safest, most reliable and important authorities on proper behaviour included older relatives, experienced and virtuous friends, and Scripture. Such a view reflected the books' emphasis on the domestic and afterlife as opposed to the social. Many writers stated that their purpose was to make readers objects of esteem and affection in the domestic sphere and to prepare them for the nobler future realm. The domestic circle emerged in these books as a kind of moral refuge from the corrupting influences permeating the larger society—as ‘the nucleus of national morality’.27 Sequestered from the world, family members and trusted friends were to nurture in each other the moral principles and conduct necessary for leading respectable lives. Men and women who neglected domestic life and shirked its duties were severely criticised. In an opening advertisement, one writer of conduct books defended herself against possible censure by stating reassuringly with regard to her writings, ‘They have been composed at intervals, so as not to interfere with maternal and domestic duties.’28 Even in the nineteenth century when women had assumed the formerly male-reserved roles of social leaders and arbiters, conduct books persisted in arguing, ‘The value of accomplishments … must be estimated not by their effect in society, but by the aid which they give to the rational enjoyments of domestic life.’29

More frequently than not, middle-class moralists discussed conduct in terms of its implications for the afterlife. The ultimate goal which determined proper behaviour was salvation or immortal happiness. Success in society and happiness in the transitory state on earth were clearly of less importance. Conduct books repeatedly exhorted readers to court favour more from God than from men and women. Such a goal would ensure that people were vigilant concerning both their internal principles and external manners.

Although courtesy books were firmly rooted in universalism and cosmopolitanism, authors of middle-class conduct books sought, for their works, even more widespread application. They addressed both men and women and did not confine their advice to well-heeled gentlefolk or to any specific group. Nor was their intention to assist social climbers in oozing their way out of inferior stations. Although conduct books were written primarily with the middle class in mind, their goal was to help people become well-behaved, virtuous and happy in whatever rank God had seen fit to place them. Principles and behaviours outlined were considered desirable for every character, circumstance and station in life. One writer assured readers that her hints and principles were ‘available to all classes of society, and applicable to every diversity of circumstance and situation.’30

Conduct books were universal in the sense of being timeless as well. The appropriateness of their prescriptions for behaviour did not fluctuate with the season like that of flounces and fans. An advertisement in The Athenaeum for a female conduct book stated:

The Young Lady's Book claims to be regarded as a perennial,—NOT an annual publication; as a work of permanent interest and utility; NOT the ephemeral trifle of a season; and to be in all respects worthy of a constant place in the boudoir of an English Lady.31

Even if the shelves and boudoirs of every literate family in England had been filled to overflowing with conduct books, we could not be certain to what degree they actually were read or how effective they were in shaping behaviour. Richard Sheridan's Lydia Languish was undoubtedly not the only English young lady to sprinkle opened but not necessarily read copies of Chapone's works and Fordyce's Sermons around her room before settling back to devour one of her much-preferred and well-concealed ‘trashy’ romantic novels.32 It was all too clear to contemporaries that novels were read voraciously from the late eighteenth century on and some middle-class writers attempted to sweeten their moral and religious principle pills by dispensing them via novels rather than conduct books.33 Such fictional counterparts to conduct books were infused with the same moral fervour and were replete with characters embodying virtues and manners that would have garnered praise from Hannah More herself. Hemlow noted that if one extracted Reverend Villars's letters from the novel Evelina, the result would be a typical conduct book.

Although Reverend Villars may have provided the young, socially inexperienced Evelina with the perfect conduct book, the advice was apparently of little use in guiding her through the behavioural intricacies of London ‘Society’.34 Once in the city and swept up in the mad, seasonal whirl of fashionable parties, operas and plays, what she longed for was ‘a book of the laws and customs à-la-mode’.35 The allure of the London Season was never more irresistible than in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and such a book might have eased the mind and manners of many an inexperienced young person exposed to its delights for the first time. George Packwood, nationally renowned razor strop entrepreneur, typified the newly-enriched but socially awkward businessman who dreaded mixing with those of rank and fortune because he envisioned himself an awkward fellow stepping on others' toes while bowing, spilling soup in his lap or ink on a Turkish carpet.36 But for some time, such social novices as Evelina and Packwood had to blunder through routs and ridottos without the aid of ‘how-to’ books. It was not until the 1830s that the rules and customs of fashionable London ‘Society’ were codified and dispensed in a new type of manners literature—the etiquette book.


Although etiquette books did not blossom and become popular until the 1830s, etiquette itself had existed for centuries. The term is derived from the French verb ‘estiquer’ meaning to attach. Initially, its noun form ‘estiquette’ referred to rules and regulations which were attached to castle or palace posts and therefore able to be torn down and altered at whim.37 From the sixteenth to the mid eighteenth century, etiquette meant court or diplomatic ceremonial. When the court's importance as the centre and arbiter of fashion waned in the late eighteenth century, etiquette emerged as the term for the manners of polite society, which in England meant fashionable London ‘Society’. It was in this latter sense of ‘the polite form or manner of doing anything; the ceremonial of good manners’ that the word etiquette appeared in an English dictionary for the first time in 1791.38

Etiquette books did not create but rather codified, in the 1830s, the behavioural rules which, for roughly half a century, had been natural to those accustomed to socialising in fashionable, polite circles. Visiting card rituals such as those detailed in every etiquette book were at least as old as 1788 when a conduct book noted, ‘By a strange innovation and alteration of fashionable etiquette, the card-table occupies the attention of almost every party who pay or receive visits.’39 Twelve years later, P. Boyle published a book of ledger paper for tallying the number of cards received from and delivered to specific fashionable addresses. In Sense and Sensibility (1811) Jane Austen used the term ‘etiquette’ when referring to the proprieties necessary when a man proposed marriage. Lady Holland, an arrogant and imperious arbiter of early-nineteenth-century fashionable ‘Society’, referred in 1833 to a certain breach of etiquette. The Hollands were unable to attend their son's wedding in Florence and to visit his inlaws, the Coventrys, as was the custom. She related to her son, ‘We had the pleasure of a visit from Lady Coventry yesterday, who in the most obliging manner passed over etiquette and came to visit us.’40

Etiquette was not only practised prior to the appearance of etiquette books, but accorded great importance as well. In one foreign observer's opinion, the niceties of behaviour were overly valued in England. While touring the country in 1829 he recorded:

Of all offences against English manners which a man can commit, the three following are the greatest:—to put his knife to his mouth instead of his fork; to take up sugar or asparagus with his fingers; or, above all, to spit anywhere in a room. These are certainly laudable prohibitions, and well-bred people of all countries avoid such practices … the ridiculous thing is the amazing importance which is here attached to them.41

Similarly, English caricaturist James Gillray believed as early as 1804 that English ladies and gentlemen attached an exaggerated importance to rules of etiquette. His caricature entitled ‘Company Shocked at a Lady Getting Up to Ring the Bell’ depicted five ghastly-faced gentleman diners upsetting the chairs, plates and serving pieces as they leapt to prevent their hostess from ringing the servant's bell. The satire referred to the rule which found its way into later etiquette books and stated that under no circumstances was a hostess to ring the bell during dinner. The disarray resulting from the gentlemen's over-reactions indicated that Gillray was poking fun at the seriousness with which English ‘Society’ took etiquette.

Despite the importance of etiquette, the books themselves emerged somewhat haltingly. The first book to appear with ‘etiquette’ in the title was The Fine Gentleman's Etiquette published in 1776.42 This rhythmic rendering of Chesterfield's behavioural advice was more a burlesque than a proper etiquette book. In 1804 Reverend Trusler first published A System of Etiquette which was in many instances a rehashing of his earlier Principles of Politeness and, as Curtin pointed out, ‘an unreliable work’.43 Twenty-four years later James Pitt published Instructions in Etiquette, a book focusing on rules of desirable behaviour for school-age children. Not until William Day's Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society appeared in 1834 did the etiquette book emerge in its proper form and continue to be published regularly. By 1844, when one journal writer said of etiquette that ‘this science … particularly in our own country, so strongly marks the real spirit of the age’, over a dozen etiquette books had been published, many of them in multiple editions.44 For instance, twenty-six editions of Day's Hints on Etiquette appeared between 1834 and 1849 and thirty-three of Etiquette for the Ladies by 1846.

Unlike those who wrote courtesy and conduct books, writers of etiquette books assumed that their readers were rising from the humbler ranks to wealth and higher station. They sometimes wrote with the young and socially uninitiated in mind, but more often for the unprecedented numbers of equally inexperienced but newly-enriched, middle-class adults seeking the manners, dress and external polish suitable for mixing in fashionable ‘Society’. One mid-nineteenth-century writer dedicated his etiquette book to, ‘Those Ladies not having had the good fortune to be born or educated in good Society, yet [who] aspire to be admitted within its circle.’45 But a dedication reaching down to those below middle-class status—no matter how intense their social aspirations—would have been futile. The prices of mid-nineteenth-century etiquette books limited their audience to middle-class social climbers. Such works ranged in price from 6d to over 4s, the former price being an exception. Most volumes cost at least a shilling. Titles such as Etiquette for Gentlemen: With Hints on the Art of Conversation (1841), The Ladies' Pocket Book of Etiquette (1838), and Guide to English Etiquette … for Ladies and Gentlemen (1844) suggest that this form of manners literature, like conduct books, was aimed at both men and women.46

Determining authorship is more problematic for etiquette books than for previous manners literature because, particularly after the mid-nineteenth-century, most of them appeared with anonymous title pages. An aristocratic author guaranteed sales and authenticity, but no member of upper-class, fashionable ‘Society’ could afford the stigma of having his or her name associated with a book so obviously designed to make money. Real and false aristocrats alike who dared to pen etiquette books hid behind such generically aristocratic pen-titles as ‘a Man of the World’, ‘an English Lady of Rank’ or ‘a Member of the Aristocracy’. One so-called ‘Man of the World’ justified his anonymity in a preface to his etiquette book where he stated that anyone moving in good society:

must endeavour to escape sneers of acquaintances who express astonishment that any real lady or gentleman could devote time to so mean a subject. The only way of doing this is by an anonymous title page.47

In fact, the authors of etiquette books were more likely to be dancing masters, artists, stockbrokers, ladies-maids, or parvenus than real ladies and gentlemen of rank and fortune.48

Anonymous title pages were indicative of the more generally impersonal nature of etiquette books. Unlike many courtesy and most conduct books, works on etiquette addressed an impersonal, lucrative market rather than a specific relative or friend. Impoverished as well as pseudoaristocrats teamed up with aggressive publishers to capitalise on the upwardly mobile middle class's craving for information on the minutiae of upper-class life. What they dispensed were hastily, often haphazardly written formula books devoid of individual style, opinion and sentiment, not to mention literary merit. One writer freely admitted about his own etiquette book:

On looking over the pages, it seems ‘a sorry sight,’ and perhaps we have not done it either wisely or too well. The majority of mankind however are ignorant, and generally foolish, but are wisely anxious for instruction, therefore is it, that many books are written, are popular, and sell, and so will it be.49

The publisher's advertisements in an etiquette book sometimes listed four or five other works on etiquette, stipulating that all were of equal size and price. Such standardisation often characterised the information and phraseology inside as well, suggesting that authors felt free to indulge their copying skills. One writer attempted to defend the lack of originality in his book by arguing that any perceptive observer who frequented good ‘Society’ would notice and record the same behaviours. He remarked on the similarity of precepts proffered in other works on etiquette but then maintained defensively, ‘Nothing however has been copied from them in the compilation of this work, the author having drawn entirely from his own resources.’50 His very denial suggests that contemporaries must have believed these writers were freely borrowing from each other.

Judging by the size, contents and purpose of etiquette books, writers must have assumed that their readers would invest as little time reading as they themselves did writing them. Most etiquette books were small pocket-books designed to be quickly digested and then conveniently nestled on one's person as a handy, useful reference. These vade-mecums offered neither a comprehensive picture of a particular social type nor a guide to desirable characteristics and conduct throughout life. They furnished, instead, practical digests of rules and information necessary for avoiding improper, vulgar behaviour. Thus etiquette books consisted of a set of precise prescriptions to be learned concerning what one should and should not do—not whom one should strive to be. The assumption was that good manners resulted not from making a man or woman virtuous, but from teaching him or her a set of proper rules.

Implicit in these books was a conception of manners very different from that expressed in courtesy and conduct books. Etiquette books presumed a greatly diminished scope for manners that included superficial, external forms but not internal moral principles. A writer of an etiquette book on courtship and marriage made the distinction clear by indicating that some of his remarks ‘will be found to belong rather to the department of morals, than of mere etiquette.’51 The laws of ‘mere etiquette’ consisted of conventional rules of behaviour for social and public encounters with acquaintances or strangers. They could regulate the recognised offences against morality and decency such as gaming, duelling or waltzing as readily as they could the respectable activities of visiting and dining. Although considered frivolous and frothy by moralists, these amoral, conventional forms were accorded reverential status by ‘Society’ and etiquette authorities. As H. F. Mellers noted:

Agreeableness of forms is one of the most essential elements of a placid and happy life … does not the true repose and serenity of our days depend more upon a multitude of trivial actions, of hourly recurrence, than on more important events, with which the path of life is but sparingly bestowed?52

Although meagre with respect to intellectual and moral substance, etiquette books were not completely oblivious to moral concerns. Curtin pointed out that the central moral principle underlying etiquette was tact or the capacity for self-sacrifice and a sensitivity to the feelings of others.53 The ultimate moral commandment of etiquette might be expressed as ‘Do Not Offend’. An early etiquette book by Arthur Freeling maintained, ‘One of the most distinguishing marks of a gentleman is an apparent regard to the feelings of others.’54 But note that Freeling believed it important for a gentleman to have an apparent, not necessarily an internally felt, regard. His statement is a typical example of etiquette books' indifference to an individual's internal nature and character. As long as his outward appearance and behaviour did not offend others' sensibilities, a man was regarded as well-mannered regardless of the quality of his internal moral principles. In fact, etiquette books rarely discussed such below-the-surface matters as integrity, modesty, dignity or moral virtue. Whereas conduct books regarded manners as the visible expression of internal moral and religious principles, in etiquette books manners emerged as visible indicators reflecting only one's familiarity with and respect for ‘Society’. Neglecting the behaviours and fashions detailed in etiquette books was not so much an affront to morality and virtue as ‘a direct insult to society’.55

This underlying assumption that society was an entity to be respected reflected etiquette books' positive view of and emphasis on the social as opposed to domestic or spiritual sphere. Private matters concerning domestic life as well as relations between intimate friends fell outside the domain of ‘Society’ and the jurisdiction of etiquette and thus received scant, if any, attention in etiquette books. Etiquette writers' overwhelming concern was to codify and dispense the proprieties requisite for performing comfortably and successfully in social or public settings. They placed no value on sheltering individuals from society or on nurturing moral paragons.

Etiquette books largely ignored the spiritual domain as well. In contrast to conduct books, they were primarily secular in orientation, stressing the importance of happiness here on earth as opposed to eternal happiness. The underlying motive determining proper behaviour according to etiquette authorities was the desire for favour and approval from men and women—not from God. Whenever etiquette books spoke of the consequences of ignoring the proprieties of behaviour, they did so in terms of the effect on one's reputation in the eyes of others rather than on one's internal character and principles. As one writer warned:

Do not imagine these little ceremonies to be insignificant and beneath your attention; they are the customs of society; and if you do not conform to them, you will gain the unenviable distinction of being pointed out as an ignorant, ill-bred person.56

This near-exclusive attention to the social sphere meant that the authorities on proper behaviour deferred to in etiquette books differed from those in conduct books. It was not parents, intimate friends or God, but rather the polished, fashionable aristocratic members of London ‘Society’ who dictated the courtesies of life composing etiquette. Those so-called ‘best people’ who deserted their country estates from January to July for the duties of Parliament and delights of the London Season set styles of behaviour no less authoritatively and fickly than they did those of pelisses or cravats. The customs à-la-mode that Evelina longed to know more about were these whimsical, fickle ones of etiquette established by London's fashionable folk. Etiquette books frequently alluded to the difficulty of pronouncing on the proprieties of dinner parties or visiting hours because such rituals were subject to the ever-varying authority of fashion. Nevertheless, etiquette writers encouraged a respect for fashion with such advice as, ‘A due regard to fashion should be observed, because if you happen to be far behind the march of improvement, you become singular—an appearance we have before recommended you to avoid.’ The fashionable nature of etiquette books suggests that they were less perennial and perhaps less deserving of a constant place on one's shelf than conduct books.57

Etiquette books defied the eighteenth-century penchant for universalism with respect to place and circumstance as well as to time.58 Unlike courtesy and conduct books, these works viewed behaviour as a product more of particular settings and circumstances than of universally suitable internal moral principles or laws of good taste. Chesterfield's definition of good breeding as ‘a mode, not a substance; for what is good-breeding at St James's would pass for foppery or banter in a remote village’ was equally descriptive of etiquette.59 The books themselves came to be organised around specific events and places, such as the drawing-room, dining-room, ballroom, street, ‘at home’ or tea. These settings and activities determined which behaviours were proper and which vulgar. An equally important contingency was the company gathered at a given place or activity, for etiquette presumed proper behaviour depended on people's specific ranks rather than their general humanity. Some books included elaborate tables displaying the order of precedence so as to help prevent faux pas when making introductions or filing into the dining-room.

Etiquette books were not the only or even the first printed peeks at the habits and haunts of fashionable aristocratic life. From the early 1820s to the late 1840s, enterprising publishers—Henry Colburn in particular—flooded the market with best-selling ‘silver fork’ novels catering to the public's insatiable curiosity about mystery-shrouded aristocratic delights and decadence. Writers of these fashionable novels ignored matters of plot and characterisation in an effort to detail the titillating tit-bits and superficial splendours associated with aristocratic balls, gaming, dinners, etiquette, dress, duels, and so forth. Rich manufacturers' sons and daughters, upon reading these novels, would have learned that it was fashionable to go to Gunter's for tea, Howard and Gibbs's for a lona, Stultz for a coat and Calais if in debt. But they certainly would have derived little moral improvement from these etiquette books in novel form. Silver fork novels were devoid of concern for moral principle and internal character and were thus appropriate fictional counterparts to etiquette books. Late-eighteenth-century aristocratic embodiments of moral virtue such as Evelina's suitor, Lord Orville, were replaced by moral libertines or Regency dandy-types like Pelham and Vivian Grey. Whereas courtesy novels focused on fashionable ‘Society’ only to censure its amoral values, the silver fork genre strove to portray it in the most accurate detail without passing moral judgment on its habits or members. Considered in their role as manuals on etiquette, these novels reflected a growing split between manners and morals as clearly as did etiquette books.

As Curtin suggested, silver fork novels certainly helped contemporary publishers to see that there was money to be made in dispensing fashionable manners to middle-class folk. But they shed little light on why, by the 1830s, there was sufficient interest in the proprieties of etiquette to prompt and sustain a new type of manners literature. To understand why the etiquette book emerged in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, historians have turned to certain events and changes in the larger society.

Explanations for the etiquette book's appearance in the early nineteenth century have focused on one or a combination of two factors. First, according to Michael Curtin and Leonore Davidoff, the increase in size and influence of the middle class during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a primary stimulus to etiquette books. A second factor suggested by Curtin was the feminisation of sociability in the Victorian period.60

The etiquette book's emergence in the 1830s was most directly and obviously linked to the increasing economic success and power of its middle-class audience.61 Industrialisation enriched unprecedented numbers of merchants and financiers but also a totally new group of manufacturers who, by the 1820s and 1830s, were aggressively seeking political power and social status commensurate with their economic success. Rich merchant families had traditionally mingled comfortably and intermarried with aristocrats and landed gentry. These new manufacturers, on the other hand, were a bewildering breed most often of humble origins and their precipitous rise to wealth and fortune afforded them the economic but not necessarily the behavioural requisites for mixing in polite social and political circles. One writer confessed to indulging in the entertainments of one such newly enriched, socially vulgar furrier's son but admitted:

I am mighty ashamed of … my Company, to hear their loose and idle conversation, and how none of them could pronounce the letter H, and to think what an unlettered vulgar Fellow Tibbits is, and that I should demean myself to associate with such a Companion only because of his Riches, and Wine, and Dinners.62

Upward social mobility for such novices as Tibbits depended as much on their adopting polite, fashionable manners, dress and speech as on their accumulating wealth and property. Inspired by the success of silver fork novels, publishers capitalised on manufacturers' and others' need for instruction concerning the proprieties of fashionable ‘Society’ by offering etiquette books.

But it was not only writers and publishers who stood to gain by dispensing aristocratic manners to upwardly mobile middle-class folk. As Curtin suggested, upper-class gentlemen themselves recognised after the Reform Act of 1832 that, since the middle class was to have a share in guiding the political life of the nation, to mingle in fashionable drawing-rooms where most political decisions were made, its members needed to be well-versed in the courtesies gracing and regulating polite, fashionable circles. Providing instruction in such behaviours not only would facilitate smooth, harmonious social interactions, but also would perpetuate aristocratic control, values and manners. The English aristocracy believed that the most effective way to control potentially threatening, antagonistic groups was to absorb them, being sure to impose on all newcomers aristocratic standards and manners. The system worked because England's nineteenth-century middle class was fundamentally deferential and wished more to be incorporated into the existing social and political system than to overthrow and replace it with another. There is nothing so deferential as imitation and the popularity of silver fork novels and etiquette books attested to middle-class social climbers' willingness to emulate the manners of their superiors.

Such deference insured that upward mobility of individuals within the social system did not endanger the social structure itself. Nevertheless, the growth in size and prosperity of the middle class and the concomitant blurring of barriers between its richer members and the aristocracy did fuel an intense, exaggerated concern for hierarchy and social stratification. Attempts were made to establish architecturally and artificially the more clearly defined hierarchy which once existed naturally. For instance, London itself became riddled with a labyrinth of hierarchically defined and ordered passageways including—in descending order of rank—squares, places, rows, streets, courts, alleys, and so forth. Furthermore, nineteenth-century English houses assumed a more vertical structure transforming servants into literal lower classes.63 Foreigners were often struck by the English passion for hierarchy. Commenting on the caravan to Ascot, a perceptive French observer recorded:

In England there is a hierarchy in everything, even down to the vehicles on the public roads. Carriages painted with a coat of arms take precedence over all others, middle-class carriages with four horses have precedence over those with only two, the latter over cabriolets and tilburys, hired landaus over coaches, coaches over omnibuses, omnibuses over cabs, and so on and so forth down to the trap, and even it has the right of way over the cart. There you have the secret of all this admirable orderliness. Everyone has his place!64

Etiquette books resulted as much from this obsession with buttressing the social hierarchy and keeping people in their places as from a desire to ease their way into higher stations. They were somewhat ambivalent and paradoxical in that they presumed and facilitated an increasingly mobile society while simultaneously offering such admonishments as, ‘Remember that people are respectable in their own sphere only, and that when they attempt to step out of it they cease to be so.65 Books on etiquette attempted to impart a knowledge of and respect for the existing social order. One writer provided a history of the various gradations in the elite structure and Trusler's early work on etiquette included a precedency table based on a social ladder composed of fifty-nine rungs above that of gentleman. Etiquette itself reinforced the social hierarchy by assuming that the supreme consideration in regulating conduct between people was rank. Hierarchy permeated social observances and human relations regarding such matters as filing into the dining-room, seating arrangements, visits of ceremony, introductions, acquaintances, intimacy and even the seemingly trivial question concerning whether it was proper to pass a decanter on a tray or by hand. Regarding the latter issue one book advised:

As it is necessary that there should be a difference in the manner in which the same thing is performed by servants and their superiors, and as it is improper for the former to give anything with the hand alone, it will be unnecessary for a lady or gentleman to use a tray.66

Etiquette was used to intensify hierarchical distinctions between the aristocracy and middle class as well. Such occurrences between 1780 and 1840 as increases in both the size of the peerage and the number of carriages licensed to display the gentlemanly coat of arms heightened fear among the elite of an encroaching middle class.67 Aristocratic ladies and gentlemen strove to maintain and even augment artificially their sense and position of superiority via exclusive clubs like Almack's (opened in 1765 and popular until the mid 1830s), subtleties of cut and workmanship rather than extremes in fashion, and fine points of etiquette. Whereas etiquette books were designed to facilitate incorporation of outside groups into the elite, etiquette itself was used to keep the aristocracy as well as smaller fashionable circles apart from and more refined than those they considered beneath them in the social scale.68 Adhering to the minutiae of etiquette was natural for those accustomed to polite society, so a breach of the proprieties provided instant evidence that the offender was an outsider to be ostracised. To keep this defensive weeder—etiquette—effective, the fashionable elite continually changed the rules and invented new distinctions. When the ‘civic classes’ adopted an early dinner hour, for example, they drove their fashionable superiors to change the accepted time for dining ‘from five o'clock to eight or nine … for as the possibility of a patrician eating any repast at the same hour as a plebeian, it is a degradation which none but a radical would dream of.’69 Similarly, as the middle classes and provincial folk began to use forks in the nineteenth century, the more fashionable elites adopted a new ritual of keeping the fork in the left hand.70

This mania for distancing and excluding one group from another was most evident in the coalescence of ‘Society’ in the early nineteenth century. The OED indicates that ‘Society’ designated ‘an aggregate of leisured, cultured or fashionable persons regarded as forming a distinct class or body’.71 By the time the term appeared in print for the first time in 1823, it referred unambiguously to London's aristocratic, fashionable elite and their increasingly formalised and exclusive social life. It was this elite to which the nation deferred for dictates regarding what to wear and how to behave in social settings. ‘Society’ reflected the growing importance of London as a focal point for consumerism and social activities but also the aristocracy's attempt to reinforce its solidarity via social exclusiveness. Aristocratic social arbiters rendered fashionable circles distinct and impervious to undesirable newcomers by formalising and codifying proper behaviour according to rigid rules of etiquette and by transferring the locus of sociability from public arenas to exclusive clubs like Almack's and, more importantly, to the private home.

As etiquette emerged as the behavioural code regulating ‘Society’, so the private drawing-room became the hallowed place where its activities were staged and enjoyed. The drawing-room was a formal room where convention and the social graces reigned over manners, conversation, dress and furnishings. Like the middle-class home, it was a refuge from the more discordant outer world, but a social not a moral refuge. To this social haven men and women retreated for regular respites from the tension, rivalry and bustle of the larger society. When visiting or mingling in this social sanctum people were, above all else, to put themselves and others at ease and to avoid contentious conversation. As one mid-nineteenth-century etiquette book suggested, ‘The object of the drawing room is essentially that of repose and degagée.72 An equally important object was that of insuring that the company attending a social function was appropriately selective. Such selectivity would both hold at bay the unprecedented numbers of aspiring socialites flocking to the capital for the pleasures of the London Season and limit the marriage market among aristocratic children, providing parents with a means of influencing, since they no longer arranged, their children's marriages. Maintaining the sieve between the drawing-room and the outside world became the right and duty of women—the newly designated arbiters of ‘Society’ and the drawing-room.

According to Curtin, women's increasing opportunities and rise to prominence in the social sphere during the nineteenth century were important in determining the rules and underlying assumptions of etiquette and in prompting the appearance of etiquette books. As the venue for sociability retreated to the confines and protection of the private home, socialising became acceptable and desirable for women. They reigned over the drawing-room no less imperiously than over the larger domestic realm. Concerning West End social circles, one writer commented, ‘In these coteries, the Ladies rule en petit comité and with a sway … that would make a giant tremble.’73 Their sway was not trivial, either, as a woman's skill as a hostess greatly influenced her husband's career and status. Furthermore, success and acceptance in ‘Society’ for a man was a stepping-stone to the more worldly political realm and such acceptance was granted or denied by female arbiters. When offering advice on how to succeed in life, Pelham's mother warned her ambitious son, ‘Never talk much to young men—remember that it is the women who make a reputation in society.’74

But though they made reputations and engineered strategic social connections, women did not actually participate in society or the ‘World’. This fact, in Curtin's view, was largely responsible for the nature and assumptions of etiquette. Etiquette books focused more on the manners of the drawing-room than on those of the larger society. The social activities discussed such as teas, calls, and ‘at-homes’ were domestic ones enjoyed primarily by women. A major concern of the etiquette surrounding visiting cards, introductions and greetings was the shielding of individuals, whether on streets or in drawing-rooms, from intrusions from strangers or undesirable acquaintances. Although both men and women were exhorted to respect and adhere to the etiquette of privacy, such etiquette was, according to Curtin, more important for women whose moral reputation was more easily compromised. Even the moral content of etiquette books betrayed this feminine, unworldly bias. Curtin argued that the moral underpinnings of etiquette—tact, self-sacrifice and kindness—were virtues more easily cultivated and displayed in the private drawing-rooms of leisured ladies than in the competitive, ruthless public world of selfseeking, career-minded gentlemen.

Yet given the etiquette book's continuing popularity from the 1830s to the present, it is questionable whether etiquette was as irrelevant to the larger competitive society as Curtin's thesis implies. Curtin himself admitted:

Tact, consideration, and kindness are not to be despised. They are indispensable to all forms of decency and civility, and societies are much more likely to lament their death than their abundance. A civic culture requires that individuals, while pursuing their own projects, also acknowledge their respect and regard for others and their projects. Tact and good … manners are the usual means by which we make this acknowledgement. In other words, we may choose to be tactful because of our recognition of our inter-dependency in civil society.75

That the etiquette book has been the literary vehicle of choice for dispensing manners since the 1830s suggests that the behaviours and assumptions it codified were and remain peculiarly applicable and relevant to industrial civil society as a whole—not just to its more fashionable, exclusive microcosm. Such a suggestion, however, raises the most perplexing and significant question posed by etiquette books' appearance and immediate success. How was it that a form of behavioural literature which divorced manners from morals arose and achieved popularity at the very time when English society was experiencing one of the most intense moral rehabilitations that it had ever known? Could an amoral, irreligious behavioural code possibly have been compatible with a society experiencing unprecedented religious and moral enthusiasm?

To answer these questions, we must first explore the nature of the moral revolution, at least with respect to manners and behaviour. Middle-class conduct books reveal the essence of this revolution. That is, they detail both the precise influences moralists found threatening to moral and social order in the early industrial period, as well as the behavioural solutions moralists proposed for counteracting them. The following analysis of conduct book writers' fears and behavioural prescriptions sheds light on changes transforming English society in this period. Furthermore, it provides the necessary context for a more comprehensive understanding of the rise and success of etiquette books-an understanding more revealing about England's industrialising society than about London's fashionable ‘Society’.


  1. J. E. Mason, Gentlefolk in the Making 1531-1774 (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1935).

  2. F. Whigham, Ambition and Privilege (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); M. Curtin, Propriety and Position: A Study of Victorian Manners (New York: Garland Publishing, 1987); and Curtin, ‘A Question of Manners: Status and Gender in Etiquette and Courtesy’, Journal of Modern History, LVII (September 1985) 395-423.

  3. J. Hemlow, ‘Fanny Burney and the Courtesy Books’, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, LXV (1950) 732-61; and N. Armstrong, ‘The Rise of the Domestic Woman’, in N. Armstrong and L. Tennenhouse (eds), The Ideology of Conduct (New York: Methuen, 1987) pp. 96-141.

  4. S. C. Woolsey (ed.), The Diary and Letters of Frances Burney, Madame D'Arblay, vol. I (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1880) p. 45.

  5. In addition to Mason's, Whigham's and Curtin's works on courtesy literature, see the following studies for discussions of gentlemanly values and education as reflected in courtesy books: S. Rothblatt, Tradition and Change in English Liberal Education and G. Brauer, The Education of a Gentleman (New York: Bookman Associates, 1959).

    Although the courtesy book is considered a mainly masculine literary form, there were, according to Curtin, a scattering of such works written for women throughout the period. D. Bornstein, The Lady in the Tower: Medieval Courtesy Literature for Women (Hamden, CT: The Shoe String Press, 1983) recognises the existence of medieval and Renaissance courtesy literature for women, noting that all of it was written by men, excepting works by Christine de Pizan. See also Armstrong and Tennenhouse (eds), The Ideology of Conduct for studies of behavioural literature for women.

  6. J. C. Collins, ‘Lord Chesterfield's Letters’, in Essays and Studies (London: Macmillan, 1895) p. 230.

  7. An exception was the literature written for courtiers during the period 1540-1640—a period characterised, according to Whigham, by a surge of upward mobility into the elite. See Whigham, Ambition and Privilege.

  8. P. Gay, ‘The Spectator as Actor’, Encounter, XXIX (December 1967) 29.

  9. Concerning the eighteenth-century vogue of cosmopolitanism or universalism and its reflection in courtesy literature and notions of good breeding, see G. Brauer, ‘Good Breeding in the Eighteenth Century’, University of Texas Studies in English, XXXII (1953) 25-44. See also H. Aarsleff, The Study of Language in England, 1780-1860 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1967) for a discussion of the eighteenth-century bias in favour of universal laws and its persistent influence on the study of language up until the 1830s.

  10. Curtin, ‘A Question of Manners’, p. 403. S. Rothblatt also stated: ‘The courtesy book lasted in England until 1780, after which it disappeared, or rather, changed into the etiquette book, less universal in tone and more specifically designed for a small coterie of “best people”’ (see Rothblatt, Tradition and Change, p. 60).

  11. The first book to appear with etiquette in the title was The Fine Gentleman's Etiquette (1776), a rhythmic rendition of Lord Chesterfield's maxims. E. Aresty noted, ‘No one was better qualified than Chesterfield to escort etiquette into the English language, and its general spirit into manners’ (see E. Aresty, The Best Behavior (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970) p. 143).

  12. C. J. Rawson, ‘Gentlemen and Dancing-Masters: Thoughts on Fielding, Chesterfield and the Genteel’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, I (December 1967) 139.

  13. Chesterfield, fourth Earl of, Letters to His Son, vol. 1 (London: M. W. Dunne, 1901) p. 76. Chesterfield apologists including J. C. Collins and R. Coxon have argued that the absence of a moral dimension in the Letters should not be seen as a commentary on Chesterfield's actual character. It should be viewed, instead, as a reflection of the very practical purpose underlying the advice. See Collins, ‘Lord Chesterfield's Letters’, in Essays and Studies and R. Coxon, Chesterfield and His Critics (London: Routledge, 1925).

  14. Reverend J. Trusler, Principles of Politeness, 4th ed. (London: J. Bell, 1775) and Reverend J. Trusler, A System of Etiquette, 2nd ed. (Bath: M. Gye, 1805) p. 23.

  15. Brief Remarks on English Manners (London: printed for J. Booth, 1816) p. i.

  16. Curtin, ‘A Question of Manners’, p. 407.

  17. J. Austen, Mansfield Park (London: MacDonald, 1957; first pub. 1814) p. 88.

  18. J. M. S. Tompkins, The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961; first pub. 1932) p. 70.

  19. Throughout this study, I shall refer to all late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century middle-class works on manners which emphasise the moral implications of manners and behaviour as ‘conduct books’, though some were written in the form of letters of advice.

  20. Letters from Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, to Mrs. Montagu, 1755-1800, vol. II (London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 1817) pp. 245-6.

  21. On the rise and influence of Evangelicalism, see D. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989); I. Bradley, The Call to Seriousness; F. K. Brown, Fathers of the Victorians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961); and D. Rosman, Evangelicals and Culture (London: Croom Helm, 1984).

  22. Conduct books reveal that the terms ‘class’, ‘classes’, ‘rank’, and ‘ranks’ were used interchangeably, even in the late eighteenth century. Writers of both conduct and etiquette books clearly conceived of their society as being three-tiered. Whether using ‘class’ or ‘rank’, they categorised social groups as upper, middle and lower.

    Although the use of the terms ‘class’ and ‘classes’ became more common in the nineteenth century, it did not replace more traditional social designations such as ‘ranks’. A mid-nineteenth-century etiquette book noted, ‘A journey to the lakes or to some one of the various fashionable watering places is often chosen by those who are placed in the middle ranks of society.’ The same work revealed, ‘The tea-table is the common rendevous of the middle classes of society’ (see Etiquette of Love, Courtship and Marriage (Halifax: Milner & Sowerby, 1859) pp. 109 and 140).

  23. See Chapter 1, note 3. In view of the distinction noted above between the conception of manners in courtesy and conduct books, the works for women which Hemlow discussed fall into the category of conduct books, though she terms them ‘courtesy books’.

  24. J. Cole (ed.), Memoirs of Mrs. Chapone (London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1839) p. 40; T. Gisborne, An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, 8th ed. (London: Cadell and Davies, 1810) advertisement section; and Etiquette for Gentlemen: With Hints on the Art of Conversation, 13th ed. (London: Tilt and Bogue, 1841), advertisement section for Tilt's Miniature Classics appearing at the end of the book. On the subject of workers' wages in relation to book prices see R. Altick, The English Common Reader (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957) pp. 51 and 275-6.

  25. W. Cobbett, Advice to Young Men, and Incidentally to Young Women, in the Middle and Higher Ranks of Life (London: A. Cobbett, 1837) pp. 2 and 119.

  26. Hemlow, ‘Fanny Burney and the Courtesy Books’, p. 733.

  27. W. Roberts, The Portraiture of a Christian Gentleman (London: J. A. Hessey, 1829) p. 63.

  28. Mrs J. Sandford, Female Improvement, vol. I (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman, 1836) advertisement.

  29. The English Gentlewoman (London: Colburn, 1845) p. 20.

  30. S. Ellis, Prevention Better than Cure (London: Fisher, 1847) p. 306.

  31. The Athenaeum (1830) p. 815.

  32. R. B. Sheridan, The Rivals in J. Bettenbender (ed.), Three English Comedies (New York: Dell, 1966; first pub. 1775) pp. 124-5.

  33. See Hemlow, ‘Fanny Burney and the Courtesy Books’.

  34. ‘Society’ here refers specifically to the London-based, fashionable, upperclass Society as opposed to the larger society. The concept and term will be discussed more fully at the end of Chapter 1.

  35. Burney, Evelina, p. 72.

  36. See the letter to the editor in G. Packwood's Packwood's Whim (London: sold by the author, 1796).

  37. Aresty, The Best Behavior, p. 13.

  38. The term is not in either the 1755 or 1785 edition of Johnson's Dictionary but it did appear in J. Walker's A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (London: T. Cadell, 1791). After the definition Walker noted, ‘This word crept into use some years after Johnson wrote his Dictionary, nor have I found it in any other I have consulted. I have ventured, however, to insert it here, as it seems to be established; and as it is more specific than ceremonial, it is certainly of use.’

  39. Mrs E. Bonhote, The Parental Monitor, vol. I (London: W. Lane, 1788) p. 117.

  40. Ilchester, Earl of (ed.), Elizabeth, Lady Holland to Her Son, 1821-1845 (London: J. Murray, 1946) p. 141.

  41. Puckler-Muskau, Tour in England, Ireland, and France, 1828-1829, vol. III (London: E. Wilson, 1832) p. 108.

  42. A computer search of the Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue of all works printed in English between 1700 and 1800 showed this title to be the only one containing the word ‘etiquette’.

  43. Reverend J. Trusler, A System of Etiquette (Bath: W. Meyler, 1804) and Curtin, ‘A Question of Manners’, p. 411.

  44. Captain O. Sabertash, ‘The Sliding Scale of Manners’, Fraser's Magazine, XXIX (1844) p. 586.

  45. Etiquette for Ladies: Or, the Principles of True Politeness (Halifax: Milner and Sowerby, 1852) dedication.

  46. Although women's authority and opportunities to participate in ‘Society’ increased dramatically in the nineteenth century, Curtin's view of etiquette books as a primarily feminine literary form must be qualified. A survey of thirty different etiquette books published between 1804 and 1881 showed that five were aimed specifically at gentlemen, six at ladies, three at gentlemen and ladies and the rest at no specific audience. Of the fourteen books for which the authors' sex was evident by the actual name or generic pen-title, twelve were written by men and two by women. Furthermore, the male author (G. W. M. Reynolds) of ‘Etiquette for the Millions’, a seventeen part series appearing in The London Journal (1845), directed nine-tenths of his advice to men. I would like to thank Michael Shirley for making me aware of Reynolds's writings on etiquette.

  47. Court Etiquette (London: C. Mitchell, 1849) preface.

  48. Thus, one etiquette book noted, ‘To write a treatise on etiquette is to be condemned everlastingly to the region of tailors, ladies-maids, and parvenus.’ See Court Etiquette (London, 1849) p. 10. See also A. Hayward, ‘Codes of Manners and Etiquette’, Quarterly Review, LIX (October 1837) 396 and Curtin, Propriety and Position, 46-52.

  49. Etiquette for All (Glasgow: G. Watson, 1861) p. 64.

  50. Etiquette for Gentlemen, 13th ed., preface.

  51. Etiquette of Courtship and Marriage (London: D. Bogue, 1844) p. v.

  52. H. F. Mellers, Hints for the Improvement of the Manners and Appearance of Both Sexes; With Details of the Etiquette of Polished Society (London: Dean and Munday, n. d.) p. 12.

  53. See Curtin, Propriety and Position, pp. 172-93 and ‘A Question of Manners’.

  54. A. Freeling, The Pocket Book of Etiquette (Liverpool: H. Lacey, 1837) p. 21.

  55. Ibid., p. 16.

  56. W. Day, Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, 7th ed. (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman, 1836) p. 19.

  57. G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘Etiquette for the Millions’, The London Journal (1845) 184. Although etiquette was subject to the vagaries of fashion and the books themselves usually appeared in multiple editions, comparisons between editions of early etiquette books in particular often indicate few changes in substance.

  58. This increasing emphasis in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries on particular circumstances as opposed to universal laws was evident in the rise of the novel and the discipline of philology as well. See I. Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960) and Aarsleff, The Study of Language.

  59. Gentleman's Magazine, XXV (1755) 492.

  60. The following discussion of these two factors is based on Curtin, ‘A Question of Manners’ and L. Davidoff, The Best Circles (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1973).

  61. On the increasing size, power and self-consciousness of the middle class in the early industrial period see, in particular, Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, 1987.

  62. R. Doyle, Manners and Customs of ye Englyshe, vol. II (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1849), ‘A Partie of Sportsmen Ovt a Shvtynge’.

  63. See A. Parreaux, Daily Life in England in the Reign of George III (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1969) p. 99, for comments on London's hierarchical layout. Concerning residential architecture see J. Laver, ‘Homes and Habits’, in E. Barker (ed.), The Character of England (London: Oxford University Press, 1947) pp. 462-80.

  64. Flora Tristan's London Journal, trans. D. Palmer and G. Princetl (London: G. Prior, 1980; first pub. 1840) p. 151.

  65. Day, Hints on Etiquette, 7th ed., p. 55.

  66. J. Butcher, Instructions in Etiquette, 3rd ed. (London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1847) p. 40.

  67. J. V. Beckett notes that the peerage, whose size had remained roughly unchanged from 1720 to 1780, gained 166 members between 1780 and 1832. Concerning arms-bearing carriages, he reveals that their number grew from 14000 in 1812 to 24000 in 1841. Beckett, The Aristocracy in England, pp. 30 and 35.

    For a discussion of the landed elite's defensive reaction in the late eighteenth century to newly enriched gentry and businessmen, see Mandler, Aristocratic Government in the Age of Reform, 1830-1852 and G. Newman, The Rise of English Nationalism 1740-1830 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987) pp. 21-48.

  68. For a discussion of etiquette as a distancing mechanism at court, see N. Elias, The Court Society, trans. E. Jephcott (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983; first pub. 1969).

  69. H. Smith, ‘How to be a Gentleman’, New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, XI (November 1824) 465.

  70. Aresty, The Best Behavior, p. 175.

  71. Definition quoted in Davidoff, The Best Circles, p. 103, n. 5. Davidoff indicated that this definition did not emerge until the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

  72. A. E. Douglas, The Etiquette of Fashionable Life (London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1849) p. 24.

  73. ‘The Book of Gentility’, in Miscellanies 1832-1836 (London: W. Kidd) p. 18.

  74. Sir E. Bulwer-Lytton, Pelham (Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1842; first pub. 1826) p. 14.

  75. Curtin, ‘A Question of Manners’, p. 422. Emphasis is in the original.


Representative Works


Criticism: Prescriptive Ideology In Other Literary Forms