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Conduct Books in the 18th Century

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Conduct Books in the 18th Century

Throughout history, conduct books have played an integral part in defining what cultures believed were acceptable and desirable behaviors, as well as representing the ideal person. In the introduction to The Ideology of Conduct, Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse attempt to show how literature and conduct books have been important in relaying these messages and shaping a history of sexuality through the ages. They also point out the interesting fact that these books of conduct have been aimed more at women and far "surpassed in quantity and variety" (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 4) similar types of literature for men. Some of the examples they list of types of conduct literature include pamphlets on marriage, books on manners and morality, and devotional manuals designated for women of the aristocracy.

Even in our culture today this type of literature exists in the forms of advertisements, fashion magazines, and exercise books. Again, much of this type of literature is directed at women more than men, which these editors explain as an attempt to specify "what a woman should desire to be if she wishes to attract a socially approved male and keep him happy" (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 5). This makes sense because even today our society is patriarchal, constructed so that women many times have to count on financial support from a man. However, the introduction points out the irony of this, since not only is the desirable woman being defined, but also what a man should find desirable in a woman is defined. also note that this is not necessarily a contradiction, since "the gendered world of information we inhabit today reproduces and maintains the dominant view (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 5).

Conduct books in the eighteenth century represent a significant shift in the literature away from the aristocratic ideal of behavior towards "a creature of feelings that naturally incline[s] to household management and caring for the sick, needy, and young" (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 11). This ultimately changed the direction of the literature and for the first time represented the middle class. The editors point out Defoe's argument against this shift in his own writings, which insisted that women were worse off since "women cannot afford to distinguish money from love and are therefore forced to marry on terms that--according to the sentimental tradition--resemble prostitution" (Armstrong and Tennenhouse ll). In other words, if women truly ascribed to the new ideal "woman of feeling" and lived by this standard, they would sacrifice finding a dependable husband, but if they married for money they were considered a prostitute by this same code of conduct. Mary Wollstonecraft also argued against the prevailing "sentimental" mode of conduct of the time, stating "woman's condition had worsened with the division of labor into gendered spheres that...educate women to become objects of male desire" (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 12-13). By the end of the century novelists such as Jane Austen were dissenting from this standard of conduct, opposing "the domestic woman to women of title and wealth" (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 14).

The inspiration for all of these authors' dissenting views away from the sentimental standards of the time becomes clear once any of sentimental conduct books is examined. In A Father's Legacy to His Daughters, Dr. John Gregory, a well know physician and philosopher, presents these beliefs for his daughters to live by. He presupposes that "Nature" has made woman with certain characteristics, and attempts to refine these delicate and sensible attributes in his own daughters. He states, "I do not want to make you anything: I want to know what Nature has made you" (Gregory 55). This presupposition has of course, changed with the shift in what is considered desirable. However, for half a century this text was among the most popular and influential treatises on education for young women (Gregory 5). Again, this text attempts to point out "those virtues and accomplishments which render [woman] most respectable and most amiable in the eyes" (Gregory 8) of men. He separates the text into sections on religion, conduct and behavior, amusement, and friendship, love, and marriage. On religion, he says it is a great asset to woman, not only because women are by nature sentimental and not reasonable, which is what religion requires, but also because a religious woman is most desirable to a man. He claims that "Every man who knows human nature, connects a religious taste in your sex with softness and sensibility of heart" (Gregory 22).

Some of the advice he passes on in terms of conduct and behavior includes not eating in public, as "in your sex it is beyond expression indelicate and disgusting" (Gregory 39), being silent in company, since the expression on a woman's face is enough to inform others of her intellect, as well as keeping any education "a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of...cultivated understanding" (Gregory 31-32). He also "wit is the most dangerous talent" (Gregory 30) a woman can possess, and that humor will never gain a woman any respect. Also, blushing is the "most powerful charm of beauty" (Gregory 26) and "the usual companion of innocence" (Gregory 27). It is clearly unappealing for a woman to act like a man at any time, and inconceivable besides, since "virgin purity is of that delicate nature, that it cannot hear certain things without contamination" (Gregory 35). Being in the company of men, then, is certain to de-virginalize a delicate and pure woman.

For amusement, women were expected to exercise, since it maintains health, and therefore beauty, but it was also important not to talk about how healthy you were since men would rather "think of your female softness and delicacy with a correspondent delicacy of constitution" (Gregory 50).

Of course, Gregory includes a long section of rules about marriage, including such things as "never tell a man the full extent of your love for him" (Gregory 88), "don't marry a fool" (Gregory 124), since then neither husband or wife will have reason, and only marry upon the "proper motives of esteem and affection" (Gregory 108) rather than out of sudden passion. However, Gregory asserts that even with these proper motives, it is wise to always investigate the character and background of the man who interests you.

I found this literature offensive in many ways, especially since Gregory assumes women are naturally inclined to sentimentality, but still feels a need to explain to his daughters how to be this way. However, he also seems to be instructing his daughters on how to become objects of desire for men without falling prey to their designs through his of reason and logic in their decisions. In other words, he seems to be teaching them how to appear sensible and delicate while also subscribing to reason and logic to ward of disaster. And, although I am critical of much of what he has to say, it is hard for me to be so critical when I actually consider the conduct books prevalent in our own culture today. For example, in a currently popular fashion magazine, "Cosmopolitan," women learn how to be more desirable for men in terms of today's standards. The focus seems to be on independence as well as sexual attractiveness, and although these qualities are quite different from those of the eighteenth century, they are still just as offensive. Just a few of the headings and articles give a clear idea of the messages being sent to women today: "Are you going too far to snag a man?" or "Bikini Body Bummers: Stretch Marks, Bikini Stubble, Flab, Back Acne--You name it, we help you banish it" and even "Cosmo's 10 Commandments" which include, among other things, "ditch the bitchy mood, fall for a nice guy, send thank you notes, keep underwear under cover, and never lose your cool." Even today conduct books remain an integral part of a culture's beliefs and ideals, documenting "a history of sexuality" (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 19) through time.

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