Women's Conduct Books in England's Long Eighteenth Century


Women's conduct books in English have existed since at least the Medieval period, but most research focuses on what is termed the "long eighteenth century," which encompasses all of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century in England and parts of the U.K. Women's conduct books, also referred to as conduct literature, enumerates what one should and should not do to become a good and virtuous person (Marks, 4). Of course, such directives rely upon specific cultural ideologies situated within a time period. However, some underlying values of conduct books remained the same for hundreds of years, a prominent example being religious devotion. As scholar Barbara Welter summarizes, by the Nineteenth century, conduct book authors had adopted for the genre "four cardinal virtues-piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity" (Welter, 21).


The conduct book genre was originally intended for upper-class women alone. In the Medieval and Early Modern periods, only upper-class women were educated, if at all; and therefore were the primary audience for this literature. Scholarship such as Ingrid Tague analyzes the texts for further evidence of intended class readership. By the nineteenth century, readership-and authorship- expanded to the burgeoning middle class and beyond (Hikok, 12).

Conduct Book Boom

To explain the sudden increase in conduct book publication, scholars have looked to economics, culture, and social changes to suggest that the conduct book was a means of enforcing stability in one area of life during a period of rapid development and change. One event with widespread impact on British life was the French Revolution. Though the fighting remained on the Continent, the ideas upheld by the French Revolution threatened the stability of political thought and social structure in England.

Conduct books were in many ways the practical answer to the upper-class English fears which resulted from the ideals of the revolution (Morrison, 205). These books reinforced conservative social structure "... as confirmations of a stable order and as adhering to the conservative status quo" (Morrison 205). Short, politically conservative stories were circulated among the poor, such as Hannah More's "Cheap Repository Tracks" (Mather). Other scholars have argued the new emergence of the rising middle class is most responsible for the boom in conduct literature as well as other impacts on British society (For example, Tague, Hughes, Pocock).

Secondary Resources

Representations of Women: Nineteenth-Century British Women's Poetry: by Kathleen Hikok While this book focuses on poetry, it nevertheless gives background on contemporary culture and further views on women.

The Impact of the French Revolution in Britain: by Ruth Mather Gives a good overview as well as resources, primary and secondary, for further research on this topic.

Clarissa as Conduct Book: by Sylvia Kasey Marks. Argues that novels functioned as conduct books by analyzing the values enforced.

Domestic Ideals and Devotional Authority in 'The Book of Margery Kempe: by Hwanhee Park The Book of Margery Kempe, is considered one of the oldest conduct books for women, from the Medieval period. Park analyzes it in terms of the conduct genre.

Love, Honor, and Obedience: Fashionable Women and the Discourse of Marriage in the Early Eighteenth Century: by Ingrid H. Tague. Tague looks at conduct literature as well as other contemporary material to argue that the proliferation of so-called mercenary marriages contributed to the ferver of conduct book production.

Primary Sources

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790): by Edmund Burke. Burke's famous response the the French Revolution imparts many cultural ideas which likewise informed conduct literature.

Letters for Literary Ladies (1795): by Maria Edgeworth, argues for women's education and literacy and is often referenced by conduct book authors and scholars of conduct literature.

The Book of Margery Kempe (1501) Digitized Manuscript: by Margery Kempe, a copy of Kempe's original text.

The Book of Margery Kempe Text: Digital Text by University of Rochester, a textual copy of the original.

Cheap Repository Tracks (1797): by Hannah More. This is one of the surviving conduct books circulated among the poor to promote conservatism, Christian values, and hard work in response to the French Revolution's ideals.

Mentoria, Or the Young Ladies Instructor (1785): by Ann Murry, also available for viewing at UCLA Library's Special Collections. Mentoria is one example of the quintessential conduct book, and was extremely popular in its day, being reprinted for almost 100 years.

Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke's Attack on the French Revolution (1791): by Thomas Paine. Pain responds to Burke's rebuke of the French Revolution in a seminal text of political philosophy.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792): by Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft draws on Paine's arguments for this manifesto, which is often referenced in conduct literature. Conduct literature condemned Wollstonecraft and her ideas.

Further Reading on Conduct Literature
Good Looks to Good Thoughts: Popular Women's History and the Invention of Modernity, ca. 1830-1870: Miriam Elizabeth Burstein, Discusses how historical texts about women in eighteenth century also presented moralized views of contemporary femininity.

Nineteenth-Century Women Learn to Write: Catherine Hobbs, includes essays on women's education, literacy, and nineteenth-century ideology.

Virtuous Necessity: Conduct Literature and the Making of the Virtuous Woman in Early Modern England : Jessica C. Murphy, investigates the conduct book pre-Eighteenth Century.

WorldCat subject search "Conduct of life Early works to 1900." : This is based on the Library of Congress Subject Heading "conduct of life" which refers to conduct literature and can be used to search many collections including the Library of Congress itself.

Scholarship on the Conduct Novel

Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel: by Nancy Armstrong, As mentioned above, politics played a large role in the development of the conduct book as well as the conduct novel.

Unbecoming Women: British Women Writers and the Novel of Development: Susan Fraiman, This work looks at novels of development as well as the ideology which informs the definition of the character development.

Ideologies and 'The Mysteries of Udolpho': by Mary Poovey, includes discussion of the conduct novel generally as well as exploration of eighteenth-century ideology.

Eighteenth-Century British Culture

The British Library's Georgian Britain Collection: Includes a collection of articles and primary sources on the long Eighteenth Century.

The Ideology of Conduct: by Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, explores in-depth the social and cultural ideology behind the conduct book.

The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain: by G.J. Barker-Benfield, explores the most influential ideology in the Eighteenth Century, sensibility.

The Middle Classes: Etiquette and Upward Mobility: by Kathryn Hughes, succinctly explores the middle class in the long eighteenth century.

Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity: by Vivien Jones

Virtue, Commerce, and History: by J.G.A. Pocock, explores the link between culture and economics specifically.