18th century Conduct Literature

For a female writer in 18th century Britain, the path to literary publication was marred by deep prejudice and obstacle; for a woman to publish was to go against what society expected of her. Conduct literature was one of the primary ways in which images of femininity were constructed and circulated. Many examples of conduct literature are housed in the John J. Burns Library, two examples being Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778) and Hester Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773).[1]

In 18th century Britain, people believed that men and women were innately different: men ruled and women nurtured the rulers. The primary image of “woman” was that of the “guardian of domestic happiness,” maintaining the household and creating a good life from her husband’s earnings. A woman’s most powerful asset was her social capital, which was inextricably linked with her honour, virtue, and reputation.[1] This simple idea provided a staunch obstacle to women publishing. Conduct literature called for women to be virtuous, modest, reticent, and, above all, not to be talked about, let alone published.[2] For a woman to publish her literary work was to risk being seen as immodest and almost monstrous by the conventional notions of the period.[3] Yet between 1750 and 1800, the number of published females doubled each decade. In this era, women’s greatest literary contributions were to the epistolary form, especially the novel.[4]

In the literary market, letters were valued for their authenticity and natural qualities, and there existed a strong belief in a female affinity for this specific kind of epistolary writing.[5] Women were believed to have a natural skill for the letter form because they were not hemmed in by the restrictions of formal education. Reading and writing novels were thought to be beneath the abilities of men, and the novel eventually became seen as a feminine genre. The epistolary conduct novel became popular, and a female archetype began to emerge in these works. An idealized model of femininity would be embodied in naturally intelligent, virtuous, and sensitive heroine, who, like the female reader, was finding her way in the world and discovering what it meant to be a woman.[6] This archetype is identifiable in Burney’s protagonist, Evelina.

Looking at the Burns copies of Evelina and Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, it becomes immediately evident that the books in their current condition reveal much concerning their use and popularity. Both books are in a poor state. In each copy, the binding is compromised and the thin paper has become patchy and oily with the passage of time. The books appear to have been printed and bound in haste, with little concern for individual quality. This is consistent with what we would expect of a work that was commercially popular, as there would have been a demand for rapid and large scale production. Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind was very influential and saw at least 16 separate editions printed in the last 25 years of the 18th century.[7] The weathered condition of the Burns copy is testament to this popularity. It is also of interest to note that while each text was written by an English author and originally published in London, both the Burns copies were printed and published in Massachusetts.

Frances Burney and Hester Chapone took a risk when they published their works, as doing so did not fit expectations of the ideal reticent, retiring woman. As authors, women drew the short straw in the 18th century. Yet authors such as Frances Burney and Hester Chapone, while perhaps not planting it, nor seeing it grow to its full potential, very much fertilized the seed of female literary accomplishment and helped expand the possibilities that women could make for themselves in the world.

  • Beth Burns Dans, Student in Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2016 Early Printed Books: History and Craft

Works Consulted:

[1] Michelle Dowd and Julie Eckerlie, eds., Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), 169.

[2] Elizabeth C. Goldsmith, ed., Writing the Female Voice: Essays on Epistolary Literature (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989), vii.

[3] Dowd and Eckerlie, eds., Genre and Women’s Life Writing, 171; and Gina Campbell, “How to Read Like a Gentleman: Burney’s Instructions to her Critics in Evelina,” ELH 57 (1990): 559.

[4] Elizabeth Johnston, “Deadly Snares: Female Rivalry, Gender Ideology, and Eighteenth-Century Women Writers,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 47 (2014): 5.

[5] Ibid, 46-47.

[6] Johnston, “Gender Ideology,” 3.

[7] Kathryn Sutherland, “Review of Conduct Literature for Women, by Pam Morris,” Keats-Shelley Journal 56 (2007): 228.

[1] Frances Burney, Evelina: Or The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (London: T. Lowndes, 1778), and Hester Chapone, Letters on the Improvement of the Mind Addressed to a Young Lady (London: publisher, 1773).

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

Located in the original Bapst Library building on Boston College's Chestnut Hill campus, the John J. Burns Library offers students, scholars, and the general public opportunities to engage with rare books, special collections, and archives.
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