‘Manners, Morals and Class in England, 1774-1858’ by Marjorie Morgan

1994,  148p.  & notes.

This is not a book about events or facts, but instead it is about ideals.  Ideals, suggests the author, reveal as much or more about a society as reality does. The ideals she is exploring are those found in three different genres of improving literature published from the late eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth century.

The first genre is the courtesy book, a literary type written primarily by and for men.  Courtesy books often took the form of an informal, practical guide written by an older man, based on his personal experience, for a younger man.  Some focussed on the arts of worldly success, others on civility and deportment, but underlying them all was the assumption that manners and morals were inseparable and indistinguishable.

The second genre is the conduct book, which became more popular under the influence of Evangelicalism in the mid-late 18th century.  The underlying principle was that religion- not fashion, or custom, nor taste- was the basis of both manners and morals.  The writers were middle class and many addressed female audiences.

Finally there were etiquette books, which emerged in the 1830s, even though etiquette itself had been around for much longer than that.  They did not so much create behavioural rules in the 1830s, as codify those that had been in existence for the previous 50 years. They were practical digests of rules and information to avoid vulgar behaviour, and unlike the Conduct Books, they were largely indifferent to one’s internal nature and character, moral paradigms or the spiritual domain.  Instead, the focus was on outward visible indicators and display.

She suggests that the etiquette book arose during the 1830s as  the upwardly mobile middle class became wealthier and the boundaries were blurred with the aristocracy.  However, she is at pains to point out that both the middle class and the aristocracy, in and among themselves, expressed conflicting values.  The middle class may have been industrial, but it also embraced an antithetical ethic that denigrated competition; the aristocracy combined elements of disinterestedness with aggressive competition.  Depending on the values under discussion, relations between the middle class and aristocracy could conflict with, or accommodate each other.

She has examined a huge range of texts across these three genres- her bibliography for these primary sources stretches to eight pages.   The whole enterprise of proscription and prescription of morals and manners was steeped in paradox.  The standards for fashionable behaviour were spelled out to facilitate social advancement, but at the same time, they kept changing so as to keep people out.   The evangelical moralists exhorted people of sound moral character to appear as they really were, but at the same time they were to avoid offending others and be reserved and modest and above all, sincere- even if they weren’t really.

However, she noted a change in the early 1840s, when etiquette books began to incorporate elements, albeit superficially at first, of principles of morality and ethics while continuing their emphasis on manners and decorum.  This trend manifested itself in the rise of professionalism whereby aristocratic and middle-class ideals were merged into legally sanctioned professional behavioural codes and credentials, firmly ground in etiquette and ethics, in a range of fields- the church, law, medicine, government and armed services.  It was an accommodation on the part of both the aristocracy and the middle class and both groups felt that they could embrace professional goals without feeling they had compromised their values.

Written in 1994, this book travels in the wake of Davidoff and Hall’s Family Fortunes which was first published in 1987.  Its argument is largely consistent with Davidoff and Hall, but it delves into the realm of ideals and expectations, rather than actual lives that figure so strongly in Davidoff and Hall’s book.  The earlier book took the middle class, and particularly women, as its focus, but Morgan’s book looks at the accommodation between both the aristocracy and the middle class, both in expectation of behaviour in the home and in the professions more widely.

This book interested me in relation to Judge Willis because I am examining his career from the 1820s to 1840s- precisely the time that these changes were occurring.   Our perception of  the early Victorian sensibility tends to be swamped by the depictions of behaviour and expectations so vividly drawn by the mid-Victorian novelists- our Dickens and Trollopes.  The settler colonial condition, both in Upper Canada and New South Wales, added more tension to already brittle upward mobility.   The Port Phillip newspapers carried in their columns the reports of fashions and observations about behaviour taken from metropolitan newspapers, and although these new societies brought together strangers into new constellations, you have the sense that, among those who aspired to colonial gentry at least, everyone was watching everyone else very closely.  There was a mental template for how one ought to behave, and this book provides one way of investigating this ideal- no matter how imperfectly it was met.

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4 responses to “‘Manners, Morals and Class in England, 1774-1858’ by Marjorie Morgan

  1. Pingback: ‘Talk to the Hand’ by Lynne Truss | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  2. Do you own this book? (Manners, Morals and Class in England) I have been trying to find a copy of it!
    It is a very interesting time period to study.

    • I don’t own it- I borrowed it from La Trobe University library in Melbourne (Australia). It IS an interesting time, especially stretching it to include the final quarter of the 18th century as well.

  3. hahaha! That is only funny because I was a student at LaTrobe and borrowed the book from there too! I photocopied some of the pages that interested me and now I would like to read more of it!
    The eighteenth century is my FAVOURITE period of history I think (if you forced me to pick one!) 🙂

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