A gendered reading of conduct books marja van Tilburg


Download 46.59 Kb.
Date conversion24.05.2018
Size46.59 Kb.


Marja van Tilburg

University of Groningen

Everybody is acquainted with conduct books from his or her own experience; everyone has consulted one at some point in life.1 For instance, an etiquette book to learn how to behave in a specific situation, or some guide book to get advice on handling certain problems - like Umberto Eco’s well known guide to writing a thesis.2 If someone has not actually used an advice book, he or she will be familiar with the format, because of the many magazine articles and television programs, which give advice on all sorts of issues. From these examples you may infer that advice literature is a recent phenomenon. This, however, is not the case. Since the early days of the printing press conduct books have been published. From the start, different types of conduct books have been developed, according to content and intended readership. Some books discussed only one topic for a general public, as Il libro del cortegiano (1528) explaining the rules of conduct at courts, while others addressed issues relevant to specific groups, like marriage manuals giving guidelines for family life to couples.

This article is based on conduct books for young persons from the age of fifteen to the early twenties. This type of conduct book has also been developed in the early 16th century. Its format has remained the same for a long period of time. Erasmus’ book for young males, De civilitate morum puerilium (1530), was reprinted over and over again, for more than two hundred years. At the closing of the 18th century, however, some major changes are noticeable in the genre. Suddenly, conduct books for young adults focus on the future responsibilities of young persons, whereas they used to concentrate on immediate concerns of young people - like going out and making friends. Besides, these books present the guidelines in a suggestive style, which is very different from the matter-of-fact presentation of earlier times. They make readers believe that the distinction between good and bad is a clear-cut one and that any transgression of the rules will lead to disaster. As a result, the guides for young adults of the late 18th and 19th centuries are far more compelling than the earlier ones.

These changes in the genre reflect two important cultural transformations in Enlightenment Europe. The most bearing on our subject matter is the changed perception of youth. Rousseau’s concept of adolescence is clearly discernible in the conduct books for young adults. Furthermore, the debate concerning the ‘true nature’ of woman leaves its mark on the advice literature. New concepts of youth and femininity are, of course, developed in debates among philosophes of the Enlightenment. They are, however, not merely copied by the authors of advice books. They are used - deliberately and purposefully - and are changed in the process, as we will see.

How does the notion of adolescence affect the conduct books for young adults? Does the debate on the sexual identity of women influence the conduct books for young women? These two questions really amount to one: how do the authors of conduct books use the concepts of adolescence and femininity to discipline young adult men and women? This question will be answered after an analysis of both the content and the style of the conduct books. The analysis will focus mostly on aspects of style, because especially in the presentation of the guidelines the ideas of the authors concerning adolescence and gender come to the fore.3

The new, suggestive style
As already mentioned, in the conduct book for young adults of the late 18th and 19th centuries the guidelines are phrased in a specific style. This style results from the systematic use of certain narrative strategies. Before I point out these strategies, I give an example. The citation is taken from an original Dutch conduct book and discusses the pleasures of wining, dining and womanising.

‘I have known a young man, who, because of his graceful and appealing appearance, was respected by everyone and loved by many. The blush of innocence coloured his cheeks, while his honourable parents took pride and joy in the strength of his body and his thriving health, in his penetrating mind and his more than average competence. To continue his vocational training, he left his parental home. Only look, a few years later, I met him, unexpectedly, in another town. He addressed me, as an old friend of his father; but it was with difficulty, that I recognised him. With pale cheeks, hollow and deep-set eyes, he stood before me. To make a long story short: it was lust that, now, made him incapable any useful occupation, in which he used to take pleasure. It was lust, which caused him to suffer the most terrible pains and grieves of the body, and the most excruciating agonies of the soul. It was lust, which made him despicable in the eyes of every sensible and virtuous person, despicable in the eyes of God; until he finally, persisting in the evil, which was already rooted in him to deeply, suffered the most shameful death.’4

In this example all the narrative strategies, which are used over and over again, come to the fore. The first one I want to point out, is the creating of contrasts. This can be seen in the way the later, depraved lifestyle is opposed to the initial, virtuous one. The second strategy builds upon the first one. It is the transformation of the created contrasts into oppositions between good and evil. This can be detected in the phrasing: the first one is depicted as antisocial, unhealthy, and leading to a certain death, whereas the last one is portrayed as virtuous, prosperous and strong. The third and last strategy, I want to discuss, is of a different kind. It results from a specific way of positioning fictional characters, staged as an example for the reader, in a specific social setting. The personas are situated as independent, autonomous and not accountable to anyone. It is suggested that the persona can do as he or she pleases. This strategy is also shown in the text: the young man is pursuing his vocational training away from home, in another town.

These narrative strategies have specific effects on the reader. The first two strategies - the creating of contrasts and the transforming of contrasts into normative oppositions - suggest to the readers that the advice is not a guideline, but a norm. The last one gives the impression that the reader must stick to the rules, that nobody will make sure he or she is following them.

From the combined effect of the narrative strategies, it is clear that these strategies are used purposefully. In this way, the authors admonish young readers to take responsibility for their behaviour. By systematically doing so, they educate readers to adulthood.


The new style of the conduct book for young adults is developed in response to Rousseau’s concept of adolescence. This can be deduced from the many references to youth in the guidelines. From every reference it becomes evident that the authors’ vision of youth is similar to Rousseau’s one.

In Émile ou l’éducation (1762) Rousseau describes how boys in the last phase of childhood become prone to competition and engaged with the other sex. He depicts these inclinations as innate drives. He attributes both impulses specifically to young men. Basically, he names aggression and sexuality characteristics of the male sex during adolescence. This concept of youth differs from the one of the early modern period, because it ascribes specific inclinations to young persons. During the 16th and 17th centuries youth was not supposed to have specific emotions. They were only supposed to have lesser control over their impulses as adults do.

The authors of the conduct books ascribe similar characteristics to young adult males as Rousseau. The authors mention traits and faults of youth, albeit in an indirect way. In the phrasing of the guidelines they mention the tendency of youth to seek danger, to risk health - even life. In between the lines they suggest this impulse stems from the desire to stand out in the crowd. An original Dutch conduct book, for instance, confronts readers on this issue, while explaining dangerous behaviour stems from

‘…the desire to gain approbation, respect or praise…’.5
The authors also refer to the attraction of sensual pleasures for young men. They address readers as having a special interest in entertainment, feasting and meeting members of the other sex. Some of them speak openly about this impulse towards partying and womanising. The Swiss minister Zschokke, for instance, warns readers
‘…of all impulses of nature, which are developed at this age, none is as threatening to one’s peace of mind, as the passion for the other sex…’.6

Furthermore, from the phrasing of these remarks can be inferred that the tendencies towards competing and womanising are considered as drives. By naming them ‘passion’ the authors point out the impulsive and passionate aspects. These examples show the authors of conduct books share Rousseau’s perception of adolescents.

As mentioned above, Rousseau developed the concept of adolescence in order to describe the development of young men towards adulthood. Because of this, adolescence is a gender-specific concept. At this point, however, the authors of the conduct books part with Rousseau. They suppose that young women go through an adolescent phase as well as young men. In the books for young women they refer to specific traits in adolescent women. Besides, they ascribe the very same inclinations to women as to men, namely competition and a vivid interest in the other sex. The first one leads women to spend too much time and money on their appearance, as the well-known author of moralistic literature Mrs. Ellis explains to her readers.7 The second one induces women to become intimate with members of the other sex. Furthermore, these tendencies are clearly conceived of as drives. The Dutch author and publicist Loosjes, for instance, admonishes his female readers to be careful and not to give in to their

‘…youthful passion for the other sex…’.8
As these examples show, the authors of conduct books think of adolescence in women in similar terms as they do of adolescence in men.

Although Rousseau thinks adolescents are male, the authors of advice literature think adolescents can be both male and female. By broadening the concept of adolescence to include women, the lasts ones have made it possible to educate women in the same way as young men. Later on, we will see if they actually have made use of this opportunity…


In Enlightenment Europe, not only the traditional vision of youth, but also the traditional notion of femininity is challenged. In the second half of the 18th century both women and men demand equal opportunities for women in the worlds of literature, science and politics. Many women actually participate in the debate on society and the quest for knowledge in the Republic of Letters. This struggle for emancipation triggers off a debate on the ‘true nature’ of woman. In this discussion, some philosophes argue that the physical differences between the sexes should not carry so much weight as to exclude women from the realms of politics, science and literature. Others, as Rousseau, argue that the body determines all aspects of the woman. This last group construes a sexual identity for woman, which is opposite as well as complementary to that of man. In this discussion it is implied that women’s place in society should be different from men: women ought to take care of home and family, while men should engage themselves in the public sphere.

Just as the concept of adolescence influences the conduct book for young adults, so the debate on the sexual identity of woman leaves its mark on the advice literature. To begin with, the debate leads to the publication of conduct books for young adult women, well as of books for young men and young women. These two types of books are a new phenomenon; the conduct book for young adults of the 16th and 17th centuries was intended for young males. This debate leaves its mark on the contents of these publications as well. This influence is diverse, regarding content as well as style. So, it can not be pointed out easily…

In order to find out what views on gender and adolescence the authors of conduct books hold, it is necessary to make an analysis of the style of the books.9 Regarding style, there is an important difference between the conduct books for young men and for young men and women on the one hand, and of books for young women on the other hand. The books for males are of one piece: from cover to cover they show the narrative strategies of the new, educating style. In the books for females the advice is presented in many different ways. Changes of style relate to the subject matter. The educating style is used in case sexuality and marriage is discussed; other styles, featuring other narrative strategies, are chosen in case other topics are discussed.

In order to illustrate the different ways of presenting guidelines in the advice literature, I will go into the way in which sexuality and work are discussed.


As mentioned in the introduction, the conduct books of the late 18th and 19th centuries aim to prepare readers for adulthood. The last step towards adulthood for both men and women is marriage. Because of this, the choice of partner is the most important decision young adults face. Since in bourgeois ideology both men and women are free in their choice, males and females are equally responsible for their choice. As a consequence, in the chapters concerning marriage young males as well as young females are addressed in the new, educating style.

Sexuality is an important theme in the chapters concerning the choice of a marriage partner. In these, a contrast is created between a good choice of partner and a bad one: a good choice of partner is based on affection and respect, a bad one on sexual attraction. In the phrasing of both choices, it is made evident that the good one will result in a long and happy marriage, the bad one in an extremely unhappy one. This opposition reminds one of the dichotomy between mind and body, which is still deeply rooted in the Christian culture of the late 18th and 19th centuries. However, a careful analysis of the contrasts and analogies, used by the authors, shows that sexual attraction is considered a component of a good choice of partner.10 An example of a guideline for the choice of partner, of which the phrasing suggests that sexual desire is allowed for, can be found in a book for young men and women, written by the German minister Voigt. According to his advice

‘ …true love [is] mutual respect, based on inner qualities, which unites with sensual pleasure… ’.11
Another example stems from a conduct book for men of the Dutch author Loosjes. In this book, he plays with analogies and contrasts to convey the message. Firstly, he creates an analogy in order to depict sexual attraction as ‘natural’:
‘From the insect […] to the enormously big whale, in all [creatures] this passion is implanted […] man, as an animal occupant of this earth, shares this passion, this inclination.’
Then, he makes a contrast between man and animal. In human beings, sexual attraction unites male and female in marriage:
‘…so far as history books reach, and according to statements of explorers on peoples, who are still in the state of nature, man differs (with very few exceptions, which are not worth mentioning) in this respect to all other occupants of the earth.’12
By describing a good choice of partner in this way, the author places sexual attraction at the cutting edge of nature and culture: sexuality is natural – because all creatures share it. In order to qualify as human, however, sexual desire must be satisfied in the cultural institution of marriage

Since the authors consider mutual sexual attraction a part of love and marriage, their guidelines on the choice of partner allow for sexual desire. As Loosjes tells readers of his conduct book for males:

‘…he does not want take from the delights, [brought] to the senses [by] these charming attractions of the body, and the, to the mind so enchanting graces of the soul, which are so fused that the cleverest mind can not separate them, just as he can not show the tie between body and soul.’13
Such remarks are not reserved for the male sex. The same author acknowledges in his conduct book for females:

‘The natural inclination of the sexes toward each other, [even considering] how civilisation has changed the original passion, is too strong, not too inspire the hearts of persons of both sexes.’14

From the discussion of the good choice of partner and the actual rules of conduct on the same subject, it is evident that sexual attraction is not a problem in itself, that sexual desire only demands careful management. The authors advice their readers on this. The Dutch pedagogue Barbara van Meerten-Schilperoort recommends her female readers to monitor their feelings and desires, at a regular basis. When they detect an inclination for someone, they must ask themselves if this person is
‘… worthy of her special attention […] ask yourself, if the gifts of the heart and mind, of his respect for religion and virtue, his goodness of his character attracted you to him…’. [If this is not the case, she ought to]

pull the weak germ out of the heart…’.15

Such guidelines are accompanied by advice to socialise with persons of the other sex, even strike friendships with some of them. The authors explain readers how they might benefit from such relationships: a more cordial, intimate friendship with members of the other sex prepares one for the marital relations in later life.

To round off their discussion on the place of sexuality in the choice of a partner, the authors give guidelines, which should help to curtail sexual desire. These concern the diet, the use of alcohol, etc. and are similar to the ones given in the conduct books of the 16th and 17th centuries.

This kind of advice on managing sexual desire is typical of the late 18th and 19th centuries conduct books. All these explanations and rules are aimed at guiding young adults to a choice of partner, in which the demands of society and personal preference are balanced.


In order to prepare youth for adulthood, the authors pay a lot of attention to their future responsibilities. According to the authors, these responsibilities amount to one: their future roles as husband and wife. So, young men must learn a trade, in order to become solid providers for their families; young women must learn to manage a household. Although both men and women have to learn how to perform a certain task, the rules of conduct stimulating or urging them to do this, differ. More importantly, the presentation of the rules for men and that of the rules for women diverge even more. In this paragraph I go into the guidelines for males, in the next I go into those for females.

The chapters on learning a trade are written in the new, educating style. So, firstly, a contrast is created between the good lifestyle and the bad one. The good life consists of hard work during the day and rest in the evenings, the bad one of indulging in drinking, partying and womanising. Of course, the good lifestyle will bring enduring happiness, the bad one dissatisfaction, sickness, and death.

These general remarks are followed by specific guidelines in order to get young men accustomed to a disciplined lifestyle. The authors start by making their readers aware of time. They point out how time flies, how much of it is taken by the necessities of life - eating, sleeping - and by social obligations - as family visits and social calls. This overview comes down to one lesson: how little time is left to dispose of freely. The message is clear: time that is not put to use is lost. Not doing something,

‘…is like living without enjoying life, to see the sun, without admiring it.’16
This warning is followed by guidelines to help young men make use of time. The first instruction is to bring order in life: young men must spend the day working and the evening resting - in order to restore physically and so prepare themselves for the next day. In order to make full use of the daytime, they are taught to divide up the work in smaller tasks, prioritise them and set a date and time for all of them. In this way, they can put to use every hour, every minute of every day. Thus, they authors instruct young men to make use of time.

In the same, detailed way the authors instruct young men on learning a trade. They confront them with their future obligations as providers. They explain that only persons who are good at their trade can be sure to get and keep customers. In order to develop the necessary skills, they must work all the time. Most of all, they must give their full attention to every detail of their work.

The combined effect of the detailed instruction and the suggestive presentation will suffice to turn even guys with little talent for virtuousness into dutiful husbands and fathers.

The conduct books for young adult women do not prepare readers for their future responsibilities as wife and mother, even though they are supposed to learn to manage a household. The authors hardly discuss housekeeping; they certainly do not write about domestic duties as skills that need to be learned. Instead, they write about household in terms of relationships. The reader is told that by doing the job, she will bring happiness to the other members of the family. As the pedagogue Barbara van Meerten-Schilperoort writes:

‘…husband or father or brother, [will], if only with a loving glance, thank you, because their shirt is more than any other persons [shirt] shiny white and very neat…’17

Consequently, the discussion of housekeeping is hardly ever followed by guidelines to organise life in order to acquire the necessary skills. Only one author, Van Meerten-Schilperoort, discusses the importance of order in the household. Another one, Mrs. Ellis, writes on the need to make use of time. But they never relate order and time, whereas the combined rules for time and work make the instruction concerning work in books for young males so effective. As a result, even if authors address the subject of housekeeping, the advice remains extremely vague.

Even more telling, is the phrasing of the sparse admonishments to perform domestic duties. The presentation is filled with metaphors and metonymies, usually depicting household as a flower, and suggesting that persons performing household tasks are as beautiful as the flower. Such as Van Meerten-Schilperoort does, when she tells her readers:

‘There is, my dear Mathilda, another pretty flower in the beautiful garland of maidenly virtues. She is domesticity.’18
In this sentence the author uses of the word ‘flower’ as a metaphor for domesticity.

By naming the flower ‘pretty’ and the garland ‘beautiful’, she indicates that domesticity is beautiful. The use of the word ‘virtue’ suggests that domesticity is something to strive for. By connecting the phrase ‘pretty flower’ with virtue, the author suggests that someone who is striving for a homely life, and as a consequence is virtuous, is also beautiful.

Another example stems from a book by Mrs. Ellis. She describes the household as a
‘….flower, which sweet scent refreshes a passer-by…’
She goes on by telling the wanderer wants to know what flower smells so deliciously. It is only with difficulty, he finds out, because:

‘…he really has to look for the source of his pleasure. He finds her hidden in the green foliage; they may be less beautiful, then he expects, in terms of shape and colour; but, how welcome, is the memory of these flowers, as the cool evening breeze, once more, carries their sweet-scenting fragrances on its wings. In the same way, the humble virtues of the female character come to us and ask for our respect.’19

So, in the presentation, domestic work is referred to as a virtue or a flower. The readers are given the impression that housekeeping will make them either virtuous or pretty, or both. In this way, young women are invited to identify with domesticity. In this respect the first quote in those paragraph, is telling. Van Meerten-Schilperoort names the garland of virtues - her metaphor for domesticity - ‘maidenly’. In this way she brings home the message that in order to be a woman, one has to be a housewife.


In the conduct books for young adults of the late 18th and 19th centuries two major cultural transformations are at play. Firstly, the authors are inspired by Rousseau’s concept of adolescence to develop a new way of approaching and advising young adults. A new, specific presentation of the guidelines should instil a strong sense of duty in youth. It should also guide them towards responsibility and autonomy. Also, the authors have moulded the original, gender-specific concept of adolescence to encompass women. They use the new, educating style when addressing young women as well as young men. Secondly, the authors are influenced by the debate on the role of women in society. In addressing young women, they make subtle references to femininity. In this way, they relate tasks and responsibilities to the sexual identity of women.

The concept of ‘adolescence’ as well as the debate on ‘true nature’ of women comes to the fore in the conduct books for young adults. Young males are addressed as adolescents in every aspect of their lives; they are educated to become dutiful and responsible adults. Young females are addressed as adolescents in the discussion of sexuality and marriage. They are educated towards adulthood in this area, because they have to carry responsibility for the choice of their marriage partner. In all other areas of life they are approached as women. On these topics, they are not disciplined to become good housewives, but are seduced to identify with a specific notion of femininity.

At the very moment women can free themselves from their traditional sexual role, the conduct books for young adult women try to keep readers in the same place as women occupied during the early modern period, namely in the home.

1 Thanks to Tjitske Ypma for her careful reading of the last draft but one of this article.

2 Umberto Eco, Come si fa una tesi di laurea. Tascabili Bompiani 48 (Bompiani; Milano 1977). This guide is translated into many European languages.

3 In the phrasing of the advice the concepts the author has concerning adolescence or gender come to the surface of a text. An analysis of the phrasing can make notions that are left implicit, explicit. An analysis of style is called for, when gender is conceptualised as difference made between the sexes, rather than as sexual roles. The importance of approaching gender in research as difference between the sexes is explained by Joan W. Scott in her book Gender and the politics of history (Columbia U.P.; New York 1988) 28-50.

4 M. S. de Wal, Handboek voor, of gids des gedrags van jonge lieden. Uitgegeven door de Maatschappij tot Nut van 't Algemeen (J. van der Hey en Zoon; Amsterdam 1823) 46.

5 N. Messchaert, Aan jongelingen, van een beschaafde opvoeding (S. de Visser; ’s Gravenhage 1833) 17.

6 H. Zschokke, De weg ten leven. Huis- en handboek voor christelijke ouders en jonge lieden (A. ter Gunne; Deventer 1857). Adapted from: Andachstbuch für die erwachsene Jugend bei ihrem Eintritt in die Welt (Aurau 1819) 253.

7 Mrs. Ellis, Vorming en bestemming der meisjes (G.G. van Terveen en Zoon; Utrecht 1846). Adapted from: The family monitor. Part 2: The daughters of England: their position in society, character and responsibilities (s.l. 1836) 222-3.

8 A. Pz. Loosjes, De vrouw in de vier tijdperken haars levens (A. Loosjes Pz.; Haarlem 1809) 147.

9 See note 3.

10 The reader must bear in mind that a liberal Protestantism holds sway in the Netherlands, in this period of time. The conduct books discussed here are of liberal-Protestant signature. Orthodox-oriented Protestants and Catholics emancipated in the course of the 19th century, but reached full emancipation only in the 20th century. Orthodox Protestant and Catholic conduct books were published in the wake of this process. So, orthodox-Protestant books were published from the late thirties of the 19th century. Catholic ones only in the second halve of the 19th century, starting with marriage manuals between ‘45 and ‘75, followed by advice books for the youth at the very end of the century.

11 C.F.T. Voigt, De gevaren der jeugd. Een boek voor jongelingen en meisjes (Wed. A. Loosjes Pz.; Amsterdam 1823). Translated from: Die Gefahren der Jugend (Leipzig 1804) 149.

12 A. Loosjes Pz., De man in de vier tijdperken zijns levens (A. Loosjes Pz.; Haarlem 1809) 155-7.

13 A. Loosjes Pz., De man in de vier tijdperken zijns levens (A. Loosjes Pz.; Haarlem 1809) 159.

14A. Loosjes Pz., De vrouw in de vier tijdperken haars levens (A. Loosjes Pz.; Haarlem 1809) 146.

15 A.B. van Meerten-Schilperoort, Woorden van moederlijke liefde aan mijne dochter Mathilda (P.N. van Kampen; Amsterdam 1844). Adapted from: Wörte mütterlicher Liebe an meine Tochter. Eine Gabe für christliche Jungfrauen. Aus dem Nachlasse der freifau Wilhelmine von Dehnhausen zu Grevenburg, geb. von Mengersen (Frankfurt a.M. 1835) 203.

16 De gids des jongelings in de zamenleving (J.B. van Loghem; Haarlem 1845) 55.

17 A.B. van Meerten-Schilperoort, Woorden van moederlijke liefde aan mijne dochter Mathilda (P.N. van Kampen; Amsterdam 1844) 130.

18 A.B. van Meerten-Schilperoort, Woorden van moederlijke liefde aan mijne dochter Mathilda (P.N. van Kampen; Amsterdam 1844) 118.

19 Mrs. Ellis, Pligt en roeping der vrouw. Een boek voor vrouwen en meisjes (J.D. Sybrandi; Amsterdam 1844). Adapted from: The family monitor. Part 1: The women of England: their social duties and domestic habits (s.l. 1836) 18.


The database is protected by copyright ©hestories.info 2017
send message

    Main page