‘Cracking on’ in the Eighteenth Century: Conduct Books and Courtship

26 July 2019

Gender and Sexuality | History | Literature

Love it or hate it, Love Island fever has undeniably swept through the nation for yet another summer and with the infamous dating reality show now gearing up to the final next week it seems appropriate to take a moment to step back in time and see how our eighteenth century predecessors went about ‘cracking on’.

Delving into Adam Matthew’s Defining Gender resource, Professor Vivien Jones’ essay on ‘Conduct and Politeness in the Eighteenth Century’ reveals the predominance of conduct books at the time, containing advice and warnings relating to courtship.

Jones tracks this rise in popularity as following on from when ‘the lapse of the Licensing Act finally put an end to the Stationers’ Company’s control over publication’ allowing ‘for an explosion in print culture: unregulated booksellers identified the growing numbers of both women and men able to read as a powerful potential market; and books became one of the most popular commodities in a period of rapid commercial expansion’.

These commercial changes coincided with a feeling of eagerness amongst the emerging middling class for ‘instructional literature’, both on practical and financial concerns and, as this blog will focus on, ‘how to behave in private life’, with an emphasis often placed on how to approach matters of courtship and marriage.

Just as Love Island hopefuls seek to avoid getting ‘mugged off’ by their fellow contestants in their search for love (or the £50,000 prize money), those searching for love in the eighteenth century appeared to share similar concerns, with conduct books like 'A letter of Genteel and Moral Advice to a Young Lady' (1740-1766), offering up words of wisdom to young ladies on how to avoid such a scenario:

A Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice to a Young Lady
Image © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The author goes on to add a note about how to behave in a ladylike manner when dealing with a ‘troublesome’ partner:

A Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice to a Young Lady
Image © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Speaking on marriage, the author goes on to detail the characteristics most desirable in a potential match, arguing that 'the chief things to be regarded in the choice of a husband are a virtuous disposition, a good understanding, an even temper, an easy fortune, and an agreeable person.'

However, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the author goes on to suggest that money was not necessarily the only key to a good match…

A Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice to a Young Lady
Image © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Conduct books were not only addressed at women however, and the conduct book 'The Gentleman's Library: Containing Rules for Conduct in all Parts of Life, written by a Gentleman' (1744) could provide some useful food for thought for some of this year’s male Love Island hopefuls…

The Gentleman's Library: Containing Rules for Conduct in all Parts of Life, written by a Gentleman
Image © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
The Gentleman's Library: Containing Rules for Conduct in all Parts of Life, written by a Gentleman
Image © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Mugging off, betrayals and marriage proposals aside, this quote from a later conduct book dating from the nineteenth century illustrates that literature on courtship retained a lasting importance. The following musings on love demonstrate the timelessness of the sentiments conveyed through conduct books and are a testament to their continued relevance beyond their original conception.

Courtship as it is, and as it Ought to be by a Careful Observer of the First; and a Practical Experimentalist in the latter
Image © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

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About the Author

Rosie Burgoyne

Rosie Burgoyne

Having joined the Adam Matthew Editorial team as an Editorial Assistant in October 2018, I have since had the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects including Mass Observation Online and the East India Company. My background is in literature and history and I am particularly interested in anything to do with Henry VIII, Victorian literature and the history of fashion, food and drink. 

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