Advertisement

The Seductions of Conduct: Pleasure and Conduct Literature

  • Vivien Jones
Chapter
Part of the Themes in Focus book series (TIF)

Abstract

This is the Reverend Mr Wetenhall Wilkes in A Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice to a Young Lady, a popular mid-eighteenth century conduct book.1 In its explicit rejection of female pleasure, its stress on asexual ‘modesty’, the passage seems to epitomise our sense of ‘conduct books’ as inculcators of feminine propriety, instruments of repression and confinement. Over recent years, conduct literature has become a familiar source of evidence within feminist histories of modern sexuality and gender construction since it describes, or at least prescribes, a particularly unambiguous and, it is argued, increasingly dominant, definition of femininity as docile, domestic, asexual. It articulates a bourgeois programme of self-discipline and self-improvement which is anti-pleasure, where pleasure is identified with aristocratic sexual licence and consumerist excess. But Wilkes’s moral discourse of chaste conduct evokes precisely the desires and fantasies it claims to police. Chastity is defined through the psychosexual language of Gothic melodrama and monstrosity, turning its readers into (guilty) fantasists. In this context, the relationship between conduct literature and pleasure becomes more problematic — and potentially more productive — and in this essay I want to disrupt monologic accounts of the genre as straightforwardly repressive, and to argue that even these most recalcitrant of texts offer possibilities for pleasure — and for resistance.

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Bibliography

  1. Armstrong, Nancy, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  2. Ballaster, Ros, Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  3. Gallagher, Catherine, Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace 1670–1820 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  4. Jones, Vivien (ed.), Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity (London and New York: Routledge, 1990).Google Scholar
  5. McKeon, Michael, The Origins of the English Novel 1600–1740 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987; London: Radius, 1988).Google Scholar
  6. Perry, Ruth, The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  7. Poovey, Mary, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984).Google Scholar
  8. Rizzo, Betty, Companions without Vows: Relationships Among Eighteenth-Century British Women (Athens, GA and London: University of Georgia Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  9. Shevelow, Kathryn, Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical (London and New York: Routledge, 1989).Google Scholar
  10. Todd, Janet, The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660–1800 (London: Virago, 1989).Google Scholar

Histories of Sexuality and the Family

  1. Brown, Irene Q., ‘Domesticity, Feminism and Friendship: Female Aristocratic Culture and Marriage in England, 1660–1760’, Journal of Family History, 7 (1982), pp. 406–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Gillis, John R., For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  3. Macfarlane, Alan, Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction, 1300–1840 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986).Google Scholar
  4. Okin, Susan Moller, ‘Patriarchy and Married Women’s Property in England: Questions on Some Current Views’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 17 (1983), pp. 121–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Staves, Susan, Married Women’s Separate Property in England 1660–1833 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  6. Stone, Lawrence, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977); abridged edn (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982).Google Scholar
  7. Trumbach, Randolph, The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Academic Press, 1978).Google Scholar
  8. Women as Consumers of Popular Culture Ballaster, Ros, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Fraser and Sandra Hebron, Women’s Worlds: Ideology, Femininity and The Women’s Magazine (London: Macmillan, 1991).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Gledhill, Christine, ‘Pleasurable Negotiations’, in E. Deirdre Pribram (ed.), Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television (London and New York: Verso, 1988).Google Scholar
  10. Kaplan, Cora, ‘The Thorn Birds: Fiction, Fantasy, Femininity’, in Sea Changes: Essays on Culture and Feminism (London: Verso, 1986).Google Scholar
  11. Kaplan, Cora, ‘The Cultural Crossover’, New Socialist (November, 1986), pp. 38–40 (response to Judith Williamson: see below).Google Scholar
  12. Light, Alison, ‘“Returning to Manderley”: Romance Fiction, Sexuality and Class’, Feminist Review, 16 (1984), pp. 7–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Modleskir, Tania, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (New York and London: Methuen, 1982).Google Scholar
  14. Radway, Janice, Reading the Romance: Women Patriarchy & Popular Literature (London: Verso, 1987).Google Scholar
  15. Williamson, Judith, ‘The Problems of Being Popular’, New Socialist (September, 1986), pp. 14–15.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Vivien Jones 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Vivien Jones

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations