The Seductions of Conduct: Pleasure and Conduct Literature

Part of the Themes in Focus book series (TIF)


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.


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Copyright information

© Vivien Jones 1996

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