Soile Ylivuori: “Women’s bodies and the culture of politeness: creating and contesting gendered identities in eighteenth-century England”. Lectio praecursoria 12.12.2015.

Filosofian maisteri Soile Ylivuoren yleisen historian alan väitöskirja “Women’s bodies and the culture of politeness: creating and contesting gendered identities in eighteenth-century England” tarkastettiin 12.12.2015 Helsingin yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä toimi Reader in Cultural History Karen Harvey (Sheffieldin yliopisto) ja kustoksena professori Markku Peltonen. Väitöskirja on luettavissa osoitteessa:

In a rather well-known scene of Jane Austen’s probably most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, the haughty and condescending Miss Bingley tells Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist of the novel, that, in order to be truly accomplished —

a woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages […]; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.

This passage captures the essence of women’s politeness ideals quite well — and, therefore, highlights many of the central aspects of my doctoral dissertation. To be accomplished in politeness meant, for this certain social elite, to master not only such specific skills as singing and drawing, but also to have a certain appearance and manner of moving and gesturing. Now, even though Elizabeth Bennet then replies to Miss Bingley that few if, indeed, any women in reality managed to unite such capacity, taste, and application in their person, this was nevertheless the discursive ideal that all women of polite society were urged to aspire towards. What’s especially striking in this passage is the fact that practically all of these accomplished qualities were actually directly connected to the female body and its carefully controlled movements. This observation goes straight to the heart of my research. In fact, as the title of my dissertation suggests, I argue that women’s bodies and the culture of politeness were intimately linked. My goal has been to show that feminine politeness was produced through a relentless control and rehearsing of the body; the goal was to master not only such bodily skills as dancing or playing the pianoforte, but also to move in a certain way, to have a certain appearance — in short, to possess that “certain something” in one’s air that Miss Bingley is talking about. In other words, I want to suggest that feminine politeness was, in fact, produced on the surface of the body, and acted out through the body.

I just said that “feminine politeness” was linked to the body, but I could just as easily turn these words around and say “polite femininity”. This is the second point I want to make. Namely, that the culture of politeness was a deeply gendered set of discourses and practices, and that when we examine eighteenth-century politeness we also inevitably end up examining the eighteenth-century construction of gender. Because, as I argue, gender norms were debated and maintained through politeness, through gendered ideals and rules of good conduct. Therefore, politeness and gender building were inseparably intertwined. The basic principles of polite conduct were, of course, common for both men and women, such as “don’t insult people” or “try to be friendly to everyone”. However, when we go beyond such very general principles, we can see that the culture of politeness advocated very different codes of conduct for the two sexes starting from, for example, such simple things as men bowing versus women curtseying.

Miss Bingley’s description of an accomplished woman would definitely not have been an appropriate description of an accomplished man. The gendered difference of what was deemed to be proper, civil, or polite, was based on ideas of the supposedly naturally different characters of the two sexes, and consequently the different places they occupied in society. Therefore, it was thought to be only natural that men and women should behave in different ways.

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 4, The Toilette (n. 1743). Kuvan lähde: The National Galler, Lontoo.
William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 4, The Toilette (n. 1743). Kuvan lähde: The National Gallery, Lontoo.

Before moving forward, I’d like to briefly define what I exactly mean by the term ‘politeness’. Politeness can be understood to have a much broader meaning beyond the immediate rules of etiquette, such as bowing and curtseying. For my dissertation, I’ve adopted the cultural historical idea of politeness as the vocabulary through which all sorts of ideas of societal norms and ideals were discussed. Therefore, politeness was not only the code of civil behaviour but it also provided the language and rhetoric for discussing matters of, for example, class, nationality, and gender. Accordingly, examining politeness doesn’t merely tell us what the etiquette for behaviour was in eighteenth-century England, but it also paints us a picture of how these people understood themselves and the society and world around them. In this sense, politeness enables us to examine eighteenth-century mentalities and ways of thinking.

Politeness should also be understood as a key concept for creating identity, for individuals but also for groups. Politeness has commonly been viewed as a culture, a set of practices and knowledge that separated a particular social group from those who did not possess polite skills. Therefore, politeness was a crucial means of creating and maintaining social hierarchies. It has been described as the culture of the emerging middle class and the landed elite. However, politeness could also be an effective means of climbing up the social ladder, and was, for this reason, embraced my lower spheres as well. Then again, many aristocrats were specifically known for their bad behaviour and impoliteness. Therefore, politeness wasn’t a straightforward class characteristic as such; rather, it was like a set of cultural capital and skills that could be employed flexibly to gain respect and access to certain social privileges — or then left unused in situations where individuals felt those privileges could be secured through other means, such as wealth, rank, or connections.

To come back to my main argument again after these important definitions, my dissertation starts off with two premises: first, that politeness was acted out through the body; and second, that politeness was a tool of gender construction. These two main arguments then unfold in my research in different ways and from different perspectives. I’ve wanted to examine both the discursive ideals of women’s politeness — that is, how different didactic conduct writers imagined the ideal polite woman and what sort of norms and demands they set to women in their writings — but I’ve also wanted to investigate the reactions of actual elite women to these norms and demands. For this reason, I’ve divided my thesis into two parts respectively.

In the first part, I map out the idealised picture of the polite woman that was constructed in the various conduct books, periodicals, sermons, plays, and novels published in eighteenth-century England. Jane Austen’s Miss Bingley with her ideas of accomplishment is, of course, a part of this source material. What I’ve discovered is that the normative polite femininity that was advocated through these sources was very much constructed as opposite to masculinity. Polite femininity was generally described in terms of gentleness, softness, demureness, modesty, and passivity, and everything that didn’t fit these categories was labelled masculine and, therefore, automatically impolite. Women were thought to have been moulded by nature to have certain natural characteristics and to occupy a certain subjugated place in society; therefore, it was thought to be likewise natural for women to behave in this soft and gentle way. It was also thought that women were the naturally polite sex, since it was their nature to be more flexible and mild in their speech and manners than men — and flexibility and mildness were deemed important polite qualities. Therefore, politeness and women were seen to share a natural bond.

Of course, it’s quite peculiar then that any conduct treatises for women had to be written at all, if women were, in fact, naturally polite, as these writers claimed. And yet, not only were there dozens and dozens of these books which all aimed to define women’s politeness in as much detail as possible; but, more interestingly, these writers’ views on feminine politeness could be quite varied and not necessarily compatible at all. In fact, some writers claimed that women should be silent in company, whereas others emphasised the importance of women’s conversation for polite sociability. Or, some writers urged women to display their soft feminine nature by crying in public, while others thought that public tear-shedding was embarrassing and hypocritical.

This confusion, of course, goes to show that there was no so-called natural female nature or natural feminine behaviour. What these conduct treatises did was that they created the appearance of natural, unchanging femininity while actually simultaneously creating this femininity. Women were then urged to conform to these discursive norms by implying that if they didn’t, they were not considered properly polite, or properly feminine.

Women’s obedience in conforming to these norms was evaluated mainly through external, visual signs — and this is where the body comes in. Polite society actually believed that they could evaluate a person’s level of politeness simply by looking at her — how she moved, how she sat or walked. This certainly puts the body in a very special role, for it needed to be consciously and continuously rehearsed to move elegantly, to talk smoothly, and to perform with the piano, for example. In this way, the body was the canvas on which the appearance of politeness needed to be painted on. At the same time, however, there was a general belief which became increasingly more common during the eighteenth century that the body was also a transparent, brutally honest reflection of a person’s inner self, and that no amount of bodily exercise would make a person appear truly polite and pleasing, if their soul was brutal and corrupted. Therefore, as these people claimed, true politeness could only result from internal goodness. People though that the body would always unerringly betray a person’s inner self in either pleasing manners and appearances, or corrupt ones—a bit like the picture of Dorian Gray, if you will.

In other words, the body actually served in two very different and even incompatible roles: it was to be actively moulded according to the principles of politeness, and, at the same time, it couldn’t be moulded, or at least it would be useless, since the body would always passively reflect a person’s inner self. So, as you can see, the body actually occupies a central, but at the same time a very troubled and ambivalent place at the heart of the culture of politeness. In fact, I argue that this dual role of the body is one big reason for the inconsistencies of women’s culture of politeness.

The constant repetition of these very particularly stylised movements and phrases and appearances that elite women were engaged with actually did more than reflect their status of politeness to other people; I argue that it made these women feel that these movements and appearances were actually natural for them. That the fashioning of the body in this particular manner became so automatic that they felt that it really was their natural, true identity. This is basically my main argument in the first part of the thesis: that politeness conditioned women to internalise the gendered identity they were acting out through their body — and that, in this way, polite society effectively created normative, docile individuals, who followed the rules of gendered politeness, not because they were forced to, but because they felt it to be the natural way of things.

However, looking at politeness like this, as merely a conditioning regime of discipline that imprints passive individuals with identities they themselves have no control over seems, somehow, very simplistic. What about the individuals, you might ask; surely they were not just puppets with no will of their own? In fact, I think that in order to truly see the full picture of gendered identity construction, it’s necessary to look at the individuals themselves and their own agency and their chances to resist this normative power of politeness. And indeed, this is exactly what I do in the second part of my doctoral dissertation. Through examining the journals and letters of four eighteenth-century women who were members of polite society — that is, the bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu, the novelist Fanny Burney, the moralist author Catherine Talbot, and the court favourite Mary Delany — I argue that women were not simply passive victims to the norms of gendered politeness, but, rather, that they took an active hand in defining their own identity.

This doesn’t mean that women necessarily ended up with identities that actively defied the rules of politeness; actually, they often adopted very traditional identities in this sense. The noteworthy thing is to realise that these identities were not arrived at through passive submission under a disciplinary power but, instead, through an active process where the individual herself voluntarily engaged in different practices to create, what she felt to be, an autonomous identity. This being said, it is nevertheless true — and this is the more interesting part — that women could also, to some extent, actively resist the norms and demands set to them by politeness discourse. They could and did find subject positions that were controversial and subversive while still managing to maintain their polite reputation and the approval of polite society. That is to say, firstly, that women could very skillfully take advantage of the inconsistencies and loopholes of politeness to manouvre things their way.

Secondly and more importantly, my argument is that women didn’t only make use of occasional loopholes, but actually actively engaged in specific strategies to secure some freedom from the norms of polite femininity; they could expand the definition of what it was to be polite and feminine, and gain some power over their own lives — and occasionally also those of others.

In my dissertation, I show that Montagu, Burney, Talbot, and Delany used different tactics or strategies to gain freedom and resist normalising power. These tactics were focused around themes of exteriority, theatricality, and dissimulation, which were all particularly problematic and ambivalent concepts in the culture of politeness. Thus, the strategies of freedom were organised around those vulnerable aspects of politeness that allowed for multiple interpretations. I’ve identified four different strategies, which are self-discipline, multiplicity of identity, play between interior and exterior, and hypocrisy.

Firstly, self-discipline can be seen as a means of stepping out of passive femininity and, through different practices of abstinence, very concretely taking control of one’s own life and body. This was especially effective in a cultural environment where women were stereotypically seen as incapable of self-restraint and control. Secondly, adopting multiple identities provided women a means of balancing their more controversial roles and efforts with traditionally accepted ones. For example, Elizabeth Montagu, in a way, made up for her so-called masculine endeavours, such as publishing literary critique, by consciously emphasising her role as a modest and dutiful wife. Thirdly, polite sociability took mainly place in liminal, semi-public spaces that enabled women to adopt more visible and active roles than they could do in their domestic environment or in public places where they were very carefully watched and regulated. This, together with the sort of role play women such as Elizabeth Montagu engaged in, worked to confuse ideas of women’s stable, innate, natural characters by showing that identities were very much externally performed and could be swapped at will. And fourthly, since women had little official power and were, in fact, generally subject to the authority of a male relative, they were forced to take a more indirect approach when they wanted to get their way — and, indeed, often made use of dishonesty and dissimulation to maintain a mask of passive femininity while actually quietly manouvering things in the background.

It’s not my intention to argue that all polite women used these strategies or even that they were common or generally approved. Rather, my goal has been to examine what could be conceived as doable or acceptable within the context of polite society. How far and in what ways was it possible to stretch the boundaries of polite femininity; and could women find some freedom from normative conduct without losing their social respectability? My research shows that this was indeed possible, at least for some individuals.

* * *

On a larger scale, my research is a part of a wider project of examining how individual and collective identities are formed through the interplay of social and cultural structures and individuals themselves. As such, my findings are applicable to different times and situations beyond the immediate scope of eighteenth-century England, politeness, or women, for that matter. I firmly believe that this sort of complementary model of examining identities as not dictated from above but negotiated by individuals themselves is extremely fruitful. Moreover, the subversive potential that, as my research reveals, is embedded in the process of identity construction opens up prospects that, in my view, hold political significance. Even in our present-day world, where the rules of our society are still so often decided by all-white all-male panels, and where people’s national, racial, and gender status is dictated to them by politicians, scientists, or the general public in the social media, this sort of analysis is, in my opinion, crucial for expanding our understandings of individual and group identities, their formation, and the possibilities of freedom within and from them.


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