Novel of Manners: Definition and Examples

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      The Novel of Manners, which developed in the 19th century, portrays with detailed realism of the social customs, conversation, conventions, traditions, the ways of thinking and valuing of the people of a social class, and shared habits of a given social group at a particular time and place and explores as well as demonstrates the powerful control that these social constructs exert over characters in the novel. As such, the narrative structure of the novel of manners recreates a social world (civil, military, political, and business) and shows the spheres of public and private life sufficiently to convey the dominance of social-code mores upon the personal and public lives of the people in the story. The detailed observation of the values and customs of a social-class and society thematically dominate the story.

      Because it focused attention on the domestic arena and its emotional impact on the fictional characters, the novel of manners naturally attracted women writers. Many of these writers, however, did not succeed and wrote a type of fiction called the novel of sensibility or sentiment, which stressed the intensity of the characters’ emotional responses frequently beyond the limits of the rational. Some excellent women writers of novels of manners also wrote novels of sentiment or satires of such novels. It is important to note that the true novel of manners examines objectively the impact of social gestures and constructs on characters with attention to verisimilitude in an attempt to assist the intellect more than the heart in grasping social and psychological profundities.

      One of the most successful writers of novels of manners was Jane Austen. Not only was Jane Austen (1775-1817) a novelist of manners, but her novels gave definition to the genre by bringing to culmination the artistic structure (including the perfection of an objective narrative technique infused with irony, wit, and perspicacity) and themes of the mainstream 18th century novel. She wrote her major works in a remarkably short time. Her first novel Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1816. Austen’s novels exhibit a constant maturation of theme and artistry, but her first publication Sense and Sensibility deserves special attention. Even though the compositional history of this novel is not clearly known, the earliness of this work within her oeuvre is unbeatable, and yet, as her biographer, Elizabeth Jenkins states, Sense and Sensibility “was obviously prepared for press when Jane Austen’s powers were approaching their zenith”.

      Centuries of belief in sex-role differences had stipulated that the female was the seat of emotional life in complement to the male’s rationalism. Sensibility developed into a complex concept that is only very generally defined as an over indulgence in emotion. Sensibility contrasts with rationalism as a guide to discovering the laws that regulate human and metaphysical relations. A fine sensibility often felt contempt for cities, formal gardens, and conventional society and loved such things as wild landscapes, if viewed according to the dictates of picturesque beauty. Historically, women were so aligned with sensibility that, as they became writers of fiction and analyzers of manners, they quite naturally wrote about emotions and emotional issues. The assignment of emotions and feelings to one sex and rationalism to the other had enormous ramifications, all very important to the novelists of manners and to none more than to Jane Austen, who early and clearly saw the split between sense and sensibility as a major theme. Her determination to objectively and realistically depict these social constructs and their effects on character and situation gave the genre most of its themes and artistry. Readers have often failed to appreciate Austen’s opposition to the values of her society, as well as her detailed examination of a society that markets sexual feelings and “other kinds of feelings too; the feelings for nature, for religion, for the poor, and for learning and art. ... If love is affected, so also may be pity, enthusiasm, piety, and admiration” (Hardy). Perhaps the largest failure of appreciation of Austen’s work is the lack of understanding of her most important theme: “insistence that sense and sensibility must work together”.

      Jane Austen showed her genius by exploring this complex issue in her early novel Sense and Sensibility. Even though the novel approaches the directness of a tract on the subject at times, critics were determining that the heroine is the sister who so clearly stands as the representative of ‘sense’, rather than the sister who represents ‘sensibility’. Critics were even less ready to see Austen’s major theme: the need for sense and sensibility to work together in balance and in both sexes and a further need for social constructs to support this cooperation. The importance of this novel to Austen and the tradition of the novel of manners cannot be overestimated. Understanding this split between mind and feelings has been crucial to the historical attempt to remove the restrictions from the lives of women, especially the barriers into those areas of life most highly valued, the greatest barrier being the belief that women do not have adequate rational capacity to be educated. Austen referred several times to Sense and Sensibility as her unforgettable child. Its themes certainly inform those of the rest of her fiction and, thereby, the definition of the novel of manners.

      Austen’s novels are often criticized for what is seen as a too narrow range of interests. She concentrates on the country life among the upper middle class in southern England near the end of the 18th century to the exclusion of interest in even major national and international events. On the other hand, Austen is the subject of almost unbroken praise for the complex portrayal of what she called ‘the delicacy of mind’, captured only by a supreme concentration on looking and listening. Many critics and readers go further to praise Austen’s moral concerns, which they feel give her themes the highest significance. She is further praised by feminists for what Ellen Moers calls Austen’s “deep concern with the quality of a woman’s life in marriage”; other critics note her depiction of society’s lack of concern for unmarried women. All of these concerns informed the development of the novel of manners. Among Austen’s precursors there are Fanny Burney (1732-1840) and Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849). Three of Burney’s novels were novels of manners: Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1796), and Camilla (1796). Although all three have many of the characteristics of Austen’s major novels, Cecilia is least susceptible to being classified as a novel of sentiment. At the same time, Wilbur L. Cross describes Evelina as “the novel in which we move from the old to the new manners”. Cross also remarks, “Before Fanny Burney, the novel of manners had been cultivated exclusively by men”. Austen paid Burney homage by taking from her works the title and theme of Pride and Prejudice.

      Maria Edgeworth wrote novels of manners that exposed false sentiment and frivolous nonsense in fashionable London society (e.g. Belinda in 1801). Edgeworth spent her childhood in England but moved to Ireland, a set of circumstances that allowed her to write fiction contrasting the manners of two societies (Ennui in 1809; The Absentee in 1812) and thus create the international novel. Among novelists following Jane Austen was Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), who wrote various kinds of novels, but her subject was always women. Several of her novels, including Cranford (1853), North and South (1855), and Silvia's Lovers (1857), are aptly called novel of manners. In all her novels, characters struggle to understand their social circumstances and moral obligations. Charlotte Smith (1749-1806), Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821), Frances Trollope (1780-1863), Susan Ferrier (1782-1854), Catherine Gore (1799- 1861), and Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) are other women novelists of the period who worked in the genre.

      Later in the nineteenth century, certain works by the realist George Eliot (1819-1880), such as Middlemarch (1872), Daniel Deronda (1876), and Mill on the Floss (1860), mark her as an important recorder and analyst of social manners. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) wrote short novels about New England that are explorations of the society of the region. Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) wrote almost all short fiction, but it concentrates on the intense and subtle ways society’s manners and conventions dominate people. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening explores the manners of Creole society in the South and its various methods of controlling characters’ intentions and actions. Later yet is the novelist of manners Edith Wharton (1863-1937). Wharton’s province was upper-class New York society, and her fiction depicts and contrasts the manners of both the old and new moneyed families, and American and European manners. Wharton’s novels share with other novels of manners a moral concern for the characters as well as for the effects of moral and immoral behavior of the societies involved.

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