What is conduct book: Definition, and Examples

A conduct book is a species of guide to good behaviour, concerned with morality, deportment, manners and religion. It is quite closely related to the courtesy book and a sort of successor to that as well as being a precursor of books of etiquette, which proliferated in the 19th c. These books concentrate on the do’s and don’ts and are often guides for social climbers.

Among the first of the conduct books was Richard Allestree’s The Whole Duty of Man (1658), which he later followed with The Ladies’ Calling (1673). The Whole Duty was a kind of devotional work which expounded man’s duties to God and his fellow men. Two years later came Hannah Woolley’s The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1675) and in 1694 the anonymous The Ladies’ Dictionary. Many followed, and they give a fascinating insight into the attitudes, assumptions, mores and conventions of the period. Some of the attitudes, accompanied by pompous and complacent moralizing, would be enough to drive modern feminists quite distracted and it is no wonder that the unhappy Mary Wollstonecraft was to inveigh against the position of women in her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Some of the best-known conduct books are as follows: Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their Time and Great Interest (1701); Lady Sarah Pennington’s An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to Her Absent Daughters (1761), which she followed later with The Polite Lady, or, A Course of Female Education in a Series of Letters, from a Mother to Her Daughter (1775); Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1767); George Edmond Howard’s Apophthegms and Maxims on Various Subjects for the Good Conduct of Life &c (1767) and Instructions for a Young Lady in Every Sphere and Period of Life (1773); Hester Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773); Dr John Gregory’s Legacy to His Daughters (1774); Laetitia Matilda Hawkins’s Letters on the Female Mind, its Power and Pursuits (1793); Thomas Gisborne’s An Enquiry into the Duties of Men in the Higher and Middling Classes of Society (1794) and An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (1796); Jane West’s Letters to a Young Man (1802) and Letters to a Young Woman (1806); Miss Hatfield’s Letters on the Importance of the Female Sex: With Observations on Their Manners, and on Education (1803); Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809); Elizabeth Appleton’s Private Education, or, A Practical Plan for the Studies of Young Ladies. With an Address to Parents, Private Governesses, and Young Ladies (1815).

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