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from Encyclopedia of the Novel.

Schellinger, Paul (ed.); Hudson, Christopher; Rijsberman, Marijke (asst eds).
Chicago; London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998. 2 vols.
Copyright © 1998 Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.

Considering how often one novel or another is designated a "novel of manners," it is
astonishing how little critical energy has been devoted to discerning what precisely
the "novel of manners" is, from which tradition or traditions this subgenre derives,
and what novels of manners do. Scholars working within the Anglo-American
tradition(s) are quick to claim the works of Jane Austen, Henry James, and Edith
Wharton as quintessential novels of manners and, depending on what they consider
the salient qualities of these novels, will then expand their lists to include such authors
as Samuel Richardson, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Frances Burney, Maria
Edgeworth, Virginia Woolf, Barbara Pym, Dorothy Sayers, Margaret Drabble, F. Scott
Fitzgerald, even Nathaniel Hawthorne as novelists of manners. This---admittedly
partial---list suggests that there is little consensus, even within Anglo-American
culture, about what a novel of manners is. And when we admit the productions of
other language cultures into consideration, reading Madame de Lafayette (La
Princesse de Clèves [1678; The Princess of Cleves]), Choderlos de Laclos (Les
Liaisons dangereuses [1782; Dangerous Acquaintances]), Honoré de Balzac (Le père
goriot [1835; Le Père Goriot]), Marcel Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu [1913-
27; translated as Remembrance of Things Past and also as In Search of Lost Time]),
Theodor Fontane (Frau Jenny Treibel [1892; Jenny Treibel]), Thomas Mann
(Buddenbrooks [1901; Buddenbrooks]), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Die
Wahlverwandtschaften [1809; The Elective Affinities]), Lev Tolstoi (Anna Karenina
[1875-77])---just to mention the French, German, and Russian writers known to a
general Anglo-American readership---as novelists of manners, the task of defining the
novel of manners becomes all the more difficult.
It is equally difficult to adduce any one history or tradition of the novel of manners,
since a particular culture's literary appropriation of conventions of manners depends
so much on the class structure of that culture and the relation between codes of
behavior and social organization. Hence, for example, the Continental novel is
indebted to Renaissance and ancien régime courtly protocol, whereas the English
tradition of manners---at least as this tradition achieves articulation in the novel---is
more readily traced to social and literary forms associated with the rise of the
bourgeoisie in the 18th century.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines manners as "the way something is done or
takes place" in a certain society; more specifically, they are the "customary mode of
acting or behavior, whether of an individual or of a community, habitual practice,
usage, custom, fashion ... external behavior in social intercourse, estimated as good or
bad according to its degree of politeness or of conformity to the accepted standard of
propriety." In the spirit of this definition, James Tuttleton (1972) describes the novel
of manners as one in which "the manners, social customs, folkways, conventions,
traditions, and mores of a given social group play a dominant role in the lives of
fictional characters, exert control over their thought and behavior, and constitute a
determinant upon the actions in which they are engaged, and in which these manners
and customs are detailed realistically---with, in fact, a premium upon the exactness of
their representation."
In addition to representing the context in which the action of the novel takes place,
manners also constitute the system of representation of the novel of manners. That is
to say that manners are not simply the conventions, mores, customs, and traditions in
terms of which the characters in a novel articulate their desires and emplot their
fulfillment; manners also are the novelistic conventions in which these desires and
their emplotment achieve representation.
Through manners, the novel's closed society articulates its boundaries, and the novel
itself articulates the terms of its closure. Manners organize a closed society in such a
way that what it considers improper---that is, both unseemly and not proper
(belonging) to it---is simultaneously proscribed and granted indirect articulation. In
his brilliant eponymous essay on the French writer La Bruyère (1964), Roland
Barthes distinguishes between the "inland" and the "outland" delineated by the
manners of a closed society: the laws governing what one does and does not do both
constitute the boundaries of a society and allow those members who agree to behave
according to these laws a certain latitude in which to play with them. For instance, in
a society in which afternoon and morning visits signal entirely different registers of
intimacy, the appearance in the morning of a relative stranger with a plausible excuse
(i.e., "an intimate mutual friend asked me to deliver a message") can---but need not---
precipitate a socially yet-unsanctioned new intimacy that will either continue to
operate under cover of other similarly engineered ruses or seek public legitimation.
The way in which the novel's plot deals with this "infraction" (immediate censure,
continued dalliance, legitimation, scandal) determines its closural strategies. Since the
novel of manners' repertoire of plots is determined by the rules governing social
behavior, it is possible to assert that its narrative economy is governed by the same
laws that regulate the actions of its characters.
The reason that manners allow for play at the same time as they designate the
boundaries of that play is that they encode what they apparently proscribe; they
represent a mode of indirection whose functioning depends on their ability to maintain
in a state of dynamic repression much of their own constitutive energy. Hence, as
James R. Kincaid argues in an article entitled "Anthony Trollope and the Unmannerly
Novel" (in Bowers and Brothers, 1990):
Manners---and the novel of manners---do not just happen but are tied to forms of
cultural power and control; further ... actual novels of manners tend to allow a pretty
fierce criticism of the system upholding any given set of manners. No novels ... are
more relentlessly political and ideological than these presumably domestic and
personal works. They resist the dissociation of the personal from the political and see
forms of power everywhere. ... The novel of manners is most interestingly seen as an
attack on the novel of manners.
As Kincaid suggests, the subgenre that is so often associated with conservatism---
because of its circumscription of a closed, elitist society and its acute preoccupation
with affairs that are of apparently no interest outside of this society---has explosive
political potential, albeit potential that is often not exploited and even more often not
noticed. The way, for example, that the novels of Jane Austen have been appropriated
by all kinds of readers, from the far right to the far left, suggests that in her
deployment of manners Austen mobilizes more energies than are containable in one
single political economy, even though the economy of manners of her novels seems to
accommodate these energies quite neatly.
Yet the energies that novels of manners encode within the gestural economy of "good"
society need not be figured as political energies. Long before critics started paying
serious attention to the political subtexts of novels of manners, manners---in Austen
and elsewhere---were seen to give expression to psychological depths. As Gloria Sybil
Gross claims in "Jane Austen and Psychological Realism: 'What Does a Woman
Want'" (in Bowers and Brothers, 1990), "a word, a gesture, a look, a tone of voice,
these significant small details of social intercourse are the clues to the deepest sources
of feeling. ... Austen exposed profound unconscious dynamics and their powerful
influence upon conscious life." More dramatically than Austen, perhaps, Balzac and
James use manners to both mask and give expression to profound psychological
dramas---what Peter Brooks (1976) calls "melodrama"---whose sheer force would do
violence to the representational economy were manners themselves not capable of
containing excess at the same time as they allow it to negotiate some of its claims. In
Balzac's Le Père Goriot, the Vicomtesse de Beauséant gives a ball on the evening that
she quits society forever because she has been forsaken by her lover; the brilliant
social performance that belies her humiliation and masks her intention to leave the
world not only gives powerful expression to her abjection but comments on the drama
of Goriot, an old man dying in poverty several blocks away, ruined and abandoned by
the daughters who attend the ball and mourn the departure of the Vicomtesse more
than they do the impending demise of their father. In this episode, exquisite manners
both divert attention from and give expression to a many-layered drama of ambition
and betrayal. The famous card-playing scene in Henry James' The Golden Bowl
(1904) articulates the entire drama of betrayal and retribution being acted out through
manners within the arrangement of four people at a card table being watched by a
The facts of the situation were upright to [Maggie Verver] round the green cloth and
the silver flambeaux; the fact of her father's wife's lover [Maggie's husband] facing
his mistress; the fact of her father sitting, all unsounded and unblinking, between
them; the fact of Charlotte keeping it up, keeping up everything, across the table; the
fact of Fanny Assingham, wonderful creature, placed opposite to the three and
knowing more about each, probably ... than either of them know of either. Erect above
all for her was the sharp-edged fact of the relation of the whole group, individually
and collectively, to herself. ...
Because manners here are working to keep a nexus of deception and knowledge from
exploding into destruction and pain, Maggie can look at this scene and imagine it
"like a stage awaiting a drama, it was a scene she might people, by the press of her
string, either with serenities and dignities and decencies, or with terrors and shames
and ruins ...". The ability to "work" manners such that they preserve appearances even
as the "terrors and shames and ruins" are being silently acknowledged and distributed
enables both Maggie and James to bring the plot to a close without violating the
superficial formality figured in the first citation.
It should be clear from the examples just discussed that the quality of affect
represented as being encoded into manners depends upon the role manners play
within a novel's historical context. Certainly, a Balzacian or Jamesian melodrama of
manners would be anathema to the ideology of propriety governing the novels of Jane
Austen. In Balzac and James, it is clearly anachronistic to use manners to organize a
discourse about the social world as a whole; the pressure that is brought to bear on
manners by what is so palpably "beneath and behind" them (to use James' phrase)
allows for the representation through them of both a sociopolitical and a personal
unconscious as well as a dramatization of the inadequacy of manners to the task of
truly representing "le monde comme il est" ("the world as it is," Le Père Goriot).
In the case of Austen, the world circumscribed by manners is more plausibly identical
with the world whose parameters the novel's discourse recognizes. Although recent
scholarship has convincingly challenged the notion of Austen as a conservative
miniaturist of manners entirely disengaged from the historical events and political
debates of her day, it is true that historical and political discourse are present in her
novels in much the same manner as they are present to the characters in these novels.
As Edward Said (1993) points out, Mansfield Park (1814) does bring up the issue of
British imperialism, but it does so only insofar as Sir Thomas Bertram's concern about
his plantations in Antigua compels him to leave Mansfield at a crucial moment in the
development of the novel's domestic crisis. Although a responsible reading of the
novel demands attention to this highly significant detail, its importance to the
characters has more to do with the protracted absence of the head of the family than
with the economic and political implications of the sugar trade in the early 19th
century---and our interpretation of this detail must consider it in relation to the crises
it precipitates: Maria Bertram's engagement to Mr. Rushworth, the introductions of
the worldly Crawfords, the theatricals. In Austen's novels, manners domesticate the
larger world's infractions upon the domestic sphere: the presence of a militia
encampment in Pride and Prejudice (1813) and of naval officers learning to cope with
peacetime in Persuasion (1818) certainly gestures toward a world outside the
domestic and a class outside the gentry, but their interest to the characters in the
novels is resolutely domestic and romantic; in a world in which there seem always to
be more marriageable young women than there are bachelors willing to marry them,
the military represents a resource seemingly divorced from its national or imperial
But if in Austen's novels manners domesticate the world's infractions upon the private
sphere, they do not solve the conflicts raised by these infractions. The conflicts that
Austen's novels represent directly are personal---and social only to the extent that the
personal comes into conflict with those social concerns that achieve articulation
within the family. Yet the way in which the sociopolitical becomes visible at the
margins of the world of manners lends force to the impression generated by the
novels' domestic plots that, even though manners continue to manage the gender
politics of Austen's few families, they do not manage them satisfactorily: there is no
way to prevent Mr. Collins from taking Elizabeth's refusal to marry him as a polite
deferral of her acceptance of his proposal. Indeed, at the same time as manners
envision no resolution other than marriage for a woman's plot, they seem only barely
capable of protecting women from making, or being forced into, the wrong marriage.
Moreover, the inabilities of the economy of manners of Mansfield Park, for instance,
to accommodate some trivial home theatricals, Mary Crawford's worldliness, and her
brother's rakishness suggest that the manners that govern the world of Mansfield are
inadequate to the tasks that are being set for them. If, ideally, manners mask and
negotiate the claims they claim not to recognize, in Austen, the force of
nonrecognition that manners must exert makes them incapable of entirely masking or
adequately negotiating these claims.
As early as the beginning of the 19th century, then, those novels that have been most
often canonized as novels of manners seem to be using manners to gesture toward
their own insufficiency both in the organization of society and of literary texts.
Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to claim any particular history of this subgenre.
Within the Continental tradition, it is possible to derive a genealogy for the novel of
manners such as that described by Peter Brooks (1969) that derives from Renaissance
literature about courtly behavior, includes the romances of Madeleine de Scudéry, the
maxims of La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld, the libertine novels of Crébillon fils,
Denon, and others, and what might be termed the first novel of manners in the form
we know it today, Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves. Yet the English novel of
manners derives less from courtly models than it does from those attempts to legislate
conduct associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie and of the distinctions in gender
roles that develop with bourgeois forms of domesticity. Hence, perhaps, the explicit
centrality of questions of erotics and power in the Continental novel of manners,
questions that can be addressed in the English tradition only through indirection, or, as
in the case of Frances Burney's Evelina (1778), through the introduction of foreigners.
And when Henry James appropriates the tradition at a relatively late point in its
protracted obsolescence, he orchestrates precisely the conflicts that occur when
manners, as construed in the Anglo-American tradition, encounter manners in their
Continental application (see especially The American, 1876). If the novel of manners
has its origin in texts working toward or even celebrating the homogeneity of a closed
society that could designate its closure through its manners, its function in the 20th
century seems to have been the foregrounding and exploration of the differences to
which forms of social closure are such a tempting response.
In 1950, Lionel Trilling called upon the novel of manners to do the work of moral
discernment ("to penetrate to the truth which, as the novel assumes, lies hidden
beneath all the false appearances") in a world that is poor in institutions that "raise
questions in our minds not only about conditions but about ourselves, that lead us to
refine our motives and ask what might lie behind our good impulses." Nearly 40 years
later, Kazuo Ishiguro's postmodern, postcolonial novel of manners The Remains of the
Day (1989) demonstrates as eloquently as Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses that
manners, and the novels that exploit them, are subject to the same mystifications and
seductions that they claim to expose, and that, as Goethe put it in The Elective
Affinities, "Through what is called behavior or good manners we are supposed to
achieve what is otherwise achievable only through violence, or perhaps not even
through violence."

Susan Winnett

Further Reading
Armstrong, Nancy, and Leonard Tennenhouse, editors, The Ideology of Conduct: Essays in Literature
and the History of Sexuality, New York: Methuen, 1987
Auerbach, Erich, "La Cour et la Ville," translated by Ralph Manheim, in Scenes from the Drama of
European Literature, New York: Meridian, 1959
Barthes, Roland, "La Bruyère," in Critical Essays, translated by Richard Howard, Evanston, Illinois:
Northwestern University Press, 1972; volume originally published as Essais critiques, 1964
Bentley, Nancy, The Ethnography of Manners: Hawthorne, James, Wharton, Cambridge and New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1995
Bowers, Bege K., and Barbara Brothers, editors, Reading and Writing Women's Lives: A Study of the
Novel of Manners, Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1990
Brooks, Peter, The Novel of Worldliness: Crébillon, Marivaux, Laclos, Stendhal, Princeton, New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1969
Brooks, Peter, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of
Excess, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1976
Johnson, Claudia L., Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1988
Price, Martin, "Manners, Morals, and Jane Austen," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 30 (December 1975)
Said, Edward, Culture and Imperialism, New York: Knopf, and London: Chatto and Windus, 1993
Trilling, Lionel, "Manners, Morals, and the Novel," in The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature
and Society, New York: Viking, 1950; London: Secker and Warburg, 1951
Tuttleton, James W., The Novel of Manners in America, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
Winnett, Susan, Terrible Sociability: The Text of Manners in Laclos, Goethe, and James, Stanford,
California: Stanford University Press, 1993