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A novel of manners is work of fiction that re-creates a social world, conveying with finely detailed observation the customs, values, and mores of a highly developed and complex society.
The conventions of the society dominate the story, and characters are differentiated by the degree to which they measure up to the uniform standard, or ideal, of behaviour or fall below it. The scope of a novel of manners may be particular, as in the works of Jane Austen, which deal with the domestic affairs of the English landed gentry of the 19th century, or general, as in the novels of Balzac, which mirror the 19th century in stories dealing with Parisian life, provincial life, private life, public life, and military life.
Books and notes in this period instructing one how to behave in society are countless. In particular, Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son are a prime example to anyone concerned with propriety. He instructs his son to engage society in a pleasing manner which includes avoiding possibly offensive or controversial subjects, speaking in peaceful tones, and acquiring a poised posture, all in consideration of the company one is in. This obsession with proper social conduct spawned a wave of novels concerned with this sort of behaviour. In 1778, Frances Burney wrote Evelina, a novel whose innovative plot and treatment of contemporary manners made it a landmark in the development of the novel of manners. Social behaviour in public and private settings accounts for much of the plot of Evelina. This is mirrored in other novels that were more highly popularised in the beginning of the 19th century. Jane Austen's novels are perhaps the most recognisable works in the genre. Because of Austen's works, the novel of manners is mostly associated with the early 19th century.
The rise in the importance of social behaviour had not gone unnoticed by one Horace Walpole, the widely credited inventor of Gothic fiction. Walpole's knowledge of Chesterfield and the importance of manners perhaps influenced not only his work but carried over into other authors' novels dubbed "Gothic" as well. Walpole wrote what is generally accepted to be the first Gothic novel during Chesterfield's lifetime, The Castle of Otranto in 1764. It is theorised[by whom?] that the emergence of the novel of manners as a full genre was in retaliation to the rise in the popularity of the Gothic novel.
This near-simultaneous emergence of the novel of manners and the Gothic novel led to a crossover of characteristics between the genres. The main link between the novel of manners and the Gothic novel is the language of manners. In both cases, social and moral manners are dominating factors in the structure of the novel. In the Gothic novel, the starkest difference is the supernatural or the indication of supernatural events. However, many of the characters are often so far below the accepted level of social behaviour that it is considered horrific. Another feature that differs from the novel of manners is the outcome of the novel. In Gothic fiction, the outcome is not always the positive reinforcement of morals that the novel of manners offers. An example of this morally anti-climactic ending would be Charlotte Dacre's Zofloya.
Another theory for the emergence and growth of the novel of manners is that the changes taking place in English society were eroding the class boundaries. Changes in the social hierarchy were taking place due to leaps in technology and the novel of manners was a way to comment upon challenges to the traditional class order. The different classes represented in the novels served to represent how the different classes in society were supposed to behave in different settings. This includes public versus private, rural versus urban, and settings where there were men versus women. This contrast between the genders highlights the fact that there were many more women that were authors of novels of manners than there were men. This brought the focus of many of these novels to the social issues and conventions that plagued women of the time.
Novels of manners in English include:
- 18th century
- 19th century
- Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), and Persuasion (1818), by Jane Austen
- Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero (1848), by William Makepeace Thackeray
- North and South (1855), and Wives and Daughters (1864), by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
- The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Silas Marner (1861), by George Eliot
- 20th century
- Andrzej Diniejko (2004). Introduction to the Study of Literature. Kielce: Wydawnictwo Akademii Swietokrzyskiej.
- Novel Beginnings: Experiments in 18th century English Fiction
Patricia Meyer Spacks Yale Guides to English Literature U.S. 2006
- Lord Chesterfield's Letters
Lord Chesterfield, Introduction and Notes by David Roberts Oxford University Press Great Clarendon Street, Oxford 1992
- The Castle of Otranto
Horace Walpole Oxford University Press Great Clarendon Street, Oxford 1996
Charlotte Dacre Oxford University Press Great Clarendon Street, Oxford 1997
Frances Burney Oxford University Press Great Clarendon Street, Oxford 2006
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