8 Mar 2023

18th-century etiquette for women

As we celebrate International Women’s Day we have been leafing through an 18th-century guide to etiquette to gain some fresh insights into how the women who lived generations before us were expected to behave. The Lady’s Companion, an Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex, by ‘A Lady’, 1743, is typical of many of the etiquette books that catered for teenaged girls who were just about to be launched into society. It takes a high moral tone and is loaded with repressive admonitions. High standards of behaviour and compliance are demanded of young women, who above all are expected to be becomingly modest, meek and unassuming.

The anonymous writer of the Guide also seems to be alarmed by the ‘degenerate age’ in which she lives (a perennial concern) and is anxious above all to safeguard young women’s virtue, with dire warnings about the dangers of bold and flirtatious behaviour, vanity and – heaven forbid – drunkenness. She abhors any signs from women that they are behaving like men and insists that, above all, they should be obedient in all things to their parents and guardians.

The sheer volume and weight of the restrictive advice that is ladled out to young women must be shocking for their 21st-century descendants. It is a vivid reminder of how much society has changed and how deeply ingrained attitudes have been eradicated over the last two centuries allowing us to reassess and reinvent our notions of gender and all that it entails.

The Virtue of Modesty

Modesty [is] a Guider and Regulator of all decent and comely Carriage and Behaviour… and is the great Civilizer of Conversations… It appears in the Face in calm and meek Looks, where it so impresses itself, that it gives the greatest Lustre to a Feminine Beauty. Modesty… banishes all Indecency and Rudeness, all insolent Vauntings, and supercilious Disdains, and whatever else may render a Person troublesome, or ridiculous to Company… It restrains all excessive Talkativeness.”

Modesty is revered above all virtues because it is seen as a way of reining in any ‘dangerous’ impulses – self-assertiveness and talkativeness are seen as ‘troublesome’ and ‘ridiculous’ in a young woman. There is a general sense that any displays of strong character (firmly held opinions, confidently expressed) will be entirely injurious to the reputation, proving a fatal impediment to prospects of marriage, the ultimate goal.

The Degenerate Age

Such a degenerate Age do we live in, that every Thing seems inverted, even Sexes, whilst Men fall into the Effeminacy and Niceness of Women, and Women take up the Confidence, the Boldness of Men… Vices of Men are carefully copied by some Women, who think they have not made a sufficient Escape from their Sex, ‘till they can be as daringly wicked as the other… And when to this a Woman adds the Sin of Drunkenness, nothing that is human approaches so near a Beast. She who is first a Prostitute to Wine, will soon be to Lust also.”

It is scarcely surprising in these constricted circumstances that young women might aspire to the swagger and panache characteristic of young men, but the ‘Lady’ is thoroughly alarmed by the prospect of young women becoming more like men – boldness, spirit and self-assurance are repudiated, and there is an implication that taking on these characteristics will soon lead to ‘wickedness’ – succumbing to the temptations of alcohol and lust.

Unmannerly Freedom

The Female Sex ought to maintain a Behaviour toward Men, which may be secure to themselves without offending them. No ill-bred affected Shyness, nor a Roughness, unsuitable to their Sex, and unnecessary to their Virtue, but a Way of living that may prevent all Cause of Railleries or unmannerly Freedoms; Looks that forbid without Rudeness, and oblige without Invitation, or leaving room for the saucy Inferences Men’s Vanity suggests to them upon the least Encouragement.”

As if the above-mentioned remonstrances were not enough, young ladies are firmly instructed about their behaviour towards men and are told in no uncertain terms that the way in which they behave (boldness, flirtatiousness) may lead to ‘saucy inferences’ and ‘unmannerly freedoms’. In other words, men are, according to the ‘Lady’, vain enough to respond to the least encouragement, and are likely to misinterpret young ladies’ behaviour. This is dangerous territory, as it has the potential to lead to sexual scandal and a devastating loss of reputation. Yet young ladies are not seen as victims of predatory males; instead, they are told that it is their own demure behaviour that should control and repress lascivious intent.

Youthful Folly

Youth is apt to be foolish in its Designs, and heady in the Pursuit of them; and there can be nothing more deplorable than to have it left to itself.  Children are under the Guidance and Protections of their parents, ‘till, by the maturing of their Judgements, they are qualified to be their own Conductors.

It would be a rare young woman in the 18th century who asserted her own will over that of her parents. Etiquette guides such as The Lady’s Companion reflect societal norms in the ways in which they condescend to young people, dismissing them as foolish, impulsive and misguided. There is an assumption that in all things they must be guided, directed and, in effect, controlled by their parents and guardians.

Affability and Courtesy

Affability and Courtesy are, without doubt, amiable in all, but more especially in the Fair-Sex, and more necessary to them than to the other; for Men have often Charges and Employments which justify, nay, perhaps, require somewhat of Sternness and Austerity, but Women ordinarily have few or no Occasions of it.”

The “Lady” is under no illusions about the roles of the sexes in 18th-century society. She pragmatically points out that men go out into the world, take on great responsibilities and difficult challenges, and on these somewhat dubious grounds may be excused a certain “sternness”, but women do not have this excuse, living quietly as they do within the confines of the domestic sphere. They must therefore be ‘affable’ and courteous, countering any ‘austerity’ (bad temper) displayed by men.

Aging Gracefully

Women should let every seven Years make some Alteration in them towards the graver Side, and not be like the Girls of fifty, who resolve to be always young, whatever Time with his Iron Teeth determines to the contrary...the Liveliness of Youth in a riper Age, looks like a new Patch upon an old Gown.

Most of the ‘Lady’s’ advice is for younger women but she does not spare the older representatives of her sex, roundly condemning them for their determination to be “always young” and resist the “iron teeth” of time. Her contempt is reserved for older women’s behaviour rather than their appearance, and she clearly feels that their attempts to ape the “liveliness of youth” are unseemly and inappropriate. Apparently, the implacable grip of convention was not reserved solely for the young, but continued to be applied as women aged, ensuring that they complied with generally accepted social expectations.


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