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Stephen Copley Research Report: Emma Probett on Austen and Gaskell

A report from a research trip funded by a BARS Stephen Copley Research Award.

Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell – Conduct novels and the Novel of Manners at Chawton House Library

by Emma Probett

The BARS Stephen Copley Research Award afforded me the opportunity to visit Chawton House Library in Hampshire, which holds a large collection of women’s literature, predominantly from 1600-1830, including books belonging to the Knight family and borrowed by Jane Austen.

I was able to spend a fortnight in May 2018 studying conduct novels ranging from 1814, the year of Mansfield Park’s publication, to 1830, when Elizabeth Gaskell became a teenager. The research I undertook will inform the foundation of my PhD thesis in which I will track the tropes and transformation of the conduct novel, from conduct manuals such as Hannah More’s Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, to the established conduct novels of Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth. I will consider the collective effect these novels had on women’s writing, and on public opinion regarding what it was appropriate for women to write about.

Though a number of critics have vied to align Austen with contemporaneous conservative and radical novelists alike, there is a distinct lack of research exploring her far-reaching effects on Victorian women novelists and the conduct novel canon. My thesis explores Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell as subversive novelists and analyses their codified references to morally dubious behaviour, and their process of experimenting with and undermining established conduct novel tropes. As part of this research I am surveying once-popular female novelists and ideologists of the conduct novel who, though now obscure and out of print, provide a rich insight into the building blocks of the genre. This cross section demonstrates not only the rules of the genre but the rules of conduct for women novelists.

Women novelists could be outspoken on social and political matters, prominent figureheads being Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays; however, when they were, their private lives were often intruded upon and harshly criticised by the general public. In order for women novelists to retain social standing, a degree of privacy, and the ability to write for an independent living, they needed the approbation of mainstream publishers, reviewers, and the general reader; any criticism regarding social and political issues required gentle satire, nuanced irony, and embedded references which required the reader to have a specialist knowledge of a saying, a limerick, or a product etc. to understand the inference.

In addition to the typical three volume novel sets which focus on conduct and manners, I was also able to review transitionary materials that strike a blend between the conduct manual (as an instruction book) and the conduct novel (as an entertaining parable). Considering how authors experimented with the novel form was not only deeply rewarding, but further emphasised the issues facing novelists in terms of communicating authentic virtue in their protagonists in a way that was not as indirect and distancing for readers as the epistolary novel, nor as direct and potentially inappropriate as passionate dialogue between a protagonist and their love interest. Borderline performative body language such as fainting fits, catatonic immobility, and unstable blushing to blanching is at the foreground of the conduct novel; the appearance of good health and ill health as an indicator of emotional health (often closely linked to moral health), is constantly publicly monitored, discussed, interpreted and policed.

I believe that this issue of dramatised bodily health – as an author’s assertion of a character’s virtue – was addressed by Austen in the development of the novel of manners, a subgenre of the conduct novel, which focuses on behaving and speaking virtuously rather than being innately and unaffectedly virtuous, effectively circumventing an author’s struggle to categorically prove that their character is truly virtuous. The research I undertook at Chawton House Library aided me in forming definitions and differentiations between the conduct novel and the novel of manners.

I am very grateful to BARS for giving me the opportunity to organise a prolonged visit to Chawton House Library, as without this funding I would not have been able to undertake such an extensive and indispensable research trip. Chawton House Library is currently housing an excellent exhibition, The art of freezing the blood’: Northanger Abbey, Frankenstein, & the Female Gothic, open until 7th December 2018.