Tabitha Kenlon’s ambitious, witty and well-written monograph, Conduct Books and the History of the Ideal Woman, examines six centuries of conduct books and etiquette guides designed for women. A chronological exploration, each chapter homes in on the most popular conduct books published each century, though, as readers will discover, publishers repeatedly reprinted the same conduct books regardless of whether the advice was decades or even centuries old. As such, mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers could be reading (and expected to conform to) the same written advice over a fifty to one-hundred-year period. Kenlon states that while moral, religious, and social expectations adapted and changed over the centuries, advice given to women on how she should behave, how she should dress, and what was considered appropriate feminine behaviour remained disturbingly constant. Kenlon even makes parallels between advice as found in conduct books and modern tropes as seen and read in sitcoms, movies, plays, and novels as a deliberate reminder that female stereotypes have been deeply ingrained in Western European culture since the Middle Ages.
In the very first chapter, which examines two conduct manuals from the fourteenth century, Kenlon explains that women were expected to embody two opposing traits: a wife was to be submissive to her husband when he was present, but to also take over his duties in his absence, including managing a household, educating children, and giving orders. In Kenlon’s words, these texts ask that a woman be ‘both strong and submissive, intelligent and biddable, capable and helpless’ (p. 16).
By the sixteenth century, conduct manuals dwelled on a woman’s appearance, advising her to avoid ostentatious dress and gossip, less she be branded vain and outspoken. In the seventeenth century, women were encouraged to adopt self-reflection and to self-police their own behaviour. Silence and modesty were upheld as ideal feminine traits and those who failed to conform to the ideal were ‘scolded’ both legally and socially.
Until the eighteenth century, many writers justified their advice by referring to the Bible, and biblical stories. From the eighteenth century onwards, however, Kenlon shows that writers moved away from primarily religious justifications and instead focussed more on general morality. For centuries, girls and young women were advised to fix their attention on preparing for marriage and securing an acceptable husband. Once married, keeping her husband happy and having children was expected to sustain a woman until her dying breath. Of course, happiness is somewhat of a moving target. In previous centuries, submission and silence were the acceptable behaviours women needed to adopt, but in the eighteenth century, a husband desired a wife he could have a conversation with on different topics of interest. Of course, she could not be too outspoken or too controversial, but she should be able to converse enough that the couple developed companionship. As such, girls needed to be educated so they could engage in polite conversation. Kenlon’s description of eighteenth-century female education reminded me of the fairy tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If a young woman did not receive an ample education, she was too boring. If she appeared too educated, she may become too outspoken. Striking a balance was the key.
I found Kenlon’s final chapter on self-help guides and other advice writing for women in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the most powerful but also the most disheartening. Many of these self-help guides repeat centuries-old advice: women should avoid being too loud, too brash, too outspoken, too sexy, too frigid, too put together, and too slovenly. Such advice is still very much part of present-day Western society.
Kenlon avoids discussing the LGBTQ+ perspective, even in her chapters on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I realise this may seem like a divergence for an already historically broad study, but it would be interesting to read Kenlon’s perspective on how advice writing speaks to the LGBTQ+ community. Indeed, a chapter that considers the LGBTQ+ perspective might make a nice addition if Kenlon were ever invited to produce a second edition of the book.
Overall, Conduct Books and the History of the Ideal Woman was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking read and a must for any student or scholar exploring gender history. This book is also available as an e-book and an audio book and, as such, is one of the first academic publications to take advantage of the audio book format. This is a much-needed development in academic book publishing, given that it makes books more accessible to a wider audience. I hope Kenlon’s determination to make the text available in multiple formats is adopted by others in future.
Dr Brianna Robertson-Kirkland
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland/University of Glasgow