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Cornelia Dahmer, Conduct books für junge Damen des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts: Aufrichtigkeit und Frauenrolle

Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2017. 544 pp. ISBN 978-3-631-73179-6
Kerstin Fest
Référence(s) :

DAHMER, CORNELIA. – Conduct books für junge Damen des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts: Aufrichtigkeit und Frauenrolle. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2017. 544 pp. ISBN 978-3-631-73179-6

Texte intégral

1Cornelia Dahmer’s monograph discusses a genre rising in popularity during the eighteenth century: conduct books aimed at young unmarried women from the “middling sort.” While this type of advice literature has been the subject of research before, Dahmer proposes a reading that opens up a new aspect of conduct books by focusing on an inherent yet long overlooked paradox at the heart of these texts: while a call for honesty and authenticity (the German term “Aufrichtigkeit” used in the book is less idiosyncratic and combines both connotations of speaking the truth and acting without conceit) is a main element of the texts, they nevertheless also demand a careful management or even manipulation of young women's behaviour to appear as favourable as possible to society. The author discusses this paradox through careful and extensive close readings of eleven texts published between 1688 and 1797, but also looks at the issues of authenticity and honesty on the part of the mentor persona who addresses a mentee and traces how far self-improvement and introspection feature in the texts discussed.

2The book’s main part is devoted to the various ways authenticity might be conveyed by physical, verbal and non-verbal means. Bodily expressions such as blushing, paling or crying are often presented as involuntary and spontaneous thus implying that there is an element of unconscious “transparency” which allows others to read a young woman’s true feelings and character. This already indicates some of the contradictions inherent in the genre: involuntary transparency does not require a conscious decision to be truthful or act honestly and cannot be controlled easily. Nevertheless, conduct books present the “legibility” of young women as positive as it indicates an innate honesty that is especially desirable for young middle-class women. Consequently, dissembling bodily symptoms, for example by wearing make-up or faking tears, is seen as deceitful.

3When it comes to verbal, non-verbal and para-verbal means to convey authenticity, however, the situation is more complex as more or less all of them require the achievement of a delicate balance between being authentic and being respectable (and desirable on the marriage market). While, on the surface, young women are supposed to appear natural, too much openness is seen as negative. Emotions, both negative and positive, must not be expressed too frankly and obviously by speaking too loudly, laughing too much or looking visibly angry or annoyed, but should be replaced by a decorous, calm and pleasant demeanour. At the same time, however, an obvious theatrical and affected social performance should be avoided too. The aim is “sincere self-representation” which combines honesty and respectability by making sure to appear as one should be – in the case of conduct books as a sincere and polite young woman. Controlling one’s facial expressions, for instance, is not a deceitful way to conceal what one really feels or thinks, but a conscious decision to act decorously, which is part of a different level of authenticity.

4The question of honesty and speech is less central in conduct books and is mostly discussed in the context of secrets, flattery and politeness. The latter is the least complicated of the three: deliberately not mentioning things out of politeness is seen as generally acceptable and part of being a sincere and discreet young lady. With regard to secrets and flattery, conduct books mostly discuss how to deal with them in society. Secrets are unsurprisingly complex as keeping a secret is a sign of friendship, yet concealing something from one's parents is not acceptable. When it comes to managing secrets, though, conduct books can be fairly pragmatic; young unmarried women, for example, should not confide in their already married friends as they might discuss the secrets with their husbands. When it comes to flattery most conduct books present their addressee as the object of flattery and urge their readers to be aware of fake friends, dishonest lovers or cheating servants. Being aware of inauthentic behaviour also allows the young reader to consciously not partake in it and thus achieve the already mentioned “sincere self-representation.”

5The sense of agency implied in “sincere self-representation” is at the centre of the book’s last part (Chapter 9). Here the originality of Cornelia Dahmer’s approach truly emerges. While earlier literature on the issue of authenticity in conduct books often presupposes a more or less “true” self to which the addressee should return or which is repressed by society’s norms, Dahmer uses the notion of “sincere self-representation” to show that becoming a truly authentic young lady is a project to which the mentee can and should contribute. In this context Dahmer differs from other authors, who regard conduct books as mere descriptions of the perfect lady the readers should emulate without much reflection. Dahmer, however, demonstrates that elements of self-reflection and conscious self-improvement can be shown throughout the texts. The readers are repeatedly urged to think about their behaviour but also, more importantly, their emotions. Rather than arguing that one is either sincere or not, becoming sincere is presented as progress. Different authors even suggest “fak[ing] it till you make it,” behaving like an ideal person in order to eventually become one.

6While a little bit more social and historical contextualisation might have been helpful, Cornelia Dahmer’s book offers an illuminating and often surprising insight into the genre of conduct books and clearly shows that it is far more complex than one might inspect.

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Kerstin Fest, « Cornelia Dahmer, Conduct books für junge Damen des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts: Aufrichtigkeit und Frauenrolle », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 75 | 2018, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2018, consulté le 16 décembre 2019. URL :

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Kerstin Fest

Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg - Englisches Seminar

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