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La Mesure et l'excès

A Brief History of Modesty

Abigail Williams
p. 135-156


Cet article aborde les concepts de la mesure et de l’excès par le prisme du terme “modest”. Considérer la modestie comme une valeur clé des xviie et xviiie siècles permet de détailler les dimensions politiques et esthétiques de la modération dans toute leur complexité. L’adjectif “modest” est utilisé très fréquemment pendant cette période et l’étude s’appuie sur des exemples tirés de Jonathan Swift, John Milton, Sarah Fielding et Alexander Pope pour montrer le rôle joué par ce mot dans la rhétorique politique, la bienséance entre les sexes, la représentation à la ville comme à la scène. Cependant, comme le montre la variété des usages de la modestie, celle-ci sert aussi à souligner les tensions entre naturalisme, retenue et passion, ainsi qu’à mettre en évidence la relation ambigüe entre la vertu et l’apparence de vertu.

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1The title of this essay conveys something of its content. As “A Brief History of Modesty,” it gestures towards a significant historiographical claim (a “history”) and also a rhetoric of reasonable humility (a “brief” history). It is a title which attempts to balance moderation and excess, and in this piece I shall argue that by looking at modesty as a key term or value in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we can start to unpick the complexities of the politics and aesthetics of measure and moderation. I shall show the way in which the evolving use of the word “modest” demonstrates tensions between naturalism, restraint and passion, and highlights the relationship between virtue, and the appearance of that virtue.

2The word “modest” is a term that is everywhere in the long eighteenth century: in political rhetoric; aesthetic debate; new science and quantification; and in evolving ideas of gender and politeness. Looking at its semantic history in the OED, it is a word whose use and meaning has shifted considerably over time. For early twenty-first century readers, it most commonly signifies a personal attribute – having “a moderate or humble estimate of one’s own abilities or achievements” (“modest, adj.” def. 3a). But historically, its earliest meanings are closely related to the more general balancing of extremes. The use of the word modest in English comes from the Middle French adjective modeste, attested from the fourteenth century in the sense “Modéré, éloigné de tout excès”: moderate, free from excess (“modeste, adj.” def. 1). The English adjective is first recorded in the mid-sixteenth century, with the related sense of “[a]voiding extremes of behaviour; well-conducted, temperate; not harsh or domineering” (“modest, adj.” def. 1). The first citation in the OED comes from an expanded edition of Sir Thomas Elyot’s bilingual dictionary, Bibliotheca Eliotæ (1548), in which the Latin adjective modestus is defined as “temperate, well aduised, modeste, that vseth a meane in all his dooynges” (2T2r). Two centuries later, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) echoes this definition by rendering the fourth sense of modest as “Not excessive; not extreme; moderate; within a mean” (2: 16Q2v).

3Everyone wants to be modest in the eighteenth century: the poet and clergyman Samuel Wesley defines modesty in his Epistle […] Concerning Poetry (1700) as a stylistic virtue: “STYLE is the Dress of Thought; a modest Dress, / Neat, but not gaudy, will true Critics please” (5). For Eustace Budgell, writing in no 373 (1712), modest assurance is intrinsic to gentlemanly behaviour: “what we endeavour to express when we say a modest Assurance; by which we understand the Just Mean between Bashfulness and Impudence” (405). Modesty is much admired in aesthetic form, and particularly, in architecture. We see, for example, that Oliver Goldsmith’s virtuous vicar in The Deserted Village (1770) has a house to match his social humility:

There, where a few torn shrubs the place disclose,
The village preacher’s modest mansion rose.
A man he was, to all the country dear,
And passing rich with forty pounds a year;
Remote from towns he ran his godly race,
Nor ere had changed, nor wish’d to change his place;
Unpractised he to fawn, or seek for power,
By doctrines fashioned to the varying hour[.] (139-46)

  • 1  Given the etymology of the word, it is ironic that Tobias Smollett in his Travels should see no ev (...)

4In Alexander Pope’s epigrammatic Essay on Criticism (1711), modesty is the perfect cover for the would-be literary critic: when in doubt, “Distrustful Sense with modest Caution speaks,” and in more inspired moments “modest Plainness sets off sprightly Wit” (lines 626, 302). It was something that every lady needed to be mistress of, as ‘T. C.,’ writing in the Lady’s Magazine, advised in 1775: “MODESTY, commonly mistaken for bashfulness, is a just medium for all our words and actions” (377). This idea that modesty is the “chief Ornament” of the female sex is also stressed in Spectator essays by Richard Steele and others, even as these writers warned that female modesty was being dangerously devalued in contemporary society. Yet modesty was not the exclusive preserve of women. It also characterised general polite behaviour, and was recommended by Budgell in Spectator no 197 (1711) as an essential element of good conduct in disputes: “if you are at any time obliged to enter on an Argument, give your Reasons with the utmost Coolness and Modesty, two things which scarce ever fail of making an Impression on the Hearers” (274). And above all, despite the fact that it originated in medieval France, modesty was quintessentially English: as Addison claimed in Spectator no 407 (1712), “MOST Foreign Writers who have given any Character of the English Nation, whatever Vices they ascribe to it, allow in general, that the People are naturally Modest” (520).1

5In many ways, modesty is a term that encapsulates modern assumptions about the spirit of this period: an age of reason, order, and neoclassical restraint. The quotations I have given above suggest balance and propriety, values that had their uses in a whole range of contexts: in behaviour and social conduct; in argument; in specifically female virtue; in national identity; in the display of wealth and architecture. I shall begin by looking at the use of modest in the sense of temperate and restrained. This meaning is widely invoked in the rhetorical culture of the long eighteenth century, and it is here that we find some of the most obvious signs of the tension between modesty and excess. If we look at the vast number of seventeenth- and eighteenth- century titles containing the word modest, we begin to get some sense of the usefulness of the word: in the most crude measure, a search of the English Short Title Catalogue for modest and modeste brings up over 800 titles containing the adjective between 1561 and 1800. There are modest enquiries, modest pleas, modest proposals, modest apologies, and modest defences. A small sample of the use of modest in print titles in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gives a sense of its rhetorical function:

A cleare, sincere, and modest confutation of the unsound, fraudulent, and intemperate reply of T.F. (1616)

A modest confutation of a slanderous and scurrilous libell, entituled, Animadversions upon the remonstrants defense against Smectymnuus (1642)

Bang as bang can; or, Wo be to the convocation. Being a modest defence of the present Bishop of Bangor (1717)

Calumny display’d: […] Being a modest and impartial reply to an impudent and malicious libel, intituled, A letter to a gentleman in Edinburgh, &c. (1740)

A modest and serious defence of the author of The whole duty of man, from the false charges and gross misrepresentations of Mr. Whitefield, and the Methodists his adherents (1740)

It is evident merely from these few, very random examples, that there is a common pattern in these titles – the modest claims of the author are pitched against the unreasonable and extreme forces and words of those he or she is writing against. Here, as elsewhere, there is a rhetorical symbiosis between modesty and excess – one is dependent on the other. This dependence is important. It is evident in many of the contemporary dictionary definitions of the word modest, which define it in negative terms – Samuel Johnson, we recall, gives one sense of the word as “[n]ot excessive; not extreme.” One cannot understand modesty without knowing its other, extremity or excess.

6The rhetorical co-existence of the two poles is nowhere more obvious than in the flurries and skirmishes of contemporary political and religious print culture. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, thousands of satirical, polemical, and vituperative pamphlet exchanges were published. Their idiosyncratic and often dyspeptic arguments and counter-claims over matters of religion, politics, history, policy, and character created a noisy forum for contemporary debate. The pamphlet market that evolved during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was both a space for the exchange of ideas, and a very visible commercialisation of arguments and opinions. Mark Knights, writing of political discourse in late Stuart Britain, has argued that the polemical extremity of print culture was driven by the market: “[p]rinted polemic tended to polarize arguments, often favouring the irreverent or pugnacious expression of bold and uncompromising views, since fierce controversy sold better than quiet moderation” (236). Rhetorical extremity flourished in a competitive polemical arena, and within that, there was a special place for modesty. Modesty thrives in the intersection between money and ideas: it is a prized commodity in a bear market which is shaped by rhetorical excess. In the rowdy, competitive print arena of the late seventeenth century, most writers depicted themselves as lone voices of moderation and reason. However hysterical or immoderate one’s arguments might actually be, it was essential to pretend to be moderate and reasonable, and to paint one’s adversary as unrestrained by truth or conscience. The term modest was a crucial weapon in this rhetorical game of feigned logic, as we can see from its numerous uses in the titling of the pamphlet literature of the period.

7Digging a bit deeper into the modest pleas and apologies of the era, we can see that the rhetorical restraint implied by the use of the word modest in a title is often supported by textual and paratextual gestures towards objectivity and order: within the pamphlets claiming to present a modest argument, there are enumerated points of debate, recurrent invocations of authorial humility, or a heavy use of the language of quantitative analysis – the phrase modest computation was especially popular.

8It is within the context of these publications that we should view Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal – or to give it its full title, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (1729). Swift’s celebrated and shocking response to the economic crisis in Ireland advocates the alleviation of poverty and overpopulation by eating the children of the Catholic poor. A Modest Proposal is in itself a cleverly balanced exercise in measure and excess – a thin veneer of logic and ordered argument is layered over an hysterical anxiety about the state of Ireland and over the horrific idea of cannibalism. Setting out the rudiments of the scheme, Swift’s projector calculates the potential of human life; his posture of public-spirited rationality soon modulates into a rhetoric which isolates and dehumanises the “savage” poor:

I DO therefore humbly offer it to publick Consideration, that of the Hundred and Twenty Thousand Children, already computed, Twenty thousand may be reserved for Breed; whereof only one Fourth Part to be Males; which is more than we allow to Sheep, black Cattle, or Swine; and my Reason is, that these Children are seldom the Fruits of Marriage, a Circumstance not much regarded by our Savages; therefore, one Male will be sufficient to serve four Females. (111)

9For some critics, the logical detachment of A Modest Proposal is an approach calculated to push privileged readers to address their own abdication of social duties towards the poor. Summing up this reading, James Ward has remarked that “it is by comparison with obscene normality that the Proposal achieves its modesty” (80). By exploiting the rhetorical symbiosis between modesty and excess, Swift prompts his readers to diagnose the corresponding and harmful symbiosis in reality between the inertia of the rich and the excessive suffering of the poor.

10A Modest Proposal is now the only modest proposal that has survived the topical maelstrom of eighteenth-century pamphlet debate. It has become a byword for the satirical undercutting of the literature of political proposition. Robert Phiddian has argued that the Proposal “enters a deconstructive dialogue with its pre-texts,” blurring the boundaries between orderly and subversive discourse, and exposing the inhumanity of all logical and systematic thinking (21-22). But in many ways, A Modest Proposal works rather like Swift’s other famous prose satire, Gulliver’s Travels, in that it draws heavily on the forms it parodies. Gulliver’s Travels mocks the truth claims and outlandish inventions that were characteristic of contemporary travel writing; similarly, A Modest Proposal parodies the false humility and the contrast between modest claim and immoderate content that are established features of the discourse of contemporary pamphlets. Rather than seeing A Modest Proposal as a countercultural piece which uniquely exposes and recognises the fallacies of political argument, we might equally well see it as a text which emerges from a well-established tradition of pamphlet genres – the hundreds of modest pleas and modest arguments that we see listed in ESTC. They too were peddling the potent combination of rational argument and fantastical idea.

11What A Modest Proposal highlights – and what that whole genre of modest pamphlets also highlights – is that because of the rhetorical utility and over-usedness of the term modest, it came to embody a semantic uncertainty. Modesty was everywhere and nowhere in eighteenth-century culture – it was the title of a hundred pamphlets, but evident in none of them. It was something that needed to be proclaimed, but not necessarily, in reality, to be exercised.

12There was nothing new in this – we can trace suspicion about claims to modesty back to classical rhetoric. The Rhetorica ad Herennium (c.86-82 B.C.), formerly attributed to Cicero, was the most popular Latin rhetorical treatise of the early modern period, appearing under its own separate title in fifty unabridged editions and translations printed between 1470 and 1700 (Green & Murphy 124-26). It argues that modesty – in the form of an author saying that they are too modest to write – is in fact a sign of great arrogance:

For if modesty consists in saying nothing or writing nothing, why do they write or speak at all? […] It is as if some one should come to the Olympic games to run, and having taken a position for the start, should accuse of impudence those who have begun the race[. …] These Greek rhetoricians do likewise. When they have descended into the race-course of our art, they accuse of immodesty those who put in practice the essence of the art; they praise some ancient orator, poet, or literary work, but without themselves daring to come forth into the stadium of rhetoric. I should not venture to say so, yet I fear that in their very pursuit of praise for modesty they are impudent. (235, 237; IV. iii. 4-5)

13So although I began by arguing that the terms modest and modesty played a crucial role in defining the balance between measure and excess, and were invoked by many as a kind of golden mean, neither too much nor too little, they were also terms which were apt to extend to denoting the mere appearance of those qualities. In classical rhetorical theory, there was a niggling sense that the claim to be modest was actually deeply immodest, a sleight of hand designed to secure one’s writing from accusations of vanity or self-interest. What we see in Swift’s Modest Proposal and the other modest pamphlets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is a recognition of the importance of seeming modest. And over the course of the eighteenth century, the superficial role of modesty came to be perceived as no less important than the real thing.

14This idea that modesty was an appearance, something that it was crucial to demonstrate, a thing of surface and perception, is evident in the historical usage of the word. As well as documenting the changing meanings of modest, the OED records some rarer uses of the word in compound forms, such as modest-looked, modest-looking, and modest-seeming (“modest, adj.” spec. uses). All these compounds illustrate the way in which modesty was coupled semantically with appearance. Modesty is in the eye of the beholder. And when we look at the uses of these terms there is often a gendered aspect to this idea of “appearing modest.” The OEDs first recorded use of modest-looking comes from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), and more specifically from the pen of Lovelace, laying out his plan to trick Clarissa by enlisting two women to impersonate his well-bred relatives. Lovelace names one of the women as “my little Johanetta Golding, a lively, yet modest-looking girl” (5: 207). Johanetta is “ashamed of nothing but detection,” a pretender to the virtue and decorum underpinning female modesty. Yet Johanetta’s modesty, like her fellow actress’s respectability, is a fiction so powerful that she herself believes it: both women are “in their own conceit, when assuming top parts, the very quality they ape.”

15Here we can see the way in which the notion of modesty as a thing of appearance, rather than substance, intersects with the gendered meaning of modesty, as sexual virtue. The second sense of modest in the OED relates primarily to female behaviour and dress: it is defined as “Of a woman: decorous in manner and conduct; not forward, impudent, or lewd; demure” (“modest, adj.” def. 2a.). Johnson is more particular in setting the sexual sense of modest apart from its more general connotations of good conduct and manners: the third sense given in his dictionary is “[n]ot loose, not unchaste” (2: 16Q2v). This meaning of modesty becomes increasingly dominant over the course of the eighteenth century. And this sense of modesty, I will argue, is also more complex than it initially seems. Modesty is both the defining quality of a virtuous woman, and a quality that can be feigned. This makes it a word vulnerable to a double reading.

16The double-edged use of the word resonates throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, if we look at Milton’s uses of the word, we find very few, but those that are there tend to speak to this dual sense. There is one instance each of the words modest and modesty in Paradise Lost (1667; expanded 1674). The noun occurs in Adam’s description of his first encounter with Eve in book 8. Describing her virtuous demeanour, this is what he says of her:

Yet innocence and virgin modesty,
Her virtue and the conscience of her worth,
That would be wooed, and not unsought be won,
Not obvious, not obtrusive, but retired[.] (8.501-04)

In this context, Milton’s emphasis on modesty is tricky. In his edition of Paradise Lost, Alastair Fowler follows Dennis Burden in trying to explain away the problem by saying that Eve’s “modesty springs not from guilt but a sense of the ‘sole propriety,’ the exclusive privacy of love” (456). However, to read Milton’s description of Eve is to be reminded of the common connotations of modesty, as a pattern of learned, social behaviour, an art of seeming demure and chaste. Adam’s reference to Eve’s modesty and her consciousness of her worth, its social function, and the fact that she must be wooed seem to suggest that there is an artfulness in her demeanour that is not as innocent as it ought to be. Eve’s value is defined here in opposition to what it is not: sinfulness, or immodesty, or obviousness. It is also defined by competition amongst suitors, needing to pursue her. All of these definitions are meaningless in Paradise, where there is only innocence, where there is no sexual shame, and where there is only one man and one woman. Does modesty only have meaning in a fallen world? That was certainly what Bernard Mandeville thought. In his cynical dissection of contemporary morality in The Fable of the Bees (1714; expanded 1723), he takes special issue with the notion of modesty, and its perceived importance in contemporary society. One of his complaints about modesty is that it only has meaning in a social context – it has no meaning in a private situation, and is essentially a virtue that only exists or matters as perception:

But when we are by our selves, and so far remov’d from Company as to be beyond the reach of their Senses, the Words Modesty and Impudence lose their meaning; a Person may be Wicked, but he cannot be Immodest whilst he is alone[.] (72)

Mandeville’s conception of modesty exposes the moral hollowness of eighteenth-century social conventions, and highlights the dissonance which Milton risks by ascribing modesty to Eve. As Fowler puts it, the problem is that “many passions are only imaginable in fallen communities larger than two,” and modesty is one of those concepts (456). However, Milton’s wordplay harbours the potential to close this breach between fallen and unfallen worlds. Christopher Ricks has revealed how Milton uses words in their etymological or primary senses to recreate a “pre-lapsarian state of language,” shadowed by the post-lapsarian meanings more familiar to his audience (110). Thus, modesty, etymologically derived from the Latin modestus, meaning temperate, can be read as another of the Latinisms which in Milton’s poem chime with the earlier purity of language, without entirely letting go of its later corruption.

17Milton’s sole adjectival reference to modesty in Paradise Lost comes in book 4, in his famous description of Eve’s appearance. Here he is, describing her hair:

She as a veil down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved
As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied
Subjection, but required with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best received,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay. (4.304-11)

Many critics have noticed Milton’s choice of language in this passage: Eve’s “wanton” ringlets, “coy submission,” “sweet reluctant amorous delay,” and, interestingly for us, her “modest pride” – all of which have perfectly innocent seventeenth-century meanings, but which also connote a degree of sexual playfulness, a knowingness of the value of appearing to be reticent and modest. Once again, modesty is linked to artifice and artfulness in this, the primary inscription of unfallen woman. Feminist readers of Paradise Lost have seen in Milton’s depiction of Eve a conventional patriarchal construction of female sexuality, as both a God-given ornament and a force which requires control. Commenting on this passage, Catherine Belsey observes that Christian moralists from St Paul onwards have seen women’s hair as “at once a glory and a danger,” capable of both modestly concealing female sexuality and displaying its temptations (65). This is a fallen perspective, which, without trapping Eve in an anachronism that makes her sinfulness inevitable, foreshadows the loss of sexual innocence at the Fall.

18For the purposes of my argument, this passage is important because it is symptomatic of a wider set of associations between modesty, restraint, naturalism, and artifice that we see elsewhere and later in eighteenth-century culture. When Milton uses the adjective modest in Samson Agonistes (1671), it is once again to describe a woman whose appearance is as a veil, signifying virtue while potentially concealing something else. Speaking of Delilah, after she has betrayed Samson, the Chorus says:

Seeming at first all heavenly under virgin veil,
Soft, modest, meek, demure,
Once join’d, the contrary she proves, a thorn
Intestin, far within defensive arms
A cleaving mischief [.] (1035-39)

Modesty is here very explicitly cast as a deception which is assumed, part of the feigning of female innocence. Milton was clearly worried about this aspect of female behaviour. In The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), a tract advocating the radical reform of the laws prohibiting divorce, Milton had cautioned his readers to be aware of the false allure of modest demeanour: “who knows not that the bashfull mutenes of a virgin may oft-times hide all the unlivelines & naturall sloth which is really unfit for conversation” (249). Milton’s tone here and the voice of the Chorus in Samson Agonistes betray a profound suspicion of female behaviour, and of the construction of virtue. The unwary male can be tricked into the false appearance of modesty. In this context, modesty might be seen as part of a wider vocabulary of misogynistic criticism, the fear that women might not be as faithful, beautiful, or transparent as they seem on the surface.

19Nowadays we use the phrase “false modesty” to describe behaviour which, by appearing self-effacing, is actually calculated to attract attention and acclaim. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, false modesty meant feigned virtue, something that was far more morally threatening. In A Treatise Concerning the Causes of the Present Corruption of Christians (1700), a translation from the French of the Swiss Protestant pastor Jean Frédéric Ostervald, “false Modesty” is invoked as one of the mainstays of sinful behaviour among the faithful (165). It is “that Shame, which hinders Men to do that which they know to be their Duty,” and it stems from the vanity of men striving to maintain their reputations in society: “The true Cause then of this false Modesty, is a feeble regard to Mens Judgment, and a fear of falling under their Contempt or Hatred” (166, 168).

20Ostervald’s work suggests that – for men at least – the performance of false modesty is an effective safeguard against the condemnation of others, since “few People love or practise” Christian virtues in contemporary society (168). For women, however, the performance of modesty is far more strongly associated with sexual virtue, and more open to suspicion. The fourth and final definition of modesty in Johnson’s dictionary conveys the gendered meaning of the word, defining it as “[c]hastity; purity of manners” (2: 16Q2v). Each of the three quotations Johnson provides to illustrate this sense relate to women, and the first is an indictment of false modesty:

[…] Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shews? But she is more,
Her blush is guiltiness, not

Of all the modesty in literary history, Samuel Johnson has chosen an instance in which once again, modesty is about appearance – false appearance. The quotation comes from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (c.1598-99; printed 1600), and is part of Claudio’s speech interrupting his own marriage service to denounce Hero, his bride, as a whore (4.2.36-40). The whole scene is about the underlying carnality of women, the possibility that they can seem, and yet not be, virtuous. How does anyone really know what lies beneath a modest demeanour? Hero’s defence of her “maiden modesty” goes unheard in the onslaught of Claudio’s accusations, and the sign of modesty, her blushing, is interpreted as guilt (4.2.179).

21The examples, from Much Ado and from Milton, betray an unease about the possibility of female trickery, the notion that modest behaviour might bely a voracious sexual appetite, or “a cleaving mischief.” Examples from Milton and Johnson echo this sense of concern about the dissimulation of modesty, defined as sexual virtue. In one of his Sermons to Young Women (1766), the celebrated preacher James Fordyce warns that among women the “more accomplished ensnarers” are not those who behave without decency or shame, but those who pretend to virtue:

[I]t must be owned, there are those of them [young women] who, […] without any remains of natural modesty, yet practise the art of feigning its decent demeanour; […] In this instance, no doubt, […] the operations of Nature may be counteracted by violence, and her most speaking features silenced by dissimulation. (1: 101-02)

22But not everyone thought that this acting out of modesty was a bad thing. In the advice literature of the later eighteenth century we can also see a more pragmatic approach to the adoption of a modest behaviour. The Polite Lady: or, a Course of Female Education (1760) was a popular pedagogical handbook in epistolary form. Written by Charles Allen, it was published with the fictitious claim to be a collection of letters exchanged by a mother and her daughter at school. Allen’s considerate mother devotes one of her later letters to a discussion of modesty, which she defines as a performance that makes

Modesty, my Dear, is the outward expression of a pure and chaste mind: and therefore, every word you speak, every action you perform, every gesture of your body, every look of your eyes, every part of your dress; in fine, every thing, by which the inward dispositions of the mind can be expressed and discovered, comes under the regulation of this virtue. (213)

In practice, however, she acknowledges that modesty is just as much about maintaining decorum on the surface as it is about revealing the substance of a “pure and chaste mind”:

But, my Dear, modesty regards not only the matter of your conversation, but also the manner of it; not only what you say, but likewise how you say it. And, indeed, this is such an essential part of modesty, that it frequently appears more visibly in the manner of expressing a thing, than in the nature of the thing itself. (213-14)

She then goes on to give some very specific instructions on how to convey modesty in speech and gesture:

Nothing, my Dear, is more inconsistent with modesty, than to talk with a loud, shrill, and harsh tone of voice. This is very unbecoming, even in a man, but much more in a woman […] ’Tis the duty of a young lady to talk with an air of diffidence, as if she proposed what she said, rather with a view to receive information herself, than to inform and instruct the company. (214-15)

She moves on to gestures, another important signifier of modesty:

[Modesty] is expressed by a certain decent, graceful, and composed gesture, equally removed from the pert and forward air of impudence on the one hand, and the awkward and clumsy gait of sheepishness on the other: and to teach you this graceful gait, ought to be the principal, if not the only end of dancing. (216)

  • 2  For discussions of ideas of modesty in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century culture, see Yeazell an (...)

23According to this conduct book, modesty is about how you look, how you speak, how you convey your ideas (or not!) and how you dance. The idea that modesty is a form of learnt behaviour, a guise under which to seem virtuous or moderate is not exclusive to discussions of female or sexual behaviour. Most critics who have studied the notion of modesty in this period have focussed almost exclusively on female modesty.2 But modesty was also important in the understanding of social identity and social performance in general, and we find a lot of discussion of the role of modesty in speaking, acting and writing. So, for example, in An Essay on Criticism, Pope’s early ars poetica in which he establishes a series of Horatian precepts by which to judge literature, one of the most important qualifications for being a critic is modesty. He defines it in the following terms:

Be silent always when you doubt your Sense;
And speak, tho’ sure, with
seeming Diffidence. (566-67)

  • 3  Pope’s poetic maxims translated easily into advice genres – a quotation from Pope’s “Epistle to Co (...)

“Seeming diffidence” is a good way of describing the role of modesty here. Pope’s injunction to “speak […] with seeming Diffidence” also forms a precedent for The Polite Lady’s advice to “talk with an air of diffidence.”3 This performance of self-restraint inherent in modesty was not merely applicable to secular and social contexts. In his liturgical handbook The Sublime Reader (1784), the Reverend John Trusler provides instruction for worshippers in how to understand and participate in church services. Good conduct begins at the church door:

Your Entrance into Church should be humble, modest, quiet and sedate; remembering, you are treading upon hallowed ground, and in the presence of a Superior Being, who truly examines into the minutest parts of our conduct. (8)

24Modesty was a social performance designed to convince others that one was virtuous, but also something to adopt for the inspection of an all-seeing God. Just as in Paradise Lost Milton described Eve in Paradise using language that could easily be construed as impure, so Trusler recommends that worshippers adopt a manner in church that could be seen as affected. Yet neither writer was advocating feigning innocence, but rather, bringing impure language and imperfect modesty into contexts where more innocent forms of language and modesty could be imagined, though not fully achieved.

25What all these examples of modesty, innate and assumed, male and female, show is that there is a tension in the understanding of the concept of modesty in this period, which centres on the idea of naturalism and restraint. On the one hand, modesty is about the suppression of natural urges, passions, and ambitions. It is about veiling ambition in seeming diffidence; adopting a reserve which gives no hint of passion; voicing one’s deeply felt arguments and ideas in moderate and measured ways.

26Yet on the other hand, modesty was also seen as profoundly natural, in contrast to the excesses of artifice. Shakespeare was crucial here, since the touchstone for this version of modesty in the eighteenth century was the repeated invocation throughout the period of Hamlet’s advice to the players to “o’erstep not the modesty of nature.” Having derided the excessive roaring and gesturing of actors capable of “o’erdoing” even the most haranguing characters, Hamlet continues:

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance – that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. (3.2.16-19)

In this passage, modesty is understood as natural behaviour and appearance, as opposed to the excesses and distortions of exaggerated acting styles. This quotation was cited again and again by eighteenth-century readers, who drew from it a sense of naturalism. They linked it to propriety of characterisation, of speaking and acting.

27The resonances of the passage can be seen in the official souvenir engraving for the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769. The piece was created with the consent of the festival’s presiding genius, David Garrick, and modelled on a portrait which Garrick commissioned from Thomas Gainsborough in the Jubilee year. It shows the great actor-manager propping himself familiarly against a pedestal, on which sits a bust of Shakespeare and an inscribed scroll. Garrick gestures open-handed towards the inscription on the which is also inscribed on the engraving itself: “o’er step not the modesty of Nature.” On the left, a group of Shakespearean characters, including Ophelia and Sir John Falstaff, pay attention as Garrick presents Hamlet’s dictum. Given the prominence in this engraving of Hamlet’s advice not to “o’er step” proper bounds, it is ironic that all of its figures are seen in a complex exchange of roles. Hamlet’s instruction is presented as a decree from Shakespeare himself. Garrick, meanwhile, delivers Hamlet’s admonition not to his fellow actors, as might be expected, but to an audience of characters who appear to have stepped directly out of the eighteenth century’s collective Shakespearean imagination. Finally, as Michael Dobson explains, Garrick’s posture enables him to speak for Shakespeare himself, not simply as an actor delivering lines but also as an adapter of Shakespeare’s texts: “Garrick, speaking for the ghostly author, is Prince, Shakespeare’s characters merely the Players, for whom Garrick thus attains the authority to set down and insert as many speeches of some dozen or sixteen lines as he pleases” (171). Garrick’s apparent advocacy of the modesty of naturalistic acting can thus be seen as an assertion of his own authority to “o’er step” the role of actor and become Shakespeare’s editor and executor.

Fig. 1 Isaac Taylor, “Garrick with Shakespearean Characters, Commemorating the Jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1769” (1769)

Fig. 1 Isaac Taylor, “Garrick with Shakespearean Characters, Commemorating the Jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1769” (1769)

Reproduced with permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library

28One of the contexts for understanding the great interest in Hamlet’s words in this period was the elocution movement of the 1760s and 70s, and the upsurge of enthusiasm for learning to read out loud. Of course, rhetoric had a long and well-documented history, and was the subject of numerous treatises from the Sophists onwards. What happened in the mid-eighteenth century, however, was that ideas about delivery and linguistic effect were repackaged in more accessible forms for aspirational audiences eager to acquire skills of self-improvement. Reading out a written text became a popular art form, hobby, spectator sport, subject of academic enquiry, and topic of satire. As book after book was churned out for eager readers and orators, Hamlet was on hand to give advice. In William Enfield’s The Speaker (1774), an anthology for students of elocution, which achieved wide popularity in Britain and America, would-be orators and readers-aloud are told to follow Hamlet’s stricture, whether their passions are simulated from life or from the theatre:

accustom yourself either to follow the great original itself, or the best copies you meet with, always however, “with this special observance, that you O’ERSTEP NOT THE MODESTY OF NATURE.” (xxiv-xxv)

29John Raithby, the anonymous author of an epistolary manual for trainee lawyers, The Study and Practice of the Law Considered (1798), urges the recipient of his letters to present himself with confidence, “which, if not permitted to overstep the modesty of nature, produces no unpleasing effect” (82). Samuel Johnson’s great praise of Joseph Addison’s essays in his Life of Addison (1781) is that “He never ‘outsteps the modesty of nature,’ nor raises merriment or wonder by the violation of truth” (2: 677).

30Modesty was not just about speaking and writing, and but extended to other aesthetic values. The Scottish judge and philanthropist Francis Garden, Lord Gardenstone, embarked on a European tour in his old age and published an account of his travels in the 1790s. In it, he described a visit to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, where he saw Michelangelo’s marble statue of Moses:

Though I cannot much relish those collossal figures, which exceed the limits of truth; and to use Shakespeare’s expression, “Overstep the modesty of nature”; yet I could not help admiring the boldness of execution, and the striking expression of authority and displeasure conveyed in the figure and features of this remarkable statue. (3: 137)

31In her preface to The Countess of Dellwyn (1759), Sarah Fielding shows how novelists more widely linked Hamlet’s notion of acting in accordance with the limits of what is natural and real with their own project of the accurate construction of realistic fictional characters:

If the Word Writing was substituted instead of Playing, the Speech in general would be full as applicable to the Author as the Player; and when the former deviates from the Paths of Nature, in either stopping short of her Mark, or wildly running beyond the Limits she prescribes, it is natural for the Reader, as well as for the Spectator at the Theatre, to join with Hamlet in his Observation, that “Some of Nature’s Journeymen have made Men, and not made them well; they imitate Humanity so abominably.” (1: viii-ix; the quotation from Hamlet refers to 3.2.32-34)

32There is profound irony in all of these quotations of Hamlet, and of his advice. The first irony is that Hamlet’s words come from his advice to the players – that is, he is telling the actors how to pretend to be real. So the source is itself about feigning naturalism. And the second, related, irony, is that all the examples listed here are also about projections of identity: they are about the way one should perform when speaking lines in the drawing room, or the court room; they are about how one should construct characters in a novel; or about how Michelangelo should make his statues. So they are using a fictional character, who is giving fictional actors advice on how to seem more real, and they are using this advice to illustrate how people or writers or artists should act modestly in order to seem more authentic. The layers of meta-fiction, or perhaps it is meta-modesty, are bewilderingly complex. So we return full circle to the idea that modesty is a form of dissimulation, and that it is only by artfully dissimulating modesty that one can hope to appear “natural.”


33What this short history of modesty shows is that all these terms, which seem to be in antithesis with one another – passion and restraint, or naturalism and artifice – are all, in fact, dependent on one another. Modesty in speech and conduct depends on excess for its meaning and value. Modesty is associated with nature, but naturalism in self-presentation, or artistic creation, depend on the artificial dissimulation of modesty. I have shown here that modest and modesty are key terms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They are very useful terms, because they imply a sense of balance that can be translated into all kinds of different arenas. So we have seen how the word modest is useful as a way of suggesting rhetorical moderation; it is a key – and for many, the main – quality of female virtue, somewhere between coquettishness and prudishness. And it was also important to the understanding of self-projection and social performance. Yet in each one of these contexts, what we see is an acknowledgement, or sometimes an anxiety, that this virtue which was so often called innate or natural, was in many ways an act of dissimulation. Modesty was a virtue that was all about perception and performance – and that made it vulnerable to claims that it was nothing more than surface appearance. This is something we see coming through very strongly, for example, in Milton’s treatment of modesty. But the very importance of the appearance of modesty, the idea that it was something which could be performed, became increasingly useful in an era of such self-consciousness about how to act, and how to improve oneself. Modesty was both a profoundly serious criterion for understanding moral, aesthetic, political and social conduct in this period – and also a meaningless cliché, something that everyone talked about, and no one did. This sense of the link between modesty being everywhere and nowhere leads, in conclusion, to an epigram quoted by Alexander Pope in the second edition of The Dunciad Variorum (1729). Pope writes of James Moore Smythe who had plagiarised his work:

M–re always smiles whenever he recites;
He smiles (you think) approving what he writes;
And yet in this no Vanity is shown;
A modest man may like what’s not his own. (3: 2.46, note)

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1  Given the etymology of the word, it is ironic that Tobias Smollett in his Travels should see no evidence of it in his experience of French society: “Modesty, or diffidence, I have already said, is utterly unknown among them, and therefore I wonder there should be a term to express it in their language” (57).

2  For discussions of ideas of modesty in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century culture, see Yeazell and O’Brien.

3  Pope’s poetic maxims translated easily into advice genres – a quotation from Pope’s “Epistle to Cobham” also appears on the title page of The Polite Lady: “ ’Tis Education forms the tender Mind, / Just as the Twig is bent, the Tree’s inclin’d” (“Epistle to Cobham” 101-02).

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Titre Fig. 1 Isaac Taylor, “Garrick with Shakespearean Characters, Commemorating the Jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1769” (1769)
Crédits Reproduced with permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library
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Abigail Williams

St Peter’s College, University of Oxford

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